Cabra feels the heat as Kosovo temperature rises

Cabra, set in rolling hills a short drive north of the divided city of Mitrovica, may be the loneliest village in Kosovo, it is certainly the most vulnerable. Though inhabited by ethnic Albanians, it is entirely surrounded by Serb villages and farms. If a new Kosovo war broke out, it would once again be in the front line.

The village has been here for generations but all the houses are new. That's because at 3am on 29th March 1999, while the villagers slept, artillery began firing shells from the neighbouring Serb village of Zupc, and they had to flee in the darkness, "with shells and bullets whistling past our ears," as the head of the village school, Enver Hasan, puts it. When the shelling finished, the Serb forces sent in bulldozers to flatten what had not already been destroyed.

And now once again Cabra is in the firing line. On Wednesday a mob of 300 Serbs waving clubs and steel tools tried to march on Cabra but was turned back by NATO troops in armoured personnel carriers. Yesterday morning villagers woke up to find two APCs manned by Danish troops and surrounded by razor wire parked at the entrance of the village, and a third on the main road a few metres away.

Because of its isolation, Cabra has been the most obvious target of Serb aggression whenever the communal temperature starts to rise - and since Kosovo's declaration of independence last Sunday tensions have been higher than at any time since 1999.

The last ugly incident occurred in March 2004. Four village children were crossing fields on their way home when, according to Enver Hasan, a group of Serbs let their dogs off their leashes, driving the terrified children into the fast-flowing river that borders the village, where three of them drowned. Blame for the incident has never been proved, but the people of Cabra are "one million per cent sure", according to Mr Hasan, that it was a deliberate act by the Serbs. "It may not have been a plot," he said, "but I'm sure they had the idea of driving us away." The incident sparked inter-ethnic violence in Mitrovica in which dozens of people died and hundreds of houses were destroyed.

After the shelling of 1999 the villagers fled into the hills then found asylum over the mountains in Albania. Ramadan Kamberi, a 62-year-old shopkeeper, said, "It was a terrible experience, no-one thought we would ever come back, it was unimaginable. There is not one Kosovar who entered Albania did not shed tears because no-one thought we would be able to return."

But four months later they came back under NATO protection to find their homes looted and levelled. Mr Kamberi lived in a tent here with his two daughters for six months until his new home was ready. Bit by bit, thanks to the international community, the village was rebuilt. The crowning touch was the new village school - "the most beautiful school in all Kosovo” according to the village headman, Agim Hasani - built with funds raised by the Body Shop Foundation, and opened by Anita Roddick in 2001.

"This village was the worst ravaged in all Kosovo," said Mr Hasani. "The British were the first to arrive to help us start rebuilding. We were immensely grateful for their help. This is the only ethnic Albanian village in the district of Zubin Potok but we will always feel that we are citizens of Kosovo because the whole democratic world is on our side."

Mr Hasani went on, "I don't expect any escalation of the situation here because we have complete trust in KFOR. We won't respond to any provocations, we will just keep on with our work and go forward."

Mr Kamberi, the shopkeeper, remembers that before Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, "we had good relations with the Serbs. For 25 years I worked in a government-run company alongside Serbs without any problem. But then in 1990 I was harrassed and beaten on my way to work and finally thrown out of my job."

Today Cabra matters to Kosovo as proof that its claim to be a multi-ethnic society applies to the Serb-dominated north as well as the overwhelmingly Albanian areas south of the River Ibar. But the price of multi-ethnicity is constant vigilance: one more brutal incident here and Kosovo could be in flames again. The people of Cabra would not be surprised. "Another incident like the one in which the children drowned could certainly happen," said head teacher Enver Hasan, "because you can't trust the Serbs. Fortunately KFOR is here to protect us."