Serbs stay away from Pristina

October 15, 1999

PRISTINA

A new term starts at the University of Pristina in the Kosovar capital on Monday but it is unlikely that Serbian academics and students will return, despite efforts by the international community.

The Serbs were unhappy with the level of security offered by K-for, the international peacekeeping force, according to Mark Richmond of the United Nations interim administration mission in Kosovo.

"We felt we'd done as much as possible to assuage their fears," he said. K-for was prepared to escort Serbian students and staff to the university. Those from Serbia would have been bussed in, and K-for was ready to walk the students individually from their dormitories to their classrooms. A soldier would have sat in the classroom if necessary.

"But, to our disappointment, the Serbs decided not to go ahead and are conducting their university activities in Serbia and in Mitrovica (in northern Kosovo)," said Mr Richmond, education services coordinator, said.

The university rectorate, guarded by UN police, is open to the Serbs two days a week. "Access to the rectorate is highly symbolic - it's almost the seat of government of a university," Mr Richmond said.

Albanian vice-rector Ahmed Geca recently gained access for the first time in four years and said he was prepared to meet with his Serbian counterpart. "But I don't want to talk to the Serbs from outside Kosovo or to those who were here in Kosovo as paramilitaries ... The Serbs are saying K-for security is inadequate so that they have a bargaining tool with the mission, but it's safe here for those who weren't involved in the war."

Anton Berishaj, a lecturer in medieval Albanian literature, said: "The Serbs should feel secure to live here and this situation is absurd. The student union has said it is willing to study together with the Serbs. It's up to the mission and K-for to create secure conditions."

But hardly any Serbs feel safe on the streets of Pristina. An economics student working as a translator travels even the shortest distances in an international agency car.

"I've lived here all my life but now it's just too dangerous for me to walk anywhere. I'm nervous, and the Albanians pick up on my fear and know I'm a Serb. None of my friends come into Pristina any more," he said.

He commutes to Blace in

Serbia, where the economics faculty is in exile, holding classes in cramped disused offices. A fellow student, also living under K-for protection in the Serbian village of Gracanica near Pristina, has been commuting to the law faculty in Vranje in southern Serbia.

"It's a seven-hour round trip because we have to avoid the

Albanian areas. A couple of weeks ago we had no K-for escort and our bus was attacked by Albanians who broke the windows. I'm too scared to travel up there again."

A Serbian-speaking Muslim lecturer living in the Pristina region, unwilling to be identified, was equally fearful. "K-for is making efforts but it's just not enough, something could happen any time, any place," he said.

"I left my office in June, together with other Serbian lecturers and students, after the murders in the economics faculty. I feel very isolated. I have no students, no books, no office and no contact now with my colleagues in Serbia."

In Pristina, the plight of the Serbs elicits little sympathy from Albanian students enjoying freedom of movement without the menacing presence of Serbian police. Fahrija Pllana, a law student, said she would not feel safe if the Serb students came back. "After everything we've been through, I just don't want them here." Another law student added: "I don't agree with it, but I think that if a Serb student came into the faculty he would be dead within minutes and nobody would take away the body."

There are numerous missing lecturers and students. Many are working as interpreters for international agencies; others are abroad or were killed in the war.

After years of privation and the aftermath of war, lecturers' salaries of DM200 (Pounds 66) a month cannot compete with lucrative interpreting work. The mission hopes to arrange stipends for university lecturers but acknowledges these would be a gesture of support rather than a living wage. Albin Podvorica, a medical student, feels that students should return to their studies and raise academic standards. "Everyone here is interested in money right now and nothing else," he said.

Parts of the campus buildings are locked, reserved for Serbs. Mr Geca said: "If the Serbs don't come back this academic year, they'll never come back."

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