An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 ethnic Albanians still live in the Presevo-Bujanovac area along southern Serbia's provincial border with Kosovo. There have been increasing reports of instability along the border in recent weeks, including accounts from displaced Albanians of harassment and intimidation by Serb police and military. In another incident, an Albanian splinter group active in the region opened fire on a U.N. vehicle on Tuesday, wounding one U.N. staff member.
UNHCR Special Envoy Dennis McNamara said the volatile situation in the Presevo area was another example of the precarious situation of minorities throughout the region. McNamara said the increasing harassment of Albanians in southern Serbia may also be linked to recent ethnic unrest in the northern city of Mitrovica. At the same time, there has been an upsurge in attacks on non-Albanians - Serbs and Roma - across Kosovo.
"Coming on the heels of the recent disturbances in Mitrovica, it may be no accident that the Albanian minority in southern Serbia is now feeling under increasing pressure," he said. "Mitrovica is just the most visible tip of the iceberg when we look at the overall situation of minorities in the region. Harassment and intimidation in one place can bring retaliation and instability in another, feeding into this continuing cycle of violence and revenge.''
Between 5,000 and 6,000 ethnic Albanians are believed to have fled the Presevo-Bujanovac-Mevedja area of southern Serbia since last June, many of them entering nearby Kosovo east of Gnjilane. Although the influx into Kosovo had slowed for a time, UNHCR field officers in the region are again reporting increasing numbers of new arrivals. In the fourth week of February, 102 ethnic Albanians from southern Serbia asked UNHCR in Gnjilane for assistance.
The new arrivals report an increase in the Serb military and police presence in southern Serbia and give consistent accounts of harassment, beatings, confiscation of houses and apartments, forced conscription, rape threats and demands for money. Most of the new arrivals are young families who say the security situation for ethnic Albanians had deteriorated to such an extent that life had become intolerable and they could no longer stay in their homes.
"This continuing harassment and intimidation of minorities by all sides has got to stop if the cycle of violence and displacement is ever going to end," said McNamara, who is also the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in Kosovo. "And for that to happen we need several things, including more direct bilateral pressure from governments on the leadership of both sides. In Kosovo, it also requires continued robust measures by KFOR and the already over-stretched U.N. police in protecting minorities; vigorous action in stopping the movement across provincial borders of armed groups; international judges and prosecutors to ensure those carrying out these crimes are punished; and - last but not least - strong community leadership to end this spiral of hatred and revenge."
UNHCR and its NGO partners are providing temporary shelter for the new arrivals from Serbia as well as other assistance.