Jerusalem Post, October 24, 2004
Bitter circle closes for a Serbian family which sheltered Jews
By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
When Biserk Trirunovic was born in 1941, she wasn't the only new face to grace her family's home in Prizren, Kosovo. Batia Levy, a local Jewish woman, moved in with the Trirunovics during World War II to avoid being caught in the mass roundup and slaughter of the region's Jews.
Nearly six decades later, it was the Trirunovic family that was under threat of death, and Biserk saw parallels to the Jewish experience. A day after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Kosovo Force entered the war-torn province and the United Nations assumed administrative control in June 1999, a group of armed Albanian 17- and 18-year-olds showed up at the Serbian family's house and told them to leave. The next day, the menacing youths came back.
"This time, they said, 'If you don't leave, you're going to be in trouble.' We started packing," Trirunovic recalls. "We left, immediately, with one suitcase."
Trirunovic, worn but animated as she relates her story, is speaking to ,"The Jerusalem Post in the dingy office of Holy Succor, an organization that helps Serbian Kosovo refugees, like herself, who now live in the Serbian-Montenegran capital of Belgrade.
"What happened to the Jews [in World War II] was much, much worse," she stresses. "But we'd have been killed, too, if we'd stayed behind. So we fled."
Over the past five years, up to 200,000 Serbians have left Kosovo, largely ending up in Serbia. The United Nations has been attempting to help them return, but to date less than 12,000 have done so.
Meanwhile ethnic tensions have continued to simmer and occasionally boil over: Kosovar Albanians have killed or kidnapped hundreds of their Serbian neighbors and in March of this year led violent riots that left 19 people dead, at least two dozen Orthodox churches and monasteries destroyed, and over 2,400 more Serbs displaced, including 30 of the final 65 who had defied the threats and remained in Trirunovic's hometown. (There had been 9,000 Serbs in Prizren in 1999, 7 percent of the town's population.)
Trirunovic is not the only one to compare the plight of Kosovar Serbs to that of the Jews, both in the persecution they've endured and the world's indifference.
Serbia and Montenegro Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Draskovic told a World Jewish Congress delegation which visited Belgrade this month that if Kosovo, which is still administered by the UN, ends up independent of Serbia under a final-status agreement, the last Serbians "will leave Kosovo and we will take the position of European Jews starting to dream about [a return to] our spiritual home." He went so far as to call Kosovo "the Serbian Jerusalem."
Officially part of Serbia-Montenegro, but dominated by a 90% ethnic-Albanian majority who want independence, Kosovo's status will be reviewed in mid-2005. Saturday, elections were held for a legislative body that will have limited authority.
The place has historic and cultural significance for both Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Albanians, but the latter has been winning the demographic struggle for the ethnically diverse province since World War II. A majority in Kosovo until the war, many Serbs were killed or driven out when resisting the Nazis. Ethnic Albanians constituted nearly three-quarters of Kosovo's populace in 1971, when it was granted the status of an autonomous region under Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito. After his death, Albanians gradually took more control of the province. Ethnic tensions - and violence - between the two groups mushroomed, continuing until this day.
Then-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic revoked autonomy in 1989, reasserting control by taking advantage of Serbian complaints about their oppression and severely limiting Albanian rights and freedoms. When the Kosovo Liberation Army began attacking his Serbian policemen in 1996 in its efforts to achieve independence, Milosevic's crackdown saw some 10,000 ethnic Albanians killed and 900,000 forced out.
Milosevic, now on trial for war crimes at The Hague, retreated from the province in June 1999 after international pressure for intervention led to the NATO bombing of Serbia and the establishment of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission (UNMIK), which returned the Albanian refugees to Kosovo.
Trirunovic acknowledges that ethnic Albanians "were always complaining that their rights were under threat" in the Milosevic years but can't understand why they acted as they did after his ouster.
"Until 1999, we visited each other on important religious holidays. It was a completely normal atmosphere, without any kind of negative feelings," she says. "We lived peacefully with the Goranis, the Turks, the Albanians, and there were no problems. What happened afterward was a tragedy." All the minority groups, she says, were forced to leave their homes. "The UN and NATO came to protect the Albanians from us, but in fact it was we who needed protection."
Trirunovic says that her family wanted to stay, but the threats were plainly far from empty. Two of her mother's cousins had their throats slit, she says, without elaboration. So she, her 90-year-old father, and 82-year-old mother made their way to Belgrade, where they moved in with her brother. She still lives with him because she can't afford her own place. Not only has she lost her home, but documents proving that she had worked for 30 years as a human resources manager at a Prizren textile factory are lost, too - reducing her pension.
Unsurprisingly, it is the emotional rather than financial pain that dominates Trirunovic's thinking. "Imagine how infuriating it is to come to the home that you own, that you built, and not be allowed inside," she says, mild-mannered yet deeply embittered, describing the abortive journey southeast she made recently to try and see what had become of it. An Albanian family was living there, and wouldn't let her in despite her knocking on the door. "I was so angry I almost kicked the door down, but they wouldn't open the door."
The UN arranges for displaced Serbs to conduct "go and see" visits as part of its efforts to return the population to its former homes under an initiative named Habitat. Says Trirunovic: "Habitat is charged with protecting our property and returning it to us, and it has simply fallen by the wayside." She's talking not only about her home, but about the churches and other Serbian property destroyed in March's violence.
Beyond the UN's "complete failure," she complains of international indifference, a charge endorsed by Human Rights Watch, which recently condemned the UN and NATO for failing "catastrophically to protect minorities during the widespread rioting" in March, which it described as bearing "similarity to the campaign of arson, abduction, intimidation, and killing directed at Serbs and Roma [another minority group] in the summer of 1999."
A local UNMIK official, rather disarmingly, confirms the charge. "March was a disaster," admits Mechthild Henneke, a press officer for UNMIK in Kosovo. "It's true that we didn't manage to protect the Serbs."
She claims, however, that local and international organizations' security efforts have been stepped up since then, leading to what she calls relative calm, with only one Serb murdered in Kosovo since March.
As for the failures in 1999, she says that "the country was in ruins and you couldn't do everything in one minute... There was a war." She asserts that many Serbs left of their own accord, rather than because their lives were in danger. This and other factors have bred a certain politicization, and hence fuzziness, regarding the numbers affected.
"It was very unfortunate that Serbs were driven out in 1999," she says.
Albanian families, like the one that has taken over Trirunovic's home, can be forced out via court procedures, with police enforcement, she says, but the process can take more than a year. "The goal is a 100% return of those who want to return, although not everyone wants to."
Finding ways to help those who do - ranging from legal aid to job training for afterwards - is one of the tasks of Holy Succor, where Trirunovic volunteers. The group also tries to preserve the Serbian Kosovar cultural identity, provides psychological treatment for traumatized children, and helps ease the integration of those who stay in Belgrade.
Shaken by the failure of her "go and see" mission, Trirunovic says she holds out little hope for a return. "It's so difficult to start your life over again at 60," she says, but adds that she sees no alternative. "If the UN hasn't been able to take even the tiniest steps to help us return, I don't think it will ever happen."
Still, she's much less bleak when it comes to the future of the Serbian people. "The Serbian and Jewish people have a similar history," she says, again drawing the comparison formed in her youngest days. "We both survive in the face of adversity and efforts to eliminate us. Like the phoenix, we rise up from the ashes."