27 March 2007

Yugoslavia lives on in Kosovo time capsule

Reuters, Fri Jan 12, 2007 10:13 AM ET By Matt Robinson


STIMLJE, Serbia (Reuters) - More than a decade after Yugoslavia shattered into separate countries along ethnic lines its multiculturalism survives.


In a mental institute.


The dialects and languages of the old federal state can all be heard behind the iron gates of Stimlje mental health institute in Kosovo. Some patients rant about the icons of the old days, whose legacies blight the landscape.


"The patients came here when Yugoslavia was still alive," says the director, Kujtim Xhelili. "So we have Serbs from Kosovo, from Serbia, from Vojvodina, Croats from Croatia. We have Albanians, Macedonians, Roma, Muslims from Bosnia."


The 50-year-old facility in central Kosovo bears all the hallmarks of an underfunded, Socialist-era mental hospital. But the political reference points for patients who arrived before the break-up of Yugoslavia now exist only in their minds.


A handful of patients shuffle through the grounds in soiled clothing, faces contorted by toothy grimaces. Others play cards at a square table, shielding hands and raising stakes.


Many of Stimlje's residents remain almost blissfully unaware of the world outside their dreary and dilapidated bubble.


In the Balkans of the present, NATO troops stand watch against fresh ethnic violence which could accompany a decision to carve another fragment from the federated republic created by Marshal Tito after World War Two.


Kosovo's Albanian majority and Serb minority have settled into a tense segregation since Serbia's 1998-99 counter-insurgency war killed 10,000 Albanians and forced out almost one million. Tens of thousands of Serbs fled revenge attacks as the United Nations took control.


Both sides remain bitter and suspicious, and tensions are rising as a decision nears on the Albanian majority demand for independence, expected within months.




The institute stands apart. On just 150 euros per month, dozens of Albanians provide 24-hour care for more than 100 patients from across the former Yugoslavia, the majority Serbs.


Most of the residents have been here for at least 15 years. They arrived as citizens of one country, and have lived in isolation as Yugoslavia disintegrated and more than 130,000 were killed in wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.


Habibe, an ethnic Albanian woman who has spent 24 years working at the institute, switches with ease between Serbian and Albanian as she talks with patients knitting winter clothes in a cramped workshop, its walls stained and the air heavy with the smell of decay.


A middle-aged Serb from the Serbian town of Novi Pazar pulls a cigarette from his mouth and plants a kiss on the shoulder of his ethnic Albanian nurse. Families rarely visit.


The institute, the only one of its kind in Kosovo, has closed its doors to new patients as part of a transition to a kind of 'care in the community' programme.


"There is no division inside," says the director Xhelili, an ethnic Albanian former mini-market owner. "They can be informed of everything, they have television. But there are no problems."


During the war, Serb workers fleeing NATO bombs and troops abandoned the institute in June 1999 as Serb forces under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic pulled out.


The buildings were looted and the patients left to fend for themselves until the arrival of the Norwegian Red Cross.


Now they are set to be spared Kosovo's dramatic endgame.


U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari is due to unveil his proposal within weeks. A form of independence is likely -- another change of borders to pass the patients by.


Habibe says that only one patient appears affected by Kosovo's current turbulence.


"Radisav" has lost contact with his brother and spends his days scribbling about politics and lecturing the other patients.


Wrapped in a blanket on the grass he begins a tormented tirade: Lenin, Milosevic, Iraq, Saddam, and Bosnian Serb war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic all feature. He smiles.


"It seems nice while we're killing each other."