Serbs and Albanians, very foreign neighbors
Mitrovica, Kamenica, Gracanica (Kosovo)
From our special correspondent
Bajram Qerkinaj, a huge colossus in costume and beret on his head, moves sparingly in his tiny room, the size of a mouse hole, in the southern part of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo. The walls of his lair are completely covered by photos of the 510 missing from Mitrovica during the Kosovo war. Over the years, 380 bodies have been found in mass graves, but 130 are still missing. “My great-grandfather is a missing from 1912, my grandfather is a missing from 1945, and my son is a missing from 1998, he was 28 years old, I am going to die without having found him. ” The restrained rage of this worthy 81-year-old man filled the air in the closet.
For twenty-two years, Bajram Qerkinaj has devoted himself tirelessly to the search for his son and all the missing. And in this once mixed city, cut in two since the war, Albanian Mitrovica-Sud and Serbian Mitrovica-Nord, he was one of the first to cross the bridge to join forces with Serbian Milorad Trifunovic. He also created an association of families of the disappeared. But he died very recently without having found his brother.
Together, they had created four years ago a multi-ethnic resource center, based in Pristina, to bring together associations of the disappeared, Albanians for the vast majority, but also Serbs, Bosnians, Roma, Turks. “I have been severely criticized for associating with the Serbs. For many, these are still the enemies. But without collaboration, there is no reconciliation; without information on the missing, there is no possible dialogue, Bajram Qerkinaj proclaims. What the state did not want to do, we did. “
On the bridge over the Ibar river, the tanks have disappeared. But the presence of Kosovar police officers and carabinieri, Italian soldiers present under the KFor, the NATO force, reminds us how much cohabitation was for a long time impossible between the Serbs in Mitrovica-North and the Albanians in the South. Time does its work, however. And, on both sides, Serbs and Albanians cross the bridge.
“There are a lot of interactions between the North and the South, things are not going so badly as they say! “, rejoices Ognjen Gogic, who militates within the NGO Aktiv for the integration, the respect of the rights of the Serbian minority and in particular the translation of all the official documents in Serbian. The young man points to the dozens of people who have taken language courses, Serbian for the Albanians, Albanian for the Serbs, organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), linked to the UN. “It is important to speak both languages if you want to have a career in Kosovo and in the countries of the region, he emphasizes. Unfortunately, not all requests could be met and training was interrupted due to the pandemic. “
In Kamenica, a hundred kilometers to the east, the Serbian or Albanian courses offered by the town hall attracted 48 people. “We were happily surprised”, recalls the young Albanian mayor Qëndron Kastrati, 32, from the Vetëvendosje (“Self-determination”) party which won the elections of February 14, 2021, against the corrupt elites of the parties resulting from the war. Son of an artilleryman from the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, killed during the war, Qëndron Kastrati wanted to make his commune – 95% Albanian, 4% Serbian and 1% Roma – a model of reconciliation. The vice-mayor is Serbian, the director of finance is Roma. “We are unique in Kosovo and even in all the Balkans! “, he congratulates himself, listing his projects: a mixed kindergarten located between two villages, one predominantly Serbian, the other predominantly Albanian, and a grouping of schools from the various surrounding villages with certain subjects, like sports or IT, which could be common and taught in English. “The subject still divides, the nostalgic are against”, he laments.
” The past is the past », Wants to believe Milos, young bartender of 27 years in the small Serbian quarter of the city, a few hundred meters from the town hall. “We live very well together”, he believes, even if the possibility of communicating is limited to a few words exchanged. “We have the same problems: no factories, no companies, no jobs, only cafes, he sighs. I would like to stay, but there is zero prospect, everyone is leaving. “ In just a few years, Kamenica has lost 8,000 of its 35,000 inhabitants. “The society works, people mix, the Albanians go to eat in Serbian restaurants, they buy fruit and vegetables from Serbian farmers”, notes Nenad Rasic, former Serbian deputy of the Democratic Progressive Party, 48 years old.
In spite of everything, living together remains very rare. The Hotel Gracanica, in the Serbian enclave at the gates of the capital Pristina, leads a unique experience. At the initiative of a Swiss investor, the hotel, a haven of peace, hired Serbs, Albanians and Roma. “We are pioneers, here we speak at least two or three languages”, boasts the manager Aksic Bogan, who starts his learning of Albanian.
Neighboring Serbia, which does not recognize the independence of its former province, is widely singled out for the poor progress in integrating the Serbian minority. “We Kosovo Serbs have more problems with Serbs in Serbia than with Albanians, rebels Nenad Rasic. We are politically bogged down in the conflict of the 1990s. ” In Belgrade reigns the nationalist Aleksandar Vucic, president since May 2017 after having been head of government for three years. His regime ousted all progressive parties representing Kosovo Serbs. “Blackmail, intimidation, pressure, dismissals, physical violence, with each election it gets worse, the Serbs are forced to vote for Srpska Lista, Belgrade’s arm in Kosovo. It is impossible to escape it, it is a theft on a large scale, a North Korean electoral dynamic ”, storm Nenad Rasic who promised himself not to leave Kosovo until he has pushed back the Srpska Lista.
But the Serbian far right resorts to the most radical violence. Her 18-year-old son Nikola was beaten by around 30 men on February 22. Oliver Ivanovic, a political figure considered to be a real opposition to Srpska Lista, was assassinated on January 16, 2018 in front of his offices in Mitrovica-Nord. The trial of the alleged perpetrators started in Pristina in early February. “He knew he was threatened, but he was not protected, indignant Bekim Blakaj of the Center for Humanitarian Law. We will not know the names of the sponsors. The information is in Serbia, the country will never cooperate. “Belgrade’s intrusion into the Serb-majority municipalities and into the Kosovar Parliament is therefore total. The Srpska Lista occupies the ten seats of deputies reserved for the Serbian minority. By offering votes, it has even succeeded in associating with other minorities who are historically pro-Albanian. “The Serbs are no longer represented, regrets Nexhmedin Spahiu, political scientist in Mitrovica. Foreign embassies and institutions allowed this monopoly to take hold to the detriment of all the genuine parties that represented the Serbian minority in Kosovo. “