Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2006, pages 46-47

Special Report

Throughout Kosovo, Albanians and Serbs Heal Divide While Looking to the Future

By Tim Kennedy

This bridge spanning the Ibar River divides the majority of Serbs living in northern Mitrovica from Kosovar Albanians living in the south (Photo Tim Kennedy).

THE offices of Kosovan Nansen Dialogue (KND) are located on the third floor of a modest block-brick building inside the “confidence zone.” That narrow ribbon of land on the south side of the Ibar River separates the 15,000 Serbs living in northern Mitrovica from the 80,000 Kosovo Albanians who reside in the southern part of the city.

French NATO troops guard a steel truss bridge that separate the two ethnic areas, and here KND staffers Miodrag Rodovic and Ivan Radic wait on the Serb side of the river to discuss the challenges facing their non-governmental organization (NGO).

“Serbs are terrified that Kosovo’s independence will mean the end of Serbs in this country. This, of course, makes our work all the harder,” explained Radic, a Serbmedical doctor. “But we are still inspired, and we are still trying to promote interethnic reconciliation despite a situation that sometimes undermines our efforts.”

The key, according to Radic, is communication.

Mitrovica, about 50 miles northwest of Kosovo’s provisional capital of Pristina, was the focal point of rioting that erupted throughout this disputed Serbian province in March 2004, after rumors circulated that Serbs had been responsible for drowning an Albanian child. Nineteen people—eight Kosovo Serbs and eleven Kosovo Albanians—were killed, and over a thousand people wounded, including more than 120 police officers and international peacekeepers.

“The riots of the 17th of March are a clear indication that Serbs and Albanians are still in conflict,” said Radovic, a Serb lawyer. “What we’re trying to do is somehow bring people together, and to transfer their minds from their political positions to their practical needs. We’re here to help Albanians and Serbs understand that their needs are the same.”

With support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the KND organizes events where local citizens can share practical concerns about how local schools, healthcare facilities and other government institutions are operated. “We believe it is important to create a safe space that gives people the feeling of being free and safe to openly express themselves,” says Miranda Ibishi, KND’s Albanian coordinator.

Mitrovica’s deputy mayor, Fatmire Berisha, said her work, along with that of KND, Catholic Relief Services and other reconciliation-focused NGOs operating in Kosovo, is complicated by “parallel structures”—schools, clinics, and other municipal institutions—set up and funded by Serbia in Kosovo’s ethnic enclaves. Even the automobiles in Serb areas still bear pre-war Serbian license plates. (Vehicles in Kosovo now are required to have plates issued by the United Nations.)

“We are unable to administer the other part of the city,” said Berisha, who never uses the words “north Mitrovica” in her conversation. “The budget on the other side is separate from Mitrovica, with the UNMIK [United Nations Mission in Kosovo] dispersing funds separately.”

Berisha also complained that government employees in north Mitrovica, like many working in Serb enclaves, collect two salaries: one from the U.N., the other from Serbia. This extra income, Berisha pointed out, strongly influences their political allegiance to Belgrade.

Catholic Relief Services appears to have bridged the gulf between Mitrovica’s parallel school systems, however, through its City-Wide Youth Council, a coalition of secondary school students. Students from both northern and southern school districts have participated in CRS surveys and seminars that helped them compile a set of common concerns, then successfully seek remedies for issues ranging from a shortage of laboratory supplies to the need for more extracurricular activities.

“The common issues became ”˜connectors’ for the Serb and Albanian students,” said Adnan Hasi, CRS’s program officer in Mitrovica. “These are things that people can agree upon....During the March 2004 riots, which occurred after the program was well underway, many of the students on the City-Wide Youth Council were calling each other up to make sure they were okay.”

The CRS program has had a positive influence on Mitrovica’s southern and northern school systems, Deputy Mayor Berisha acknowledged. Administrators from the north and south are now applying the CRS model to compile their own set of common issues, she said. The school administrators also are discussing how best to employ a human rights curriculum created by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and targeted at both Serb and Albanian primary school students.

A Municipal Government Embraces Ethnic Cooperation

In Shtrepce, 50 miles south of Pristina, Serbs and Albanians work comfortably side by side in the city’s police department, hospital and municipal offices. A mountain community, Shtrepce is the site of a Serb-owned ski resort popular with many Kosovo Albanians.

Slovisa Vasiljeviq, a Serb who heads Shtrepce’s Department of Health, says the multiethnic composition of the city government is a direct reflection of the community’s ethnic composition as a whole: 65 percent are Serb, the remainder Albanian. Holding municipal elections where people are allowed to vote for the candidate of their choice in an “open ballot,” instead of one that requires a voter to choose a bloc of party candidates, he added, helps ensure that this balance is maintained. (Indeed, following the example of many of its 30 municipalities, Kosovo’s next parliamentary election finally will have an open ballot.)

“Our police department is half Serb and half Albanian, with an Albanian judge presiding at the local court,” noted Vasiljeviq. “The mayor is a Serb, and one of his two deputies is Albanian. Four of the six government departments are headed by Serbs, with Albanians serving very well as directors for the others.”

Serbs boycotted the 2000 election, Vasiljeviq recalled, the first to be held after the war. Understandably, candidates voted into office that year were all Albanian. By the time of the 2003 election, however, Serb voters largely ignored the boycott.

“By getting out the vote, the Serbs took control of the future and their destiny—for themselves and for their daily activities,” said Vasiljeviq. “Now, we decide on taxes, standards for health codes, how frequently the streets are cleaned, and so forth.”

According to Vasiljeviq, the working relationship between Serbs and Albanians in Shtrepce’s municipal government is generally good. “For example,” he noted, “my deputy and I share the same office. This is because it is essential that I talk with him every day. Sure, we sometimes have different ways of approaching a problem, but we don’t have any major difficulty dealing with these issues together.”

The first step in solving some of the inter-ethnic tensions in Kosovo, Vasiljeviq said, is for expatriate Serbs—estimated to number 250,000 people—to return to the region. “Serbs need to move back home so they can vote people of their choosing into office,” he argued. “This will ensure that their interests are represented by the government.”

A Village for Returning Refugees Is Reborn From the Ashes

Delie Rajko was among the 23 Serb families who fled the ethnically mixed village of Babljak during the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that targeted Serb forces rampaging against Albanians and Albanian property. Following the bombing campaign, almost all of the Serb-owned homes in his village were looted or burned down.

“We don’t know who destroyed our houses,” said Rajko without rancor. “It was wartime. This is what happens.”

In 2001, Rajko was among the first Serbs to return to Babljak, located 30 miles south of Pristina alongside a railroad line that ends in Skopje, Macedonia.

When the U.N. proposed to build new homes in Babljak to shelter returning refugees, Rajko was selected to serve on the inter-ethnic village council that would work with U.N. relief workers and building contractors.

The elected president of the village council, a Serb, proved to be the biggest hindrance to the rebuilding effort, Rajko said. “He did not believe that the Albanians in the village would be willing to welcome the Serbs back,” he explained. “He also started making impossible demands, like insisting that returning Serbs could not vote in local elections or had to vote for the candidates he supported. I opposed this, and I told him that I had the right to belong to whatever political party I chose, and that I didn’t have to take my orders from Belgrade.”

Frustrated by the sitting council president’s obstructive maneuvers, Rajko successfully lobbied for his removal. Soon after, construction gained momentum. By 2004, 52 new houses and a school had been completed.

“Our first group of Serbs moved in during June of 2004; the next group came in September of the same year,” said Rajko. “We now have 48 Serb families living in the new houses. Two Albanian refugee families also live in new homes.”

Today, about 560 people live in Babljak, 40 percent of them Serb. In 2005, when the presidency of the Babljak village council was open to election, Rajko put a name into nomination that surprised some of his friends: Osman Cokli, an Albanian.

“My choice really wasn’t made along ethnic lines,” Rajko stated. “Osman comes from a good family, that was my first reason for suggesting him. The second was because it was in the best interest of the community. I knew having Osman as president of the council would be the best way for our village to continue to grow.”

In Cokli’s opinion, communication can significantly ease ethnic tensions in Kosovo. “Dialogue and trust are everything,” he explained. “In our village we need to have good relationships with each other because we have to see each other every day. It may happen that we have differences, but all things can be solved though dialogue.”

His most important lesson in citizenship, Cokli said, was learned from an Italian army commander working for KFOR, NATO’s multinational security force in Kosovo. “During one of his visits, the commander said to me: ”˜Osman, whenever people in Kosovo ask me where I’m from, I never say I’m from Florence—which is the city where I was born. Instead, I say that I come from Italy. I do this because I want the Kosovars I meet to start thinking of themselves as Kosovars, not Albanians or Serbs.’

“In this village,” Cokli added, “there are no Albanians or Serbs. We are simply citizens of Kosovo.”

Tim Kennedy is a founding partner of the Strategic Policy Group, a political risk analysis firm based in Washington, DC.