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It's like a war zone – a local report from Kosovo

Ternovácz Áron (Zvecsán)
2023.06.04. 13:05 2023.06.04. 13:10
It's like a war zone – a local report from Kosovo

In the town of Zvecan, northern Kosovo, it feels as if there are more soldiers than locals. Serbs tend to blame the riots in Zveçan on the Albanians, while Albanians keep blaming the Serbs. Relations between members of the two nations in Kosovo have deteriorated to such an extent that reconciliation appears unlikely in the foreseeable future. That said, both sides like Hungary's prime minister. The following report was compiled by out on-site correspondent.

– Is this really northern Kosovo? The region appears even more Serbian than Serbia itself, so this is a question every unwary traveler may ask upon entering Kosovo for the first time. We are no different, either. While we only see a few national flags when traveling through Serbia, there are hardly any electricity poles in the towns of northern Kosovo that are not draped or decorated with a Serb flag. Local residents have also hung flags on their windows and fences.

Koszovó - szerb zászlók
 The purpose of this 'forest' of flags clear: Serbs are keen to demonstrate that at least part of Kosovo wants to live with the motherland. Photo: Zoltan Havran

Passing through the first settlements in northern Kosovo, we see many banners carrying the slogan: "This is Serbia!" The purpose of all these flagpoles is clear: Serbs, who see Kosovo as the cradle of Serbian religion and culture, want to demonstrate that at least part of Kosovo with an Albanian majority, the one that broke away from Serbia in 2008, wants to live with the motherland.


These are the root causes of tension in Kosovo

Kosovo, boasting nearly two million inhabitants in the former Yugoslavia once ruled by Tito, was a province of Serbia, the largest of the six republics. But even during the socialist era, the situation between the state's founders, the Serbs - who view Kosovo Polje (Rigomezo) as the cradle of the nation - and the Albanians, who were a minority in a political sense, was tense. The Serb community was dwindling due to poor demographics and emigration, putting Albanians in the majority by more than 80 per cent.

The orange color indicates the areas in Kosovo inhabited by ethnic Serbs, the green color shows the areas in Serbia inhabited by ethnic Albanians. Source: The Times

Speaking in political terms, however, the Serbs retained their right to political dominance. When Slobodan Milosevic came to power at the end of the 1980s, the Albanians became more and more vocal in their demand for secession from Serbia.

At the end of the 1990s, police and military units sent from Belgrade, as well as the Serbian Free Corps that had been dispatched to the battlefields of the South Slavic war, became increasingly violent against the Albanians.

During the armed clashes in Kosovo in 1998 and 99, more than 13,500 people, mostly Albanians, were killed and over 6 thousand disappeared. Within days of the guns falling silent, 37,000 peacekeepers from 36 countries arrived, marking the beginning of a new era in Kosovo, which declared independence nine years later, on February 17, 2008.


The causes of the riots in Zvecan

Brussels was swift in managing to achieve, in the spring of 2013, that Pristina would eventually agree to creating a legal framework for Serbs to establish a community of Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo, where they could live in blocks in several settlements. However, the Serbs argue that this cannot be called autonomy, because autonomy is for minorities, and they do not consider themselves a minority.

A mural depicting former Bosnian-Serb army commander Ratko Mladic (war criminal and the main perpetrator of the Srebrenica massacre) in Zvečan, northern Kosovo. Photo: Zoltan Havran

Pristina has been openly obstructing this since it made the pledge. As a result, Serbs in northern Kosovo - at Belgrade's behest - withdrew from Kosovo's state institutions, including the Serb-majority municipalities, in November last year.

Pristina responded by calling elections, in which Serbs decided not to participate.

This is what made it possible that, in northern Kosovo’s Serb-majority municipalities, Albanians elected mayors with a low turnout of just 3 to 4 per cent, which the Serbs refused to accept. On Monday, Serbs marched to the mayor's offices. In Zvecan, a settlement in Kosovo, soldiers of the Hungarian Defence Forces serving as part of NATO’s peacekeeping force, were deployed against the Serbs in so-called crowd dispersal operations. During these clashes, the protesters also used improvised explosive devices, and most of the injuries were caused by shrapnel. In addition to soldiers from other countries, a total of 27 Hungarian soldiers were injured, fifteen of them seriously.


It's as if we were in a war zone 

However, since Monday's riots, tensions appear to have cooled off. This is presumably because there has not been such a massive military presence in Kosovo for years. The roads are patrolled by KFOR soldiers almost constantly. Driving in the area, we also come across long convoys of soldiers traveling way slower than the speed limit. Overtaking them is impossible, and cutting into the convoy is outright forbidden.

KFOR troops are constantly patrolling the roads in northern Kosovo. Photo: Zoltan Havran

Peacekeepers have reinforced the guarding of small Serb enclaves and church centers in parts of the former Serb province.

In the centre of Zvečan, one gets the feeling that there are more soldiers in the settlement than locals.

There are peacekeepers – Austrian, American, Polish – on practically every corner. The town hall building, a scene of earlier riots, is surrounded by barbed wire and cordons, which the locals have draped with Serb national flags. The heightened military presence makes us feel as if we were in a real war zone.

The three-finger symbol was first displayed in groups by Serbian extremists during the South Slavic war, and its meaning expressed national pride and defiance. The majority of Serbs believe that this meaning is a sign of the Holy Trinity. Photo: Zoltan Havran

The civilian population has no access to the town hall building. A mural depicting Ratko Mladic (war criminal and the main perpetrator of the Srebrenica massacre) is also on display nearby. Serb national music is being played in the vicinity of the site, and locals are sitting outside on benches in droves. The are chatting casually and don't at all look sad. The hot asphalt still bears traces of cars set on fire during the riots.

We won’t be deterred by anything. We will achieve what we want. Our municipalities will not be taken over by shiptars [this is how the Serbs call the Albanians, mockingly - ed.]! Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,

a local Serb named Dejan, a man in his thirties, tells us. He explains that they are not angry with the local peacekeeping forces for Monday's incidents. He is convinced that it was the Albanian police who provoked the clashes, and that they were the ones who hurled the first stun grenades at the KFOR troops. They did this in order to turn the Serbs against the NATO units. He believes that, sooner or later, they will be able to achieve that the Albanians recognize the unity of Kosovo and Serbia.


Both sides blame each other in Kosovo

While we are talking to Dejan, a man in his sixties, slightly smelling of alcohol, approaches us. He tells us about the horrors of the war in former Yugoslavia, as well as his own experiences at the front.

We’ve been through hell already. Do the Albanians really think they can oppress us on our own historic territory? They are wrong. We are not afraid of them,

says the veteran with an angry expression on his face, and then he asks where we come from. After we tell him that we are Hungarians, he says, with a smile from ear to ear, that "Orban is our man!" Incidentally, there was a moment during Monday's riots when the Serb demonstrators began cheering Viktor Orban rather loudly. In the video below, from 04:00, the crowd can be heard chanting the Serb words "Ajmo Orbane!", which means "Go, Orban!"

It is also interesting that Albanians living in Kosovo have a similar opinion of Hungary's prime minister. Although we haven't met any Albanian nationals in Zvecan, in Mitrovica, which only a 20-minute drive, we met many and kept bumping into them.

In the town to the north of Kosovo Polje (Rigomezo), there are far fewer peacekeeping forces than further north. Even though they speak Serbian, the local Albanians prefer to communicate with us in English.

Time is on out side. Sooner or later this situation will end and the Serbs will accept that Kosovo is ours. They are dwindling and we are only getting stronger.

says Adis, a Mitrovica resident. The Albanian man does not understand the frustration of the Serbs at the current situation, as he believes that they have brought it on themselves. Had they not boycotted the elections, this situation does not arise. It is a political charade, he adds. 


New local elections may be held to promote peace

The international community sees the solution in calling for new elections, and in Pristina forming a Serbian Community of Municipalities. On Thursday, Kosovo President Vyacheslav Osmani held talks with Serb President Aleksandar Vucic, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Both the French and German heads of state urged the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo to organize new local elections as soon as possible in the four municipalities affected by the unrest, with the participation of local Serbs.

Mr Osmani was given a week to respond to the proposal. According to the local Serbs we interviewed, this could resolve the current problems, but it would not provide them with a long-term solution.

You can check out our photo gallery here:

Cover photo: KFOR soldiers in Zvecan (Photo: Zoltan Havran)

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