Kosovo, blinded by indifference

Article published on Feb. 19, 2006
community published
Article published on Feb. 19, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

With UN Kosovo status talks to begin on February 20, the Albanians and Serbs are still making no secret of their irreconcilable positions. "Immediate and total independence" for the Albanians, "autonomy and nothing more" for the Serbs.

January 2006, Orahovac, a small town in the South of Kosovo. After six and a half years, the old joke still makes Rodoljub smile. "Are you going out in town tonight?" "I'd really like to but there's just something stopping me, maybe tomorrow." Ever since the province of Kosovo came under UNMIK administration in 1999, this 23-year-old Serb who lives less than 200 metres from the town-centre has only been there 'three or four times'. And never on foot. Always in an NGO unmarked car.

In Orahovac, the Serbs have always constituted the minority, which today has been reduced to virtually nothing. The town has a population of 22,000 inhabitants of which 500 are Serbs. There were 2,000 before the war. In Kosovo, the population stands at 2 million: 90% Albanian and 5% Serb, that is, around 100,000 people. Situated in a ‘basin’ surrounded by vine-growing hills which have built the region's reputation for wine, the town-centre of Orahovac can be summed up by its main road lined with houses under construction sprouting like mushrooms. Situated on the hillside, the main features of the Serbian area are its sloping roads, old run-down buildings, and a heavy silence. Between the two, there is a sort of no man's land which serves as a border. As for the lower part of the Serbian area, all that remain are charred ruins, scars of the March 2004 riots that threw the whole of Kosovo into a state of unrest. Rodoljub enjoys looking at his town from the top of the hill. With an unimpeded view of Orahovac, he points out his teenage memories. "There's my school, Vuk Karadzic. It has an Albanian name now. Over there you can see the big football ground where we all used to play together. We made up the Orahovac team."

Living together

Further down in the Albanian area, the surroundings are completely different. Shops, street hawkers, numerous cafes and at the far end of the main square stands the big mosque built after the war. "We want to show the rest of the world that there is life here," exclaims Burgin who is 20 years old. And so, he has a passion: rap. He dreams of recording a CD with his band. When we begin talking about the living conditions of the Serbs, Bergin and his friends assert in unison that they hate politics. And yet there is an awareness amongst these young Albanians of a common past. A rare thing in Kosovo: the majority of the young people speak Serbian, or rather Oravohacian, a dialect made up of a mixture of Serbian, Albanian, Turkish and Macedonian. "We speak in this language because we have all lived together," says Nihad looking back, another member of the hip-hop band, "but after all that's happened, it's not easy to forgive". Another boy from the band adds, "Serbs are so little". With so few Serbs, this feeling strikes a general chord.

Ramadan Salja, a history teacher and the principal of one of the schools in the centre of Orahovac explains that the unease is above all social. "The reason why there is such indifference amongst young people is that there is no work here, there are no prospects; they are so concerned for themselves that they find it difficult to worry about others, Serbs included.”

Electrical Climate

Kaela Venuto, head of German NGO ‘Schüler Helfen Leben’ (School children help life), is convinced that the reconciliation has to occur through the youth. However, the NGO found itself forced to build two separate community youth centres, one on the Albanian quarter, one on the Serbian quarter. Nevertheless, a kind of multiethnic ‘snow class’ is organised once a year. In January, around twenty Serbs, Albanians, and Roma lived together for a week with the objective of creating lasting bonds that would transcend the confines of the ski slope. "Last week," explains Kaela Venuto, "three young Serbians went of their own accord to see their Albanian friends. Something which has never been seen before in Orahovac". Those who participated are to have a party again next week in one of the three bars in the Serbian area. Beforehand, their parents have to attend a projection of the holiday photos in the mountains. There are also multiethnic I.T. lessons which feature as part of the programme.

Seven years after the end of the war, these initiatives remain the exception. A few days ahead of the opening of negotiations, led by the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, the situation seems more precarious than ever. Over time, the Serbs have come to live with a certain semi-resignation which worries the local forces. According to Zvezdan Moravcevic, a local journalist, this resignation has gradually turned into passiveness. "I keep asking for everyone's help to make my website on the everyday life in Orahovac lively but there is hardly anything there, I find myself doing everything by myself on a voluntary basis," he confides with disappointment. Rodoljub claims to be used to the situation, assuring me he feels no need whatsoever to go to the Albanian area. "Seriously, what would I go to do down there? That is the problem - I don't know any Albanians, and I don't have any Albanian friends. The fear is within us, it has become part of us," highlights the student. Nenad, his neighbour reckons that the Serbs and Albanians of Orahovac have only one thing left in common today: power cuts. "When ours is on, theirs isn't, and vice-versa. That too we've got used to."