45: Balkans Mandela? Part III – Kosovo – Worldwide with Wee-Cheng …

#45: Kosovo: Will there ever be a Balkans Nelson Mandela in the Land of Hatred? Part III

15 July 2002
Back to Prishtina, and I decided to jump onto another bus to Gracanica. This is a Serbian village where the local inhabitants have been guarding the ancient royal monastery (built by Serbian King Milutin in 1321) of the same name for centuries. They have remained here even after 1999 and are currently protected by Swedish KFOR troops; i.e., they have become a Serbian enclave surrounded by hostile Albanians and trapped here since 1999, unable or unwilling to leave.

Gracanica is an unusual case from the earlier two monasteries I have visited. It is a living community that lies on the main road between Prishtina and Gjilan, a major city in Kosovo. Up till recently, Albanian buses that go to Gjilan have to pass through Gracanica with Swedish armoured personnel carriers (APCs) escort, so as to prevent Serbs from attacking the buses, and also to prevent bus passengers from throwing bombs onto the Serbian houses. Now things have settled down, but Swedish soldiers still patrol the village on foot – they pass you every 10 minutes or so – and APCs roll down the streets to remind everybody of their presence.

Well, I asked the Albanian bus driver to drop me off at Gracanica, a request which provoked a strange look. No problem, he said. And so I got off the bus just outside the Monastery and he quickly sped away in case of trouble, an act which also aroused quite a few eyebrows from the Serbs in a nearby cafe. I walked into the ancient fortified complex – fortunately no permits required, but I had turned up in shorts – an oversight on my part. The nuns weren’t too happy about my lack of modesty and only allowed me to hang around the outer hall of the main church, which anyway had enough frescoes to induce an overdose.

I decided to leave and stroll around the village. The local Serbs were amazed to see an Asian visitor. A magazine kiosk vendor unfolded a black banner with skulls and cross-bones, and the caption in Serbian, “Kosovo is Serbian – Freedom or Death.” “Albanish – bad people, they want to kill us,” a Serbian teenager said.

I walked over to the Village Hall. The Yugoslav and Serbian flags still flew from there. Serbian signboards were everywhere – no Albanian signs anywhere. The people of Gracanica still live in the illusion that Kosovo would return to Serbian rule one day. I wonder what drives them to stay on. Their irrefutable birthright to this land (as much as the Albanians’)? How about job opportunities, or freedom of movement? They could hardly risk travelling outside the village without the risk of being lynched. Serbian farmers are still regularly being found murdered in post 1999 Kosovo.

Returning to Prishtina is a challenging task. Although many Albanian buses and cars pass through the village, they were all speeding through, as though they were passing some dangerous urban slum and wished to avoid any carjacks of the type one finds in South Africa or Inner City LA. Two buses passed me without stopping – perhaps the drivers could not have imagined why anyone (i.e., any Serb) would want to get on the bus at Gracanica – and so didn’t bother to look who was at the long irrelevant bus stop.

Eventually, a mini-van stopped when I waved in exaggerated gestures to get some attention, the driver staring hard at me, totally bewildered. I opened the sliding door to find all the passengers gawking at me. As I got onto the van, the unshaven Albanian guy nearest to me said in Serbian, “Ne Srpski?” (Not Serbian?). “NE!” I shouted, and the whole van roared with laughter.

No laughing matter indeed, if you were Serbian. Life is miserable enough in a besieged community like that. Even getting into buses, i.e., Albanian buses (there are no more intercity Serbian buses in the enclaves), might mean a life-threatening adventure if your fellow passengers had family members killed by Milosevic’s oppressive forces pre-1999.

Back to my hotel, the receptionist asked, “where have you been today?” They have become curious about this rare tourist to Kosovo and asked me everyday about my movement. I hesitated but decided to shock him anyway. “Gracanica.”

“So, you were visiting those Serbian criminals?” he raised his voice. And then the 50-plus-year-old chap got a bit emotional, “Do you know they are all criminals? All supporters of Milosevic! They raped women, even grandmothers and children! They shot at us on that main street when they chased us out of our homes!” He pointed at Prishtina’s main boulevard just outside the hotel, Mother Theresa Boulevard. “Bang! Bang! Bang! They killed so many! Let’s see how long they can last in those villages like Gracanica. One year? Two? Eventually they have to go! We Albanians can afford to wait!”

Suddenly, he became silent for an embarrassing moment. I’m a little ashamed for provoking the outburst. The old man then said calmly, smiling a little, “Sorry sir. Nothing. Just to remind you not to be so sympathetic towards these criminals. They use propaganda all the time. I’m sorry, and have a nice evening.”

And so I returned to my room with a heavy heart, my feelings mixed with the contradictions of the past few days. The walls of Prishtina’s public buildings were full of posters with photographs of a handsome young Albanian in military uniform touching the Albanian flag of a double-eagle-on-a-bright-red-field. They call on Albanians to protest against UNMIK arresting a few Albanian nationalists and ex-UCK guerrillas suspected of killing Albanian collaborators and local Serbs.

On the following day, all these posters would be entirely replaced (overnight!) with new ones showing a photo of a Serb extremist in military uniform and dark glasses, cutting a young Albanian boy with a sharp knife. (Amazing political organisation these Albanians have!) Blood steams down his chest – a very disturbing photo indeed. The caption read, in English and Albanian, “Don’t allow Serbian criminals back into Kosova!” I am disgusted by this highly politicised environment.

This is such a tragic country (OK, or province, to please my Serbian readers), and a land of intense hatred. Both ethnic groups have done terrible things to each other. Each have their own story to tell. Serbian extremists under Milosevic have committed atrocities and the local Serbs had remained silent. After 1999, the local Albanians have struck back in bitter vengeance. So many Serbs killed in equally atrocious circumstances and entire communities forced to flee. One atrocity does not justify another in revenge. I wonder what is in store for the future?

Clearly, Kosovo is heading for independence. It has elected its own President, Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers. Officially it is still described by the UN as a Yugoslav Province, but everyone apart from the Serbs knows that it is moving towards permanent separation.

But will independence solve all issues? Even an independent Republic of Kosova cannot escape the fact that Serbia will always remain its largest neighbour. Its supposed motherland, Albania, is the poorest country in Europe, even more backward than Kosovo, which has gone through war and crisis. All the Kosovar Albanians I have met admitted that unification is a dream at the moment.

In my opinion, difficult it might be, Kosovo must try to reconcile with Serbia and accept that they are inevitably condemned to be neighbours forever. It is better to be a friend than an enemy; small countries have little choice. Finland and Singapore have learned to live with Russia and Malaysia respectively, even if they would rather relocate wholesale to another part of the world if technology allows (!) than to live next to their historical “enemy” of sorts. Both nations have all succeeded, to varying extents, to co-exist with their larger neighbour and turn that proximity to their advantage, also partly because both were led by extraordinary leaders (Marshal Mannerheim and Lee Kuan Yew) with the foresight to realise that they cannot change their geography.

It is a pity that no great leader has emerged in Kosovo who is capable of transcending such insanity. There is no Nelson Mandela in Kosovo, or anywhere in much of the Balkans. There is no one who is capable of extending the olive leaf to his former enemy. This, to me, is the greatest tragedy of the Kosovo of today. With a heavy heart, I left for Albania.

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