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Can We Stay or Must We Go?

Aid organizations and Pristina urge Serbs to come back to Kosovo, but there are reasons beyond politics that they won’t – or can’t.

by Uffe Andersen 21 June 2012

PRISTINA | Slavica Cankovic can count the number of Serb children in the capital of Kosovo on two hands – almost.


“Our nurse here lives in Pristina and has four children,” Cankovic says, pointing to the woman on her right in the homey waiting room of the clinic where she works as a doctor. “Vera isn’t here right now, but she’s got two children, and a woman called Zivka has a grandchild with her here in Pristina, as well.”


Aleksandar Mitrovic is a Serb who grew up in Prizren. He has returned but, unemployed and separated from his family, he might have to leave again. Photo by Uffe Andersen.


Then she remembers the local Orthodox priests, with their children – four altogether. Eleven kids. And that’s it.


It was March 2004 when Albanians drove out the last few hundred Serbs remaining in Pristina after the Kosovo war in 1999. The St. Nicolas church was burned then but has been partly restored, and the priests returned in 2010. Services are well-attended; the church is one of the few places where the Serbs of Pristina can meet. Another is the clinic where Cankovic works. Ethnic Albanian patients also use the clinic, but the doctor starts her day drinking coffee with a gathering of the mostly elderly local Serbs. 


“It’s sad,” she says. “Before the war, we were 40,000 Serbs in Pristina, and today, we’re only 50. All of a sudden, the city is the same, only the people you knew aren’t there anymore. They’re gone.”


Ethnic Albanians say Serbs in Pristina numbered 20,000 in the 1990s. The last Yugoslavian census of the city falls between that and Cankovic's estimate: it counted 200,000 people, of whom 15.43 percent, nearly 31,000, were Serbs and Montenegrins. Whatever the case, there’s no doubt that today very few Serbs are left.



Though politicians and Kosovo’s international overseers urge Serbs to return, without the basic infrastructure of life – jobs and education – few will do so. Kosovo, which Serbs still call “the heart of Serbia” could be experiencing its last generation of Serbs.


Just a year ago, Serbian media announced the first rebuilt Serbian homes in Prizren. The city was once the capital of the medieval Serbian empire, but six centuries later practically every Serb fled when NATO forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army rolled in across the border from Albania.


Aleksandar Mitrovic recounts the experience sitting in his rebuilt house in the old Serbian part of Prizren, below the city’s castle. The burned-out houses on the hillside below stick out less now, as weeds and trees start to recapture the area.


Mitrovic was born in Prizren in 1972. At 26, he took his exam as an economist at the University of Pristina. Less than a year later, he and his family were among those fleeing.


“In Belgrade, the children started going to school and I to work, first installing cable television, then air conditioning,” he says. “Then I started my own business ... and then I was unemployed.”


Encouraged to return by a local organization set up to help those who fled Kosovo, the family visited Prizren in late 2009 and decided to stay. Destroyed houses were rebuilt for 10 families, in a project financed mostly by the British Embassy in Pristina and managed by the Danish Refugee Council.


Razor wire bars entry to a Serb's property destroyed during the March 2004 violence in Prizren. Photo by Tiffany Ommundsen for the Advocacy Project/flickr.


But most of the Serbs who returned to Prizren can hardly be called families, and they are unlikely to put down new roots. Like those in Pristina, they tend to be older – 40-year-old Mitrovic is by far the youngest. Last year the church restarted a high school with 11 Serb pupils from villages around Prizren, but there’s still no school for younger children, like Mitrovic’s. His wife and children have gone back to Belgrade.


Nor is there work. The Danish aid group’s promises to help Mitrovic find a job have come to nothing, he says. Unemployment in Kosovo is at 40 to 50 percent, and Mitrovic says that as a non-Albanian, he is at the bottom of any hiring list.


He got a job at the Trade Ministry on a trial basis, but it went nowhere. He was competing for the spot with two other men, one of whom, he says, was a relative of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. That man was hired.


So while houses are being rebuilt, Serbs can’t really live here, Mitrovic says. He manages only by renting out his own home for 100 euros while living with a relative in another newly built house. Separated from his family, living on the meager rent income, he is making plans to leave. “I don’t have any other options,” he says.


He says he knows Serbs from Kosovo now living miserable lives in refugee barracks in Serbia proper. “There’s no doubt that they’d return to their homes here in Prizren if they in any way were able to.”


Damage to a Serbian village in Prizren, March 2004. Photo by Joseph A. Ferris III/flickr.


About 210,000 displaced people from Kosovo remain in Serbia. According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, 39 percent of Serbia’s displaced people are jobless, and 74 percent live below the poverty line (these figures include people left homeless by the other Yugoslavian wars and more recent asylum seekers). Even so, only 20 percent say they would like to go back to Kosovo.


Eduardo Arboleda, director of the UNHCR’s office in Serbia, told the Tanjug state news agency in January that in 2011, 571 people returned to Kosovo from Serbia. No one knows how many have done so in total since the war, he said; many have gone back Serbia due to unemployment or safety issues.


Idbalka Rama, who leads the Prizren municipality’s efforts to get Serbs to return, says officials “do everything to make people not only return, but stay, and live where they used to.”


Rama says Prizren, with its centuries-long tradition of multiethnicity, is a logical place for Serbs seeking to make their return permanent, although she acknowledged that unemployment makes that difficult.


But local officials’ talk of welcoming back Serbs is undermined by sporadic incidents of violence and even police actions.


From February to April, tensions rose after the arrests of several Serbs in Kosovo on a variety of charges related to the 5 May Serbian elections. Those arrested were managing Belgrade’s extension of the elections into Kosovo, which Pristina opposed. Rada Trajkovic, a moderate Serb and member of the Kosovo parliament, condemned the arrests in a letter to the press. “The real reason is to spread fear among the Serbs; it is merely a continuation of the well-planned strategy of the authorities in Pristina,” she wrote.


Two houses were burned in May in the western village of Drenovac. The five returnee Serb families there – in fact, only eight people – see this attack as a warning tied to the recent approval of 12 more returnee house constructions. But Thaci, the prime minister, called the arson attacks “an isolated case that is not going to influence the positive process of the return of all Serbian citizens.”


An April report by the UN noted an apparent uptick in “crimes affecting minority communities, including intimidation, assault, theft, arson, vandalism, and damage to Serbian Orthodox churches.”


In mid-May, a note appeared on the doors of Serbian returnees’ houses in several villages north of Prizren. Signed by “The Albanians’ People’s Army,” it called the Serbs “directly or indirectly criminals” and urged them to move to Serbia, and warned Albanians who support the return of Serbs to beware.


In such a climate, Serbs were further worried when EULEX, the EU’s “rule of law-mission” in Kosovo, announced staff cuts in June. “They’re afraid that when there’s no more control, the other side will let go and begin to harass the Serbs,” Mitrovic says.


He says he doesn’t expect physical attacks, just police intimidation and harassment, and large-scale discrimination.


Harassment is widespread wherever Serbs have returned to south of the Ibar river, where ethnic Albanians predominate – but not in Prizren. Most Serb houses there were left alone in 1999, and many owners just waited for the situation to calm down before returning.


According to the 2011 census, 82 percent of the population in Prizren is ethnic Albanian, most of the rest Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) and Turkish. Mitrovic says it is a tolerant place – “I only speak Serbian, including when buying bread in shops or vegetables in the market” – and that those who return need not fear for their safety.


He was in Prizren in January 2004, only two months before an outburst of inter-ethnic violence. “Everything was cool,” he says, “completely normal.”


But on 16 March 2004, Kosovo’s Albanians were infuriated by media reports that three ethnic Albanian children who drowned in the Ibar were forced into the river by Serbs. The reports were not true, but more than 50,000 ethnic Albanians attacked Serbs who lived south of the Ibar on 17 and 18 March. A further 4,000 Serbs were driven out, and 900 houses plus 35 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were burned or destroyed, including Mitrovic’s house. Still, he says, “I really don’t feel threatened.”


Nor does Radmila Gadjic, whose house was also burned that day in March. For Gadjic, 67, the longing for her hometown was stronger than any fear.


Sitting on a small outdoor terrace of the newly built house where she and her husband live, Gadjic says she never felt comfortable in Serbia. ”When you’ve grown up together, you feel some kind of respect for each other – but if you’re a stranger, no one knows you, you always feel superfluous.”


She agrees that people’s natural urge to return has been undercut. ”We’ve lived here only since 28 July 2011, because it wasn’t possible to come back earlier. They only rebuilt houses in the countryside and said it wouldn’t work in urban areas,” where it would create tensions with the Albanian majority.


“If they had let people go back to Prizren 10 years ago, many more would have come,” she says. But now, a generation has done much of its growing up in Serbia and established their own families. Her children remain there as well.


Though the 20 or so Serbs who live permanently in Prizren – plus half as many who come there from time to time – do not feel threatened or risk being attacked for speaking Serbian, they do have language problems.


Older people in Prizren are fluent in Serbian/Serbo-Croatian, which was the official language of Yugoslavia, but few people under 30 understand it. As the average age in Kosovo is 25, a large portion literally don’t understand the Serbs.


Mitrovic does speak a bit of Albanian because he, like all Serbs in Kosovo, learned it in school. But when tensions rose in the late 1980s, the subject was thrown out – just as ethnic Albanian pupils stopped having Serbian language instruction.




The sadrvan of Prizren – the cobbled historical center focused on the Ottoman fountain – is always full of people. Fortysomething Zejnel, an ethnic Albanian who emigrated in the 1990s, is back for a holiday. He says he knows that some Serbs have returned, “and that’s a really good thing. Everyone should live where he finds it’s best for him.” He declines to delve into what happened in Prizren after he went abroad.


Arben, on the other hand, is less forgiving.


“Those who haven’t had the courage to come are surely afraid because of what they’ve done. The one who hasn’t got blood on his hands but is clean – he’s got no reason to be afraid.”


The same point is made by Agon. He speaks on behalf of five or six friends from the local high school who nod approvingly.


“[Serbs] think that this is Serbia but it isn’t – we’re now independent,” Agon says. “They could be here, but not with their mentality and activities where they believe this is Serbia. Let them go to Serbia.” Agon says he doesn’t know any Serbs, as practically all of them left Prizren when he was about 6 years old.


Attitudes like Agon’s are the reason why Mitrovic, in his most hopeless moments, doesn’t believe that Serbs will ever be able to return to Kosovo, even to tolerant Prizren.


“The kids who were 8, 10, 12 years old when I left, they’re now grown-up people, and they don’t know anything about Serbs,” he says. “They are taught that at some point in the Middle Ages, some Serbs came and occupied their Prizren – just like we in Yugoslavia learned about the Ottoman Turks, and about the Germans in World War II.


“These kids haven’t got any contact with Serbs and haven’t heard the Serbian language spoken. When those retired Serbs who have now returned to Prizren die out, their children and grandchildren will sell their property here – and that’s that. After my generation, there’ll be no Serbs in Kosovo.”


At this, Mitrovic turns sorrowful, recalling how he played with Serbian, Bosniak, Turkish, and Albanian children in the Ottoman hamam, or baths, and in the Orthodox cemetery.


But he cannot quite give up on the notion of Serbs re-establishing themselves. Unlike the calls from Serbs in and outside of Kosovo to boycott the institutions of Pristina, Mitrovic says, “If we wish to do something with our lives, and if we want to live here, we’ve got no other option but to accommodate ourselves to the situation. And not the situation as we would wish it to be, but the situation as it is. That includes, for example, voting in the elections held by Pristina, and taking part in its institutions – because Serbia’s got no power here and cannot help us. ...


“We must participate so that we can say there must be a road built for the Serbs in that village, there should be factories opened and people given work.”


As to whether the government in Pristina is “a criminal regime,” as some Serbs insist, Mitrovic says, “I’m not the one to judge. But I am the one who must try to help myself, my family, and the rest of the people who are left here.”

Uffe Andersen is a freelance journalist in Smederevo, Serbia.
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