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Pride and tensions in Kosovo

On November 28th, Albanians commemorate their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912. But this is not only celebrated in Albania, with Kosovo’s 92 per cent ethnic Albanian population joining in too. The high level of public support for the young country’s war heroes of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army is clear to see, even though some of its former leaders are currently detained in The Hague awaiting war crimes trials.

January 9, 2024 - Kian Seara Rey - Articles and CommentaryPhoto

Young people celebrating Albanian Independence Day (28 November 2023). Prizren, Kosovo.

Besides being a day for Albanian nationalism, the country’s independence day is also coincidentally the birthday of Adem Jashari, the former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army or KLA (UÇK in Albanian). Killed by Serbian forces in 1998, he has since been lionized as the most important martyr in the pantheon of modern Kosovo’s national heroes. Having gathered a group of die-hard militants around him willing to fight against the repressive Serbian government’s control over the area, Jashari helped transform a years-long campaign of persistent, yet ineffective civil disobedience against Serbian President Slobodan Milošević into a full-on armed insurgency.

Kosovo suffered from a devastating war from 1998 to 1999, just one part of the larger series of Yugoslav Wars. The effects of the conflict can still very much be felt today. It is not unusual to see televisions in cafés set to music channels with marathons of patriotic pop songs, with handsome singers in KLA uniforms belting out catchy melodies while gesturing over the dramatic landscapes that are ubiquitous across the Kosovar countryside.

Supporter of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army, or UÇK in Albanian) poses for a photo with their flag. Prizren, Kosovo.

In Prizren, the streets were flooded with mostly teenagers on November 28th. They enthusiastically waved Albanian, Kosovar and KLA flags and shot off fireworks, all the while three or four visibly annoyed Kosovo Police officers failed to keep them out of the street. A caravan of cars honked and filled the air with smoke from doing burnouts. Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe, with around half of the population believed to be under the age of 30, and it is moments like these that you really notice it.

Teenagers celebrate Albanian Independence Day. Prizren, Kosovo.

“I think that Albania and Kosovo are one. All my family thinks the same way. There’s no need to be apart when we can be one and powerful,” said Florjian, a 15-year-old participant in the flag-waving revelry. He is referencing the political idea of Greater Albania, in which Albania and Kosovo would be united as one country. His friend agreed and I took their photo as they made the eagle gesture with their hands, a common patriotic expression symbolizing the double-headed eagle on the Albanian flag.

Young people out revelling in Prizren during the independence day.

Past and present

Prizren is considered the cultural capital of Kosovo, yet it is also considered one of the most important seats of the Serbian Orthodox Church, with several medieval Orthodox churches of note. One such church, the 14th century Our Lady of Ljeviš, has been closed to visitors after falling into disrepair. This happened after the 2004 unrest (what Serbs call the “March Pogrom”) in which Albanians across Kosovo desecrated Orthodox churches and killed at least 14 Serbs, one of the first incidents after the war that indicated that the conflict may not have been as dormant as it had seemed to some in the West.

Another church on a hillside overlooking Prizren, said to have been built around 1330, was half destroyed and now sits vacant, inaccessible to visitors. It is estimated that over 900 Serbian churches were damaged or totally destroyed, and around 4,000 Serb, Roma and Ashkali civilians were expelled from towns, villages and even the capital Pristina during the 2004 unrest. These post-war reprisals are ugly but it is a fact that far more Albanians were expelled from their homes during the war. They were either internally displaced or forced into refugee camps in the frigid mountain areas over the border in Montenegro and North Macedonia. Despite this, most of them eventually returned. It is also true that far more Albanian civilians were killed than Serbian civilians throughout the conflict.

In response to several years of struggle by Kosovar Albanians against the Yugoslav authorities, Milošević cracked down on dissent by suspending the autonomous status that Kosovo had long enjoyed under the regime of Josip Broz Tito. Despite his authoritarian tendencies, the celebrated leader did manage to maintain the peaceful coexistence of the different ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. After Tito’s death, however, ethnic rivalries quickly rose to the surface again. Rather than assuaging these conflicts and following Tito’s strategy, Milošević looked to exploit them to solidify his power, a grave mistake that led to war.

Years of conflict between the Serbian authorities and the KLA eventually culminated in the Kosovo War, with the NATO bombing of Serbian positions marking a major turning point. Ethnic Albanians soon after managed to gain full control of Kosovo. After the debacle in Bosnia, Bill Clinton and his NATO allies were keen on quickly putting an end to what looked like another nasty cycle of reprisals that would eventually put civilians in the crosshairs.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, a move that angered the ethnic Serb minority, which is mostly concentrated in north Kosovo and in small enclaves near the few remaining Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries. Most of them do not recognize Kosovo as an independent country and continue to view it as a part of Serbia.

“The so-called KLA, immediately after it was founded, was declared a terrorist organization by the American administration,” said Dejan Baljosevic, vice president of the Serbian National Council of Kosovo and Metohija.

“Later, the West realized that the fighters of the so-called KLA could serve them as an advanced infantry that could prepare the way for NATO to march on the territory of orthodox Serbia, which they saw as an enemy to their interests in their crusade to the East and expansion towards the borders of Russia.”

His comments might seem radical to Western Europeans, but they are considered mainstream in the Kosovar Serb community. Dejan and his wife are members of the Kosovar Serb minority that live in the Serb part of Orahovac, an isolated community in western Kosovo.

“The numerous Albanian flags and monuments erected in tribute to the fallen fighters of the so-called KLA next to the main roads are a way to mark the conquered territories. But they also show that despite enormous support from the West, Albanians are not certain of their independence. When they cannot legally achieve their independence in the most important international organizations, then they try to at least visually show that Kosovo now belongs to them,” he added.

Tensions have risen substantially in the past few years after disagreements over Serbian license plates sparked anger. A heavily-armed group of Serbian militiamen then engaged in a gun battle with Kosovo Police in the northern town of Banjska, where they barricaded themselves in a nearby monastery. Four were killed in the assault and the Kosovo authorities implicated Serbia’s leaders, pointing to the extensive arsenal seized from the group as proof of state backing. The self-admitted leader of the attack was Milan Radoičić, an influential Kosovar Serb politician with ties to the authorities in Belgrade. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić refused to extradite Radoičić to Pristina, saying “he was my close ally.”

Uncertain justice

On November 28th, Vjosa Osmani, the current president of Kosovo, was at the Jashari family memorial site in the hero’s ancestral village of Prekaz to give a televised speech. The small village features little more than the perfectly preserved, bullet-hole ridden buildings of the Jashari family compound, a relatively new museum building, gift shops full of red and black Albanian souvenirs, and a sprawling monument with the tombs of the more than 50 members of the Jashari family – women and children included – killed by a special Serbian police unit in 1998.

It was a massacre that shocked Albanians and Kosovar Albanians alike, leading to a huge uptick in recruitment to the KLA, as well as large amounts of funding and arms from the diaspora. It marked a turning point when western governments began to question Serbia and military options were put on the table. The US and NATO gave material and tactical support to the KLA, with insiders and diplomats joking at the time that NATO was the KLA’s air force. The CIA also funded and trained them.

A memorial tombstone for family members of Adem Jashari killed in the Serbian forces’ raid, with the destroyed home in the background.

Though not officially a public holiday in Kosovo, Osmani paid tribute to Adem Jashari and the KLA on this anniversary of his birthday. Meanwhile, Osmani’s predecessor Hashim Thaçi, a former top-level leader in the KLA who later became president of Kosovo, faces a trial for war crimes in a special court in The Hague. His case is being weighed by the by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, which was established under an international agreement between Kosovo and the European Union. People in Kosovo have not been shy about expressing their opposition to the process and displays of Thaçi’s image are not uncommon in Kosovo’s cities and towns.

There are currently ten other former KLA members detained in The Hague who are also facing charges. They have all pleaded not guilty to their charges. Three former KLA leaders were successfully convicted of war crimes by the prosecutors, including former Commander Salih Mustafa, who was sentenced to 26 years for torture, arbitrary detention and murder. In general, the proceedings have been marred by witness tampering and charges of contempt of court. Two others were sentenced to four years in prison and fined for witness intimidation, what Presiding Judge Charles Smith called creating an environment of fear in which giving testimony was seen as “criminal and unpatriotic”.

It was in 2020 that the Kosovo Specialist Chambers filed a ten-count indictment that charged Hashim Thaçi and other KLA leaders with war crimes, including torture, forced disappearances and nearly 100 murders.

“They are charged by the prosecution with crimes as individuals. It’s not any organization – for example the KLA – or any ethnic group that’s on trial, but rather individuals,” said Kosovo Specialist Chambers Spokesperson Michael Doyle.

“The judges who are tasked with the different cases are operating irrespective of any political developments [in Kosovo]. They’re applying the law and the rules in order to ensure that there are fair, independent, and secure proceedings in line with international justice standards.”

An unclear future

The trial of former President Thaçi is considered the most important case currently playing out in relation to former KLA leaders and their alleged crimes. The moves to hinder its progress behind closed doors are indicative of a desire among Kosovo authorities to continue evading responsibility. The level of public support for the KLA in Kosovo, especially among young people, is another worrying sign that true reconciliation may still be quite far off. And if justice for victims on both sides of the war is not properly pursued, the stalemate between Serbia and Kosovo may never be fully resolved. If it is never resolved, Kosovo will never be able to attain its goal of full recognition and eventually accession to the EU.

Cityscape of Mitrovica, the largest city in north Kosovo. A Serbian flag is visible over the Serbian side of the city, with the southern Albanian side seen in the far background, across the Ibar River.

Nowhere is the tension between Albanians and Serbs more apparent than in the city of Mitrovica. The city is divided by the Ibar river, with Albanians living in the south and Serbs in the north. One resident of the southern side of Mitrovica told me he used to live in the northern side. However, he was made to leave his home after Serbs forced him out in 2000, just after the war ended. He claims that a Serbian family has been squatting in his flat ever since and he has been powerless to do anything about it. Conversely, Serbs were also expelled from the south side of the city.

Organized crime on both sides has flourished in Mitrovica, with criminal groups taking advantage of the legal grey areas in enforcement and jurisdiction in this city in limbo. In fact, I was told by one resident that organized crime leaders on both sides of Mitrovica work together rather efficiently in smuggling operations, despite a language barrier – and the fact that they ostensibly hate each other.

Serbian Orthodox Church on the Serbian side of Mitrovica.

I struck up conversation with a group of three young men at Skopje International Airport in the line in front of me after it became clear that they were American military personnel. They said they were stationed in Kosovo as part of the UN-led KFOR international peacekeeping force.

One of them told me that despite the recent rise in tensions, they did not have the sense that things were headed for an escalation. He mentioned looming deadlines for Kosovo licence plates and ID cards, which Serbians are being forced to accept, as a potential point that could worsen tensions. He said he doubted that there would be a return to any serious conflict. However, the very presence of international peacekeepers 20 years after the war, the recent gun battle in Banjska, and the general atmosphere of extreme nationalism (on both sides) are all signs that his opinion may perhaps be overly optimistic.

All photos by Kian Seara Rey

Kian Seara Rey is a Spanish-American journalist and photographer based in the Netherlands.

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