Much to my surprise, today turned out to be another interesting day. Instead of heading directly back to Belgrade, I had a very interesting opportunity to accompany a few of the journalists from Glas juga to Pristina and Gracanica. They were covering a story about the return of Serb police officers to work in southern Kosovo.
Recall from my earlier posts that prior to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence last year, the Kosovo Police were under international command (UNMIK I believe) and was a mixed force of both Serbs and Albanians. Following the declaration, Serb officers in the north were allowed to remain under the auspices of EULEX, but those in south had to choose between answering to Pristina or walking off the job. Most took the latter option.
It has now been a year since that decision was made, and Serb police have, in large part, decided to return to the job. What is uncertain is if they will be serving under EULEX and Pristina. Here the Serbian government and international authorities have been sending mixed signals. While the government has claimed they are very close to reaching a deal that would allow Serb police to be commanded by EULEX, EULEX authorities have denied that any such talks are occurring. Interviewing the spokesman for the Kosovo Police in Pristina, he made it clear that they have no information either way.
From here we drove to Gracanica where many former officers have returned to reclaim their badges and assignments. The atmosphere was fairly light and congenial, but here too people were very tight-lipped about the future. The division chief, who is a Serb, made a point of being unavailable for the cameras, while the deputy chief, an Albanian, basically restated what we already knew: that nothing about the future is yet clear, only that Serbs are back on the job. Interviewing random Serbs on the street, opinions were mixed. Some said they felt much safer with the return of Serb police, while others stuck to a more ideological line that they should not have returned until the command hierarchy could be negotiated. Some others expressed no confidence in the police for their security, Serb or Albanian, and many others simply refused to be interviewed.
Our next stop was a “container” village on the edge of the Serbian enclave in Gracanica where many Serbs displaced from other parts of Kosovo now live. These tiny mobile homes make studio apartments look like mansions. There are about 20 units in all here, and each house around 4 people who must all sleep on bunk beds set in the back of the container. Immediately next to the bed is the “kitchen” comprising a small table, a tiny oven and stove, and compact drawers for kitchen essentials. Between this space and the entrance is a tiny closet. There is no bathroom. Rather, everyone living on the compound shares a badly maintained and unsanitary communal restroom. This place is a step up from slums in the developing world, but it is a very small step. Gracanica has two such communities, each paid for by the Russian government. As far as I can tell, the United States has no comparable program to assist displaced Serbs from the war.
The most poignant part of my visit was the thirty minutes or so I took to sit with one of the families to hear their story. The couple fled Kosovo just a few days after their wedding when the war began and they lived for some time as displaced persons in Belgrade. When the husband was able to find a job in the civil administration in Gracanica, they moved to the containers where they have lived for the last five years. They have two small children who were born after the war and all live together in their cramped accommodations. The husband showed me photographs of what remains of their village which they visited earlier this year. Their home is completely gone. They could only recognize their lot by finding the charred remains of the home of their former neighbor, who was once the wealthiest man in the village.
I asked if they would return to the village if they had the chance and the husband replied that it was too dangerous. The wife then told me rather pointedly that this was her land, her home, and she was not going to leave. She also was not hesitant to tell me that as an American, I was an enemy sitting in their home. She then demanded to know why NATO bombed them in 1999, and why the United States will now not help them return home. When I asked about Milosevic, she defiantly claimed that he was a good man, a hero, and the best friend of the Serbs of Kosovo. As I spoke later with my journalist hosts, they told me that this is a terrible reality for these people, who did indeed live a troubled life long before the infamous former president of Yugoslavia ever came to power. One of the journalists who grew up in Kosovo before the war told me that Serbs never felt safe in the province under Tito and that ethnic tensions always ran high. While Albanians were rarely in full revolt, constant harassment and isolated incidences of violence against Kosovo Serbs were, at least according to locals, all too normal. Whatever the objective reality, if there ever can be such a thing, there are two sides to every story. It seems to me that at least in the United States, one of these is being entirely ignored.
After this depressing outing, we returned to the studio where I packed up my things and then caught a minibus back to Belgrade. This was an interesting cultural experience in and of itself. The car was hot and cramped, with all 18 passenger seats full and not a single person other than myself who could speak English. Strangely enough, most of the way back the driver was playing cheesy American pop music on the radio. The six hour drive was occasionally interrupted by checkpoints and tolls prompting half the van to hop out to catch a quick smoke. We also stopped for about an hour for a dinner break at a gas station near Kruševac. When we finally arrived in Belgrade it was about 9 pm. I made my way over to the synagogue where the Rabbi had generously allowed me to store some of my things during my trip south. He then insisted I stay the night rather than go out in search of a hostel. May I repeat, Serbian hospitality is legendary.
Now it is early on Thursday afternoon and I am sitting in the Everest coffee house in Belgrade catching up on email, posting all of my material from the last week, and sorting through pictures. Before getting here I stopped to visit the Jewish Historical Museum. The facility is not particularly well kept but has an eclectic mix of Jewish artifacts and reproduced documents on display dating back to the earliest years of Jewish life in the area that became and then ceased to be Yugoslavia. The age of the displays is evident not only in their obvious wear, but in the wording of their few English materials. Let me end with the text from the final display if only for nostalgia and posterity:
In free socialist Yugoslavia, in which the equality of all peoples and nationalities is one of the principal achievements of the People’s Revolution, the long desired aims of the small Jewish Community have finally been accomplished.
After the tragic years of hardships, but also after glorious years of struggle for the liberation from the occupying forces and building of the new society, the members of the mutilated Jewish Community, together with other citizens of Yugoslavia, began another difficult struggle of rebuilding the devastated homes, the destroyed economy, the demolished cultural and historic monuments, the struggle for a new life the free men are worthy to live.
It is hard for me to believe I have been in this country only some 10 days. I can only hope that the remaining three and a half weeks will be nearly as productive.