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Yugoslavia: One Kosovar Town Is A Model Of Ethnic Tolerance

  • Jolyon Naegele

Three years after NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia forced the regime of former President Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate and withdraw its forces from Kosovo, ethnic relations between the province's Albanian majority and the Serbian and Romany minorities -- while still quite hostile in some districts -- have moderated in others. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from the southeastern city of Gjilan/Gnjilane, attempts are being made by Serbs and Albanians to live together in relative harmony.

Gjilan/Gnjilane, Kosovo; 24 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- One year ago, the largest town in southeastern Kosovo -- known as Gjilan in Albanian, Gnjilane in Serbian -- was a center for gun-running operations to Albanian insurgents just over the hills to the east in Serbia's Presevo Valley and to the south in Macedonia.

U.S. and Russian peacekeepers spent much of their time preventing the flow of weapons to the border. But with peace agreements and amnesties now in effect in both neighboring states, Gjilan/Gnjilane has calmed down. Local officials say cross-border trade in food and tobacco has replaced gun smuggling, and that the time has come to start working on ethnic coexistence.

Nevertheless, Serbs and Albanians still disagree over priorities.

Gjilan/Gnjilane currently has about 140,000 inhabitants, of whom some 10,000 are Serbs and 4,000 are Roma, Turks, and Bosniaks.

Hazer Mustafa, the ethnic Albanian director for security and emergencies in Gjilan/Gnjilane, describes the current security situation in the multiethnic municipality in positive terms.

"There is freedom of movement in Gjilan. All the Serbs in the municipality shop in the market on their own for food or whatever they need. All Gjilan's citizens have that freedom."

The UN's chief administrator for Kosovo, Michael Steiner, expressed surprise at the tolerance he witnessed between Serb and Albanian inhabitants on a recent visit to Gjilan/Gnjilane.

Kosovo's internationally appointed ombudsman, Marek Nowicki, is quoted in today's Kosovo dailies as saying the situation of the Serb minority in Gjilan/Gnjilane is notably better compared with other municipalities in Kosovo. He says the Serb community's positive standing in the town has been achieved through what he terms the unbiased policy of local municipal leaders.

Nowicki's representative in Gjilan/Gnjilane, Meliha Brestovci, tells RFE/RL that none of the complaints she has received from the public have been ethnically based. Rather, she says, the complaints have largely concerned the behavior of KFOR peacekeepers, followed by social welfare and employment issues.

The Serbian Orthodox priest in Gjilan/Gnjilane, Radivoje Zivkovic, told Steiner that "Albanian-Serb relations should not be the hostage of past policies and of a regime which dug trenches and fomented hatred." As Zivkovic put it, "Times have changed, and we have to work and look to the future, extend our hands to each other and not see each other through a veil of hostility."

Two key places in Gjilan/Gnjilane where Serbs and Albanians currently do work and study together are the town hall and the adjacent youth center. Some 200 young people between the ages of 13 and 24 -- Albanians, Roma, and Serbs -- take courses in English, drama, and art, and have a joint Internet team. The center's ethnic Albanian director is Aferdita Syla.

"Besides the training that we mainly did with the youth -- mixed groups of Albanian, Serb, and Roma -- there were training [programs] where we dealt with human rights, education, writing a [grant] proposal. For recreational activities, it's only a small percentage [of minorities who are] integrated. It's a general issue. I mean, since I think that they still do not feel secure."

Syla says the past remains a burden and an obstacle for improved relations between Albanian and Serbian youths. The Serbs only attend courses at the center two days a week and studiously avoid the center's Saturday night disco. And she says young Albanians and Serbs tend to communicate with each other in English rather than in their own languages.

An Albanian student at the center, Fitore Isufi, says young people try to stick to their studies and avoid discussing issues likely to offend or result in conflict. "People who are involved in art usually communicate through art -- like musicians. They don't recognize ethnicity, race, or other differences."

Gjilan/Gnjilane's young mayor, Lutfi Haziri, says the relatively good relations between Serbs and Albanians in the town are rooted in the early post-conflict period. "One of the reasons is that immediately after the war (in 1999), Albanian representatives invited Serbian representatives to sit together to start to solve the problems. We succeeded at the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000 to have some agreements with Serbian representatives."

Haziri describes the cooperation with the Serbs as a "great success" because positive relations between the ethnic communities improve the security environment for all citizens -- that is, freedom of movement, the right to work and, for some refugees, the ability to return home. And the good security environment has attracted new investment programs in education and infrastructure, mainly sponsored by the U.S. and Swiss governments and the European Agency for Reconstruction.

Haziri concedes that the issue of school segregation has yet to be tackled. "I'm one of those who [as a child in the 1970s and 1980s] was in a joint school. But we were in separate classrooms, really separate. It was nothing important or special that we were in the same school. We never played together [with the Serbs] in the schoolyard, nor did we have a joint education plan in the same classroom."

The mayor says that now it's much more important to have jobs and freedom of movement. He says Albanians are "almost ready" to recognize the need to integrate the schools. But he says that, as far as he knows, Serbian parents are still not willing to let their children attend classes in the same buildings with Albanian children.

"To rebuild a multiethnic society in Kosovo doesn't mean to mix everything and everywhere at each level. Mixing a multiethnic society means integrating communities in all positions in our life. But to have the same building -- separate classrooms, separate education plans, separate teachers -- means nothing."

Another unresolved issue is the return of displaced Serbs, an issue Haziri says is not as acute as in other parts of Kosovo. Instead, he points to the success of road-building projects in which Serbs and Albanians share a common goal and thus work together.

Gjilan/Gnjilane's deputy mayor, Sasa Djordjevic, disputes Mayor Haziri's assertion that the return of displaced Serbs to the municipality is not an issue. On the contrary, he says it is the main issue. And he says Serbs are terribly under-represented in the labor force.

As Djordjevic puts it, "The Albanian community is refusing to let the Serbs have jobs which would enable Serbian society to integrate into the political system."

"You've got a really small number of Serbs who are participating here. And those Serbs who are participating are of a very low professional level. Many are women, which means they're neither educated nor physically strong nor of high intellect to defend the interests of their community."

Djordjevic says Serbs and Albanians are getting along out of necessity. "These villages, I think, are all intertwined. There are no ethnically pure Albanian villages or ethnically pure Serb villages. [They] are mostly mixed or adjacent. If you have a Serbian village, the next one is an Albanian village and the one after that, Serbian. So the population is obliged to cooperate among themselves."

Moreover, Djordjevic says the drop in ethnically based crime over the past year has also contributed to greater trust and cooperation and further relaxation of the freedom of Serbs to move around when and where they want. As a result, ethnic intolerance in Gjilan/Gnjilane is declining, slowly but surely.