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South Slavic: February 7, 2002


7 February 2002, Volume 4, Number 5

THE ROLE OF LITERATURE IN SERBIAN-ALBANIAN RELATIONS.

Part I. Part II will appear on 14 February 2002.

A recent program of RFE/RL Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg with: Vladimir Arsenijevic, a Serbian writer, and Migjen Kelmendi, an Albanian writer.

RFE/RL: Our guest in Belgrade is Vladimir Arsenijevic, the youngest "NIN" prizewinner. So far he has published two novels: "Below Deck" (which won him the "NIN" award from that leading Serbian weekly and has been translated into many languages) and "Andjela," as well as the war chronicle "Mexico."

Our guest in Prishtina is Migjen Kelmendi, a prominent representative of the young generation of Kosovo's writers, as well as the editor in chief of Prishtina political and cultural magazine "Java." He is the author of a novel, "The Time Gate," and of two books of essays: "Without a Homeland" and "America or Home." Another book, "Traces," is about to be published. He describes it as a both documentary and fictional story about rock 'n' roll in former Yugoslavia during the 1980s.

The two authors will discuss relationships between Serbian and Albanian intellectuals, negative mutual stereotypes among Serbs and Albanians, and bridging the deep gap of mistrust between the two peoples.

RFE/RL: Mr. Kelmendi, after all the tragic events in Kosovo over the past 10 years, do you think that communication between Albanians and Serbs has been lost forever, or might it somehow be renewed?

Migjen Kelmendi: A sort of communication might be re-established, but it must be a matter of good will on both sides....

RFE/RL: Mr. Arsenijevic, do you think that communication between Albanians and Serbs is history?

Vladimir Arsenijevic: No, not forever. Processes encompassing a region bigger than the Balkans show that we need more intensive communication. The pace, of course, will depend of us....

RFE/RL: I have the impression that language is increasingly becoming an insurmountable obstacle. Until now, Albanians and Serbs communicated in Serbian, since the Albanians used to learn it in school. Today, young Albanians do not speak Serbian, while Serbs -- except for some rare exceptions -- have never learned Albanian. What remains is communication in English.

Migjen Kelmendi: Why not? English is becoming an international language of communication. You see how difficult it is for me to express myself in Serbo-Croatian. I must apologize to your listeners for my rusty Serbo-Croatian that I am slowly forgetting. Of course, not because I want to, but because of the circumstances....

I am very sad about the simple truth that in my town [i.e. Prishtina], in my country, in Kosova, there are people who cannot use their own language, whose freedom of movement is limited because they have to be escorted [when they venture out of their own homes or enclaves]. This is why I accepted the invitation to be your guest on this program together with Mr. Arsenijevic, so that we, as writers, can see what can be done about it. Like a Don Quixote, I still believe that this sad truth about today's Kosova can be changed somehow....

If we tried to understand how it came to be that a language was, in effect, banned in my hometown -- in which practically all the languages of the world are spoken now -- then I would tell you that there is a reason for that, and a very simple one. In the last 10 years, [Serbian] was the language of the police, the language of a discriminatory administration, the language of apartheid. Serbian was the language of border guards and tax collectors.

It was not the language of Vladimir Arsenijevic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Mirko Kovac, or Danilo Kis -- people whom I know, love, and appreciate. For the majority in Kosova [Serbian] was the language of brutality, force, rapes, and burning.

That explains why it is the only language that is banned in Kosova -- not legally, but a language whose use is restricted in practice. It is hard for me to accept this. I am trying to see what we can do together to change it.

Vladimir Arsenijevic: I agree that Serbian became a symbol of apartheid during the 10 years of strong repression against the Albanians in Kosovo by the Serbian state. However, Serbian, Serbo-Croatian, or Serbo-Bosnian-Croato-Montenegrin is in use in a far larger territory than the one in which the Serbian government abused the rights of the Albanian population.

Bearing in mind that in the future the Albanian community in Kosovo will have close cultural contacts with the region in which that language is spoken, it seems to me that it will be good for the Albanian community to maintain the big advantage that bilingualism brings....

RFE/RL: Mr. Arsenijevic, in your book "Mexico," you described the Albanian Calvary during the recent war in Kosovo. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have the impression that your book was somehow passed over in silence in Belgrade.

Vladimir Arsenijevic: Indeed, it was not as widely commented on as were my previous two books. And the comments were more cynical than those for my previous books.

I think that Belgrade has mastered a technique of passing over in silence things that it does not like. We have a rather pitiful situation among the Serbian public: people simply refuse to face the truth. I am not talking about those who supported Milosevic's projects of hate, but about those who do not want to have an opinion about anything, people who are completely deprived of empathy, since they have simply lost the ability to sympathize. They are bored to death, so they just want to buy a fashion magazine or watch those Mexican soap operas on TV.

But they do not want to think about what started the wars in the 1990s, the extent of responsibility of the Serbian people for what happened, and what we could do to establish a sound way of viewing those very negative aspects of our recent past....

RFE/RL: Mr. Kelmendi, is Vladimir Arsenijevic's book "Mexico" known in Kosovo?

Migjen Kelmendi: No, unfortunately not. For example, I have not yet had a chance to read any of Mr. Arsenijevic's books.... My translation of Danilo Kis's "Tomb for Boris Davidovic" was published in Tirana during the bombing campaign. If Kis was translated into Albanian, why not translate Arsenijevic, too? I believe that would be possible.

RFE/RL: Why, Mr. Kelmendi, has only a handful of Albanian intellectuals -- with all due respect to the exceptions -- dared to publicly condemn the violence against the Serbs in Kosovo? Even when they do, their statements are more of a declaration than part of an effort to have wrongdoers punished.

Migjen Kelmendi: That is true to some extent. The reason might be the recent war and the horrible crimes committed during that war.

Another reason might be a stereotype that has emerged among the Albanians that all evil always comes from that direction, from those people, and from that language. When some [Serbs] are killed, Albanians say, "There is justice after all."

That means that Albanians condemn Serbs collectively for everything that happened. They are still not able to assign guilt on an individual basis and let the relevant institutions deal with the crimes.

Why do the intellectuals remain silent? That is a good question, but one should not generalize. There were voices against violence; some did say that an entire people should not be held responsible for everything that happened. For example, the daily "Koha Ditore" as well as some other media were active in that spirit. I think that things are improving, and that the situation will be much better once state institutions start to function.

RFE/RL: Mr. Kelmendi has mentioned the negative stereotypes. It seems to me that mutual stereotypes are dominant. Perhaps that might explain the fact that only a handful of intellectuals in both communities dare to say a nice word about the other people. Otherwise, they might risk being condemned by their own group. Do you agree with me, Mr. Arsenijevic?

Vladimir Arsenijevic: Yes, they might be condemned or ignored. There were so many different manifestations of hate during the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As far as Serbian society is concerned, there were three or four different types of hatred.

In the early 1990s, during the boycott of Slovenian merchandise, hatred of Slovenians was [officially] cultivated, followed by hatred of Croats, or more precisely a revival of the mutual hatred that arises from time to time between Serbs and Croats. Then came Bosnia and Kosovo.

Those were all different types of hatred. In that morbid hierarchy of hatred, which the Serbian people managed to define -- or some individuals did it in the name of the people -- members of the Albanian national community had the lowest status. I think that the hatred of Serbs towards the Albanians is really filled with a deep loathing.

That makes the whole thing worse. I think that the Serbs used to hate the Slovenes out of feelings of inferiority, while they hate the Albanians out of a feeling of superiority. In order to understand Serbian hatred of and negative attitude towards Albanians, one should think about Croatian hatred of the Serbs. That hatred was also full of loathing....

People from Kosovo should be strong enough to come to Belgrade. We have to start to establish those contacts, if need be on neutral territory, maybe in Sarajevo or in Zagreb.

It is simply necessary that people start meeting each other. We will form a new base for the future the moment we sit down and start to talk to each other, when new friendships are made, when one gets 10 new phone numbers from Belgrade or Pristina in his phonebook, which he will start to call just to chat with his friends.

We must be aware that the process will be slow, that many evil things happened, that the mistrust is incredibly immense -- but the process of healing must start as soon as possible.

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