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Yugoslavia: Kosovo's Muslim Slavs Face Identity Crisis

The persecution of Serbs by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo is a common story in recent weeks. Less known is that even Slavs who are Muslims have been facing harassment and intimidation from their Albanian neighbors. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visited several areas in western Kosovo and reports that the province's Muslim Slavs face an uncertain future.

Istog/Iztok, 15 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a joint assessment of the situation of ethnic minorities in Kosovo. The two agencies say thousands of Muslim Slavs have left Kosovo in the last three months for the relative safety of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia, fleeing widespread intimidation by their fellow Muslims, the ethnic Albanians.

Muslim Slavs were generally not forced out of Kosovo when Serbian troops evicted the Kosovar Albanians earlier this year. Nevertheless, large numbers fled out of fear or, as their political leaders now say, out of solidarity with their Albanian neighbors.

When the masses of refugees returned to the province after NATO air strikes ended, they were naturally suspicious of anyone who remained in Kosovo during the war. The returning Albanians accused those who stayed behind of collaborating with the Serbs or looting Albanian-owned property. Roma (Gypsies), Serbs and Montenegrins suffered the worst abuses, including torchings and murders. But smaller minorities, including the Muslim Slavs, the small Croat minority in Janjevo and the Gorans, have not been exempt.

Bosnia's largest Muslim party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), has become increasingly active across Kosovo in defending Muslim Slav rights. In Istog, in the northwest of Kosovo, the manager of the party's operations is himself a Muslim Slav. His name is Mehmed Ceman.

Ceman chooses his words carefully as an Albanian colleague on the municipal council takes notes. He says that while some individual cases of abuse are known, the situation for Muslim Slavs in the area is generally "satisfactory."

"Perhaps there were some excesses, but these were individual, not on the basis of ethnicity. Human rights are not being violated. Religious rights are not being violated. Possibly some civil rights of some individuals are being violated through thefts or personal animosities. But this is not related to the authorities or to members of the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army)."

Ceman says the proof that Muslim Slavs are satisfied with the situation is that he is a member of the municipal council and his party, the SDA, is supporting the municipal government. In his official council business, he is free to communicate with his Albanian colleagues in his south Slavic dialect rather than in Albanian.

Ceman says the flight of the alleged collaborators, regardless of ethnicity, is not permanent. It will take time, he says, to heal the recent wounds.

"The Roma and members of other non-Albanian nationalities who sided with the aggressor and committed various crimes, of which there were plenty here, massacres, thefts, burnings, have all left. Those who have stayed have clean hands. They are free here. No one is bothering them. They are finding their place (in society) on their own. Those who harmed no one can live here freely. Those who left were following those for whom they were working."

Before the fighting this year, Istog district had a population of nearly 64,000. More than 80 percent were Albanians and the rest Serbs, Montenegrins, Muslims, and Roma. They tended to live in their own villages and thus remained apart and ethnographically distinct from the other nationalities in the area.

Ceman is in charge of human rights and interethnic relations for the Istog municipal council. He says that the Roma, in contrast to other minorities, did collaborate en masse with the Serbs. But he insists that any Muslim Slav collaboration with the Serbs was done on an individual basis.

Those who committed crimes, Ceman says, "cannot stay in this area as long as the things they did are still fresh in people's minds."

It is likely to be a very long time before most of Kosovo's nearly 200,000 Serbs return from exile. The SDA is trying to create a separate identity for the Muslim Slavs to ensure they are not lumped together with the Serbs. Ceman says the SDA takes the view that all Muslim Slavs in Kosovo are Bosnians.

"Every nation on earth knows no territorial boundaries when it comes to their own. That's the relation we Bosnians (in Kosovo) have with Sandzak (mainly Muslim southwestern Serbs), and Bosnia. But our work here deals with Kosovo."

The SDA does not want Muslim Slav children to go to Serbian schools but rather to special schools where Bosnian orthography, vocabulary and literature would be taught. The party wants to bring teachers and textbooks from Bosnia to Kosovo.

The aims of the SDA may eventually run into opposition from the international community, which generally opposes the further splintering of Kosovo society. UNICEF has already rejected an SDA request for assistance in establishing Bosnian schools. And the OSCE has said that while it cannot support "Bosnian-language" schools, there is nothing to prevent the SDA from establishing such schools itself -- if they can find the money.