In the Northern Border Lands of Kosovo

Leaving Kosovo from the North, into Serbia, is an impossibility for anyone using a passport with a Kosovo stamp. The pretense is that anyone with a Kosovo stamp must have entered Serbian disputed territories illegally and should therefore be sent back. Getting to see Northern Kosovo can therefore be problematic. One way around this political charade is to take a 200Km part-mountainous diversion via Montenegro, enter Serbia from there, then head back into Northern Kosovo from the Serbian town of Raska.

On leaving Raska for Mitrovica numerous heritage signs point the way to Serb Orthodox sites in Kosovo: Gracanica, Decani, Pec. The road to Mitrovice provides an interesting ride through disputed territory. During the 1999 war Serbs were pushed back into towns and villages north of the Iber / Ibar, the river that runs through the divided town of Mitrovica. Where the river could not separate ethnicites NATO's barbed wire was rolled out, defining geographically ethnic division that lasts to this day. Today Northern Kosovo is part of the independently declared Republic of Kosovo, with Serb political representation in Kosovo's capital Prishtina. Recent agreements have set out to dismantle parallel systems of Governance provided by Belgrade and some Serbs in the area apparently feel sold out by both capitals. Northern Serbs enjoy considerable perks: free electrizity, health care, and payments from previous positions that became defunct because of the conflict. In other words, they have a incentive to stay with Belgrade.

At the crossing point Serb Border guards sitting in robust grey metal containers don't even check passports; to them there is no border. Ten meters further, sitting under the same roof, Kosovo Police stamp me in. The majority of the road runs in  a defile, a highly defensible steep sided pass, with occasional breaks into open fields, mostly on the eastern flank, dotted with Serb villages. An intact and clearly functioning railway line follows the course of a river. Under a railway bridge a sign declares: "THIS IS SERBIA." Serbian flags and political campaign signs decorate every village and drop off point. Orthodox chapels dot the road and in the town of Leposavic a strange bell arrangement hangs from tall elongated arches suspended high above the Church.
Looking back into Northern Kosovo from Mitrovice


Rugged rock intrusions make grand geological observation points, guarding the toughest of landscapes to invade. On one of these sharp hillocks above Mitrovica an old Serb castle has crumbled but their flag flies high. One warm spring day I witnessed a rendezvous of security forces discussing inter-ethnic policing, a NATO special forces soldier standing guard, hiding behind beard and sunglasses; an easy gig for him. In the snowy winter the bus coughs me out on the outskirts of Mitrovice where Albanian and American flags signal, for the first time since the border, this is no longer Serbia. The drop off point: a cemetery, a Serb cemetery, defiled and desecrated. A short walk away, outside an empty but intact Orthodox church, a charming and friendly policeman shows me around:

"Albanians and English have same blood," he claims, 

"Aryan blood". 

How disturbing a belief for one so wonderfully friendly, the Aryan myth, alive and well, in a country once set alight with ethnic cleansing.

Desecrated church yard on the edge of Mitrovica.
 
Much Islamic and Orthodox Christian architectural heritage was destroyed in Kosovo during the war and a spiral of inter ethnic violence in 2004. Today it only seems possible to photograph Orthodox ruins, as much of the Islamic architecture appears to have been restored or renewed. Many fine examples of Orthodox buildings do remain including Decani, Gracanica and newly restored Churches. In an incomplete census of 2011 Kosovar citizens identified as 95% Muslim. Destruction of Islamic architecture during the war has been recorded by Sabri Bajgora and Robert Elsie.

Renovated Chapel one year on.
Postscript: The Enemy of my Enemy. 
Something smells rotten and it's not the first time I've smelt it. In the town of Mitrovice itself a Hitler look-a-like takes 50 dollars a photograph to pose with tourists. It seems like surreal bad joke. His intent? An "entrepreneurial" opportunity to wind-up Serbs on the opposite bank of the river, many of whose grandparents may have fought the Furher side by side with the Allies, or could have been exterminated by the Nazi's in concentration camps. Needless to say, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," has a long history in Balkans conflicts. 

During WWII Chetnik Serbs manipulated the Nazi's for military gain, while the Serb state fought against them. At the same time that Albanian partisans fought the Nazi's their state allowed them free passage. German policy in the later part of the war was simple: the independence of a Greater Albania in return for support. As a Nazi official reported during his 1944 exit of the region: "The creation of Greater Albania by the addition of the fertile region of Kosovo was made possible by the German conquest of the Balkans." 
  
To their great merit both Serbs and Albanians have been recognised for sheltering Jews during the holocaust. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said: "We will never forget the role of the Serbian people in fighting Nazism," alongside Serbs sixty nine Albanians have been recognized as 'Righteous among the Nations'. Numerous verbal accounts of how Albanians sheltered Jewish people have been recorded by survivors of the Holocaust. Kosovo Albanian families helped Jewish people to seek sanctuary in Albania, and ultimately to Israel. But as in humanity, there is always shadow, During the World War II, some 8, 000 Jews were killed in Belgrade and a dark cloud was cast over the plight of the Jews in Kosovo. Jewish businesses in Mitrovica were seized and the Synagogue apparently destroyed by Albanian agents of the Gestapo. On 14 May 1944, collaborating members of the 21st Waffen Mountain Division of  SS Skanderbeg raided Jewish homes in Pristina, arrested 281 and handed them over to the Germans, who sent them to Bergen-Belsen. Ninety two perished before liberation by Russian troops. Josip Levi, a Kosovo Jew from Pristina, recalled how he was captured by the Skanderbeg division: "In Pristina we were put in a “G” wagon, a cattle wagon, and sent to the “Sajmisate” prison in Zemun," (near Belgrade). During the 98/99 conflict Noam Chomsky reports a continuation of the same theme: In November, "the president of the tiny Jewish community in Pristina, Cedra Prlincevic, left for Belgrade after denouncing 'a pogrom against the non-Albanian population'. Today a commemorative plaque sits outside Kosovo's Government building: "In memory of Kosovo Jews that perished in Nazi camps during holocaust...The people of Kosovo will never forget them." As a state plaque it wins hearts and minds but will always fall short of personal confession. No ethnic group is immune from manifesting inhumanity. Violent conflict is a drug that diminishes all relationships to: 'us and them.' In the centre of violence friendly faces distort to foe — in a reciprocal projection. 

The history of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo is long and piecing the full picture together is complicated by bias in historical texts. Whole sections of history fall away depending on the author. Here a small section of an ongoing account: During the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war Serbian troops invaded the northeastern part of Kosovo and deported 160,000 ethnic Albanians. Later Serb settlers, who had come into Kosovo following Ottoman defeat in WWI, pushed out Turkish speaking Albanians. Serbs in turn were pushed out during WWII, and before further plans for colonisation could take hold. The historic see-saw schism of Serb-Albanian nationalistic agendas, reinforced through different war-time allegiances, was merely capped by communism. Nineties eruptions of ethnic cleansing have roots going way back through WWII, WWI, and beyond. It's an old feud; in the 1905 book 'The Burden of The Balkans,' Edith Durham refers to, "the old, old race hatred." Memories are long, retribution a sleeping touch paper, easily ignited; the present still tarnished by the past. As General Sir Michael Jackson said in his book 'Soldier,' 
"In the Balkans the present is the past, but hopefully not the future." 
He also said, "Nothing the Balkans is black and white," so forgive the one hundred shades of grey inevitably lacking here. Grey areas arise because situations change, people switch sides. Politicians and Generals back sides that will benefit foreign policy agendas, be it Greater Albania, Greater Serbia, or Great Britain. Winston Churchill himself backed different sides during the changing course of WWII Balkans battles. And this changing sides is something some Serbs find difficult to fathom. They still ask the black and white question: how could Christians from the UK, USA, and Europe could abandon them for Albanian Muslims? Debates on balancing morality, repression of majorities or minorities, and ethnic cleansing are difficult to convey through compounded layers of  historical interpretation, denial, conspiracy, pride, hurt, a profound sense of victim-hood and injustice. And that probably goes for all sides. Ultimately it is a mirror argument, each side accusing the other without looking into the drama of their own shadow. Victims behave like perpetrators, perpetrators like victims. Atrocities committed by Serb forces in Kosovo, in Bosnia, mirror actions inflicted on them by Nazi's, by 19th century Imperialists, by... anyone other than the perpetrators. In the Mitrovica mining plant of Trepca Albanian bodies are alleged to have been disposed of in ovens; hundreds of hidden bodies have been also found in quarries and mines in Serbia.
 
And so the cycle turns.

To mature as a species prone to narrow tribalism, we need to renegotiate, rise-above, arguments of who did what to whom first, of when, and by how much. This is easier said than done, trauma is stored in the psyche. Readings and re-readings of history following conflict inevitably create mythologies handed to following generations. As Peter Pelz puts it in the book covering post Bosnian war reconciliation efforts, The White House:
 
"All wars are told by both sides, each knowing in intimate detail the course of events from their own perspective, the victors adding a moral gloss to make their own crimes and mistakes shine as necessary expediency for honorable victory and the losers laying the blame for failure elsewhere. War stories are among the most double-edged self-justifications of humanity on everyone's part since history began."

Stopping the cycle sometimes seems as improbable as stopping the cycles of the sun. 
Jewish Graves, Prishtina
                     Note: Place names have used both Serb and Albanian spellings to underline dual realities.

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