Walking Astride a Subtle Line

ONE contributor Joost van Egmond discusses Kosovo’s continuing ethnic tensions.

Journalist Joost van Egmond reports on events in southeast Europe for Time magazine. While preparing his article for the May 2012 issue of ONE, he recorded the following thoughts and observations.

Always proceed with caution when driving a Serbian car in Kosovo. Wounds from the 1999 war, which saw Kosovo declare independence from Serbia, are still fresh. While many stories of ethnic aggression surely belong in the realm of urban legend, there’s hardly anybody who does not feel awkward exposing himself as a Serb in areas where they do not form a solid majority.

When we are indeed stopped by the police, the officer, though not unfriendly, hardly covers his profiling: “We stopped you because of your Serbian license plates, and we thought there might be a problem.” Presenting a Dutch passport helps in a case like this. We end up being escorted to the Serbian Orthodox church.

Twelve years after the war, ethnic relations remain hyper-charged in Kosovo. The Republic of Kosovo, which has been recognized by some 75 countries, including all major Western states, has become dominated by ethnic Albanians, the local majority that had been disadvantaged under the rule of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Yet a number of Serbs remain, scattered across the country, united in their grievances against a state they do not see as theirs. Serbia meanwhile continues to assert a nominal claim over its former province, without being able to offer much to its citizens there.

We’re on our way to the monastery of Gorioc, where five Serbian Orthodox nuns live on a hillside, in the midst of an area dominated by ethnic Albanian Kosovars. In their raven-black habits, they epitomize all that’s Serbian. Until recently, they were surrounded by barbed wire, under the protection of NATO soldiers armed to the teeth. Now, they live out in the open, dependent on the nearby town for their supplies. How do they adapt to the post-war reality that is their daily lives?

It’s truly an open question. As well established as the political trenches are, Kosovo is a place where the gap between politics and daily life is notoriously large. Around every corner lies a kaleidoscope of seemingly contradictory behavior. While hearing a Serb rant about the injustices he perceives under Albanian rule, always be prepared for him to break off the conversation to greet his Albanian neighbor and to go for a drink with him. While driving a Serbian car through Albanian heartland, it’s not unheard of for a passerby to break the tension by initiating a friendly chat in Serbian, the language all elder people learned at school. Ethnic strife only goes so far in impeding ordinary human relations.

While relations remain difficult, with no obvious solutions in sight, both Serbs and Albanians will continue their daily life — sometimes in conflict, sometimes in parallel universes, sometimes in harmony. It’s a very subtle line to walk.

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