‘We resort to violence because it is taught’

What started off on Friday as a peaceful protest against the installation of the ethnic Albanian mayor of Zvečan by the Kosovo government turned violent on Monday.

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On the Tuesday after the violent Monday evening, the crowd looked toward the municipality building which is blocked by steel barriers. Behind those stood a line of  – in full body armor with shields and helmets –  Italian soldiers, some in black with white helmets carrying shields, some in camouflage. Some stood on the steps of the building.

You could still step on a scorched black bit of ground where a car had been burnt. A woman walked around with a bright red t- shirt with ‘Kosovo is Serbia,’ printed in white cyrillic letters, chest puffed out as she glided up and down the street.

It was hot, the internet was slow, if it worked at all, and bored journalists sat between the crowds and barricades waiting for something to happen. Their cameras were all pointing at the soldiers. Meanwhile, the locals watched all of this scene carefully, quiet and angry.

One group of women, in t-shirts, sandals and sneakers, sat on the side of the street in cheap cafe chairs, passing a bottle of hand lotion amongst themselves, quietly talking. One wore a purple jumper with a giant purple bow across the front and red lipstick. She, said she had worked at the municipality.  

Another said she worked in the tourist office for Zvečan. Do many come here, I asked? “Yes, for Banjska (the monastery),” often from Serbia and a few other countries, she told me. “You have to go,” I was told.

Another woman told me – after assuring me she didn’t care who I was – “I’ll tell you the truth,” the soldiers had blocked her son’s school and it had been closed for three days. Albanians didn’t live in Zvečan, she told me, only “Serbs and Gorani” and maybe a few Roma. This is not an Albanian town, she said. “But the Albanians want Greater Albania” and “to kick us out.” 

KFOR are here to protect the Albanians not Serbs, she went on, referring to the violent clashes that happened the evening before. 

How long will the protest last? “ We go when they go.”

What started off on Friday as a peaceful protest against the installation of the ethnic Albanian mayor of Zvečan by the Kosovo government turned violent on Monday. The Serb community boycotted the elections. Ilir Peci, mayor-elect of Zvečan received 114 votes out of 204 votes. 2.92% of the population voted, according to Prishtina Insight.

The protests resumed on Monday – after taking a break for the weekend – because KFOR protected two cars full of Kosovo special police all day. The crowds would not let the cars through unless they left the north. Eventually, the special police in the cars had to leave, sparking the confrontation. Fifty civilians and 30 KFOR were injured.

One man at the protest showed me his pictures of the events. People were sitting in front of the Kosovo Special Police vehicles and KFOR. Then he said they were forcibly moved by KFOR and that’s when the violence started.

KFOR issued a statement Monday saying, “While countering the most active fringes of the crowd, several soldiers of the Italian and Hungarian KFOR contingent were the subject of unprovoked attacks and sustained trauma wounds with fractures and burns due to the explosion of incendiary devices.”

Everyone I spoke to, from locals on the streets or NGO members, were uniformly dismissive and sometimes angry about the accusation that “fascist militias” from Serbia or “little green men” (Russian style) are part of their protest. Or even that Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić is guiding the protests, as the Kosovo government has alleged. 

“I am defending our home,” a tall man in a dark blue polo shirt and sunglasses told me at the protest. “If people with guns (referring to the ethnic Albanian Kosovo police) came to your home in New York, you would fight too,” the man continued.

NGO Aktiv, based in Mitrovica, issued a statement on twitter, before the violence broke out on Monday, calling on “Media in BG [Belgrade] and PR [Prishtina] to engage in responsible reporting avoiding spreading of misinformation. They should work on developing local sources and stop sensationalist and inaccurate information such as presenting protestors as being part of ‘armed’ or ‘criminal groups’.”

Nevena Radosavljević, a peace activist and academic from Leposavić, says: “ I think the biggest problem in the entire peace process is that nobody thinks about these people [Serbs in the north]. Everybody takes them like ‘oh let’s judge them, why do they behave like this? Why do they do this?’ There is no proper representation of these people, they are afraid, traumatized, used.”

“I certainly know that these people are neglected as humans,” she added.

She strongly notes that, despite this, it does not justify violence and that we resort to violence because it is taught: “Violence is not something that we are born with but something that we learn in our society and environment. Think about it, history is written through war, by heroes or winning wars, right? And we don’t learn about peaceful protest. We learn how we conquered something and not how we peacefully protected something.”

Despite what happened in Zvečan, in Leposavić the protests remained peaceful and even took on a sense of humor when protestors danced in front of the municipal building.

At the same time, Radosavljević noted that the Kosovo government also committed a violent act when it took over the municipal building: “I don’t believe the rule of law can be passed by violence.” 

“I believe there are non-violent ways to find common agreement.” 

Many at the protest said that they hated all politicians, including Vučić, who was seen as abandoning them or making the wrong decisions. Srpska Lista (SL) – and its leader Goran Rakić – were seen as traitors and jeered.

Many in the north were also angry at SL for taking people to the pro-government protest in Belgrade on Friday knowing that the Kosovo government might move in. A popular meme shows the SL leaders behind a sign at the march, and below – the civilians at the protests in Zvečan on Friday.

Though Belgrade still has financial and emotional influence, many feel that this has been overblown. Protests against SL have been happening in the Kosovo Serb community since last December with many questioning the Serbian government’s decision making and the role of SL in Kosovo Serb life. Most are adamant that this is a Kosovo Serbian movement.

There is also a growing concern about how the community is perceived. A “Z” spray painted on a KFOR car was quickly covered up but not before a picture was taken of it, according to witnesses. A woman shooed off a reporter who wanted to take a photo of a Ratko Mladić mural. 

Journalists – particularly ethnic Albanian reporters – have been attacked. On Tuesday, a TV21 journalist was chased and punched for apparently taking photos of people in north Mitrovica, in the middle of the pedestrian square, where many cafes were crowded with people sitting in the sun.

The journalist was suddenly seen running down the square while a couple of men pursued him on foot and two more chased him on a motorbike. When caught, he was punched and slapped about the head from behind. His phone was taken and then smashed several times on the ground. The incident was over in minutes.

A woman warned me in Zvečan as I was taking photos of the English Colony – bungalows built in the early part of the 20th century for mine workers from England when Trepça was run by a British company – that people were angry, nervous and scared. “Someone might hurt you for taking photos without permission.” Then she told me about the history of the Colony before heading off to make lunch.

Further down the square, after the TV21 journalist incident, two freelancers for Swiss television waited in vain for people willing to talk about Novak Djoković’s “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,” statement from the French Open. 

“If no one wants to make their voice heard, we’ll just leave.” they told me.

By Tuesday, late afternoon, the US imposed sanctions on Kosovo for the government’s behavior in the north, including no high-level talks between Kosovo and US officials or travel to the US.  At the GlobSec Conference (a major Security meeting for Western leaders)  in Bratislava on Tuesday evening, Kosovo prime minister, Albin Kurti, said he would consider early elections in the north.