Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Let's Move Forward

We have seen how hatred can destroy us - now Serbs and Albanians must work together to rebuild Kosova.
By Hashim Thaci

On Wednesday March 17, I was giving a lecture to the United States Institute of Peace about my vision of an independent Kosova. That country would be a multi-ethnic society, in which people of different races lived and worked together peacefully with equal rights and with tolerance and respect for different religions. It was a very different vision from what I discovered had actually been going on in Kosova that day: people demonstrating, shooting and killing; burning houses, churches and mosques; mobs on the rampage.


I came home immediately to help end the violence. I spent the next few days going out in Kosova, asking Albanians to get off the streets and go to their homes and reassuring Serbs that it was safe to return to theirs. I was not alone; many people from the Democratic Party of Kosova went round the country calming people down. Both Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi and Minister Jakup Krasniqi took on angry mobs and calmed them.


I absolutely condemn the violence. It was wrong and has brought us down in the eyes of the world and allowed them to accuse us of being oppressors. Any Kosovar who believes this is the route to independence is wrong. This sort of behavior can only help Belgrade.


It is important to move forward. However, first we must understand why the violence happened. The tragic drowning of the three boys was only the final spark that caused the explosion. The flammable situation has been growing steadily for five years. For five years, the people of Kosova have waited for the international community to proclaim our final status; for five years nobody in the country has known their future. This uncertainty has led to instability for all of us, whatever our ethnicity. And it has led to fear. It is difficult to underestimate how frightened the Albanians of Kosova are of being ruled again by Belgrade.


A few months ago, Belgrade called for the cantonisation or partition of Kosova. To those who say this is now the solution, I say this: it has failed in Bosnia and will fail in Kosova, too. Cantonisation is about keeping people apart. We want to bring people together. Quite simply, a cantonised Kosova where the different ethnic groups live different lives in their own protected area is not sustainable. And once it is introduced it cannot be ended. Cantonisation is giving in to despair. I want more for my country.


I understand the fear that the Serbs have of us. Fear heightens ethnic divisions and distrust. There has been little ethnic integration. Everyone should own up to their responsibility for this. Albanians must take some of the blame. Enclaves breed myths and distrust. Anger has accumulated and illegal parallel structures have stopped local Serbs from integrating. Parallel Serb security and judicial institutions supported by Belgrade operate unhindered in north Mitrovica, under the rule of thugs – which is bad for the Serbs who live there.


A genuine debate between Kosovars and UNMIK has been missing and a huge gap has grown up between Kosovar and international institutions. UNMIK needs to trust locals more; we understand the terms of resolution 1244 but cannot remain in limbo forever.


So far, UNMIK’s plans extend only to disciplining society and not democratising it. Almost all requests by Kosovars for more responsibility for their people and country have been blocked by UNMIK.


We all live in a country where tens of thousands are mired in poverty and unemployment is almost 60 per cent. The electricity supply is unreliable. Tap water is undrinkable. Our school and hospital systems are over-stretched and under-funded. With little hope for the future, our youth - both Albanian and Serb - are left to roam the streets.


Almost all of these areas are under UNMIK control. Yet, living standards in Kosova have declined fast.


A combination of hopelessness, fear and distrust have sown the seeds of ethnic conflict.


So when Serbian teenager was shot in a drive-by shooting, the Serbs assumed it was Albanians - although the perpetrators are still unknown - and protested by holding rallies and blocking roads. No internationals stopped the road blocks, which caused growing resentment. So, when an Albanian child went on television to say he and his friends had been chased into the river by Serbs and his friends had drowned, it was like lighting a tinder box.


Protests against violence turned to violence. Shock and outrage was fuelled by fear and anger


Now we have to build for the future - a future for all Kosovars. We have seen how hatred and division destroy us and we must work together – literally. Albanians will help to rebuild the Serb homes and churches that were destroyed and so begin to rebuild a divided country. The Kosova government has already dedicated 5 million euro for that purpose.


All of us must condemn the violence on both sides unequivocally. In doing so honestly, we must not let this be used for political gain. Those who carried out the violence should be charged. It is important not to punish Kosova’s collective will to have an independent and sovereign state.


We must prevent this from ever being repeated. This does not only mean KFOR being better prepared, but involving Kosovars in the fields of security and judiciary, especially in intelligence-gathering, so that extremist trouble-makers on all sides can be stopped.


We need to engage in a true dialogue with the international community on how to keep the trust of the people in the political process. Kosova politicians also need to engage properly with the people and be seen to be working for the country, not just scoring political points.


We have to confront Belgrade with a clear choice: you either support the integration of local Serbs and be part of the solution or be prepared to be part of the problem and face consequences from the international community.


Hacim Thaci is the president of the Democratic Party of Kosova.