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Kosovo: Murders Expose Divided Community

The shocking assassination of a controversial war veteran has lifted the lid on the simmering hatreds that are blighting the lives of the people of Decani.
By Jehona Gjurgjeala

Istref Ramosaj, a 42-year-old Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, veteran, sells cigarettes and paper tissues from a kiosk in the town square of Decani, in the west of the protectorate. As he reaches out to give a young man his change, the rolled up sleeve exposes two missing fingers on his left hand. It is a painful reminder that although the war is over here, its legacy is still present - and nowhere more so than in this troubled municipality.


In addition to roofless houses, a ruined economy and poor infrastructure, Decani has inherited another feature of the wartime experience - the bitter divisions between the various political parties, which can leave locals feeling deeply insecure.


Kaltrim Ukehaxhaj, 19, a shop assistant, voiced exasperation over the rift between Decani's residents. "People don't speak to you if they know what party you support," he said. "For most people voting is for one day, but for us it's a way of life."


Friction is especially intense between the municipality's two main parties, the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK. It dates back to the 1998-1999 conflict, when the municipality was the regional headquarters for the KLA. This force soon came into conflict with another guerilla group, the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo, FARK, which was aligned to the LDK.


The political divisions that emerged from the rivalry between the two forces climaxed on January 4 this year, when Tahir Zemaj - an ex-guerrilla commander loyal to the LDK - was murdered along with his son and nephew in a drive-by shooting 20 km north of the town.


His assassination is widely linked to events that occurred seven months ago in June 2002, when five former KLA members from Decani - known as the Dukagjini Group - were arrested and accused of murdering four FARK members at the end of the 1999 war.


The courts found the men guilty, despite rowdy public protests by supporters who claimed they were war heroes. On December 17, the five were sentenced to a total of 31 years in prison.


Daut Haradinaj, one of the jailed men, who was sentenced to five years imprisonment, is the brother of Ramush Haradinaj, charismatic leader of the AAK and one of the most influential men in the Decani region.


As a result, the furore surrounding the trial refused to fade away, and the murders of Zemaj, son Enis and nephew Hasan - who was president of the Youth Forum of the LDK in Decani - have stirred up passions even further.


The news of the killings shocked the municipality, and many residents visited the Zemaj family home in the village of Strellc to express condolences.


While police will not speculate on who might be behind the killing, rumours naturally linked Zemaj's death to his appearance in the trial of the Dukagjini Group.


Ibrahim Selmanaj, mayor of Decani, who comes from the ranks of the AAK, dismisses the reports of a connection. "The murder should not be linked to the trial," he said. "The criminal may have been someone closer to Zemaj, and who intended to make it seem that the AAK was to blame."


Selmanaj does not conceal his resentment over the outcome of the trial. He is one of many disappointed citizens of Decani who believe the guilty verdict was unjust. "All actions that taint the war and qualify the KLA as criminals are unacceptable," he said.


Not everybody in Decani agrees with the mayor. Speaking before the trial verdict, local LDK leader Muhamet Osaj said, "If perpetrators [of crimes] are not punished, the law will have failed the people and personal vendettas will ensue."


Darian Pavli, a researcher for the New York-based non-governmental organisation, NGO, Human Rights Watch, sees Zemaj's murder as part of a pattern of assassinations planned and carried out in post-war Kosovo. "Mafia-style killings have become a favorite way of settling political accounts or establishing shady business empires," he said.


Many people expected the international forces in Kosovo - UNMIK and KFOR, who are responsible for security - to stamp out local violence of this kind. However, this has not been the case. Pavli says the international peacekeepers have been "too slow and timid in confronting ethnic and political extremism in the protectorate". Zemaj's death, he adds, should "serve as a reminder of the urgent need to strengthen prosecutions and witness protection programmes".


But not all Decani residents mourned Zemaj's death. He was a controversial figure whose contribution to the war effort in Kosovo has been disputed, especially by the parties that emerged from the ranks of the former KLA. Some called him and his men traitors and criminals.


Speaking of the four men for whose murder the Dukagjini Group stood trial, one local said, "If they were alive today Decani would be like the Wild West." There is also some evidence that Zemaj served three of a four-year prison sentence in Kosovo on drugs charges, before escaping to Germany.


Ultimately, the crucial issue is what effect recent events will have on the lives of ordinary people who are already coping with unemployment levels of 70 per cent. Many believe the latest murders will give Decani's unemployed youth an excuse to cause further trouble.


One resident described them as "kids hanging around with nothing to do and waiting for conflicts under party banners". Their wait may be over.


Amid such tension in the municipality, there are fears than even simple local issues - such as which village will get a new sewerage system first - may become inflamed. Decani's retiring municipal chief executive, Agim Makaj of the LDK, warned that the community risks becoming polarised over any local investment projects that are seen as "one-sided" - for example because they assist villages known to support the AAK.


The conflicts between the parties are as much personal than ideological. The LDK is seen as the party of those who gained a privileged position through their long-established bureaucracy. Their rivals represent those who gained a popular following more recently by fighting with the KLA on the battlefields. The latter feel they risked their lives for freedom, and want a greater role in government.


Decani has weathered many storms against the odds recently. But the events of the last month have brought divisions and disputes to an all-time high, and Zemaj's murder does not set a good precedent for settling them.


One hopeful sign is that no unpleasant incidents occurred when both sides recently came together on the town square to present their grievances. "The reality in Decani is much calmer than what the papers lead you to believe," said Xheme Shehu, a local NGO activist. The coming weeks will reveal if this is true.


Jehona Gjurgjeala is an IWPR contributor in Pristina.


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