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

Kosovo Youth Jettison Prejudices for a Fix

Serb and Albanian addicts and dealers ignore ethnic enmities, as drug use spirals in Kosovo.
By Tanja Matic

When Jovan went for his next hit, he had to cross the ethnic barrier. As a Serb living in Kosovo, he needed to prove himself to his Albanian dealers before scoring.


Jovan broke the ice by coming with a recommendation from his Albanian friends. Once you are accepted by the region’s drugs network, ethnicity is no longer an issue.


“When it comes to heroin in Kosovo, the only thing that matters is that you are a regular customer and you pay in time,” explained Jovan, who belongs to the minority of those who have managed to wean themselves off heroin.


Healthcare professionals estimate that a high proportion of the international protectorate’s youthful population are now hooked on drugs, which are readily available in Pristina and other cities.


Kosovo’s position as a transit point for eastern drug traffickers combined with the boredom of life in its cities is fueling the problem.


As the protectorate has the youngest population in Europe – half are under 18 – and an unemployment rate of more than 65 per cent, this is causing acute concern.


Young Albanians and Serbs advance through the heroin dealing network with an equality not seen in any other business in the protectorate.


A year ago, when dozens of Albanian drug pushers were rounded up in an international police action, their desperate clients approached one Kosovo Serb, who had links to powerful Albanian dealers. He later succeeded in supplying his Albanian friends through these connections.


Often in Pristina bars you can see an Albanian dealer from Drenica region - who daily deals drugs in Pristina - entertaining his Serbian friends.


The drugs industry along with the trafficking of humans and cigarettes appear to be the only areas of life in the protectorate where ethnicity isn’t an issue. “Heroin and the people who use it know no nationality,” said one former addict.


Chris Blitz, who heads UNMIK’s drug unit for the capital, told IWPR that it is a well-known fact that Serbs and Albanians cooperate when it comes to buying and selling drugs.


“Serbs are getting synthetic drugs such as ecstasy, speed and illegal medicines from Serbia, mostly through the north and exchanging them for heroin and marijuana, which Albanians bring from Macedonia, south Serbia and Albania,” he said.


United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, police spokesperson Barry Fletcher told IWPR, “Drugs trafficked through Kosovo come from places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and are then distributed in Western Europe.” He added that at present nobody is able to tell how many illegal substances are passing through the area.


Police seized 18 kilos of heroin - with an estimated value of 800,000 euro - in the village of Komoglav near Gjilane in eastern Kosovo just over two weeks ago. A 29-year-old woman and two men aged 24 and 21 have been arrested in connection with the find.


Fletcher said this was the biggest seizure since the UN established its protectorate in June 1999.


Only nine kilos in total were recovered during the whole of 2002 – mostly in smaller quantities – and these amounts were believed to have been left over from larger shipments smuggled through the region en route to the West.


The Komoglav seizure is believed to have been intended for distribution in Western Europe, underlying Kosovo’s importance as a major transit point for international drugs barons.


The smuggling of heroin through the protectorate means the drug is much cheaper here than it is in the countries of final destination – another factor that’s fueling addiction.


Two dealers, contacted by IWPR, who have been selling heroin in the Serb-majority areas in the north for the last three years estimate there are currently between 600 to 800 users aged between 15 and 23 in northern Mitrovica, which has around 16,000 inhabitants.


Many fall into drug addiction through sheer boredom, explained 20-year-old Marko, a Serb from the region. “I started working for the UN soon after the war ended and had a great salary - but there is nothing to spend it on here, no cinemas, clubs or places to go,” he said.


“I tried heroin three years ago and now I’m addicted, but I really want to give it up by the end of the year.”


The protectorate’s social and health services are now struggling to cope with the consequences of Kosovo’s place on the trafficking map, and medical information on registered addicts does not reflect the real situation on the ground.


According to Radica Jeftic, a psychiatrist at the hospital in northern Mitrovica, only seven people are currently undergoing heroin detox therapy in this part of Kosovo.


“I know this figure is only the tip of the iceberg since the majority of heroin users do not ask us for help as they know that hospitals here cannot offer even basic treatment,” said Dr Jeftic, adding that until the end of last year, Pristina hospital’s neuropsychiatry wing had been the only designated detox clinic in the protectorate.


But addiction treatment specialist Safet Blakaj, who works for the area’s first private anti-drugs clinic, Labyrinth, told IWPR that neuropsychiatry departments had been “inappropriately equipped” to deal with the problem.


“In the hospital, drug addicts were put together with general psychiatric cases, kept in for couple of days, and given only painkillers,” Blakaj explained.


“After they were released, they were given no specialist aftercare to help them readjust to life without drugs – which can be far more difficult than simple physical detoxing.”


Labyrinth is currently conducting research to ascertain the number of drug users in the protectorate, and while the work is still unfinished, Blakaj estimates the total number of heroin users to be around 7,000.


Drug abuse increased rapidly after the war, and addicts’ average age is now dropping rapidly. Labyrinth estimates that many users have their first experience of the drug aged only 16.


But unlike the western stereotype of homeless heroin addicts, those in Kosovo are normally from middle-class families, and lead an active social life.


Perparim, a 25-year-old Kosovar Albanian from Pristina, is a former heroin addict who admits that he spent the past two years working for an international organisation while taking up to five grammes of heroin a day.


“Only when you are inside heroin circles you understand that most people there would never be suspected as drug addicts by those outside,” said Perparim, adding that many of his old friends still hold high-flying posts in Pristina.


Nineteen-year-old Sasa, a Serb from northern Mitrovica, is so keen to leave the protectorate that he doesn’t care how he makes the money he needs to build a new life elsewhere.


“I’m not forcing anyone to take it. I’m selling good stuff, get paid regularly and I don’t want to hear that I’m doing something wrong. Anyway, I’m sure I won’t be caught as my contacts are middle-aged family people, not suspicious to anyone,” he said.


Tanja Matic is an IWPR project coordinator in Kosovo and Tanja-Marija Vujisic is a freelance journalist in northern Mitrovica.


The names of some of those interviewed in this article have been changed to protect their identity.


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