Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Presevo Albanians Want Settlement
Serbs regularly enter Kosovo at the Merdare administrative border crossing to sell off property to ethnic Albanians.
Under the watchful eye of British K-For troops, lawyers, buyers and sellers talk circumspectly in the custom-house car park.
On March 23, Merdare was also the venue of a rather larger property transaction as representatives of the two ethnic groups began talks over the future of the Presevo valley in southern Serbia.
NATO flew in the head of the Albanian delegation from Veliki Trnovac, "the biggest Albanian village in the world", the headquarters of ethnic Albanians who have been fighting Serbs for autonomy in the Presevo valley.
That we got there at all earlier in the week was thanks to an ethnic Albanian fighter who happened to be a deft car mechanic.
We'd picked him up as he came off duty on one of the UCPMB (Albanian Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac) checkpoints in the rebel-held part of the buffer zone.
As luck would have it, he managed a first aid job on a broken fan which was causing our battered Opel to overheat.
Fan fixed, we were led to the offices of local military chief Ridvan Qazimi, also known by his nom de guerre, Commander Lleishi, tipped to lead the Albanian negotiating at the Presevo talks.
Many see the agreement of both sides to sit at the negotiating table as a breakthrough in the conflict which has been running for a year now.
The rebel UCPMB are demanding the Albanian-inhabited territory be given autonomy. The Serbs have so far refused to consider any special status for the area.
Last week NATO, currently stepping up its troop numbers in the region, persuaded the UCPMB to sign a ceasefire agreement with Belgrade.
There have been several truce violations by some rebels unhappy with NATO's decision to allow Yugoslav troops into part of the demilitarized zone.
Nonetheless, Commander Llieshi told IWPR that he was "extremely happy" to be sitting down for the first time to negotiate with the Serbs.
Lleishi sports the sort of bushy beard you feel like tugging to see if it's real. He scattered Marlboro ash over a military map, as he pointed out UCPMB's grip over the area.
He said the talks at Merdare were "mini negotiations", which would probably lay the groundwork for further talks.
Reports that international mediators have been successful in establishing a rapport with the UCPMB seemed to be borne out by Lleishi.
NATO's decision to allow Yugoslav troops into the buffer zone last week was seen as a potential source of tension between peacekeepers and Albanians.
However, Lleishi said he was prepared to trust the NATO over the move, "They put a stop to a very bloody war in the region. Because of that we have hope."
Trnovac mayor Galip Beqiri, a flat-capped sociology lecturer, also seemed optimistic over the negotiations. Like Lleishi, he emphasised that compromise should be on the agenda.
"We are willing to go down any possible path. For ten years we've wanted to bring a solution to the situation," said Beqiri after a meeting with EU monitors, apparently there to negotiate the hand over of six Serbs held in custody in the village.
Beqiri, who has been mayor for six years, is looking forward to a return to normality. "The atmosphere here is tainted by what has happened and people feel that," Beqiri said."But there is also a feeling of hope. It's been four months since the Serb police left and the UCPMB took control. There have been no problems since then."
He talked of people's desire for autonomy and control over their lives, "We are not asking for anything incredible."
A stack of pictures documenting atrocities carried out by Serb soldiers and paramilitaries lay on the table.
Flicking through the colour snapshots of corpses, the mayor of "the biggest Albanian village in the world" said, "We don't have any great illusions about the Serbs - there are people out there in the army and police who are part of the Milosevic's era."
The property dealers were no doubt out in force in the Merdare car park on Friday but the real tension will have been felt over the road at the negotiating table.
Philip O'Neil is IWPR Assistant Editor. Nehat Islami is IWPR Project Manager in Pristina.
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