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

Rebel Village Feels Cheated by Peace Deal

The end of the 2001 conflict has left ex-fighters feeling they gained little from handing over their guns.
By Faruk Daliu

Naim Shabani, 34, from the village of Veliki Trnovac/Trnovc, works in the nearest big town of Bujanovac as a general labourer for ten euro a day.

 

He mostly works in construction in November and though he suffers from the sometimes freezing temperatures, he is not complaining. “I need those 10 euro,” he said.

 

Naim was a member of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, UCPMB, the guerrilla force that took on Serbia’s police and army in 2001 until an internationally-brokered peace deal, agreed the same year, defused the conflict.

 

Since then, he has applied three times to work for the region’s multi-ethnic police force, which was set up as part of the peace deal. But he was not accepted. Now married and with three children, he has to share a house with 16 family members, including his brothers.

 

“I hope I will get a proper job so I can provide for my family like everybody else does,” Naim told IWPR. “Otherwise I will have to emigrate to western Europe, as many other people from this village have done.”

 

Trnovac lay at the epicentre of the Albanian revolt that rocked southern Serbia in 2001. Lying a few kilometres north-west of Bujanovac, in the midst of fertile farm land, it has long been noted for its size and the strength of local people’s Albanian nationalism.

 

Local people are at odds with Serbia’s authorities even over the statistics about their village, for the Statistics Office of Serbia in 2002 declared Trnovac contained 6,797 inhabitants, while locals disagree.

 

“We are not happy with this statistic, as we think Trnovac has at least 9,100 inhabitants,” said Galip Beqiri, head of the local village council. “The statistics office left out 2,000 people.”

 

Trnovac was under UCPMB control for about seven months in 2001 and throughout the conflict the villagers backed the fighters and their local chief, Ridvan Qazimi, known as Commander Lleshi.

 

Lleshi died three days after the demobilisation agreement was signed, however, and today his ex-comrades in Trnovac are mostly in the same boat as Naim - working as casual labourers, or jobless.

 

“The former UCPMB members are now in a desperate position,” Sevdail Hyseni, head of the municipal council in Bujanovac, told IWPR.

 

“They agreed to hand over their weapons and join the political process. But now they are unhappy with that process, as well as with the pace of integration of Albanians into society.”

 

The process he referred to, drawn up by the Serbian government with the help of international brokers, included an amnesty for ex-fighters and the integration of Albanians into the police, judiciary, health system, schools and local administration.

 

According to the Covic plan - nicknamed after Nebojsa Covic, the government’s representative for south Serbia (and Kosovo) - this was to be achieved within 24 months of the agreement being signed.

 

Albanians feel they lost out. “Covic’s plan has not been carried out,” Shaip Kamberi, head of the Council for Human Rights, a local NGO, in Bujanovac, told IWPR. “Albanians have been included in local government, but not in the economy, courts or health system.”

 

Some former fighters landed jobs with the multi-ethnic police, formed after the UCPMB demobilised in 2001. But the force can only soak up a small number.

 

Since 2002, when Albanian parties won local elections in Bujanovac for the first time, some former UCPMB fighters have got jobs on the local council and in public companies.

 

But again, the numbers are necassarily small. Some 15 inhabitants from Trnovac now work for state firms, and another 40 for the administration.

 

Most ex-fighters in Trnovac insist the changes since 2001 have brought them little benefit. Agim Haliti, 39, a former fighter who works for the agriculture department in Bujanovac, says the community was short-changed, “We fought hard for our elementary rights in schooling, employment.”

 

The spectre of joblessness - or emigration - hangs over many of the 1,100 children now attending the Muharrem Kadriu primary school in Trnovac.

 

Nexhat Daci, now speaker of the Kosovo parliament, attended this school. Many now sitting behind their desks will one day follow him to Kosovo. If children from Trnovac want to go to high school, they have to go to Bujanovac, or to Gjilan or Pristina in Kosovo. In spite of its large size, Trnovac has no high school of its own.

 

Higher education is an even more difficult prospect. The only options for university study are in Pristina, Tetovo in Macedonia or Albania.

 

There are no facilities for higher education in Albanian in south Serbia.

 

“It would be much better if we had a university, or at least some university departments, in Presevo or Bujanovac, in Albanian,” said Rejhane Ahmeti, student of Albanian studies in Pristina university.

 

Ali Ramadani, now studying economics at Pristina university, told IWPR he was not likely to go back to Trnovac. “I hope to return but I would need to find a job as an economist there,” he said. That looks unlikely.

 

Back in Trnovac, Galip Beqiri says joblessness is blighting the hopes of a generation. Even graduates, he says, “never stood a chance of being employed under the previous regime, but they are still unemployed now. They are just wandering around”.

 

In the past, people in Trnovac lived off agriculture. This, though, is in decline. Local farmers traditionally grew tobacco, but the crop has been hit by price falls. The villagers are known for their handicraft skills, however, these do not find a mass market.

 

Not everything in Trnovac is bleak. A major project is underway to improve the sewage system, costed at around 2.5 million euro, and financed by local inhabitants, the local authorities and foreign donors. Another project, updating the telephone network, has been completed since 2001 at a cost of a million euro.

 

But better telephones and a cleaner environment will not bring many new jobs to villages like Trnovac and for young men like Naim Shabani, the lure of western Europe may prove irresistable in the end.

 

Faruk Daliu works for Radio Bujanovac.

 

This article is part of a special issue produced by journalists from South Serbia who attended an intensive two-day workshop in Nis, organised by IWPR in October 2004, with financial support from the British Embassy in Belgrade.

 

The training session is a component of the Serbia Inter Ethnic Media Training Project which aims to bring together local Serbian and Albanian journalists.

 

The package of articles is intended to shed light on the specific problems of this much neglected region.

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