A year of fear and hope in Kosovo

In one village, ethnic Albanians and Serbs are learning to live together again.

Savo Banjac, a Serb returnee, Berkovo, Kosovo, Barnaby Phillips, Europe diary
Lush Bekaj and his family live side by side with their Serb neighbours

We spend an awful lot of time in this job rushing from country to country, and from story to story.

One week I am striving to be an authority on the Roma in the Balkans, the next, I am talking, I hope knowledgeably, about water shortages on Mediterranean islands, or swing voters in North Carolina.

Which is all a roundabout way of explaining that it has been an unusual treat these past two weeks to be working on a television project of some complexity and length.

Instead of the normal 2.5 minutes for our pieces, we have been given 25 minutes.

We are making a documentary about a year in the life of a village in Kosovo.

Phillips’ European diary

Part 1: A Balkan view
Part 2: Divided Cyprus
Part 3: European split
Part 4: Beacon of hope
Part 5: Obama’s appeal

The village is called Berkovo and, following the return of a handful of Serb families who had fled during the 1999 war, it is one of the few places in Kosovo where ethnic Serbs and Albanians live side by side as neighbours.

We started making this film in January, picking a Serb and an Albanian family, who agreed to allow us to follow them for the next twelve months.

We wanted to see how Kosovo’s imminent declaration of independence, and its inevitable rejection by Serbia, would impact these families, and the village.

We wanted to know whether there were any prospects of these two communities living in peace, in a land that has been divided by hatred and fear.

Frustration and anger

So, twelve months on, what have we discovered?

Well, the big plus is that it has been a peaceful year in Berkovo (and a largely peaceful year across Kosovo, for that matter). 

The two communities are wary of each other, and lead largely separate lives. 

But while it has been difficult to get people to speak openly about inter-ethnic relations, there seems to be little animosity between Albanians and Serbs.

Which is not to say there is not plenty of frustration and anger in Berkovo.

For the Serbs, returning to the village where their ancestors lived for hundreds of years – and which they fled in fear for their lives – has been an emotionally fraught experience.

They have received help from donors and the Kosovan government, who have provided them with homes, small tractors, and other assistance.

The return process has been expensive, and it has not been a resounding success.

For a start, most of the returnees are over 45 or 50 years old, and most are men. Often, they have failed to convince their children, or even wives, to accompany them back to Kosovo.

Serbs who are doing well at school or at work can see little reason to go and live in isolated, potentially unsafe communities in rural Kosovo.

And those who have returned are hedging their bets; still maintaining a house elsewhere, and spending much of their time out of Kosovo.

Watching the old Serb men of Berkovo gathering for an evening drink of plum brandy, it is hard to know whether this is a sustainable community that will be here in 10 or 20 years.

Last week, Savo Banjac, who is the head of the Serb family that we have been following, said the year had been more peaceful than he had feared, but he was bitter that he was reduced to depending on social security, saying: “I see no future in this … without a job, it’s very difficult to survive on 100 Euros a month.”

Common concerns

Meanwhile, the Kosovan Albanians in Berkovo have their own frustrations.

On the eve of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Lush Bekaj, the Albanian farmer featured in our film, was optimistic, believing that life would get better, and European and American investors would be flooding in.

By November, he was deeply cynical, complaining bitterly about the lack of jobs and of corruption in the Kosovan government.

He told us: “The top officials are taking everything for themselves … and we’ve been abandoned.”

So at the end of this historic year in Kosovo, it is possible to draw a few conclusions.

Neither the great fears of the Serbs, nor the great hopes of the Albanians, were justified.

The declaration of independence came and went, and life went on pretty much as before.

In a village like Berkovo, the two communities may have more in common than they realise. They both distrust politicians from the big cities and they both feel frustrated by the pace of economic progress.

Equally, they are both determined to stay on the land which they consider their home.

Kosovo: A Year of Fear and Hope can be seen at the following times GMT:
Monday, December 22:
0530; Tuesday, December 23: 1400; Wednesday, December 24: 0130, 1930; Thursday, December 25: 0600; Friday, December 26: 1000; Saturday, December 27: 2330

Source: Al Jazeera