28 March 2006

Marek Antoni Nowicki: Kosovo pro memoria (Part 1/2)

KiM Info Newsletter 24-02-06


by Marek Antoni Nowicki

International Ombudsperson in Kosovo (2000 – 2005)


Following international political decisions to accelerate the localization of the Ombudsperson Institution, I was forced to leave Kosovo on the eve of what is the decisive phase of the international intervention in this province, i.e. talks aimed at finding a solution concerning its political and international legal status. During more than five years in Kosovo as the international Ombudsperson I had ample opportunities to closely observe and analyze the most important aspects of the unfolding situation, to point out governmental mistakes and lack of action, to publicly highlight human rights problems and the manner of dealing with them by international and local administration.


In this critical period, after the end of my mandate, I decided to put together in one short paper selected thoughts about different aspects of the situation there based on my “on-the-ground” experience and to present it to the main actors of the “Kosovo project.” I do expect that it will be read and used in the context of any further discussion for the sake of all people in Kosovo.




The international community, local Albanian leaders, Serbian leaders in Belgrade, as well as other stakeholders in Kosovo are fully engaged in the shuttle diplomacy efforts that will determine the final status of the province. At the helm of this process is the United Nations appointed Special Envoy for Kosovo status talks, former Finnish President Marti Ahtisaari, who is known for his role as the European Union special envoy for Kosovo in the June 1999 peace agreements.


On one side are the ethnic Albanians, who constitute approximately 90% of the Kosovo population. For their part, nothing less than an independent state is acceptable, and few observing Kosovo’s political evolution over the last near seven years would deny that this is not a distinct possibility. Indeed, following the February 2006 UN Security Council meeting on the Kosovo question, current political winds hint clearly to at least some form of conditional independence.


On the other hand, Kosovo Serbs reject outright the idea of independence. They see in the Kosovo independence movement an ethnic cleansing of the province, part of a greater plan to unite Albanians under a “one-state” project. If Kosovo is accorded some form of independence, then many ethnic Serbs would be bereft of a place seen historically and mythically, as the cradle of Serbian cultural and spiritual identity. Independence in this case would relegate Serbs to “minority” status for a population that has long thought of themselves as a part of a larger entity – that of Serbia-proper. The international community has already dubbed them “minority” –– a term that beyond the political expediency of the designation, Serbs on the ground in Kosovo refuse to openly accept. Certain suspensions of disbelief with the Serb community also put them in opposition to the real powerbrokers operating within the framework of nation-building, i.e. the tight knit network of big Kosovo Albanian families who run the region in a somewhat clan–like fashion - a fact that Kosovo Serbs will have to contend with whatever the ultimate outcome of the status process.


What is Kosovo today? Poverty is widespread and considerable numbers of people endure difficult, even harsh, daily living conditions. There is a significant gap between those who are receiving meager social-welfare assistance and those who are not. Not to mention the far-reaching unemployment levels and the rapidly expanding youth base (up to half the population is under 25; 40% under 18) that has been given few meaningful prospects to work towards.


Missing people and forgiveness


The story of the missing still weighs heavy in the collective consciousnesses. It as an emotionally charged issue for both Albanian and Serbian communities. Families of the missing – Albanian, Serbian and others - live in a perpetual state of limbo over the unknown fate of their relatives. In most cases these families look desperately for any sign or evidence that their loved one(s) remains alive. While a considerable number of non-Albanians have gone missing in Kosovo, Albanians, mainly victims of operations by Serb paramilitaries or other units, make up the clear majority of the missing.


After nearly seven years, there is certainly some progress in the process of discovering details which make up the dramatic truth, and there has been movement with regards to the terms of reference for those representatives from Pristina and Belgrade trying to have closure on the issue.


When speaking about missing Albanians, the question of what efforts are being made by Serbia and Montenegro (SaM) to resolve the situation inevitably occurs. Serbian society and its leadership should show that every effort is being made to help the many Kosovo Albanian families learn the exact fate of their missing relatives. It is in the interest of Serbia and its future to look into this question regarding what happened to all of these people, despite how horrifying the truth may be. People in Serbia must be prepared to accept and navigate these emotionally charged issues. Most importantly, this work and these efforts must be undertaken in a proactive, rather than reactive manner.


From a broader perspective, there seems to be little serious public reflection or general public debate in SaM about the operations that took place in Kosovo, which were allegedly carried out on their behalf, before and after North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes in 1999. Relatively few criminal cases have been tried in Serbian courts, and there has been no visible public support for these efforts. A large part of Serbian society does not appear to consider such trials as helping them come to terms with the recent past in Kosovo. These still isolated criminal cases are not really a part of any larger process of reckoning, which would signal a break from the general civic attitude toward this inconceivable legacy. Historically, the overall reaction has been to escape confronting the unbearable truths, either by denial, defensive posture, or to reject the subject outright.


All those responsible need to one day stand before the courts and face justice- people involved not only in these crimes but similar acts, notwithstanding their nationality, position, or current orientation to political structures that exist. The guilt must be recognized and acknowledged sincerely. There is no chance for even the beginning of the much needed forgiveness process, not to speak about future reconciliation, without justice being served, or at least a much more serious effort put forth in this direction. Moreover, without reconciliation, is it really possible for the international community to speak about regional stability even with a status solution?


Until now the problem has been that the society – in Serbia proper and in Kosovo - has not had the strength to confront the past, even the darkest part. At the same time, only after such a profoundly therapeutic experience, will the society be rehabilitated enough to escape this legacy of violence and mutual wrongdoing that has characterized communal factionalism in the Balkans for so long.


To forgive and be forgiven is an aspect missing from the Kosovo process. Collective effort is needed to try to acknowledge the enormous suffering endured by people there. As time moves on, forgiveness is an unavoidable outcome for a forward looking society that politically wants to strengthen Euro-Atlantic relations. One should remember also that to forgive is not white-washing a wrong, and does not mean sidestepping justice. Perpetrators must be held accountable. Forgiveness is also important for the victims. It is a lengthy process that must be launched despite dominant misconceptions that it is anti-patriotic or a sign of weakness. Nor is it an effort to bury the past and forget. The difficult truths must be exposed. In order to seek justice for those truths, people must acknowledge their past involvement and contribution to the difficult times.


As the international community brokers the ultimate solution for Kosovo, local groups must be ready to listen, until the end, to even the most inconvenient truths. The air must be cleared between communities in order to forge new, be they practical or political, relations. Such a process cannot be politically rushed, although it seems as if time is not something the international community is willing to gamble with at this stage. If in this course of action the people of Kosovo fail to make any meaningful progress in confronting the past, then the work of the international community will be incomplete. People will be unprepared to implement the values that are generally understood as being at the heart of the democratic principles often touted by the international community as the ultimate political and social aim of Kosovo’s evolution. It must, however, be reiterated that failing to deal with the missing and initiate reconciliation in the march towards status would be akin to building a house on the unstable terrain of a sand dune.


Other non-Albanian communities


Under the current circumstances, large numbers of Kosovo inhabitants are experiencing hardship. This being said, the people who tend to suffer principally are the most vulnerable populations, usually, but not limited to, the non-Albanian communities. According to recent statements made at the February UN Security Council meeting on the question of Kosovo much work still must be done to improve the overall situation of the minority communities in the province.


Nonetheless, the framework of bi-polar aspirations, Albanian and Serbian, certainly skews the concept of “multi-ethnicity” in Kosovo. Indeed, realistically, “multi-ethnicity” in Kosovo is based on theoretical models crafted by those determining international policy. In the immediate future, there is little chance of meaningful success on this front. Kosovo communities, in particular Albanian and Serbian have never lived together, rather they have been juxtaposed in living separate lives for much of their co-habitation. The multiethnic society in Kosovo remains a part of international political rhetoric. Need I mention that it is not only a question of the Serb-Albanian framework, but to different extents also of other non-Albanians whose rights and needs are too frequently overlooked or simply ignored.


What does it mean to protect ethnic minorities? Good laws can be promulgated and special programs can be designed, but if there is no sincere societal will to adopt these changes in everyday life then there is little perspective to alter the dismal status quo.


Is the society at large able to create a meaningful space for these communities in a situation in which nearly everyone is struggling? It is natural in difficult times to see a widespread attitude of self-preservation, looking out for one’s own family and community in order to survive. So many in Kosovo are tired, hungry, and poor, but it cannot serve as an excuse for a situation in which non-Albanian communities experience greater proportional hardship in these conditions. Certainly in Kosovo, relations are further hindered by the many open wounds, which do not help to change people’s attitudes. A great deal of anger, frustration and pain of the past thickens the air among Kosovo people. The roots of these emotions easily stretch back generations, punctuated in recent years by repression and armed conflict. A collective sense of having been victimized at the hands of an easily identified "other," usually found among a particular ethnic group, taints almost every aspect of daily life.


As such, these volatile emotions take on a character of self-righteous anger, targeting the "other." That sense of purpose tends to manifest in an impassioned effort to correct the injustice perpetrated against them, their family, and their community. Such a compelling sense of purpose makes it possible for many to feel good or simply justified by their indignation and outrage. Ultimately, however, this emotional state too regularly leads to distorted thinking and persisting animosity. UN officials have also acknowledged a sense of disparity between what is part of written policy and what is part of solid implementation where standards are concerned . This is doubly so where minorities are concerned, especially when concerned with the non-Serbian minorities.


What does Kosovo have to offer Europe in the future if their inhabitants simply see an ethnic classification walking towards them on the street - Serb, Roma, Ashkali, or Albanian? What of a shared identity? Moving away from a tribal outlook typical of pre-modern societies, it indicates a society on the defensive which views the “other” as a risk or threat.


If the majority of people are unwilling to accept minorities, then they are, at the same time, saying they do not accept them as human beings deserving of the same rights and privileges that they themselves are supposed to enjoy. Thinking exclusively along ethnic lines has produced disastrous results there, and it seems only natural to talk over this reality acknowledging that something must be done with a commitment to open up the dialogue in a manner that would address the concept of societal inclusivity.


In order to assure politically correct actions towards minority communities and to assure better conditions for them, the government and political leaders in Kosovo must also be willing to address the general life hardships suffered by a large part of the majority Albanian population. For this reason, it is paramount to maintain a balance with the messages communicated to the general public, whether it is with politicians’ words or the manner in which public institutions interface practically with the population.


Having said this, it stands to reason that they should support all efforts to try to convince minorities that there is a rightful place for them in society and not merely to live as second-class people.




Roma, as with all of Kosovo’s people, should be accorded the same fundamental human rights. Roma interests need to be considered with equal measure to the other more integrated parts of society. Although Albanian and Serb communities stress their ancestral roots in their various attempts to legitimize cultural legitimacy within Kosovo, the same applies to the Roma who are just as much a part of the social fabric and legacy of this land.


When considering the fate of non- Albanian communities, one must invariably question what the future holds for the Kosovo Roma, Ashkali or Egyptians (RAE). The Roma’s perspective is to a considerable degree dependent on the survival of Kosovo Serbs. For centuries, Roma had lived in or around Serbian settlements. In 1999, they paid an extremely serious price for that, in particular, but not only, in Mitrovica, where more than 6,000 Roma were cruelly forced from their homes in their mahalla, or community, by groups of Kosovo Albanians bent on dealing with those perceived as collaborators.


Many of these ethnically cleansed Roma from Mitrovica stay in inhuman conditions in camps in North Kosovo located on land that was contaminated with heavy metal, despite obvious and urgent need for their evacuation to safer environs. Although there has been some progress in the process leading to the reconstruction of the Mitrovica Roma mahalla, more politically expedient issues related to economic and democratic progress continue to take precedence over the immediate needs of the Roma population – a phenomenon not unique to Kosovo.


Recent developments do find UNMIK and the World Health Organization aligned in their concerns about the immediate health crises and the ultimate relocation of the internally displaced Roma (IDP’s) living in North Kosovo to a former KFOR camp, Osterode. However, they have been unwilling to convincingly guarantee the Roma that indeed Osterode will not be a permanent solution. UNMIK officials have committed verbally that Osterode will not deter the international actors and the local municipality in question from getting the more than 6,000 Roma IDP’s back to the Mahalla , but the Roma are rightfully skeptical given their current shantytowns were meant to exist for no more than 45 to 90 days. Roma communities in other parts of Kosovo can also attest to similar negative “temporary” moves that have since become permanent housing situations.


Thousands of other Roma families in Serbia, Montenegro or elsewhere in the Diaspora wait to return to Kosovo. As all others displaced from their points of origin, they also have the right to be back in their homes and to be permitted to rebuild their lives without fear of repeated, targeted aggression. NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) have joined the UN administration and local policing structures in assuring the public that security levels are at their best since the end of fighting in 1999, but what of the collective outlook of the majority population, whose attitude really determines the level of security for the displaced Roma?


The extreme vulnerability of the whole Roma community is evident. How many of their houses have been reconstructed over these years? The widespread violence targeting Kosovo’s non-Albanian settlements in March 2004 illustrated how the individuals, who committed such crimes against Roma in 1999 are ready to do the same again.


A justified fear exists that within the defining of status, the bi-polar frame of competing political forces, Albanian versus Serb, will force the Roma off the road of greater inclusion. Although the international community has made it a point to mention the Roma in the context of security and integration, one needs to impress on the majority Albanian population the idea that the Roma are indeed an integral part of Kosovo’s societal fabric – something that will take generations of efforts, to be sure. Nonetheless, it is a process that must begin sooner than later.




The general perception of insecurity among Kosovo Serbs and other non-Albanians is based on past negative experiences of violence during the last near seven years: random killings, assaults, bombings, thefts and incidents of arson and stoning. Seldom have perpetrators been identified or brought to justice, contributing to a perception that these acts can be committed with impunity.


Of course, this is framed in the context of an obvious backlash from the insecurity felt by the ethnic Albanian population immediately before and during the Kosovo conflict as the Serbian security apparatus crafted its handy work of intimidation and ethnic attacks/killings in their desire to quell the separatist aspirations of a segment of the Albanian population.


Any change in the mutual insecurity felt in this respect and any building up of legitimate feelings of tolerance is a long process. The violent events of March 2004 significantly (if not irreparably) damaged the situation. This wave of violence left a traumatic emotional imprint and painfully reminded non-Albanian communities of 1999, when violent reprisals against Serbs and Roma were at an all-time high. The March 2004 events showed that violence in Kosovo may reappear at anytime. It has demonstrated how easy it was to destroy the relative “calm” that has prevailed on the surface of Kosovo’s society. Nothing surprising that now it has become almost second nature for at least some non-Albanian communities to feel insecure where they live in Kosovo.




Almost seven years ago, a United Nations-led administration arrived in Kosovo under the presence of NATO peacekeepers, while masses of Serbs and other non-Albanians left following a reverse ethnic cleansing. Many of these people still reside today in Serbia or Montenegro living in precarious circumstances and without a proper legal status. It is not too difficult then to understand the international community’s ill ease as these families continue to leave despite repeated calls for return. Nobody has gathered exact figures documenting how many Serbs and other non-Albanians have left the province. The pattern exists however and was strengthened especially after the violent events experienced in March 2004. One would be hard-pressed to ignore what these communities have endured over a period of almost seven years.


Even with a significant amount of money and labor dedicated to returns, the results of the return efforts have been truly dismal.


Why has the returns process not progressed in a meaningful manner? Many IDPs openly speak about their perception of a lack of security for their communities. Violent attacks, even if not as frequent as before, still exist, as do considerable tensions between ethnic communities in Kosovo.


The general economic stagnation is among the core factors that contribute to this lack of returns. Particularly hard hit are the non-Albanian communities. Most of the families who have decided to return to Kosovo are reliant on humanitarian assistance. Much of what was their properties, flats, and farmlands have been occupied, stolen or are lost in some sort of legal limbo. Meanwhile, given the overall situation and a lack of clarification of the province’s status, many of these properties have been sold very cheaply, particularly in urban areas. These property “buy-outs” continue. As well, dwellings rebuilt after the end of fighting in 1999 were once again destroyed in the March 2004 riots. Many Serbs continue to stay in Kosovo only because of the existence of Serb parallel structures and the support provided by Belgrade and non-governmental aid organizations.


The return efforts seem to be very much concentrated on simply constructing shelter. Although important, it is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle of rebuilding lives. The returnee’s prospects to till the land and provide markets for their produce, send their children to school and re-enter the Kosovo job market are likely to be hampered for a long time to come. Thus, returnees will require a sustained artificial donor base to assure that they are at least given social welfare and subsistence rations until Kosovo’s economy actually begins to function.


The returns issue also begs the question of how to encourage young people to return or remain in Kosovo. The youth represent the bedrocks of any potential societal growth, and it is not enough to have people coming back to merely exist and die on their land. It is a question of having enough educated, professional people to strengthen the community. For this reason, urban return is so crucial but it seems somewhat a dream given the backdrop of a rather discouraging reality that casts serious doubts over the sustainability of any returns program. It is difficult to think that an independent Kosovo could encourage any return of non-Albanian residents.


On the other hand, people who, for whatever reasons, decide to stay in the place of their current residence must at the same time have the conditions created for their integration. The politically motivated miracles of the returns process cannot be a justification for indefinitely extending the status and living conditions of potential returnees who are at their most vulnerable. Of course this is primarily the responsibility of Serbia and Montenegrin authorities, but at the same time there is the obligation of the international community to provide adequate help. They are duty bound to see to the welfare of IDPs considering that the situation in the province is not – and will not be prepared for their return. This also will mean being realistic about a steady source of extra-governmental money that will facilitate such a reality.


Forced return


Several European countries have concluded agreements with Kosovo’s UN administration (UNMIK) for the forcible return of unsuccessful asylum seekers from the province. The practice has been occurring for some time and is expected to gain momentum given that the situation on the ground is said to be improving, at least according to the international stakeholders and local municipal authorities.


People who fled Kosovo and have often spent the greater part of a decade in “adopted” countries are now told that they are no longer welcome and that it is time they went “home.”


The “home” they know of may not only hold negative memories for these refugees, but many of them, including children, simply do not know the place to which they must now return. Not to mention that the communities they left may no longer exist. In Kosovo, where unemployment is rampant and the budget deep in the red it is not realistic to assume that they will be able to make a living – a problem echoed in the overall conundrum of creating a sustainable returns program. This is especially difficult for those who happen to belong to a minority, such as the Ashkali or Roma.


Not only are these people returned to Kosovo against their will; the return is in some countries selective, targeting primarily individuals with a criminal record. Since many of the people who fled Kosovo over the years are members of minorities, this selective repatriation only serves to reinforce the negative stereotypes that parts of the Albanian majority hold about them, i.e. theives, beggars, cheats, collaborators, etc.


For the moment however forced returns from Western Europe are a reality and must be dealt with accordingly. UNMIK, the Kosovo government, and the province’s municipalities need to create some sort of infrastructure to handle the influx of these new inhabitants. As is the case with less controversial returns projects, forced returnees need to be provided with shelter, employment opportunities, and language courses for children. The government must develop special programs to help them integrate into Kosovo society through social assistance and social housing.


Aside from the obligation of UNMIK and of the Kosovo government to initiate such programs, citizens and municipalities must deal with this issue head on and understand that it is their duty to create the conditions necessary for the returnees to be able to establish a real home there; the consequence for not doing creating these conditions will no doubt put massive strain on the social sector of future generations.