Earlier this month former Congressman Joe DioGuardi and I met with most of the Albanian civic leaders from Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc, as well as the leaders of the former UCPMB, in Gjilan. The meeting was held in Gjilan at our request, because, after discussion with Congressman Henry Hyde, we decided that entering the Presheve Valley, as we did in March 2001, might be viewed as a provocation by the Serbian government, and we did not want to endanger the security of the Albanian political leadership there.
Our major concern going into this meeting was that there had been little evidence of change in the status of Albanians since UCPMB signed a NATO-brokered agreement with Belgrade to demilitarize on March 1, 2001, in exchange for remedying decades of discrimination and human rights abuses against the some 70,000 Albanians in Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc and ratifying Albanian self-rule at the municipal level. We were equally concerned about the rumored creation of a large Serbian military base between Presheve and Bujanoc close to the border of Kosova. Our worst fears were confirmed: More than two years later, most of the provisions of the 2001 agreement had not been implemented, apart from the formation of a multiethnic police force. But, even here, because this police force had been effective, some Serbian officials were in the process of sabotaging it, we learned, by placing “special” police force units throughout the region. In addition, the military base was about to be constructed to house 1,000 troops, and the word had gone out that the army planned to conscript local Albanians, as well as Serbs, to operate it. Unsurprisingly, everyone at the meeting with us in Gjilan was against the construction of the base and the remilitarization of the region. As Zeqirja Fazliu of the Democratic Party of Albanians stated, “Security measures do not warrant this kind of military force. Serbia has no threat from either Kosova or Macedonia.”
Fazliu also added that, apart from the important economic help received from international NGOs for infrastructure development, “most aspects of life in the Presheve Valley have remained the way they were under Slobodan Milosevic.” Ismail Hajdini, the PDK president in Medvegje, where 99 percent of the Albanian population was brutally expelled at the end of the Kosova war by retreating Serbian military and paramilitary troops, reinforced this comment. He said that, “There was no sign of any democracy in Serbia; that the return of Albanian refugees had not been facilitated; that no Albanians were represented in any local government offices; that Albanians were still subject to police brutality; and that there is no education in the Albanian language past elementary school.” For students in Medvegje, it is especially difficult, he explained, because they must travel either to Presheve or Kosova to attend secondary school. This means traveling 150 kilometers through Serbian territory, where Albanians are “systematically searched.” According to Hajdini, “the Albanians of Medvegje are in a very difficult situation,” and he added ominously that, “they are thinking of either living or dying.”
UCPMB spokesperson Shaqir Shaqiri said that the problems of the Presheve Valley can still be solved by political means, but he argued that, “The Albanian political parties donot have the proper orientation and do not want to do a lot of work.” He stated that the political process came to a halt when former UCPMB Commander Lleshi (Ridvan Cazimi) was assassinated in 2001, and that pressure must now be placed on the political
parties to resume unified opposition to Serbian policies. Jonuz Musliu, formerly the political head of UCPMB, made a similar criticism of the political parties, when he commented that “a lot of political games are being played, including collaboration by some Albanians with [Belgrade’s Balkan envoy] Nebojsa Covic, instead of finding a solution” for Albanians in the Presheve Valley. Musliu was forceful in warning of the consequences of the lack of a unified voice among Albanian political entities. He said that several efforts to set up a national council had failed at the political party level, that some people with authority outside the political party structures were being excluded from this process, that the Albanian language initiative had failed, and that four people were still in jail in Serbia (Besim Leka, Abdixhik Salihu, Elhami Salihu, and Vullnet Salihu) “because of lack of political cooperation among the parties.” He lamented a pattern of arrests and violence since the war and concluded by asking rhetorically, “How will we be a part of Serbia, when Serbia does not like us or want us?”
The violence that led to the arrests of twelve Albanians for weapons possession, including the four that are still in jail, occurred on February 8, 2003, after Selver Fazliu, an Albanian inspector for the Serbian Security Information Agency (BIA), was killed by unknown assailants in Bujanoc and a Serbian police crackdown ensued. A thousand Albanians took to the streets to protest the arrests and the involvement of the Serbian police, who tore down the Albanian flag on Commander Lleshi’s grave, searched Albanians houses, and confiscated mobile phones and other equipment. To this day, although Belgrade and Nebojsa Covic, in particular, have accused “Albanian terrorists” of murdering Fazliu, no effort has been made to find the culprits. A few weeks after the crackdown in February, one Serbian policeman was killed and two were wounded, when their jeep ran over a land mine near the village of Muhovac. Covic immediately blamed this tragedy on former UCPMB members, whom he insisted were hiding out in Kosova. Brigadier General Daniel Keefe, head of the U.S.-run sector in Gjilan, said that there was no evidence to support Covic’s claims. “Not one report of armed extremists operating in Kosova has been substantiated, not one,” he told the Associated Press on February 25.
But Keefe’s denial has not served to stop the propaganda emanating from Belgrade against the Albanians in the Presheve Valley. And it is this anti-Albanian propaganda, coupled with the lack of attention to the plight of Albanians in southern Serbia by the international community, that has proven so destructive to the cause of Albanian equality. After five decades under Communism (since the Presheve Valley was annexed by Serbia in 1948), after the Kosova war of 1998-1999, and after the armed struggle for Albanian self-determination in 2000-2001, the Albanians of Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc are among the poorest and most disenfranchised people in the Balkans. A silent exodus and forced assimilation—similar to what has been happening to Albanians in Montenegro for generations—threaten the future of Albanians in the Presheve Valley as much as Serbian military might. This will not change as long as Albanians in Presheve, Medvegje, and Bujanoc fail to speak out about conditions there in an organized fashion, beginning with vigorously opposing Belgrade’s construction of a military base, standing up for the former members of the UCMPB, demanding the release of the freedom fighters who have
been arrested, and calling on Albanians throughout the world to take up their cause. The current cry from the Albanian political factors in the Presheve Valley is to demand a place at the negotiating table in the proposed talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. But I believe that their demand should be for Albanian equality in the Presheve Valley, Serbia’s accounting for the missing, the return of Mitrovice under Kosova’s control, and the guarantee of Kosova’s final status as an independent state before the talks even take place.
Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi is Balkan Affairs Adviser to the Albanian American Civic League.
July 21, 2003