The Šar mountain village of Donja Bitinja in the Štrpce municipality is one of only a few communities in Kosovo in which members of the Serbian and Albanian communities live together today. The boundaries between their properties run along the entire settlement and they often help each other in farming, especially in cultivating raspberries. At the environmental protests in 2019 against the construction of mini-hydroelectric power plants, members of both ethnic groups from Donja Bitinja and Štrpce defended their rivers together. At the protests, they carried banners written in Serbian and Albanian languages. The Centre for Historical Studies and Dialogue conducted interviews among residents of both communities in the summer and autumn of 2022. They indicated an enviably good level of inter-ethnic relations in their village and in the Štrpce municipality as a whole. Our interlocutor, a Serb pensioner, highlights that during the environmental protests, Albanians suggested to their Serb neighbours not to be in the front lines so as not to suffer violence. He also quotes the case of a local Serb returnee named Zoran, nicknamed Badass. His Albanian friends welcomed him back by giving him watermelon, brandy and bread. During the war, when the Albanians from the village fled to Macedonia (now North Macedonia), our interlocutor provided food and supplies to a developmentally disabled Albanian, the only Albanian left in the village. Our interlocutor keeps mentioning the mutually good relations in their local community. They are afraid of violence only from people who can come “from outside”, also, it would be even better “if only the politicians didn’t interfere too much”. The interview was conducted by Milena Lazarević, our colleague from Donja Bitinja.
Q: Interview survey, name and surname […] Ethnicity, place and year of birth.
A: [the website editors decided not to reveal the identities of the respondents for the time being.] Serb, Donja Bitinja, 1948.
Q: Current place of residence?
A: Donja Bitinja.
Q: What is your profession and occupation?
A: I am retired.
Q: Now, did you have and do you have friends from the Albanian community in Kosovo?
A: I have a lot of them.
Q: How close are you with them?
A: Well, quite close, nothing too… but we are friendly when we meet, we have a nice chat, joke around and so on…
Q: And do you understand or speak the Albanian language?
A: Well, I can’t say I speak, but I understand a lot. I can answer and ask many questions, let’s say I use it, but not too much, because here, we, the Serbs, are the majority in the village and they are the minority, so they learn Serbian before we learn Albanian.
Q: And what was it like for you growing up in an ethnically mixed environment, that is, how much time do you remember spending with your Albanian friends?
A: Quite good, that is, everything went well, we played football together, looked after cattle together and hung out.
Q: And did you maybe study the Albanian language at school?
A: In secondary school, but it was optional, there were no grades.
Q: Did you use to, and do you now, socialise with and visit your Albanian neighbours? Family visits, patron saint day, Christmas?
A: Patron saint day, Christmas not so much, some family visits, but we would see each other regardless, I, for example, remember, when especially the younger ones, when someone died, not the older ones, they would come to give condolences, I had my leg operated and they came to check on me, to see me, you know how glad I was when I saw them.
Q: Regarding that, are things different in terms of socialising and visiting before, during and after the conflict in Kosovo? Is there any…
A: It’s the same, nothing changed there.
Q: And do you cooperate with your Albanian neighbours, for example, by helping each other when you are building a house, do you call them, at your workplace, when farming…
A: You know, they mostly have their own companies now, but we don’t avoid it, Albanians worked on my house, it’s normal… and so, there are no problems at all.
Q: And were things different before the conflict in Kosovo during and after the conflict, in relation to that, to work?
A: Well, they are a little, they used to come anyway… just to help, but now they view everything as a transaction.
Q: Did anything change in your attitude towards your neighbours and fellow Albanians when Slobodan Milošević came to power in 1987, later, until 1999, and until today? Has anything changed in your relationship?
A: No, nothing significant, it’s exactly the same.
Q: It wasn’t affected at all?
A: It wasn’t. I didn’t notice anything, nor did any… We, for example, I don’t know, maybe you have a question later, um… Before the Albanians returned, they called us to the municipality, there were three of us, including me, I happened to be there because I worked in Štrpce, for the Red Cross, they used to see me there, I won’t mention names. We just had a conversation with them. We told them, there were also some non-governmental organisations there and whatnot and we just explained to them that we knew that they had to return, it was their property and no one could dispute that. But maybe it was not the time yet, at that time, because there were 13 souls that had disappeared in this area. Now, what did I know, what the families of those people would do, because if we told them to come back right away, then we would already be taking responsibility for their safety.
A: And we couldn’t do that. We didn’t know who would come from where… At that time, it still wasn’t really… clear. Or, let’s say, had they come, we were not afraid of them, nor were they afraid of us, but who knows who else would come and make some trouble here. Then it would have been, wait, it’s your fault, who was it, what happened, and we would have had to suspect our neighbours.
Q: I have a question about that…
A: Go on.
Q: How important is the issue of ethnicity, what you were talking about, that is, the fact that someone is Albanian or Serb, for the mutual socialisation of people in Kosovo? How important was it, was it important before the war?
A: Well, let me tell you, it was, however, like in every war, like everywhere, in every society, there are those who are right-minded and those who oppose them, who are against it and so on. But we, me personally and my family, we didn’t have any problem. For example, I have a son, everyone praises him, I go there and don’t ask anything, but they say: “Your son is very good,” they say, “a very nice, a good boy”, this and that. “Of course he is,” I say, he is aware that we grew up here together.
Q: And how did the war in Kosovo affect how important that ethnicity is? Did it matter at all who was a Serb and who was an Albanian?
A: As far as I’m concerned, it didn’t, I for example, I wasn’t even hired as a village guard, but some came to ask me, who were mowing the meadows and left things up there and asked if I could go, I tried, however, for some family reasons, my mother was sick so I didn’t, and I couldn’t go, but when I did go I searched everything, I couldn’t find anything, but people had already been up there and so on.
Q: You think, for example, that Albanians and Serbs can get along, regardless…
A: Yes, yes. As long as the politicians don’t interfere too much.
Q: Are you aware of any cases of inter-ethnic marriage between Serbs and Albanians? Any.
A: I don’t know, we haven’t had them yet here, but their children go to our discos…
Q: That’s the next question: are there cases of young Serbs and Albanians socialising?
A: Yes, there are. Even some girls, like, at the beginning when they came: “Why won’t these guys take us to the disco?” Seriously. I’m honestly telling you.
P: So they mostly go out like that, to discos, cafes.
A: Well, yes, I don’t go to those discos, I’m not that generation, but I hear that they go, they go to cafes, let’s say, stop by and so on…
Q: And can you give us an example of support or help that you received from your Albanian neighbours, some example?
A: Well, there wasn’t really any need… For me, let’s say some small things, we live in the countryside, a friend used to come all the way up there transport my plums after I picked them and all that, I told him: “Don’t go to all that trouble.” but he’s like that… Okay, I’m waiting for another question, so yes…
Q: And what was your attitude towards your Albanian neighbours during the conflict and war in Kosovo in 1998-1999?
A: They weren’t here, there was one who was a little mentally unwell, now, he wasn’t aggressive or anything, but he grew up here, an older man and he always came especially to our four families for food and they would always give him bread, cheese, some canned food, something they have left aside for him. He would come and take it and leave, either at our place or at my father’s or at my uncle’s…. I also worked for the Red Cross, you know that, and I took him up there several times so that, when I had the opportunity, when non-assigned parcels would arrive, I would call him and give him what I had and filled his sack with what he needed, this and that, laundry, something and I would even ask an Albanian who worked in the Kosovo municipality to escort him so that no one bothers him, to find him a car to take him back here and so on.
Q: That was my next question, but you answered, whether during the war there were cases of mutual assistance, food supply, and you answered. Did the Albanians, for example, help you with anything during the war?
A: During the war, there was no need, they were not here. We said, they weren’t here. They weren’t, it was just us.
Q: Did you experience any violence or suffer any damage from the Albanian paramilitaries during the war?
A: No. There was nothing here, there was no war here, no shooting and things like that.
Q: How do you remember the events of March 2004 in Kosovo?
A: You mean that pogrom… Well, to tell you the truth, I work for the Red Cross and we often helped the Holy Archangels Monastery. When I went afterwards and saw what was done there… the other things I only heard about, but this I saw myself afterwards… I felt very bad and somehow, it instilled some uncertainty about survival, because what kind of need did they have to do that, I also blame the German contingent, who did not protect it, they were present there and responsible for protecting the monastery, there were seven monks who escaped and later returned, but the monastery was totally burned and destroyed.
Q: And what was the attitude of the Albanian neighbours towards the violence that was directed towards the Serbian community in March 2004, was there any reaction?
A: I know of several people who condemned it. When one of them returned, even… I’m talking now about when I worked there, so I had insight… A Prizren resident who had an unfinished house in the Sirinić county came back, and when he returned there, the Germans immediately came to him and said: “We are not responsible for your safety.” He told them, “I am not asking you for any safety. No one will hurt me here.” And, while we were there, a car came by, maybe this is not important, but…
Q: It is important…
A: A car came by, a Mercedes, a gentleman with his wife, and he said, and I had already gone up the road, and that house was below the road and I was… and he said “What,” he says, “Is he selling,” and these other friends, we were going down to Bistrica…. I said: “No, he’s not selling, he came back,” and then he immediately knew: “Zoran is back.” They called him Badass. “Is Badass back?” I say yes. “So where is he?” “He’s here,” I say. And he says: “Good, everyone should return, 30,000 have returned”, says the Albanian. “We all need to go back to living the way we used to live, and now believe me, our children can’t even go to a cafe because of those who came down from the mountains.” So, that’s why I’m telling you that it happened, then that returnee told us there… he said they immediately brought me bread, watermelon, all sorts of things, they bought him brandy there. “What do you need, tell us and we’ll bring it to you,” and then I saw that Zoran come back, kiss both him and his wife, how are you, how’s it going… very nice… I’ll come visit you.” He promised him and so, so there were some among them who didn’t think that everything that happened was right, but who is to blame now…
Q: And now a slightly more recent question: did you participate in the protests for the protection of the rivers of the Šar mountain, and against mini hydroelectric power plants?
A: I did participate, even though I was… Both now and then I found it difficult to move because of my… this… but I didn’t miss anything, I went on crutches, to the Albanian side of the field and up there to ours, and they went too. I mean, no one organised it, but we gathered spontaneously, and because this field of ours is by far the best in Sirinić county, and secondly, we expected them to build, as they promised, an irrigation system for the field, and not take that river which meant so much to us. And we had big problems with the contractor, he would bring these, the police from Uroševac, around 100-150 people, there was, for example, pushing, here and there, we defended as much as we could, unfortunately, the local self-government did not help us at all, even our police was there… no one explained to us what should be done, how it should be done, and how useful it is, whether what they do or what we do is more useful. Now with the forest, for example, as well. These are big problems for Sirinić county. Now I hear that a cubic meter of wood costs 60-70 euros, but we live in the forest. Before, there was a forest… There was a national park and when they would mark, they chose which ones to mark. If it was lumber, they didn’t allow… But not now, no one can do that, it can’t be done anymore, except through a bid, so they give it to a friend and a friend of a friend, and then when he leaves, well, let’s say, if the bid is for 1000 cubic meters, he takes 1500 cubic meters and we end up paying, that’s it.
Q: Now regarding these protests, against mini-hydroelectric power plants, can you tell us how the cooperation with the local Albanians came about? How did you arrange joint protests?
A: Well, I already said that we didn’t have a leader, so we, the older ones, took control a bit, so these kids wouldn’t… We agreed, when we saw the machines, digging here and there, no one asked us about anything, they passed wherever they wanted, cutting wood, cutting everything, we all went out, they and we, we gathered there, what should we do, we have to see, wait, what, how, hold on, we had a good agreement with them and from time to time afterwards we would schedule to meet and decide on how we would proceed, so we agreed to protest in front of the municipality to ask for a discussion with the president, but not to insult, to curse… None of that, however, there were perhaps some who were planted, so he made it look like he was taken into custody, brought back, this and that, we already know how it goes, and the rest of us, I have to say, were even approached once by the workers of the contractor company, maybe even some of the bosses, and told the Albanians, and we all went together… They said: “Get out of the way, let us round these Serbs, take them to Uroševac, beat them up well, and then we will pass through their yards.” They said so, and the others said: “No.” These Albanians, “While we’re here, you won’t do that, no way.” And so, when we went to the protests, they didn’t allow us to be in the front rows, so there’s still something….
Q: Well, now let’s go back to the past, what are your memories of the socialist era in Kosovo?
A: Everything is the same, only he is missing. Well, I’m telling you seriously, you know, if you ask me… The relations among ordinary people were not good then and they’re not good now, and what do I know, I don’t feel any difference, and those who are in power now, they also had their own people, they didn’t care for a person’s quality and ability, but only that that person was a friend, like everywhere.
Q: And in connection with that, the last question, do you consider the socialist period positive or negative for the development of your village and Kosovo as a whole?
A: Well, I don’t know, I’m not a politician… I have my own opinion, but that’s not for anyone…
Q: What do you think, was it positive, negative, how did socialism, the socialist period affect development or was it the same?
A: What do I know, it’s a positive zero. I really don’t know… I didn’t feel anything, I wasn’t doing well then and I’m not doing well now. I worked, struggled for others, others picked up the phones to tell the bosses how they finished the work, and they don’t even know what was done because I did it. But I’m talking about me, and that’s the case with many here. So, those who were here back then are still here, and that’s it.
Q: Okay, thank you very much.