Kosovo's Serbs on the march
“We will not give up Kosovo,” chant the demonstrators. There are children in the front of the march, followed by tough-looking men with shaved heads, training in their wake teenaged girls made-up to the nines and granddads with lined, weary faces.
It seems everyone is on the street in Mitrovica. It’s a city divided on ethnic lines: on the south side of the bridge the Albanians, this side, the North, the Serbs.
After spending a weekend watching faces in Pristina lit up with joy because of the declaration of independence, this is the other side of the coin. The sense I get is not so much anger as loss.
A song of mournful beauty blasted from the stage declaring “Kosovo we will return”.
Strong and proud
A priest tells the crowd, estimated by police to number around 8,000, that they must remain strong and proud. To loud applause the next speaker declares “Kosovo is Serbian”.
A man with a woolly hat emblazoned with a Serbian eagle, a Serbian flag wrapped around his shoulders, catches my attention. Does he speak English? He does and dives into his wallet and fishes out a British passport.
Gojko Raicvic lives in Montenegro at the moment and has come here to support fellow Serbs.
“The message to my compatriots is to tell the government of Great Britain that what they are doing in supporting the USA is shameful,” he tells me.
“So the message is that what you are doing at the moment is discrediting the history of Great Britain, the proud British nation which always used to support law and order and justice.”
What’s happening today, he says, is the law of disorder, the law of injustice.
Why shameful I ask?
“Simply because whoever knows a bit of European history knows that the Serbs in 1389 stopped the Ottoman Empire forcing its way towards Vienna and Europe, so we were the victims of history 500 years ago and we are the victims once again.”
The appeal to history is so familiar in the Balkans that it is refreshing to listen to Tanya Ladarevic and hear her day-to-day concerns. She is not going on the march but is worried about the future.
“I think that international law has been violated as a native of Mitrovica and of Kosovo,” she says. “I am very much afraid for my future, my daughter's future and for Serbs who live in enclaves because I don’t think they can plan their lives to live there. And worst of all, what will happen for sure even if there is no violence, is that there will be administrative suffocation from the new Kosovan institutions.”
She compares the situation to times under Tito when Kosovo Albanians were allowed a fair degree of autonomy.
“When I was a child there was such a huge and strong administrative suffocation so I expect that it will happen again. And Albanians are pretty skilful in that and this really can be hidden from the international community. You can’t hide violence but you can hide administrative suffocation.”
What does she mean by that term?
She gives me an example: the current plans quite clearly say that Serbian schools can use text books from Belgrade.
“At the end of the day, Pristina will use any kind of veto to prevent the import of the books from Belgrade. Here it will use everything prevent it.
“Take birth certificates. It can take days or months to get papers. If you have to go to court, hospitals or shops you know you just feel everywhere that you are a second class citizen.
“Kosovo Albanians for the past eight years haven’t shown great tolerance. There is no tolerance, it’s very bad. How would you feel in the your own country, or anywhere, to be treated like a second class citizen?”
On the march
After stopping to hear the speeches, the marchers carried on down the main street to the bridge which divides their part of town from the ethnic Albanians in the south..
A thinner line of police than I would have expected stopped them from going any further. I overhear an American man in plain clothes and wrap-around shades with a drawl from the deep South speaking into his mobile.
“If they start pushing, I’ll tell you to deploy. You won’t here from me until then.”
Another officer berates his crew pointing at a man doing silly poses for photographers in the middle of the bridge. “Who let the nutter through?”
The demonstrators burned an American flag, lit flares and threw firecrackers but the push never came and our Southern friend didn’t make the crucial call.
There was no need to unfurl the razor wire or call up the riot squad who waited in vans in the back streets. Serbian dismay is heartfelt but anger has not translated in to either violence or serious political action that would destabilise this new nation.
However, I am hearing reports that three Serbian members of the Kosovo Parliament have resigned because they were not allowed to speak at Sunday’s meeting that endorsed independence.
In Belgrade, a minister has told a colleague that each ministry has a separate plan for dealing with Kosovo and that the Serbian administration will be developed and more investment will go in to make the economy stronger in Serbian areas. These are early days. The reaction of Serbs who live here will be crucial for Kosovo’s future.