Saturday, May 03, 2008

A town called Rahovec

On the 11th of May Serbia is holding a general election. As the status of Kosovo’s statehood has not been fully recognised by the UN, it was ruled that it would be possible for Serbs living in Kosovo to vote in the election. The focus of current media attention on the effect of the election in Kosovo is on the northern town of Mitrovica, infamously split between the Serbs on the northern side and Albanians on the southern side by the river Ibar. However, we were interested in what effect the election might be having on Serb-Albanian relations in areas of Kosovo less covered by the international media.
On the 1st of May we travelled to Rahovec, a small town in southern Kosovo known for its wine and raki. The town is also home to one of the few isolated Serbian communities left in Kosovo. The coming election may prove to be a volatile issue for the parts of Kosovo in which Serb and Albanian communities live side by side. As the majority of media attention is focused on Mitrovica we wanted to visit another Serb enclave and see what the situation surrounding Serb/Albanian relations and the coming election was.
The town was very quiet as we drove in. There were few vehicles on the road and most of the tables out side the cafes were empty. We stopped to speak to two K-FOR soldiers who were parked in their military land rover next to the town’s mosque. After a few questions and a single mention of the election one soldiers asked us to wait a moment while he radioed his commander. Five minutes later another military vehicle arrived and what the soldier described as his ‘general’ jumped out. He was keen to assure us that K-FOR expected nothing to happen during the election and had taken no extra precautions.
His words were in stark contrast to the kind of military operation K-FOR have planned for Mitrovica over the election period. One UN official told us that the whole town would be on lock-down and that K-FOR had been running drills for a number of possible situations they might have to deal with in the Stari Trg area only yesterday. This was confirmed by the KFOR press release which described the exercises as maintaining ‘operational readiness.’
In a café across the road we asked where the Serb community lived in the town, and where we might find a wine-maker. Unsurprisingly we were shown to a wine-maker first; a man called Ismet whose cellars were a few minutes walk away. He is an Albanian-Kosovan who has been making wine and raki since well before the war. He showed us his cellars, where he and 26 members of his family sheltered for 3 months during the war, and spoke to us about his wine. After the war he has noticed a large increase in his wine sales, something he puts down to the large number of internationals living in Pristina.
During the war 250 to 300 people were killed in Rahovec. None of his family were killed or injured but his neighbours, a wealthy family of seven, were killed by Serbian paramilitaries. According to Ismet they took the family’s money then killed them all, including the four children. He also knew of a woman who was taken by the Serbs and raped for 10 days before being killed and mutilated. Many of the fields outside the town were covered with mines, but these had now been cleared.
The conflict was responsible for the divisions which govern the town today.
Ismet had worked with Serbs before the war and was taught to make Mastik, a Perno-like spirit, by an old Serbian man. The two communities used to be much more integrated but during the conflict many Serb houses were burnt down in retaliation to the paramilitary’s atrocities. Now the Serbian minority is concentrated between a small, isolated area in the town which lies on the slope of a steep hill and another area called Velika Hoča.
In the Serb area further up the hill we met Antić Zoravko, a Serb wine-maker. His family have lived in Rahovec for generations. He owns a small shop from which he sells his wine to people from the town. He showed us his new aluminium wine vats, which took up most of the space in the first floor of his house, and gave us a glass of wine and some raki to try.
His story was similar to Ismet’s. Before the war he worked with Albanians, drunk with Albanian friends and went to Albanian weddings. Now he doesn’t speak to those Albanians he was friendly with. During the conflict his brother’s house was burnt down in the Albanian’s retribution against Serb atrocities. He now lives in Serbia. Antić is adamant he will never follow his brother’s example. To him Rahovec is his home, not Serbia. He believes it is too early to know how Kosovo’s independence will affect him and Rahovec’s Serb population but that whatever happens he will stay.
Even though both men said they had no problem with the other community there was definite resentment on both sides. Ismet believed the Serb minority often played the victim in order to get extra benefits from UNMIK and the Serb government. The latter offered financial incentives for Serbs willing to stay in Rahovec despite the post-war tensions, but Antić said that it took him three years to receive any money and that a living on handouts hardly constitutes an incentive to stay. It was also telling that both men said they were waiting for things to get better, implying that improving relations was out of their hands.
Most surprisingly they voiced similar opinions about the Serbian election. Both were pro-EU, believing it was the best path to take for the region and again emphasising their desire to move forward. Antić wanted to see Serbia join the EU rather than isolate itself further. Ismet and Antić didn’t seem worried about the election and foresaw no problems. The war drained their faith in politics and the potentially volatile issue of a Serbian election on newly independent Kosovan soil did not seem an issue of great personal importance. Both men spoke of Rahovec as a community in itself, one proud of its work-ethic, as much as town divided along ethnic lines.
That said Rahovec remains a potential trouble-spot around election time. The fallout from the war has made life in Rahovec tense and difficult. There is not the kind of stark separation of communities as in Mitrovica, but it is clear that the deep division is something neither Kosovan independence nor the Serbian elections will benefit immediately, if at all. However, both Ismet and Antić were keen to stress their desire to leave the past behind. ‘You have to forget and begin a new life’ said Ismet, ‘Everyone has fought a war, but we all have to move on.’ Antić’s view was no different. His memories are still painful for him but he said, only half-joking, ‘If you have a good spirit and quality wine then you can survive.’


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