1 February 2007
BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell on the dead and dispossessed of Kosovo, the hopes and fears of Serb and ethnic Albanian villagers, and the French presidential contender who wants to slash the Elysee's powers.
There are too many freshly-cut flowers lying next to pictures of teenage boys in Kosovo.
On a hillside surrounded by snow-capped mountains, I am looking at the graves of those who died fighting for the Kosovo Liberation Army. A portrait of a young man in uniform is etched into the shiny marble head stone of each one, an Albanian flag flutters above every grave. The last person who lies here was killed only six years ago, the oldest grave is just 11 years old.
Young Albanian men took up weapons and went to their death
The little square in the part of Mitrovica where the Serbs live is rather run-down - paving stones cracked and the water in the fountain dribbles rather than jets. But the bunches of bright yellow flowers next to the tattered pictures of the young soldiers tell the same story of grief that has not had time to fade.
It was to stop the killing of Albanians who make up nearly 90% of Kosovo's population that Nato fought its last European war. Now the US and Britain believe that speed is of the essence in making Kosovo independent.
They say too much delay would frustrate Albanians and increase tensions here, whereas a clear-cut solution will be grudgingly accepted even by those who resent it.
Durgut Shaqiri has a sharp haircut and a snazzy snakeskin jacket. He does not have a particularly military bearing, but he's showing me around Veliki Trnovac the village in southern Serbia he fought to defend just a few years ago.
He's an Albanian and fought to stop Serb police and troops going into the village. More than 60 men died there, on the rather nondescript road surrounded by fields. He says that Kosovo has to become independent and that when it is, it will be a force of stability in the Balkans.
Another outpouring of refugees could be a possibility
But other Albanians have worries. Will there be another refugee crisis, an outpouring of Serbs, who will come to live in their area - the Presevo Valley just east of Kosovo? If some areas of Kosovo are given autonomy because they are mainly Serb, then won't villages like this one demand the same right within Serbia?
SERB SENSE OF LOSS
Talking to the Djuric family we hear the other side of the story. An elderly lady gestures angrily with her walking stick as we walk into the Serb refugee camp, just outside Belgrade. She's saying she doesn't want to be filmed and we'd be delighted to comply if she would only desist from walking in front of our camera in order to make the point that she doesn't want to be filmed.
Zvezdau and Olivera Djuric lived here for seven years and had their two children here, but have now found a flat nearby. Zvezdau's cousins and mum and dad are still in the camp. It is actually an old army barracks, and while I'm not saying I'd want to live in it, it's not bad by the standards of such things. But there's a real sense of material loss.
Ethnic Albanians were able to loot empty homes after Serbs left
Zvezdau's uncle, Dobrivoje Pesic, tells me that he owned a timber business and a restaurant as well as houses and fields in the Kosovo village of Klina, but has now lost them all. He regularly goes back to Kosovo and is outraged that he can see Albanians working on what he regards as his land.
As he is talking, the lady comes up, again waving her walking stick. What's the matter - we haven't filmed her? No, but now she wants to have her say. Santic Andja says she has got a house in Kosovo, her relatives are buried there. "No-one can give Kosovo away, not the government, not the prime minister, it's ours, it's Serbian."
SARKOZY THE ANGLOPHILE
With both feet in the Balkans, I am keeping one eye on France, and am reading Nicolas Sarkozy's book Testament, which is about to be published in English by Harriman House. It's not quite an autobiography, a bit more of a reflective manifesto, and gives a real insight into this controversial politician.
In Britain, it would be downright weird for a serving politician to write a book, unless it was in praise of his own government's housing policy or some thing equally dull. In France, it is not at all strange but I wonder whether it is still a gamble. Will the French electorate like his praise of the UK for instance?
He admires the British system of government, and the British "passion for seeking the highest level of liberty and independence possible for her citizens". He asks why the British are buying "our houses" in the Dordogne and Perigord, and answers that it is because Britain's standard of living and GDP are higher than those of France. He argues that many young French people, including his own daughter, have gone to London because "to succeed here has become so shameful that a young person wanting to get on is obliged to leave".
But perhaps his views on the powers of the French president, which he says should be "reduced, limited or even suppressed", are even more likely to alienate readers.
He argues that the prime minister should be the one who attends European Union meetings and handles the Europe brief. He says the current situation of defence and foreign affairs being the sole preserve of the president is "democratically unjustified".
This would-be president wants powers shifted away from the Elysee
He wants the French parliament to develop as a counterweight to the president, who should be made to regularly explain himself to that body. He would curtail the president's power of appointment, end his power of pardon and limit him (or her) to two terms in office.
If Mr Sarkozy makes it to the Elysee Palace I look forward to reporting on his rapid implementation of these plans.
At home in Brussels I read some of your replies to last week's article with some sadness.
Looking out the window I could see red squirrels scampering up the trees, and, rather bizarrely, a bright green parakeet about to take flight. The trees are in the large park at the end of my garden, just one of many green spaces that dot Brussels.
It feels like living in the countryside but it's just four metro stops away from our offices, which are bang in the middle of the European district, the working heart of political Brussels. And of course, not far from there are some of the finest restaurants and bars in Europe. But according to most of you, poor old Brussels is the worst capital in Europe.
It may not have the style and history of Rome, the buzz of London or the temperamental chic of Paris, but it's a comfortable place to live.
I am a Serb that supports Kosovo independence. If 90% of the populace want it, they should have it. It's only fair. The way Serbia treated ethnic-Albanians is a disgrace. The best thing would be for Serbia to be the first country to recognize the Republic of Kosova as an independent country. Hopefully, this can be a start of a more peaceful tomorrow.
Vuk, NYC, USA
Albanians have lived forever in Kosovo, and in great numbers. The Albanian language is one of the oldest in Europe, and the Albanian people have never moved from their land from the beginning of time. All this is confirmed with the DNA tests of the population. It's time to correct this injustice. They are a free people and deserve independence.
Andis, New York
Serbia is way behind all of the other countries that separated from Yugoslavia. Why? Because they are still holding onto the dream of Yugoslavia and not willing to face reality and take responsibility for their mistakes... The Serbs need to stop worrying about everything else and concentrate on themselves. They have a lot of poverty, corruption and unemployment and none of it is changing. In fact, they just elected basically the same leaders that got them in this mess to begin with 15 years ago. Give me a break and grow up Serbia!
Anna, Chapel Hill, NC
You and your multi-ethnic community, what do you know about it? Yugoslavia was a prosperous country and that did not suit the West and they had to partition it and also try their new weapons on its territory. Just watch what is happening from the fallout from your so-called depleted uranium bombs.
Milos Matijevic, Oakville Canada
It is an accepted fact among academic circles that Albanians (Illyrians) inhabitated the Kosovo lands, and even further up to Nis, for more than two millennia. They did not suddenly appear there out of nowhere. The HYS posters should read proper history before commenting and making outlandish remarks.
Deana, NY, United States
Hey all of you that say this is not right I beg to differ. Please read your history. Kosova become Serbian only in 1914, until then it was part of Albania. So get your facts straight.
Give independence to Kosovo and you have no base to deny the same to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia will press hard to break these two from Georgia. That happening, how about Germany trying to get East Prussia back from Russia for change? We see dragon's fangs being planted, we'll see the seeds protruding quite soon. The West seems once again to be ignorant to the point of criminal stupidity.
Oleg Litvin, Moscow, Russia
One must look at historical heritage, not population dynamics. Kosovo and Metohia has long been a centre of Serbia and Serbian Orthodoxy. I am increasingly sorry that the Serbo-Croat peoples have all become so nationalist and religionist, but the solution is never division!! Independence divides, while a federation of states breeds tolerance and acceptance!! If the wounds heal let's hope Yugoslavia will reunite with all identities; Orthodox, Muslim, and Catholic Slavs, as well as Muslim Albanians. Long live Unionism!!
Alexander, Cambridge, UK
The fact that several hundred thousand people, including ethnic Albanians accused of 'collaborating with the Serbian regime', Serbs, Roma and others have been ethnically cleansed from Kosovo and their historic monuments destroyed and their homes stolen, since June 1999 with the backing of Western politicians and press is conveniently ignored. Once Kosovo is illegally given its indepeendence it will demand that other parts of Serbia, such as the Presevo Valley, along with portions of Montenegro, Macedonia and Bulgaria be given to it before it unites with Albania. This supports armed terrorist separtists in other parts of the world, including countries such as Spain and Northern Ireland.
J. Knight, London England
How would the British react if asked the following question: Why don't you give Northern Ireland the independence? And another question for all the foreign correspondents in Kosovo: Has anyone seen any of the Albanian historical monuments in Kosovo? Wherever you go, you will come across the Serbian monasteries and churches dating back from the Byzantine period, 11th and 12th centuries up to the Turkish conquest of the Serbian lands. There is no dilema, only political interests among the most powerful.
Mirjana, Belgrade, Serbia
When comes to the issue of independence of Kosovo, it is very hard for Serbs to accept it. As a Serb who was expelled from Krajina region in Croatia for wanting independence, it is ilogical for me that Albanians would be given the exact same right we were looking for in Croatia. When (not if) Kosovo is given independence this will not only create a very dangerous precedent for many regions in the world, but it certainly will be a pretext for future conflict in the Balkans. No other people in Europe have two countries. On the other side I don't see Albanians as a part of Serbian society, but also I can't see Kosovo separated from Serbia for long.
Zeljorad Maricic, Phoenix, Arizona
Even Montenegroens don't want to be ruled by Belgrade! Why should Kosovans be forced to live under a regime that doesn't treat them as equal citizens? People of Kosovo deserve to live in a free and independent country and not to be hostages of Serbian politicians' low electoral calculations.
Qendrim Gashi, Chicago and Prishtina
How can Europe interfere in the afairs of soverign country? Democracy? Think you must be joking!
Peter Alexander, Melbourne Australia
"He regularly goes back to Kosovo and is outraged that he can see Albanians working on what he regards as his land."
Excuse me, what he "regards" as his land? If, as you say, the land was taken after he left, why would you give theft the air of legitimacy by saying Mr. Pesic only "regards" it as his land?
A rather appropriate metaphor, however, for what has been happening in Kosovo, and media bias in terms of framing. When Serbs are forced to leave Kosovo, they live in "not bad" army barracks and only "regard" their propoerty as their own. Albanians in the same situation become "ethnically cleansed" and refugees. Anyone remember standards before status?
Stefanos, New Orleans, US
When you say the UK and US want this now, please do not include all US citizens. What happened to the ethnic Albanians in the past was deplorable, but to simply give a country away because a majority of the population came from another country and now wants total independence is outright theft. Kosovo is a part of Serbia and has been for what seems forever. There is a growing Cuban population in Miami Florida. Let's grant them independence from the US as well. Illegal Mexicans in Texas? Let's carve up the state and grant them independence. Republika Srpska? Back you go to Belgrade! When will the west learn from its mistakes and let other nations control their own destiny?
Pat, Westfield, NJ - USA
The answer on Mirjana's question with regard to Northern Ireland: you need to study the question of Norther Ireland a bit before judging, it's is not the task of GB to give or not give NI its independence, look at the percentages of the Catholic population and of Protestant population. It's not to be compared. As for Serbian monuments, they will stay in Kosovo no matter it's independence and will witness about the past, and now,AFTER ALL THAT HAPPENED,in the present, Kosovo must be allowed to move on and has a right to be parted with Serbia. In life, we care about the people, not the monuments!
S., Zagreb, Croatia
Every western correspondent joyfully emphasises that Albanians are a majority in Kosovo. But this is a very recent phenomenon: in teh beginning of teh 20th century Albanians amounted to less than half! Most Albanians in Kosovo are immigrants, or children or grandchildren of immigrants. Why should they be considered a majority while the indigenous population of that place lives in refugee camps elsewhere?
Just to be clear to those outside Britain: the British are, in general, entirely indifferent to the fate of Northern Ireland. If the people of Northern Ireland want to remain part of the UK (which is currently the case) they can. But they can join Ireland tomorrow if they want. Or become independent. Whatever they want. We have no sense of "ownership" of the province. Honestly, talk to anyone on the streets of London, Manchester or Cardiff and this is what they will tell you. If you don't believe me, you'll be in for a surprise the next time you ask someone British.
On another point, I have to say I was taken aback that Mark's usually excellent standards slipped a bit when he used the phrase "on what he regards as his land". Please Mark, the Serbs will never believe us when we say we're not biased if we use this kind of language. While the rights and wrongs of Kosovo can be debated, of course it was his land, and he has every right to be upset about its loss.
Mirjana, regarding Northern Ireland, the majority of people there wish to remain part of the UK, so the situation is not as similar as you might think
Rupert Fiennes, London, UK
This is a question how would English people react when they have to lose Somerset, because Somerset is a part of England as Kosovo is part of Serbia. Here is not talk of losing Northern Ireland, because once upon a time ..., but Kosovo has never been a part of Albania. Or can we split Birmingham and proclaim a part of it as independent because of population structure?
It's sad to read about the Serbs from Kosovo living in poor army barracks,but it doesn't make me belive any less in a right of Kosovo Albanians to get independance. In Kosovo,just like in Croatia,Serb forces attacked the local population first. Well done for the US and UK to help Kosovo get independence !
Bojan, Plitvicka Jezera,Croatia
can I remind everyone that the place for Kosovo and serbia is EU.
Please don't get in to historical contests, that will lead to nowhere. For all the people who still like to comment on the churches and heritage and all that, can I just say that that is a Kosovo heritage and would like to add that people should read facts about Illyrians and the other one that Serbs were never a majority in Kosovo. What's the problem than?
EU should force both governements towards improving the living conditions and standards of the people and get them closer tyo EU where the whole region belongs.
Kosovo will go the way of Albania and become yet another poorly governed, economically disadvantaged state of Albania rife with drug smugglers and illegal arms dealers etc.
Chris , Sydney. Australia
Thanks Mark for your support of our pleasant and comfortable city. I too was disappointed by the comments about Brussels last week, especially those coming from (one presumes) short-term Eurocrats who live here. From the beautiful Art Nouveau houses in St Gilles, to the chic cafes and restaurants in Sablon, to the mix of nationalities and cultures in the European quarter and above all to the relaxed and affordable lifestyle, Brussels has a lot to say for itself.
Chris, Brussels, Belgium
Cities and towns are what you make of them. We all have our personal likes and dislikes. The replies posted and published showed that it is rather irresponsible, in a way, to simply talk in a general way about places. After all, there is a huge difference between living in a town and visiting it. I would plead for opinions to be given on towns from the point of view of living or from the point of view of visiting, but not mix the two up.
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany
As a long term resident of Brussels I fully agree with Mark's view of the city. It is a wonderful place to live, with affordable often beautiful housing, good facilities (healthcare, transport, child care etc) and easy access to green spaces. The only problem is that people live in 'silos'. On the one hand are the eurocrats, and on the other the majority francophones, the office day-tripper Flemish (+ the trendy Flemish city center residents) and the urban poor (vast swathes of the city center, Anderlecht, Molenbeek etc). While these groups do interact, they do so irregularly and sometimes unsympathetically.
The result is a lack of social cohesion and a city curiously lacking in something that gels it together as a place with a definite character.
Despite this, and despite beloning to my own Flemish/English silo, I do like the city very much indeed!
Given the comments raised so far, I'm sure that there is enough material for a very interesting BBC documentary on the weirdness of the city, its strange, counterproductive politics and its astounding levels of urban poverty.
Alexander, Brussels, Belgium
I've just read the comments on the worst capitals, and wonder how much some of these places have changed since I was last there. I spent a year working in Brussels in the late 70s and loved it to bits - I remember tree-lined and cobbled streets (which turned the most glorious array of colours in autumn), the lovely parks (especially the Foret des Soignes to the south of the city), the trundling trams - and I loved the smell of waffles in the street on a cold winter's day! Has it really changed that much? I also went to Aberdeen University, and ended up staying up there for eight years - again, a wonderful place to live, especially up around Old Aberdeen. Has your correspondent walked up the miles of sandy beach beyond the river Don on a brisk winter's day? Or explored Footdee? or wandered around Duthie Park or Seaton Park? Or the maze of little streets round the back of Union Street? And I don't remember the streets being filled with drunks at night (but perhaps back then I was one of them!). On a separate note, one of my best friends at school in the 70s was Croatian, she and her family have lived outside Zagreb since the mid-80s and she worked as a translator for the Red Cross during the war - I heard such awful accounts of the Serbs' barbarity towards the Croats and Muslims and would never visit Belgrade on principle.
Sue, London, UK