In the grand scheme of things, the squabble over the north does not seem so big.

When we look at the stars, we are not looking at them in their current state. In fact, we are observing them based on the light that is only now reaching our retina’s photoreceptors. Icarus, the farthest star known to us, is more than nine billion light-years away.

Mind-bogglingly, that star could have transformed into a supernova millions of years ago, and we still would not know it because the light from that supernova will only reach us many million years from now.

Or rather it will not ― because we will not be around to witness it. Bummer.

Back to planet Earth and our petty scuffles and mundane transgressions. The governments of Kosovo and Serbia are feuding over control of the notorious north. Actually, scratch that. Serbia only portrays things this way in their media, desperate to demonstrate it holds the upper hand. Mounting evidence and common sense tell us this is not even remotely the case, but who cares about that stuff anyway?!

Truth be told, the Serbian government has been steadily withdrawing its institutions from Kosovo, most notably from its northern corner. Since I have lived here my entire life ― and intend to do so for the foreseeable future ― it strikes me as vitally important to convey my opinions on how Serbs in Kosovo, particularly in its north, live their days.

How to effectively hate freedom and democracy
First, most of my fellow compatriots, especially older folks, spend most of their free time glued to their TV screens, passively absorbing information about how we have knocked out the Albanians for the gazillionth time, or how Serbia is a well-respected country loved by all, and that the novel situation regarding Serbian license plates is not a national humiliation but a triumphant victory.

Second, many Serbs still live their lives in the unfounded illusion (even if all illusions are unfounded) that Serbia can eventually take control over Kosovo. Not just that, we are almost there!

Third, ordinary Serbs who don’t buy into the story that all Albanians are made of pure evil are forced to justify themselves to their compatriots. If you are a Serb, then the fact that you should hate all of the bloody rascals for taking away our holy land of Kosovo and Metohija is a given.

Fourth, no one gives a damn about the accusations of election rigging in Serb-majority communities. The worst part is we are expected to go with the flow and enjoy the ride while our society turns into an increasingly autocratic mess lacking any democratic basis ― even though we know from numerous studies that despotic rule leaves everyone worse off in the long run (despots included).

Disconcertingly, it seems to me that we have grown accustomed to despising all those who want to be free and yearn for democracy. We have become averse to freedom.

But that is not all.

No man’s (or woman’s) land
With virtually zero guarantees from Kosovo’s authorities to ensure a decent standard of living, the local Serb population has been left to fend for itself.

Now, before anyone thinks of how we deserve everything that is coming to us “because of Slobodan Milošević’s policies,” let’s unwrap that for a second.

My peers and I weren’t old enough to have the right to vote back in the 1990s, so I do not see why anyone should hold us responsible for the crimes of Milošević’s clique. We have coming to us rampant discrimination by Kosovo’s institutions, a systemic violation of language rights, restricted freedom of movement and questionable day-to-day security, especially for returnee families south of the Ibar.

All of this is topped off with the willful ignorance and deliberate neglect of the circumstances of local Serbs by Kosovo’s officials and public servants. My peers and I do not deserve any of it. Likewise, my almost-two-year-old son does not deserve to undergo all of this once he grows up, learns to read, write and converse with others.

I’ve never felt so unrepresented in my whole life. How so?

First, Belgrade is issuing Serbian passports for its citizens residing in Kosovo, but these are virtually worthless (the passports, not the citizens), as they require a visa to travel abroad. However, the remainder of their citizenry benefits from a visa-free regime with the EU. Finally, we have something in common with other Kosovo citizens ― effectively useless passports.

Second, one would think that, with two local governments ― that of Serbia and Kosovo ― running in parallel, we would get double investments in road infrastructure, double the benefits of a democratic society, and double everything that comes along with it. Sadly, that is not the case as the two governments constantly lay the responsibility on the other, ending in a perpetual blame cycle where seemingly nothing gets done the way it should.

Third, as somebody living in North Mitrovica for the past 30 years (my whole life so far), it is apparent that Kosovo’s government does not want to integrate the people living in the north ― they seem to be exclusively interested in controlling the territory we inhabit. In other words, they are not particularly fond of us (see: special forces incursions and harassment of locals).

But look what they did to us
All that aside, it annoys me tremendously to still hear people say that only one side suffered during the conflict in Kosovo; that even if there were civilian victims on their side, it is justifiable for some insane reason; and that our side never committed any crimes.

It is boggling to me why it is so difficult for people to recognize that women (and men) were raped, civilians were killed or went missing, that homes burned to the ground and entire communities were expelled from their homes. I do not find it difficult in the slightest, as I do not carry the burden of the actual perpetrators.

Only they should spend sleepless nights for what they did, only they should be forced to pay for what they did. Why should I carry a historical burden for what a member of my nation did when I was seven years old? That does not reflect on me, not even remotely. Those are their responsibilities and night terrors, not mine.

In any case, for two societies in the 21st century, we indeed have some 12th-century-style dogmas.

On that note, I visited France and Germany a few times. It struck me how they have managed to recognize their grim past and move on with their lives, especially in the border regions where Germans speak French fluently and the French speak impeccable German.

With millions of victims in countless wars, how were they able to leave their past behind, but we cannot? Why are they so much better at it than us?

Luckily for them, they have understood the argument of not carrying the weight of their ancestors’ mistakes and crimes.

Living the double life
In his book “Enlightenment Now,” cognitive psychologist and psycholinguist Steven Pinker argues that human development has been on a steep rise for the past hundred or so years. In fact, he maintains that now is the best time to live since the beginning of humankind and that most countries are steadily digging themselves out of the pit of poverty, political isolation and human stupidity.

I have to wonder, does this apply to north Kosovo? Hardly. Although we still have dual institutions (public utility companies, municipal authorities, tax authorities) funded and managed by both Belgrade and Prishtina, that doesn’t necessarily mean double the law and order. Even though we do not pay electricity, water bills and property tax, there is a cost attached to that: suboptimal voltage in the winter, water restrictions during the summer and unbridled construction.

From the yawning lack of political accountability to the inefficacy of the judicial system and the gaping hole we call healthcare and education, we ― the people ― are on the receiving end of it all. We suffer the consequences, and our children will too, provided something is not done immediately.

“Enough with the rant, Stefan,” you may be thinking. But I still have to ask the obvious question here: If we’re living in the neighborhood of the most prosperous and most developed group of nations, the EU ― and the whole world is bound to progress over the ensuing decades as posited by Steven Pinker ― does it matter what it says on our ID cards? Because that is what this is all about, right? Whose coat of arms, license plates and personal documents will we, the northerners, be using. It is not about our well-being or our living standards; it is about symbols and systems.

So, let us unpack that.

If all my rights are respected, if I get to speak my language freely, if public servants do not play dumb when I ask them to converse in Serbian, if I feel the law is equal to all and society is treating me fairly ― does it truly matter whether my ID card reads Kosovo or Serbia? Tellingly, most people living in the notorious north have obtained Kosovo IDs and possess documents issued by both governments.

All this brings me to a message I frantically want to convey to our Dear Leaders (any allusion to Kim Jong Il is unintended):

Get it over with people. Secure a legally binding agreement already or don’t, just tell us what you have in store for us. We are tired of living in this perpetual limbo. So please, in your infinite wisdom, leave us be.

Das Ende
Enough with the social and political predicaments.

What I find to be the ultimate solution to many of our prevailing aches is:

  • A visa-free regime for all inhabitants of Kosovo.
  • Unlimited trade and financial exchange between everyone living in the semi-dark “vilayets” we call Serbia and Kosovo.
  • No borders or boundaries.
  • No checkpoints at Jarinje, Brnjak, or Merdare.
  • No double administrative harassment by either government.
  • No special forces or barricades.

But to get back to our initial contention:

Approximately 60 to 70 million years ago, dinosaurs still roamed the Earth freely. The light reflected from Earth from back then is only now reaching some distant galaxies, which effectively means that some far-off planets’ inhabitants, many light-years away, now enjoy the sight of Earth’s plants and animals that have long gone extinct.

Honestly, I prefer that panorama to Kosovo and Serbia battling for the notorious north, utterly oblivious of how trivial their scuffles appear in the grand scheme of things. Dare I say that I prefer those advanced civilizations to ours!

Within Kosovo Collective Op-Ed series

Opinions expressed in this oped series do not necessarily represent those of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. (BTD), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), or the U.S. Government.

 The project is supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. and USAID.


Stefan Veljković

Stefan Veljković was born in 1991 in North Mitrovica and works as a trilingual translator and editor for local and international companies. He has 10+ years of experience in the NGO sector, working on violence prevention, gender equality and civic activism. When not on the job, Stefan spends time with his toddler and wife, builds a blog on stellar productivity and basic decency, and plants a small forest in the family backyard.