Plan floated by presidents already causing concern on the ground.

By Eleanor Rose, 11/20/18

ÇABËR, Kosovo — When the people of this village in northern Kosovo returned to homes flattened by Serbian forces in the 1998-1999 war, they hoped to rebuild and live in safety for generations to come.

Now they fear they could be forced to leave again, under proposals to change borders as part of a permanent peace settlement between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić have presented the idea as a way to end their long-running frozen conflict and clear a path for both to eventually become members of the European Union. But the idea has many critics, who argue it would destabilize the Balkans by emboldening others to push for border changes. They see a risk of a return to the ethnically motivated violence that devastated the region in the 1990s.

Even just talk of a land swap has unsettled villagers in Çabër, also known as Čabra, a lonely enclave wholly populated by ethnic Albanians but surrounded by Serb settlements in the rolling hills of Zubin Potok, on the northern bank of the River Ibar.

“It is bringing back painful memories,” says village leader Agim Hasani.

Çabër was on the frontline of the war, so badly damaged by the conflict that it was categorized by aid agencies as the most ravaged village in Kosovo.

Any border change negotiated by Belgrade and Pristina could have huge implications for the people of Çabër. Although neither side has revealed details of the changes they propose, the general idea is that some mainly Serb areas of northern Kosovo would join Serbia while some predominantly ethnic Albanian communities in southern Serbia would become part of Kosovo.

That could mean the municipality of Zubin Potok — with its mainly Serb population — joining Serbia, to the north. Villagers in Çabër say if that happens, they would leave, rather than be under the rule of a country that brutally repressed them and other members of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.

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Çabër was on the frontline of the war, so badly damaged by the conflict that it was categorized by aid agencies as the most ravaged village in Kosovo.

The worst damage was done in a single night of violence on March 29, 1999, a few days after NATO airstrikes began on Serb military positions. Villager Ekrem Kamberi, 45, remembers being woken at 3 a.m. by shells raining down from positions near the neighboring Serb village of Zupče.

“We didn’t expect it, and we were frightened,” he says. About 1,400 villagers fled into the hills in tractors or cars, some before they could even grab underwear. They scattered around the homes of relatives and friends, or “anywhere that was safe.” Kamberi took refuge in Albania. In all, 21 people were killed. Five people are still missing.

The uncertainty raised by the border swap talks has hit the people of Çabër hard.

“Villagers were angry when they heard about it, writing on social media,” says Kamberi’s friend Sabedin Uka, 52, a social worker. Uka was injured in the leg by a grenade in a Serb attack during the 1999 conflict.

“The president can’t decide to change the border. I would leave Çabër, and most of the people here would leave — it wouldn’t be safe,” he says in a small village administration office.

The reason he feels that way is simple. “It’s because of the past,” says Uka, spreading his hands. Kamberi agrees. “It’s fresh,” he says.

‘From the basement up’

When the people of Çabër ventured home after the conflict, they found burned-out shells and piles of rubble where their homes had been.

“When we returned everything was flat — no school, nothing left,” says Enver Hasani, director of the local school. It turned out that after they’d fled, Serbs moved in with bulldozers, pulling down and setting light to 230 buildings, including the local mosque.

For two years, 700 returnees lived in tents and pre-fabricated shelters. It wasn’t until 2001, with the help of the International Red Cross, that they began building new houses “from the basement up,” says Kamberi.

With funds raised by the Body Shop Foundation (a now-defunct charity associated with the cosmetics company of the same name), they also built a new school — a modern-looking, cream-colored wedge-shaped building with smart wooden windows.

“These events are still present — the parents will never forget it” — Agim Hasani, village leader

Villagers now live under the watch of NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR), whose 4x4s still periodically rumble down Çabër’s main road. But reconciliation with Serb neighbors has been slow and hampered by major setbacks.

In the school hallway hang portraits of three young ethnic Albanian boys, with toothy smiles and mussed hair — a memorial to the worst incident in Çabër’s post-war history. One afternoon in March 2004, the children aged 9, 11 and 12 drowned in the river a few hundred meters away. Reports at the time alleged a Serb from Zupče had driven them into the water by setting a dog on them, although a U.N. investigation did not support allegations of a criminal act.

Today, village leader Agim Hasani — who was on the scene within minutes of the tragedy — says he believes the dog owner acted unintentionally. But the incident was enough to spark serious violence. Thousands of outraged Albanians rioted in the nearby ethnically divided city of Mitrovica and other towns. Nineteen people were killed and dozens of Serb Orthodox churches were burned to the ground.

Since then, locals have worked to put their lives back together while minimizing tensions with the Serbs of Zupče.

“These events are still present — the parents will never forget it,” says Hasani. “There used to be barricades between Çabër and Zupče, and people exchanged angry words every day. But not any more. We’ve managed to stabilize the village.”

The people from the two villages go about their daily business separately, seldom coming into contact, although Hasani says that there is regular communication between community leaders.

Some support

The suggested land swap has gained some support, including among a section of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb minority, who feel aggrieved at their treatment by Kosovan authorities since the war.

Lazar Rakić, 30, who grew up in Zupče and is now program manager at the Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre, an NGO in northern Mitrovica, says Serbs there face administrative problems, such as obtaining basic documents including birth and marriage certificates. He says he is not a nationalist, but sees a land swap as a pragmatic way for Vučić to recognise Kosovo without losing Serbian support.

He suggests a way could be found for Çabër to remain part of Kosovo. “It is connected by road to south Mitrovica, so they could draw the border around it,” he says.

Back in Çabër, headmaster Enver Hasani says he feels his school is in limbo. “What we want for the future is to give our children quality education. But while there is this undecided situation, those dreams are cloudy,” he says.

He is “90 percent sure” there will be no swap. “But you don’t know what can happen,” he says. “The border correction would change all our dreams and realities.”

Village leader Agim Hasani is passionate about what Çabër means to locals. “Do you know what a hometown is? The place where you were born? For us, it’s a holy place,” he says.

The people of Çabër would refuse to live under Serbian sovereignty, he insists — and he adds a warning, insisting that ethnic Albanians would not put up with living under Serb rule again.

“Serbia, Hashim Thaçi, and everyone supporting this should not think Albanians will be the same as years ago — tolerating it,” he says.

Does that mean a land swap would not be peaceful? “Everything can happen here,” he says. “Touching the borders means war.”