In the small town of Kamenica, Serbs and Kosovo Albanians are learning each other’s languages in an attempt to put past animosities behind them – and to increase their chances of getting a job.
One by one, Bojan Stamenkovic carefully pronounces the letters that make up the word ‘apple’ (molle) in Albanian. His speech is fluent and accurate, and it is difficult to notice that he is not speaking his native language.
On a cold Wednesday afternoon in January, Stamenkovic held his first Albanian-language class as a teacher. There are 37 students in the class, of different ages and ethnicities, although most of them are Serbs.
Teaching is not the only job Stamenkovic has in the small, ethnically-mixed eastern Kosovo town of Kamenica – he is also the deputy mayor.
“Until we started, I hadn’t noticed a great interest among Serbs here in learning Albanian. In the beginning, we had registered 20 participants. Today we have more and there are others who want to come,” he told BIRN.
Kamenica, Mamusha, Dragash, North Mitrovica and South Mitrovica are five Kosovo municipalities which have benefited from an International Organisation of Migration project, which is supported by the British embassy in Kosovo, to offer free language courses in Albanian and Serbian.
Courses in Kamenica are held each day, in two shifts, in the municipal assembly hall, and the organisers have compiled textbooks which provide basic knowledge of the Albanian and Serbian languages.
Stamenkovic, 35, who was born in town of Gjilan/Gnjilane, 45 kilometres east of Pristina, feels that ethnic animosities in this part of the country are fading, following two decades of frozen relations between the two major local communities.
“People need to communicate and they are realising that learning the other’s language helps both sides. Away from this course, they [Serbs] will have Albanians all around them and this will make it easier for them to learn more,” he explained.
Albanian and Serbian are the two official languages of Kosovo, according to the law. Other languages like Turkish and Roma are in official use in municipalities in which the people who speak them make up at least five per cent of the local population.
Stamenkovic said he is not satisfied that the law is being implemented properly, or with the quality of Serbian translations provided by institutions, and suggested that a department of Serbian language department should be opened at Pristina University.
“In Belgrade, an Albanian language department has existed for a long time. Of course the same should happen at Pristina University too because it would help to establish professional translators,” he said.
Stamenkovic graduated with a degree in economics and worked for 14 years as a Kosovo customs officer before he was approached by the mayor of Kamenica, Qendron Kastrati, to become his deputy when he won the 2017 mayoral elections.
The two young municipal leaders spared no time in voicing their coexistence goals.
In April 2018, Kastrati and Stamenknovic addressed a joint letter to foreign embassies and the EU office in Kosovo, asking for funds for the construction of a joint school for Albanian and Serb children.
“To build genuine inter-ethnic relations, it is very important to focus on our youth. It is imperative that young people of all communities, without exception, spend their daily lives together in a common learning and recreational environment,” Kastrati and Stamenkovic wrote.
Sitting in the improvised classroom in the municipal assembly hall, Stamenkovic said thinks that people learning their neighbours’ language would help them get closer to each other.
“The concept of coexistence and inter-ethnic communication here is better and more tangible than in other municipalities in Kosovo,” he argued.
Stamenkovic said he thinks that reducing the gap in inter-ethnic relations between Serbs and Albanians is possible if people can communicate more easily. “The key is communication without any prejudice. It is the time now to start to communicate more freely, more openly,” he added.
Divided educational systems
The Kosovo education system was divided along ethnic lines around three decades ago as tensions rose in what was then a province of Yugoslavia. Kosovo Albanians organised a parallel education system while Serb children followed Serbia’s state curricula. Both removed each other’s language from their educational programmes.
Stamenkovic argued however that Serbs and Albanians have coexisted in Kosovo for a long time.
“We have always lived together and will continue to live together,” he said.
But he feels that it is still “too early” to speak about any kind of reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs.
“People’s survival comes first, then war crimes [trials], then other things,” he said, arguing that ordinary people are more focused on the high rate of unemployment and the lack of economic perspective in Kosovo than on political issues.
Vuk Veselinovic hopes that learning the Albanian language would help him to find a job. He is 33 and unemployed.
“We live in a small place and need to communicate. We cannot do it any other way,” Veselinovic said
Despite the interest among Albanians and Serbs in Kamenica in learning each other’s language, Stamenkovic said that it is still “difficult to imagine” seeing Serbs and Albanians include other’s languages in education curricula.
“The curricula in Kosovo are divided and it takes time to work with textbooks. I expect it would be a long process,” he said.
‘It’s necessary to restart communication’
Meanwhile Teuta Kastrati is teaching her first class of ethnic Albanians who want to learn Serbian or advance their knowledge of the language.
Unlike Bojan’s class, most of Teuta’s attendees are municipal officers, but there are others.
“I believe the course will be a success. The textbooks are drafted very well and there is nothing to incite the ill-feelings of one or the other community, or tackle sensitive ethnic issues,” Kastrati told BIRN.
Kastrati said she believes that residents of her municipality communicate more freely because Kamenica was “less affected by the war”.
“There are fewer animosities here. People have lived in the same place, we have a joint market where Albanians and Serbs buy each other’s products so we have maintained communication,” she explained.
Kastrati is also a Kamenica municipality officer working with the Office for Returns and Communities. An economic graduate, she speaks fluent Serbian thanks to her Bosnian mother who comes from the town of Bijelina. Her father is an Albanian from Kamenica.
“The Kamenica municipality is a good example of respecting bilingualism. But this has not been enough for local people to communicate with each other. Now they see it is necessary to restart communication,” she said.
Kastrati said that inter-ethnic relations are improving, but too slowly.
“Yugoslavia was a special creature and the consequences of its dissolution have been special too. It is obvious that there have been investments in hate, more than we imagined,” she said.
“For an entire generation that has suffered from the war, it is expected that communication will be difficult. This will continue until Serbia accepts its past crimes and changes itself,” she argued.
However, what is happening in this small Kosovo town could prove to be a positive example.
“Reconciliation is possible,” Kastrati insisted.