At first glance, there’s nothing exceptional about the village of Berkovo. It’s a sprawl of farm-houses and cottages in the rolling Kosovo countryside, with the distant backdrop of snow-capped mountains to the West, on the Albanian border.
A fast road runs through Berkovo, and most cars do not stop. There are no shops, no restaurants, no old churches or mosques; nothing to divert the passing traveller. And yet, 10 years ago, this unremarkable place made a great impression on me.
It was 2008, the year Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. That defiant act, welcomed and encouraged by most Western countries, brought euphoric crowds onto the streets of Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.
But in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, the reaction was very different. The crowds came out in anger, and set fire to the American Embassy.
Kosovo and Serbia were polarised, and the divisions within Kosovo itself reflected this.
The Serb minority, mostly living in guarded enclaves, viewed the prospect of independence with suspicion and hostility.
For Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, in contrast, independence brought the promise of a new era, free from Serbian oppression.
Both communities are weighed down by a sense of injustice from history, with grievances that stretch back for centuries.
Berkovo: ‘A tentative experiment in ethnic co-existence’
When I first got to know Berkovo, in 2008, the handful of Serb families had only just returned to the village, having fled during the 1999 war when their homes were set on fire and destroyed.
They had been encouraged by the United Nations to come back from the miserable refugee camps and shared accommodation where they’d been living in Serbia.
The result was that Berkovo was one of the very few villages in Kosovo where Serbs and Albanians were living side by side. It was a tentative experiment in ethnic co-existence, and there was no guarantee it would succeed.
That was then. Fast forward to the present, 2018, and I was returning to Berkovo to see what had happened.
I wanted to know what had happened to Savo and Lubinka, the Serb couple who had been trying to rebuild their lives in the village they’d been forced to run away from.
In 2008, they had always been polite with me, but rarely warm. Despite my repeated visits, I always sensed Savo’s caution. Maybe he mistrusted me as a journalist from the West, or maybe he was worried about his own safety. Perhaps both. He remained wary.
His Albanian neighbours, Lush and Prena, in contrast, were invariably welcoming, full of bonhomie. What, I wondered, would have changed?
|Berkovo’s one of the very few villages in Kosovo where Serbs and Albanians were living side by side [Al Jazeera]|
No regrets: ‘I’m a Kosovar’
I returned to Berkovo on a cold winter’s day, everything covered in deep snow. The ruined skeletons of former Serb houses still loomed by the roadside.
But when I drove up a track to Savo and Lubinka’s cottage, I found a very different scene to the one I remembered.
The house was surrounded by brick out-houses, a new garage and barn for the cows. Savo and Lubinka were warm, apparently delighted to see me.
“We were starting again from scratch back in 2008,” said Savo, “that’s not easy when you’re 50 years old. But life goes on, we tried, and now we can stand again on our own two feet.” He looked about proudly.
“Inside the cottage, I was plied with cheese, coffee, and the inevitable slivovitza (plum brandy).”
Lubinka told me: “I’m not a Serbian, I’m a Kosovar, this is where I was born. I lived here, I’m growing old here. If I visit Serbia for two days, I can’t wait to come back here, to my home.”
I’m not a Serbian, I’m a Kosovar, this is where I was born. I lived here, I’m growing old here. If I visit Serbia for two days, I can’t wait to come back here, to my home.
It was heartening to see that this couple, who had feared for their lives when they took the decision to return to Kosovo a decade earlier, did not regret their decision.
“We don’t have any problems with neighbours … we go to the shops, to the markets, I’ve driven my van all over Kosovo and it’s fine,” said Savo.
With hard work, and support from both Serbia and Kosovo’s governments, they’d made a success of their move.
Does that mean Berkovo is on its way to being a sustainable, multi-ethnic village, a showcase of an alternative vision for Serbs and Albanians?
Not necessarily. The Serb community remains small, and predominantly elderly.
“There’s one young girl, eight or nine years old, and my son is 27, and another boy who drives a van, but the rest of us are old, 50 or 60 years or older. We will disappear because we will die, but we’ll stay here as long as we’re alive,” said Savo.
“There are no jobs here for young people,” explained Lubinka, “It’s ok for me in the stable and the gardens, but young people don’t want to work the land.”
|Kosovo’s Albanians celebrate in the centre of Pristina February 17, 2008 [Reuters]|
I walked through the snow to Lush and Prena’s house – and found a contrasting mood. Here, in a family where independence had been greeted with anticipation, I now sensed disappointment.
In 2008, Lush had believed that with the western powers supporting Kosovo, independence was bound to be a success. Now, he was cynical.
“We thought things would change, but they didn’t. Our leaders think only about themselves. They’ve become billionaires and they’ve left us standing in the mud.”
Lush complained that he had no job, that his son was also unemployed, that he had no tractor to work and improve his land. Two of his daughters live in Western Europe and send remittances back to Kosovo. It’s a humiliating situation.
Prena, too, was in a sour mood: “They’ve treated the Serbs better than us, our government has given them tractors and ploughs, and they collect two social benefits, from Kosovo and Serbia.”
We thought things would change, but they didn’t. Our leaders think only about themselves. They’ve become billionaires and they’ve left us standing in the mud.
A parallel existence
Relations between the two families were, I gathered, cordial if somewhat cool. Certainly, no great friendship had developed over the previous decade, although everybody reiterated their determination to live in peace and avoid conflict.
In that sense, Berkovo has worked and the vision of 2008 has been fulfilled.
In what is still a depressingly rare situation in Kosovo today, Serbs and Albanians live side-by-side in peace. But theirs is a parallel existence.
“They have their lives, we have ours,” said Prena.
Maybe the depths of a cold winter was not the best time to come back and look for the spring shoots of a new Kosovo.
Or maybe it will take longer for the cold shadow of history to thaw.
I had found two families willing to share this land, yet still living apart.
Watch REWIND on Al Jazeera English: Friday: 19:30 GMT; Saturday: 14:30 GMT; Sunday: 04:30 GMT; Monday: 08:30 GMT.