Kosovo town using language to bridge divides

  • Tuesday 25, June 2019 09:04 AM
  • Kosovo town using language to bridge divides
Sharjah24 – AFP: In eastern Kosovo, a small town is trying to encourage dialogue between its Albanian and Serb communities by starting with the basics: language.
This year in Kamenica, a municipality where 10 percent of the population is ethnic Serb, the local government launched free language courses in hopes of breaking down the mistrust that still divides the two groups across much of Kosovo.

There is a practical element too.

"I am learning Serbian because I live here, work here and have Serb customers who do not speak Albanian," says Suna Zajmi, a 32-year-old Albanian pharmacist who has been taking the classes.

Strahinja Vasic, a 25-year-old local Serb civil servant, is learning Albanian because he lives in a "neighbourhood where they are in the majority, with only six Serb families."

"And it's also useful for my work," he adds.

Albanian and Serbian are both official languages in Kosovo, a former Serbian province, which is 90 percent Albanian but still home to around 120,000 Serbs.

Yet bilingualism has become increasingly rare since Kosovo broke away from Serbia in the late 1990s, a war that ossified bitterness between the two groups.

Previously, when Kosovo was part of the former Yugoslavia, it was obligatory for Serbs and Albanians to learn each other's languages in school.

Now education is mostly segregated, with each community having its own schools or curriculums.

In the divided city of Mitrovica, for example, where tensions remain high, some NGOs use English as a common language to connect young people.

Kamenica's 30-year-old mayor Qendron Kastrati says the municipality's history has helped make it a good starting point for uniting communities.

Its 30,000 inhabitants suffer from the same high unemployment rates and economic problems plaguing the rest of Kosovo.

But their community was spared the worst of the violence of the 1998-99 war, which claimed 13,000 lives, mostly ethnic Albanians.

There was also a smaller exodus of Serbs afterwards than in other areas.

That means families in Kamenica are not looking for missing persons, an issue that still haunts many in Kosovo, says the mayor.

And in Kamenica, Serbs and Albanians often live side by side, unlike in other areas where communities tend to keep to different villages or neighbourhoods.