Justin Vela

Serbia’s Sandzak…A Forgotten Conflict…

with 3 comments

A campaign sign for the pro-EU Democratic Party (DS) in Belgrade, Serbia in May 2008.

A campaign sign for the pro-EU Democratic Party (DS) in Belgrade, Serbia in May 2008.

Helsinki- This is an unedited version of an article that will appear in the November 2009 edition of New Delhi’s The Caravan

View Serbian photographer Igor Barandovski’s photos from Sandzak at www.barandovski.com

A Difficult Moment For Sandzak

“Everybody thinks I’m crazy for wanting to spend my vacation in Sandzak,” the Serbian photographer Igor Barandovski wrote to me in an e-mail last year. “So if you don’t join, chances are that I’ll travel alone.”

In May 2008, the tiny Balkan nation of Serbia voted to power a coalition of parties that put the country on a path to eventual European Union membership. Renowned for perpetuating genocidal wars during the nineties and suffering a UN embargo and NATO bombing, Serbia decided to break with it’s violent past and integrate with the world community, despite suffering after having it’s southern province of Kosovo declare independence with the backing of several EU states just a few months before.

Full integration with the EU was still years away for Serbia. The county had yet to fulfill the Copenhagen Criteria, one of the key prerequisites to joining the EU and simmering conflicts with Kosovo and in it’s southern minority regions of Presevo and Sandzak made the country unstable. A month prior to the election, it was Sandzak that Igor wanted to travel to as part of a final motorcycle trip around Serbia before leaving to base himself in Botswana. The impoverished south western region was lodged between Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia and, as a geographical entity that extended into Montenegro, still retained the name given to colonized states of the Ottoman Empire which had relinquished control of Serbia in 1878 after 600 years of occupation.

I had visited Novi Pazar, the largest town in Sandzak, the previous January while returning to Belgrade from northern Kosovo. A Serb journalist I was with had sarcastically called the town a ‘mini-Istanbul.’ But there was none of Istanbul’s glamour. The city was a mess of mosques that hadn’t been refurbished in decades, cracked sidewalks, a river full of trash, and crumbling two hundred year old buildings with broken clay shingle roofs. Some of the women wore burkhas. Old men stood in the streets in leather jackets and berets , watching each other. Wahhabis, members of the extremist muslim sect, walked around in ankle length pants and skull caps. As I wandered at random, a caravan of cars raced through town with a man waving a green flag with the crescent moon of Islam out the window of the lead vehicle.

Igor had also felt the tense energy in Novi Pazar when he spent a morning there a year before. There was something going on. But we didn’t know exactly what. All we knew was that Sandzak had been a black market hub during the years Serbia spent under the UN embargo and had since graduated to a gangland style battle between two local muftis, Muamer Zukorlic and Adem Zilkic. The two muftis competed for leadership of the majority muslim population and control of the region’s business interests, both legal and illegal. Recently, the conflict had become more heated. The muftis supporters had taken to clashing hand to hand with rocks and small arms in mosques, soccer stadiums, and cafes throughout Sandzak. There were near monthly reports of the mufti’s bodyguard engaging in gunfights and several people had been wounded or killed.

With the idea that we could do a story on local politics before the election, Igor and I set out for Sandzak. As convinced as we were that a dramatic and largely unreported story awaited us, we were also young men in our early twenties for the first time attempting a difficult reporting trip in country with one thousand years of history and some of the most brutal politics in the world. Perhaps irresponsibly, our attention was focused just as much on women and rakija in roadside cafanas as it was on the story. Thus it came with some surprise when we realized that the situation in Sandzak was far more complicated than we had originally believed and that we would either have to mature as journalists or run, something that neither Igor or I wanted to do in front of the other.


In Novi Pazar, I teased Mitko Nokic about being the head of the Green Party. The city seemed to foster all that was opposite of hemp clad hippies.

“Nothing can be that laid back and fancy here,” Nokic said. “We are based in the values of Green politics throughout the world, but we are not hippies. We are interested in human rights, social justice, and ecology. Being green in Sandzak has gotten me into trouble with other political parties.”

Indeed it had. Three months before a construction crew arrived in front of Nokic’s toy and game store with an order from the municipality to tear it down. Green Party supporters quickly gathered and blocked the construction crew from starting the demolition while Nokic went to the municipality’s offices to try and get the order revoked. Upon arriving, he was attacked by a waiting group of men and had his nose and three ribs broken.

According to Nokic the order to destroy his store and the subsequent attack were retaliation for a large protest the Greens held to voice outrage over the municipality paying a famous Turbo Folk singer to appear at a city festival when there were a host of other problems that the money could have been spent on: Sandzak’s rivers were used as garbage dumps, thousands of people were unemployed, there was only enough wood to last four or five more years when ninety percent of Sandzak’s houses were heated by wood burning stoves.

Sandzak had a lot of issues. Not the least of which was that the region was nearly completed forgotten by central government and left to it’s own devices or, rather, the devices of the two muftis.

The evening before Igor and I had arrived in Novi Pazar and met Elvira, the owner of a local radio station. When a Mercedes SUV followed by a BMW sedan passed by, she bounced up and down.

“That is the mufti,” she said. “Go, tell him I sent you.”

Elvira was a tiny woman who broadcasted Turbofolk music and considered Zukorlic to be the leader of Muslims in Serbia. She encouraged us to walk up the road to his headquarters in a complex of buildings a sign declared the “Intellectual Club.”

Only arrived in Novi Pazar two hours before, Igor and I hadn’t thought of meeting either of the muftis so quickly or by simply walking up to them. That would have been too easy. Casting aside nagging suspicions we shrugged at our luck and walked up the street.

The Mercedes and BMW were in the parking lot of the “Intellectual Club.” I saw a guard watching us from the top of a stair case. Another guard was directly across the parking lot. Other guards appeared behind us and on both sides.

“Lets make contact with these guys before they make contact with us,” I said.

Igor waved up to the guard on the stair case and explained that Elvira had sent us and that we would like to interview Zukorlic.

“Sit over there,” the guard said, pointing to a small pavilion in the corner of the parking lot. He disappeared inside the building. When he came back out he told us that Zukorlic was eating, but in fifteen minutes his secretary would come and hear our request.

The fifteen minutes wait was intended to signal our subordinate position. We sat and shuffled our feet in the pavilion until Samir, Zukorlic’s secretary finally appeared. He was a thin man with a brown beard and glasses. Listening to us seemed to cause him pain. He asked if the interview would be recorded and who else we would interview in Novi Pazar.

When we said Zilkic, Samir threw up his arm as if he had been hit.

From different parts of the parking lot, the five guards came up and assembled themselves in front of us as if they are a firing squad and we were about to be executed.

“The mufti does not wish to even offer the other side the legitimacy of appearing in the same article,” Samir said.

We backtracked. “We don’t really now what we are doing. We just arrived. We’re not sure actually who we’re going to talk to yet.”

“Figure it out,” Samir growled.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by this hostility from Zukorlic’s men, but I was. The threatening advice was not over for the evening however.

Back at the radio station, Elvira gave us tea. Her husband, Nusret, arrived. He was a balding man with deep furrows in his forehead and strained eyes. Like his wife he considered Zukorlic to be the leader of muslims in Sandzak. He owned a restaurant we had eaten cevapi at earlier and Igor complimented the food and told him what we were doing in Novi Pazar.

Nusret darkened. “There are a lot of people that pass through here,” he said. “They sit in my restaurant and ask questions and look around. Usually they’re gone in a few hours. The Western agencies have been here. Our national security agency. Journalists. I’ll give you some advice. East some cevapi. Have a walk around. Then leave. Otherwise you have to understand that this is a small town and if you keep asking questions within a half hour everyone will know you. And what if you happen to run into a wahabi? They will not want to talk to you. It is before an election. This is a sensitive moment for Sandzak.”

The way Nusret said this, he made it sound that our chances of leaving Novi Pazar unharmed were not high. After some discussion however we decided to stay. Though there would be some tense encounters with Nusret and other Novi Pazar residents in the days to come, we discovered that our personalities were suited to negotiating such situations and the town slowly opened up.

Besides it seemed every moment was a sensitive moment for Sandzak. Nokic introduced us to his friend Tarik Imamovic. The head of a small political party aligned with the Greens, his eyes followed every move we made. When I reached down towards my bag he quickly moved around the table and watched as I took out my notebook and pen. Though they were initially suspicious, they decided it was better to talk to us than not. And what they wanted to talk about was the EU.

“We want to be like Europe,” Imamovic said. “We saw it through the Internet. We saw Europe’s conditions. We want to do that for this city.”

The call to prayer went out. A devout muslim who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, Imamovic excused himself to “pray for our souls.” When he came back he said, “Europe so far has never realized the mentality of Serbia. If Europe invests in us a little more, democratic options will happen. We belong to Europe. We belong to them by our history and location.”

He and Nokic argued for Serbia joining the EU on the basis that the country had untapped resources. They described the Pester Highlands, a region of Sandzak that they said was virtually untouched and produced high quality organic foods.

“Everyone in Serbia know what cheese from Pester tastes like,” said Imamovic.

The food that came from Pester was only available in speciality stores, but Imamovic said that with some investment or subsidies the food would sell well throughout Europe.

Another reason why Imamovic and Nokic wanted Serbia to join the EU was more personal. As muslims they wanted the improvements in the treatment of minorities that Serbia would have to make before joining the EU.
“The Serbian government does not take seriously the treatment of muslims in Sandzak,” said Imamovic. “European countries take care of their citizens to make them loyal. Here they don’t care. The Serbian government keeps people loyal by creating conflict.”

According to Imamovic and Nokic, politicians in Belgrade were using the battle between the two muftis to make the seventy thousand largely disengaged people in Sandzak vote. Since 1993, Zukorlic had been the leader of muslims in Sandzak and the head of the Islamic Community in Serbia, an organization meant to promote Islam. Zukorlic’s position as a spiritual leader was relatively unrivaled until October 2007 when Zilkic founded the Islamic Community of Serbia on the basis that Zukorlic was guilty of “political engagement, allying with one political option, spreading fear among the the clergy and violating their right to free expression.”

The head of the Novi Pazar municipality, Sulejman Ugljanin quickly declared his support of Zilkic. Though both Nokic and Imamovic admitted supporting Ugljanin when he came to power, they had since broken with him to form their own political parties after he began selling off public property to business associates. Searching for political support, Zukorlic aligned himself with the coalition of opposition parties that Nokic and Imamovic were a part of.
With Ugljanin and the opposition each in coalitions with national political parties, politicians in Belgrade decided to use the muftis to tell their followers which way to vote. In return the muftis were allowed to pursue their so-called “business interests” and attempt to sway Sandzak’s population in their individual favor.

“If we were living in an Islamic country this would not be allowed,” Imamovic said of Zilkic’s Islamic Community of Serbia. “Ugljanin is funding the new Islamic group as a way to take control.”


The history of personal antagonism between politicians was never ending in Serbia. Friends quickly became enemies. Competitors tried to discredit and kill rivals as quickly as possible. This was not unique. Politicians in countries around the world practiced the same.

In Serbia it was just more visible. As the days passed in Novi Pazar, Samir eventually agreed to let us interview Zukorlic. The day before the interview however a local journalist gave us a bemused look. “But Zukorlic is supposed to be in a Belgrade courtroom tomorrow.”

I sighed. Serbian politics was like countless chess games all being played at once, each trying to move and block the other. The complications were endless.

The year before, six wahhabi muslims were arrested in a camp thirty kilometers north of Novi Pazar. Rocket propelled grenades, ten kilograms of plastic explosive, and assault rifles were found with them. Police alleged that they were planning to carry out attacks on the American embassy, a theatre, hotel, and a police station. The police also alleged that they planned to assassinate Zukorlic, who they accused of being a CIA agent.

The Ottoman Turks originally brought Islam to the Balkans. Mujahadeen fighters introduced the extremist wahhabi ideology when they came to fight in the Bosnian war. Only a small number of Serbia’s muslims were wahhabi, but after concerns over their presence in Sandzak were raised Zukorlic issued a statement saying their numbers were insignificant and that he was banning them from Novi Pazar mosques.

Even though the six wahhabis maintained their accusation that Zukorlic was working for the CIA, the Serbian police were investigating a possible link between them. Zukorlic had been called to testify at their trial the next morning, which was scheduled for almost the same time we were supposed to interview him. There were two hundred and fifty kilometers between Belgrade and Novi Pazar. He couldn’t be in two places at once.

Samir confirmed our meeting with Zukorlic however. It was clear we were just scratching the surface of something larger. With more interviews and research, the roots of the mufti’s conflict began to take shape.
In 1992, Zilkic’s chief public supporter, Novi Pazar mayor Uglijanin, called for the unification of Sandzak with Bosnia. He was forced to flee Serbia, but before leaving he helped found the Islamic Community in Serbia and installed Zukorlic as its leader.

When he returned in 1996 he found Zukorlic had consolidated power for himself. Zukorlic’s insistence that Sarajevo was the spiritual center of Serbia’s muslim population had also angered many Belgrade politicians, but Zukorlic integrated himself with the political parties who had decided to push for EU membership and it was not until 2007 that a serious attempt to lessen his power was made. However, it appeared Zilkic and Uglijanin were only the front men.

Before motorcycling to Sandak, Igor and I had gone to the single surviving mosque in Belgrade. The others had been destroyed in a nationalist rampage after the 2004 violence in Kosovo. The mosque had a twenty-four hour police guard and appeared not to be active. Inside we met Mustafa Jusufspahic, the son of Belgrade mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic.

“You must go to Sandzak with the mentality that the entire conflict is about money,” he said.

With some probing he gave his version of a situation in which Serbia’s two strongest muftis, Zukorlic and his own father, wanted to control the donations Saudi Arabia made to Sandzak and the ability to issue halal certificates, which were needed to export goods to muslim countries. Along with whatever other lucrative activities might be happening in Sandzak (human trafficking and drug smuggling) and to be the leader of Serbia’s muslims.
In order to wrench control away from Zukorlic, Hamidija Jusufsphaic had been among the people that founded the Islamic Community of Serbia to rival Zukorlic’s Islamic Community in Serbia. “We are the muslims of Serbia,” his son Mustafa said. “Not merely the muslims in Serbia. It makes much more sense.”

After the Islamic Community of Serbia was founded, Zilkic was installed as leader to provide a Sandzak based rival to Zukorlic. Quickly, Zilkic recognized Belgrade as the spiritual center of Serbian muslims and Hamidija Jusufsphaic as the leader of Serbia’s muslims. It was likely that then Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had backed the action, as Zilkic quickly aligned himself with Ugljanin, who was in a coalition with Kostunica’s party and the Islamic Community of Serbia was quickly registered by the Ministry of Religion, despite it being illegal for two religious organizations with such similar names to exist.

Mustafa Jusufspahic used our interview to lash out at Zukorlic. “He has a shooting range under his house. If he is a spiritual leader why does he need that?”

The two had been grade school together. Jusufspahic claimed that even as a child Zukorlic had been ambitious and disliked. “When the teacher asked for someone to report on what the other children were doing Zukorlic immediately volunteered,” he said. “Each side in this conflict wants to wipe the other out.”


Samir called us into his office at the “Intellectual Club.” Spreadsheets were open on the computer and papers were strewn across the desk. He looked more like an accountant than a mufti’s secretary. We made small talk. He said that the US embassy had recently given the Islamic Community in Serbia money to restore a Novi Pazar mosque. More money was needed however. “The mosque must be restored using the traditional methods,” he said.
Finally, a man with a closely trimmed beard dressed in a black suit walked into the room. He was slightly flushed and quickly shook our hands before disappearing into an adjoining room.

“That’s the guy,” Igor said.

“Wait just a moment,” Samir said.

A few minutes later his phone rings.

“Go in,” he said.

Zukorlic had put a black robe over the suit and had on a tall round white hat. He again shook our hands and then sat down in an ornately carved wooden chair. Born in Tutin, a small town east of Novi Pazar, he was one of the youngest muftis in the world when Ugljanin installed him as the head of the Islamic Community in Serbia. He had completed undergraduate studies in Algeria and graduate studies in Lebanon.

“The ability to travel was unusual,” he said.

Even more unusual was his desire to come back to an area as small and isolated as Sandzak.

“They are my people. I have a moral obligation to these people,” he said. “I don’t agree that all people from Sandzak have to leave to be successful. I wanted to come back and prove that it was possible to help my people and also be successful at the same time.”

The way he chose to achieve that success was to become a mufti. Religion might have be something he was sincerely interested in, but it had served him more as a vehicle. First to study outside Serbia and then to gain a position inside of it. Regardless of his status as a mufti he had also become a criminal businessman and a politician. It had been lucrative. The Mercedes SUV and BMW sat in the parking lot outside. The furniture in his office was made from dark brown wood and inscribed with passages from the Koran.

Talking with him, he appeared nervous. He shuffled and there was a hint of water in his eyes. He kept glancing at the drawer of a cabinet near his right hand which I assumed contained a gun. It is only when Igor began making photos did he loosen up.

“Open the blinds for better light,” he said. He clearly wanted to portray himself well and said little of significance throughout the interview other than than to push the view of his political allies that Serbia should join the EU.

“Islam is a global religion,” He said. “Every removal of borders is good for Islam.”

This was true. But Zukorlic’s success was based more on the criminal anarchy of the nineties than anything the EU would bring to Serbia. For the political parties that were pushing for the EU, Zukorlic was a means to an end. He would tell his disenchanted followers to vote in what would be one of Serbia’s most important elections. Two months later, in the aftermath of the elections, the pro-EU parties will attempt to end the conflict in Sandzak by making Ugljanin a minister in the new government. This angered Zukorlic who issued a vague statement saying the pro-EU parties still had his support, but that they had failed to meet their promises.

“That will most certainly cost them dearly in the future,” he said.

Later that day, I met Igor outside a mosque. He was surrounded by a group of wahhabis. They were pushing in around him and examining his photos.  When he told them we had just interviewed Zukorlic they were surprised and released him.

“There were women praying upstairs,” Igor said. “Those guys made me delete one of the photos because one of the women’s faces was slightly exposed. I was right next to the women taking the pictures though. They knew I was taking them. They weren’t trying to hide themselves.”

He shows me his phone. “While those fuckers had me I got an SMS from Marko (a friend in Belgrade). An arrest warrant has gone out for Zukorlic.”

Not having shown up in Belgrade for the court summons, Zukorlic was suddenly a wanted man. He put out a statement saying that he had left for Belgrade, but “fearing for his safety” he returned to Novi Pazar. Obviously, he didn’t want to risk being arrested upon leaving Sandzak. As long as he stayed in Novi Pazar he was protected by his supporters and political allies.

We went to the mosque Samir claimed needed more money from the US embassy to be rebuilt using “traditional methods.”

As we opened the gate a group of teenage boys came out of a building and went out into the street. Scattered around the grounds there were a few piles of blocks and some stacked wood, but otherwise no sign of construction. In one of the buildings there were boxes of Islamic textbooks. The mosque was serving as a religious school, but was not being rebuilt. After a few minutes of poking around a guard found us. He told us to leave.


Across Mt. Yahroot, the grave markers of Turkish soldiers were like swords thrust into the Balkan soil. From the top, we could not only see the tops of the Montenegrin mountains, but also the Golija mountains in Raska, the place where the Serbian kingdom was founded in the 1100’s, and, through the clouds, a glimpse of Kopaonik in central Serbia.

The view lent itself to reflection. This country with such a divided, violent past was moving into a new phase of democracy and development. For Serbia it was the most exciting of times. Yet there was still a great distance to go.
Back in downtown Novi Pazar, men watched the slow procession of an old flat bed truck down the main street. Municipality workers picked up the plant boxes and flower pots outside restaurants and stores, put them onto the truck and continued on.

The only restaurants that the municipality workers did not remove the plant boxes from were owned by Nusret. Though we had met him several times since deciding to ignore his warning about staying in Novi Pazar, we had no idea he was so well connected. That the municipality workers were leaving his plant boxes meant that while he was aligned with Zukorlic, he also had connections to Ugljanin. Watching him stand outside one of his restaurants grimly watching the movement of the truck with furrows in his forehead and his jaw set and tightly clenched, I saw him for the first time as what he was: a man who desired only to open legal businesses and make money. But his environment forced extra burdens upon him.

He invited us into the restaurant for tea. He explained that it was technically illegal to have plant boxes on the sidewalks, but it was a law the municipality generally overlooked. The sudden enforcement of the law was now being used to send a message that business owners must pay election time bribes to the municipality if they did not want additional problems.

As Nusret had said on our first night in Novi Pazar, it was a “difficult moment for Sandzak.”  When we took out money to pay for the tea, he waved it away and wished us the best. We left him staring out the window as the municipality trucked progressed up the street. He looked like a man who knew he was about to have a heart attack. But could tell no one of it.



Written by Justin Vela

October 24, 2009 at 10:53 am

Posted in Europe

Tagged with , , , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. What a bullshit you guy wrote here. “Relinquished control of Serbia in 1917 after 600 years of occupation”? Just 600 years? How can Serbia claime something what is not in Serbia 600 years? Also reading this article, I smell Serbian bullshit propaganda.

    That other “mufti” was installed by official Belgrade, becouase Belgrade want to control Bosniaks of the Sandzak, so when they support separists tension of the Serbs in Bosnia, that in same time they neutralise Bosniaks in Sandzak for any kind of the separatism, even Sandzak was ocuppied by Serbia 1917 year, and have evry right to ask for independence from Serbia. Until 1917 Sandzak was part of the Bosnia, like you said 600 years, plus more before Ottoman occupation of the Bosnia. So to claim that Sandzak is Serbian is wrong, it is not, Sandzak was historical Bosnian, and of course it have to be in Bosnia, not Serbia.


    October 28, 2009 at 5:42 pm

  2. Interesting perspective about the muslim presence in Serbia, I would love to read anything else you have on the topic or if you have anything about Kosovo as well!

    Jessica Holt

    August 2, 2010 at 9:58 pm

  3. […] I also reported on Serbia’s Sandzak region, which currently is seeing a return to the news as Mufti Muamer Zukorlic competes with Belgrade for power. Read the story here […]

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