Travels 2006-2009…the conflict… March 2008…
“That is the mufti,” Elvira says. “Go, tell him I sent you.”
In Novi Pazar, a black Mercedes SUV has just passed, followed by a black BMW. Inside the Mercedes in the mufti Muamer Zukorlic, the man Elvira considers to be the leader of Muslims in Serbia.
The BMW is full of his bodyguards.
Igor and I look at each other. Zukorlic is locked in a gangland style battle with another mufti, Adem Zilkic, for leadership of Serbia’s Muslim population and control of Sandzak, an impoverished southern region located in the south of Serbia. We have come to Novi Pazar, the largest town in Sandzak to do a story on the conflict. We hadn’t thought of meeting Zukorlic so quickly or by simply walking up to him though. He is known as a man paranoid about his security.
We shrug and head up the street.
The Mercedes and BMW are in the parking lot of a gated building that a sign declares to be “The Intellectual Club.” I see a guard watching us approach from the top of the stair case. Other guards appear behind us and on both sides.
Igor waves up to the guard and explains that Elvira sent us and that we would like to interview Zukorlic.
“Sit over there,” the guard says, pointing to a small pavilion in the corner of the parking lot. He disappears inside the building. When he comes back he tells us that Zukorlic is eating, but if we wait fifteen minutes his secretary will come and hear our request.
The fifteen minutes wait is intended to signal our subordinate position. We sit and shuffle our feet in the pavilion until Samir, Zukorlic’s secretary, finally appears. He is a thin man with a brown beard and glasses. Listening to us seems to cause him pain. He asks if the interview will be recorded and who else we will interview in Novi Pazar.
When we say Zilkic’s name he throws up his arm as if he has been hit.
From different parts of the parking lot, the five bodyguards walk over and assemble themselves in front of us as if they are a firing squad and we are about to be executed.
For a moment, I see the pavilion as if I am looking at it from above. I see the guards shooting Igor and I, our bodies slumping backwards. Innumerable explanations for our murder could be contrived. The event in this dark corner of the world would barely make headlines.
“The mufti does not wish to even offer the other side the legitimacy of appearing in the same article,” Samir growls at us in the pavilion.
“We don’t really know what we are doing. We just arrived. We’re not sure actually who we’re going to talk to yet.”
Samir says, “Figure it out.”
Back at the radio station, Elvira gives us tea. Her husband arrives. Nusret is the owner of a cevapi restaurant that we ate at earlier. He is a tall, balding man with deep furrows in his forehead and strained eyes. Like his wife, he considers Zukorlic to be the leader of Muslims in Sandzak. Unlike his wife, he is not happy we are in Novi Pazar.
“There are a lot of people that pass through here,” he says. “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. Eat some cevapi. Have a walk around. Then leave. Otherwise you have to understand that this is 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 whabbi? They will not want to talk to you. It is before an election. This is a sensitive moment for Sandzak.”
Back at the hotel we discuss what we have gotten ourselves into. From the way Nusret gave his “advice” he made it sound as if our odds of waking up in the morning are not high. While actually being killed is not such a high risk, the idea of being attacked or threatened is equally unappealing.
“If we can make it to Raska we are safe. They can’t touch us there. That’s all I know,” Igor says.
We can’t decide. There is a police station near the hotel. But the police can’t be relied upon. They do us no good. Novi Pazar is a small place and it is true, we are outsiders. Even worse, we are outsiders asking questions. It would not be hard for Zukorlic or any of his supporters to invent an explanation for us being attacked.
I sit on the floor and write out a synopsis of the story. I am scared and running through my head is the thought that getting hurt in a dark corner of the world when I can be anywhere else, doing anything else isn’t worth it. But I don’t want to seem cowardly and the story is too good to leave. And I know that if I leave this one, I will probably leave them all.
I call the one person I know will give me the advice I want to hear.
“J, we have a problem,” I say.
So the communication is clear I pass the phone to Igor who in Serbian explains our first hours in Novi Pazar.
“What would you advise?” Igor asks.
“I would stay,” J says. “You are normal guys. You are not spies. You don’t have guns. You don’t have drugs. Stay. Be crazier than the craziest motherfucker there.”
The next morning, I tease Mitko Nokic about being the head of Novi Pazar’s Green Party. The city seems to foster all that is opposite of hemp clad hippies.
“Nothing can be that laid back and fancy here,” Nokic says. “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 to 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.
The election aside, it seemed every moment was a “difficult moment” for Sandzak.
Nokic introduces us to his friend Tarik Imamovic.
The head of a small political party aligned with the Greens, Imamovic’s eyes follow every move we make. When I reach down towards my bag he quickly moves around the table and watches as I take out my notebook and pen. Though they are suspicious that we might not actually be journalists, they have decided it is better to talk to us than not.
And what they want to talk about is the EU.
“We want to be like Europe,” Imamovic says. “We saw it through the Internet. We saw Europe’s conditions. We want to do that for this city.”
The call to prayer goes out. A devout Muslim who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, Imamovic jokes that he is going to “pray for our souls.” When he returns he says, “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 argue for Serbia joining the EU on the basis that the country has untapped resources. They described the Pester Highlands, a region of Sandzak that they say is virtually untouched and produces high quality organic foods.
“Everyone in Serbia know what cheese from Pester tastes like,” says Imamovic.
The food that comes from Pester is only available in speciality stores, but Imamovic says that with some investment or subsidies the food will sell well throughout Europe.
Another reason why Imamovic and Nokic want Serbia to join the EU is more personal. As Muslims they want the improvements in the treatment of minorities that Serbia will 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 are 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 having supported 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 says of Zilkic’s Islamic Community of Serbia. “Ugljanin is funding the new Islamic group as a way to take control.”