Travels 2006-2009…Voting in Serbia’s Presevo Valley…April 2008….
In Presevo, a group of children walking home from school shake Dominic’s hand one-by-one and look at him with a mixture of amusement and shock. A man standing nearby motions for me to take his photo as he stands with his newborn daughter. A boy walks up and offers a sour green start of a peach from the bushel that he is munching on.
“Do you smoke?”an old man wearing a plis hat asks. He holds up a pack of Drina cigarettes. “These are Balkan cigarettes. I used to work in Germany.”
There are few foreign visitors to Serbia’s Presevo Valley, located in the southeast of the country. We have arrived last minute and lack certain amenities. When Dominic spots a shoe store, he points and insists I buy new socks.
What are available are low quality waxy things that will not let my feet breathe. As I sort through them, the sales-woman calls in the clerks from the neighboring store and they stare as I look over the socks.
Presevo’s population is majority Albanian. Following the war in Kosovo, they, also, attempted to separate from Serbia in 2000. United Nations efforts succeeded in negotiating a peace agreement before the fighting became too intense.
This does not mean that the Albanians in Presevo feel that they are part of Serbia, however.
For instance, on the way from Belgrade the Serbian bus driver was supposed to stop along the side of the highway and let Dominic and I out so we could walk up to town.
Instead, he doesn’t stop the bus until we are that the border with Macedonia. When we disembark and ask for a taxi he looks at us blankly.
Yet inside the shoe store, the Albanian clerk’s eyes are filled with curiosity. “Why are you buying socks here?” they seem to say. “We know they are low quality. You, you can buy socks anywhere. Why are you doing this here?”
The clerk speaks no English. I put the socks on and rejoin Dominic, who has wandered up the street.
We interview Ragmi Mustafa, Presevo’s mayor. “Others states got their independence through war. The Albanians in Presevo want to be an example for the world. We’ve had enough conflict. But in the end our dream is to be part of Kosovo.”
The conflict in Presevo is not resolved, he says. But like the situation in Sandzak, moving towards the EU will force Serbia resolve the conflict, he hopes.
Later, at a concert featuring a Serbian and Albanian DJ, a local NGO registers Albanians to vote in the upcoming election. The Albanians in Presevo need to feel greater engagement with the rest of the country for the conflict to be resolved peacefully, members of the NGO say.
As the concert begins, Albanians, mostly in their early twenties, come to the booth and register to vote. Most seem to do so out of curiosity. Perhaps only a few of those who register will actually vote. But it is a start. A start to what will be a long, slow process of deconstructing barriers, of stabilization and integration.
“Our reception here has been better than expected,” says one of the NGO workers. “We’ve had more signatures here today than in any other place in Serbia.”