by Rachel Brustein
BELGRADE – Sixteen years after the war between Serbia and Kosovo, and seven years since Pristina unilaterally declared independence, there are not many interactions between the former foes. An NGO network with offices throughout the Balkans is working to change this with young people.
The Youth Initiative for Human Rights’ (YIHR) Visiting Program enables Kosovar Albanian youth to visit Belgrade and Serbian youth to visit Pristina.
“The vast majority of people in Serbia have a lot of prejudice about Kosovo,” explained Djordje Bojovic, who works at YIHR. Many Serbs “still think there are some bad Albanians that will take your organs or sell you…Only by facing with each other, we can go further… only by going there, you’ll see we are basically the same. We don’t speak the same language, but everything else is the same,” Bojovic said. He listed music, food, and problems like corruption and unemployment, all as things that bring the Serbian and Kosovar youth together. Through this program, “these walls will fall,” Bojovic added, explaining that the participants were “a factor of stability in the Balkans for the future, and that’s really, really important.”
The Visiting Program “is an early mechanism of preventing conflict,” said Anita Mitic, the director of YIHR. Mitic originally got involved at YIHR as an activist and participant of this program in 2009. She volunteered with the organization and eventually began working for them last year. “It’s really important to support young people who are ready to deal with tough topics,” she said, which is why she has continued her work with YIHR and is now the director.
Young people on both sides have preconceived notions and a lack of education about the other group. “Many people [Serbians] don’t really know anything about Albanian culture or social life, or what they had heard in school or at home was just wrong,” explained Faith Bailey, an American Fulbright Scholar researching YIHR in Pristina. For the Kosovars, the trips are about “how Serbians were affected [by the war] and humanizing the ‘enemy’,” said Bailey.
“It [the program] made me question everything I was taught in my school [and] it made me not be afraid anymore, which is great,” Mitic said. Through this program, young people are “getting the real information from the people there [in Kosovo], not being manipulated by the media or society, ” Mitic added, referring to the fact that Serbian media portray Kosovo in a mostly negative light.
“It seems that people are typically a bit curious and nervous beforehand, and often feel empowered afterwards,” said Bailey. The program breaks down many of the fears Kosovar Albanians and Serbs have about one another, combatting prejudices and creating understanding between the groups.
Both Bojovic and Mitic faced a lack of understanding from their family and friends in Belgrade. Bojovic advises these friends to “go there to see what I found,” referring to the people, culture, and nightlife he experienced in Pristina.
“Some people even think we are lying, like what we are doing is not true,” because the stories they come back with about Kosovar Albanians seem too good to be true, Mitic said.
While the perspectives of those involved with YIHR may be in the minority, their voice and activism counts. “I think the impact civil society is making, even though it’s really small… it’s important it exists, and it’s important that you have a group of people that will always be on the right side of the history, no matter how small it is,” said Mitic. The next generation matters in these post-conflict relations.
“Youth have a voice, but they don’t have a microphone, so I think Youth Initiative is a microphone basically, giving young people an opportunity to speak up,” said Mitic, in reference to another YIHR activist. YIHR creates this microphone, allowing Kosovar and Serbian youth to hear one another.