Postcard from Jazhince: Borderland Blues

Sipping a macchiato by the stream that runs through Jazhince you could be forgiven for forgetting you are drinking coffee in a country embroiled in crisis. In fact, you could be forgiven forgetting much of anything has happened anywhere since the invention of the combustion engine.

A hillside village of perhaps 200 houses, Jazhince’s pastures look down from Macedonia across the border into Kosovo. In 1999, Jazhince was the first resting place for thousands of refugees fleeing the war waged in Kosovo between the UCK and the Yugoslav Army.

Two years later, the flight of the fearful was reversed as residents fled Jazhince into Kosovo. They were seeking sanctuary from a short lived but bitter conflict between the Macedonian UCK and the country’s security forces.

Bekim spent the last four years living and working in Norway. Now he is back in Jazhince, where he grew up, waiting for a German visa.

Bekim finds it hard to see the relevance of the protests in Skopje. Prospects are slim for young people in the village. Bekim has a bachelor’s degree in public administration but despite Macedonia’s enormous public sector – nobody knows the precise number of civil servants in Macedonia but it is thought to exceed 150,000 – he said it is impossible for him to get a job in his chosen field.

We spoke for a while on Monday outside the village mosque over the cackles of half a dozen twinkle eyed hyperactive pre-teens. I asked Bekim how many of them he thought would go to university, he was not optimistic. To Bekim it seems that whoever holds power in Macedonia, little is likely to change in Jazhince. Besides, he said, “Every five years it seems there is some kind of war.”

But if time seems to be standing still in Jazhince, it is moving with deceptive rapidity on both sides of the border the village keeps watch over.

On Tuesday in Prishtina, thousands of mourners climbed a hill overlooking Kosovo’s capital to the Martyr’s Cemetery. The cemetery is the final resting place of hundreds of UCK fighters killed in the Kosovo War. The mourners had gathered to bury eight Kosovo Albanians killed during a 30 hour gun battle with Macedonian police in Kumanovo earlier this month.

Xhavit Jashari, a senior member of the UCK veterans’ association told AFP that the deceased had died “for the freedom of the homeland that is not complete yet.” The homeland he was referring to was the controversial “Greater Albania”, a hypothetical nation that would encompass parts of Greece, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia.

Perhaps in an effort to dispel the notion that the alleged gunmen being buried that day were “martyrs” to a cause, the Kosovo Intelligence Agency (KIA) leaked documents to Kosovo’s paper of record Koha Ditore on Tuesday morning. The paper reported that KIA had evidence suggesting the gunmen had been offered €2 million by the Macedonian secret police in return for stirring up trouble.

The same day, Macedonian opposition leader Zoran Zaev was quoted in an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit as saying that his next ‘bomb’ would prove false the ruling of the highly sensitive “Smilkovsko Lake” murder trial. The conviction of seven ethnic Albanians over the deaths of five ethnic Macedonians generated protests which saw thousands of Albanians clashing with Macedonian police on the streets of Skopje last summer.

Zaev quickly retracted his remarks on Wednesday, saying they had been “misinterpreted”. He said that the convictions will only be called into question rather than disproven when the tapes are released. However, he let stand statements that the contents of the Smilkovsko bomb could provoke such an explosive reaction from the Albanian community as to result in deaths.

So far, with the exception of Kumanovo, the Macedonian crisis has been relatively peaceful. Aside from brief clashes between police and protesters on May 5, both sides have sensibly kept their distance.

But if the Smilkovsko bomb is as explosive as we are being led to believe there is every chance it will bring disaffected Albanians onto the streets in a repeat of last summer’s violence. In that case, the police will be pushed into exercising some measure of force. If that application of force is miscalculated it could very well escalate tensions further. In March head of Kosovo’s UCK veterans’ association told Al Jazeera while talking about the Smilkovsko case that, “If it comes to conflict in Macedonia, we veterans will fight for our brothers there.”

Macedonia can only hope Zaev’s faith that, “Our citizens are the best keepers of the peace,” is not misplaced.


Cover photo credit: /panoramio

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Jack Davies

Jack Davies is a freelance journalist focusing on the Western Balkans. You can find him on Twitter @jackoozell