Feature 18 Jan 13

Albanian Guerrilla Monument Sparks Showdown in Serbia

Belgrade has promised to demolish the monument and ethnic Albanians have vowed to defend it - while its creator just wishes he'd never been asked to build it.

Idro Seferi

Sculptor Sasa Ilic never thought that one of his creations would ever be so famous – or so controversial.

But a stone monument to guerrilla fighters designed by Ilic and erected in the town of Presevo has become the focus for a bitter dispute between ethnic Albanians and the country’s government, raising ethnic tensions in southern Serbia.

"I didn't know where the monument was going to be put, otherwise I wouldn't have accepted this work," Ilic told local station OK Radio.

Ilic is a Serb from the small town of Vlasotince, but the monument he designed commemorates ethnic Albanian fighters killed while battling against Serbian forces during a bloody outbreak of violence in 2000.

The Serbian authorities have ordered the destruction of the memorial to the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac, saying it glorifies terrorism and promotes separatism, but ethnic Albanian leaders say they’ll fight a legal battle to defend it.

When Balkan Insight contacted Ilic about the memorial, he said he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

“This guy from OK Radio was correct, but that is all I want to say,” he said.  

However, he went on to stress that he was not politically motivated and should not be blamed for causing the dispute.

"Various customers approach me. I am not a traitor and this was all part of my job,” he said.

“This man [who ordered the monument] came, got the bill and that is where my role ended," he said.

The monument was erected last November outside Presevo town hall in south Serbia as a part of Albanian independence day celebrations and was financed by a Albanian diaspora association based in Switzerland.

Serbia’s justice ministry threatened to deploy police to ensure the memorial is taken down, and since then news cameramen have camped out in a nearby restaurant, waiting to record its destruction.

"After all that happened and because there is still no agreement on removal, I wouldn't be surprised if there will be some action to remove it during the night," said Gazmend Idrizi, a cameraman from a local Presevo  TV station. 

"Probably if Belgrade did this during the day there might be some problems because Albanians would oppose the removal," he said.

The monument is being guarded by Presevo police officers, a source close to the local force told Balkan Insight.

"They are told to be there if someone else comes to destroy the monument," the source said.

The south Serbia region has been always perceived as ‘troubled’ by the Belgrade authorities because of its close ties with Kosovo.

In a local referendum in 1992, the vast majority of ethnic Albanians voted for territorial autonomy and the opportunity to join Kosovo, although the vote wasn’t recognised as valid by Belgrade or the international community.

The regime at that time, led by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, conducted a policy of repression against ethnic minorities, particularly Albanians, which culminated in the Kosovo war in the late 1990s.

Following that conflict, the Liberation Army for Presevo, Medjvedja and Bujanovac was formed, seeking to unite this southern part of Serbia with Kosovo.

After fighting between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in 2000, the guerrillas were disarmed in an internationally brokered peace deal.

The biggest challenge for the area remains local people’s lack of trust in Serbian institutions. Most of them view Pristina as their de facto capital, not Belgrade.

The dispute over the monument has seen long-dormant armed groups in Serbia and Kosovo emerge again and publicly threaten attacks.

 A shadowy Kosovo paramilitary force called the Albanian National Army and former Serbian security officers from the long-dismantled but much-feared Special Operations Unit have both issued warnings about possible violent retribution in recent days.

Some Presevo residents believe that Belgrade’s threat to take down the monument is another example of government pressure on Albanians, and say they won’t let it happen.

"I am not scared for my life. We will all stand up here and we will not give up and allow the removal of the memorial. How long will they continue doing bad things to us? We cannot stand this anymore," said one local woman, Sofije Bektashi.

Ramiz Zeneli, a pensioner from the Presevo village of Leran, said that Albanians should defend the monument with their own bodies.

"We will not move the memorial even one millimetre. They can kill us all, because that is their usual tradition," he said.

"We fought for this stone. If they remove it, it is better that we all go with it," vowed another local man, Mefail Shahini.

The local ethnic Albanian authorities have launched legal action in an attempt to save the monument from destruction, but with Belgrade still determined to remove it, the destiny of this controversial slab of stone remains unclear.

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