Before the Brussels Agreements, Kosovo and Serbia were hermetically closed, two different systems of government, resembling totalitarian states with walls between them. Today, there is invisible, but important communication.
I was so happy in 2010 when my parents travelled to visit me in Belgrade. This was 2010 and they travelled by bus. It was their first visit after so many years I was living in Serbia’s capital. They called me when they crossed Merdare, a village considered as a border by Kosovo and as an administrative crossing by Serbia. It was a hardship that I had often gone through as well.
In an effort to help one of my parents to see a doctor in Belgrade, I had invited them here. But for them to come, I needed a letter of invitation and approval from the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs to pass at Merdare.
How to go about this – an official invitation? I managed to obtain an invitation through a dear friend of mine from a non-governmental organisation, who listed my parents’ names as participants from Kosovo in one of their activities. My international friends and colleagues in Belgrade were visited by their family members from all over the world all the time. For Kosovo citizens, it was always difficult to enter or travel through Serbia with Kosovo documents.
My parents did not oppose the fact that I live in Belgrade, even though they never heartily agreed to it. They always kept telling me that in case of any danger or threat, I should fly to Podgorica. In addition to the medical examination, it was important for me that my parents came to know where I was living and that I was safe. For them, it was an experience needed to break the fear that had been created by stories of the past and things that my father had experienced during the ’90s.
When they arrived in Belgrade, everything went well. While on the tram, my parents would speak with a very low voice and use finger signs. ‘When the police entered the tram, they saw that we had the invitation for a war crimes seminar’, my mother told me. My father had forgotten what kind of a seminar they were going to. They were two elderly persons going to a “training seminar”.
When Prishtina and Belgrade began to implement the agreements reached in Brussels, the visits by my parents were no longer as dramatic as before. Now they can come and cross the border in a more normal manner, with no fear, even though there are still faults and problems, especially with no flight connections, no highway and the long queues at border crossings between Kosovo and Serbia.
In 2014, the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia facilitated by the European Union brought a group of Kosovo officials to serve in the liaison office in Belgrade. Due to the limited space, they lived in a hotel for months. This office is now functional. Serbia has a functional liaison office in Kosovo as well. Nowadays, a Kosovo citizen can attain official assistance from the Liaison office in Belgrade. It seems that the official data confirm the success of the agreement; only a few months after the agreement started to be implemented, the number of persons that came from Kosovo to Serbia and vice versa increased considerably. Some unregulated minibuses went regularly from Kosovo to Serbia and vice-verse. Now, there are six regular bus lines between Prishtina and Belgrade.
In the past, as it had happened, Albanians from Kosovo were not able to go to Serbia, even in if a family member died except when it was organised by international missions. It was 2008, I recall, when as a journalist, I had to pass through the military and police patrols on the Tisza River. Dozens of Kosovo Albanians had drowned in trying to swim into the EU zone. Bodies were found and sent to the mortuary. Relatives of the deceased would phone me from Kosovo to help them find the bodies. But I could not help them. They had to be physically present there. Some bodies remained in the Novi Sad for a very long time.
The EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia has built bridges, and despite complaints and setbacks it brought many benefits to the citizens. The freedom of movement and the communication between the two societies it brought are necessary to create a feeling of safety for everyone. Communication increases tolerance and appreciation, and it creates a sense of normality. This is an important part of democratization of the societies and the process of dealing with the past. People travel in all sorts of conditions and circumstances, and official communication can be used as a way of improving those conditions, thus preserving and cultivating the right to move.
Today, thousands of Kosovo citizens and its diaspora pass through Serbia with Kosovo documents. One meets Kosovo Albanians in Belgrade’s hospitals every day. They come by bus from different parts of Kosovo. Phones are operational, even though with difficulties, but one can certainly communicate. Kosovo citizens can check into hotels with their documents and enjoy their stay the same as anyone else who visits Belgrade. The idea of the agreements is to create opportunities to travel, even when you do not take part in a seminar.
Idro Seferi is a freelance journalist. He has been engaged in journalism since 2003, and he moved from Prishtina to Belgrade in 2007.
This article has been produced with the financial assistance of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kosovo and the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Kosovo-Serbia Policy Advocacy Group and can, in no way, be taken to reflect the views of the Royal Norwegian Embassy or the European Union.