There is a proverb in the Balkans that says that whatever village a traveller should visit, they will find its residents intimately know the language, customs and history of its neighbours.
It is used to explain the fact that while Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo are separate countries made up of various religious denominations and creeds, they know each other well. For better and, during the wars that raged during the 1990s, for worse.
The Muslim-majority Serbian region of Sandzak, known as Rashka to Serbs, is a good example. Bordering Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, when there are political earthquakes in other parts of the Balkans, more often than not they are felt here.
The latest quake to hit the troubled region was on 1 September, when Montenegro’s small Muslim community was targetted by ethnic and religious attacks following the elections on 30 August. Vandals smashed the windows of the local office of the Islamic community in Pljevlja, while graffiti that praised the 1995 Srebrenica massacre appeared on walls of the city and surrounding towns.
“This is really frightening,” said Mevlud Dudic, president of the Islamic Community in Serbia.
“Bosniaks and, I would add, all normal people, tremble when the Srebrenica genocide is mentioned in this kind of context. I like to believe that things from the nineties will never again happen in the Balkans.”.
Muslims were the prime targets during the wars that wracked the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and while the fate of Bosnia’s Muslims - known as Bosniaks - is best-known due to the murder of 7,000 men and boys by Serb militias at Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, the Islamic community in Serbia and Montenegro were also victims of ethnic violence.
In Novi Pazar, Sandzak, residents still remember that the Serbian tanks stationed in the hills around the city during the war were pointed not towards Bosnia, but towards them. The unknown number of Serbian Muslims were killed during the war, and thousands of others suffered discrimination. Many of the perpetrators remain unpunished 25 years later.
Semiha Kacar from Sandzak Committee for Human Rights told Euronews that the legacy of that violence and the fact that justice was never provided continues to be a major source of conflict between the Muslim community and their non-Muslim neighbours in Serbia.
“Practically nothing is done about the crimes committed against Bosniaks in Sandzak. That is lowering the trust in the state,” she said.
Novi Pazar resident and activist Sead Biberovic echoes the view that the failure to punish war criminals who perpetrated violence against Serbian Bosniaks in the 1990s, and a lack of education generally in the country about what was done during the war, has increased tensions.
“The state of Serbia did not recognize what it did in the nineties. War criminals are not prosecuted and even regular citizens are not aware of what was done,” he said.
“That leaves a bad taste in the mouth of Bosniaks. Unsolved issues are never good for stability.”
Although rare in Sandzak today, incidents among ethnicities are more often in the football stadiums than on the streets. Biberovic said these incidents are directed, or at least “blessed”, by the government in Belgrade.
Ethnic tensions used as a distraction?
The hardline government of Aleksandar Vučić, he said, uses ethnic tensions between Muslims, Christians and other denominations in Serbia to distract from other issues facing the country.
Few have forgotten that the leader of Vučić’s party in the 1990s, the Serbian Radical Party’s Vojislav Seselj, was convicted of war crimes in the Hague. Fewer still that Vučić told the Serbian parliament in July 1995 that “for every Serb 100 Muslims will be killed.”
Meanwhile, ethnically-motivated acts of violence or vandalism in Sandzak in recent years have rarely been investigated or solved. And like in so many nations, the government in Belgrade finds ethnic divisions a convenient distraction from its failures, said Biberovic.
“There are elements in the society that are pushed from Belgrade to create instability here. When something huge is going on in Sandzak, people should look at what the government wants to hide,” he said. “We are used as a distraction.”
One major sticking point between Belgrade and the Muslim minority in Serbia is that Bosniaks, in general, tend to recognise the independence of Kosovo, which is rejected by the government.
Dudic, the Imam, expressed the hope that the majority of people, both in Serbia and Montenegro, would not allow the violence of the past to happen again.
Bosniaks and Muslims, a minority in northern Montenegro, are majority in a Serbian Sandzak. But Dudic stressed that it the duty of the majority to watch over the minority. He was therefore buoyed by efforts by the Serbian Orthodox Church to prevent the violence in Pljevlja.
“When members of Serbian Orthodox Church and the opposition appear in front of mosques in Pljevlja, to protect it, it is a good signal for us in Sandzak. That is the right direction in which we as a society need to go,” Dudic said.
Biberovic too is optimistic that the region can avoid the ethnic violence of the 1990s.
“Bosniaks, Serbs, Montenegrin, Albanians and others, they have seen empires and armies come and go. They have managed to survive together and I think we are smart enough to continue living together,” he said.
“There are many friendships and on some level inter-ethnic marriages. Those ties are taking people together.’
But even for those Bosniaks that were not alive during the worst of the violence in Bosnia, the fact that it was the Muslim community that was immediately targetted in the violence on September 1 is a worrying development for the future of the Balkans.
“When I heard about attacks in Montenegro at first I was angry,” said Arnes Corovic, 23, a resident of the city of Tutin.
“I was also frightened. It comes from the knowledge what was done to Bosniaks in the past and certainly I do not want that to happen again. And you know, if you get burned once...”
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