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Branislav Krstic
Branislav Krstic

I was born in Djakovica. My father's family lived there for 400 years having come originally from central Serbia. My father was a miner and he worked in a chromium mine at Deva which is close to the Albanian border. My mother was from Orahovac.

When I was a child she always used to tell me,"be careful of Albanians." By that time, in the 1970s, Serbs were only 10% of the population of Djakovica, but they used to be much more.

I remember when my best friends moved to Belgrade. Almost every year, families from my neighbourhood moved there. When I was growing up my street was 90% Serbian and even officially called Serbian Street (Srpska Ulica). Now it is officially called Kosovo Liberation Army Street.

Bearing in mind what my mother told me, I was still friends with Albanians and that helped me learn Albanian well. My father spoke it wonderfully, but my mother less so because in Orahovac there were more Serbs and Albanians even talked Serbian at home.

Albanian friends used to visit me at home and I was invited to theirs too, but this was unusual. Typically people were quite friendly but generally they did not go to each other's homes.

The first time I was frightened of Albanians was just after 11 March 1981, when the major Albanian demonstrations began. I was sixteen. My Albanian teacher said we should not go to school for a few days. I asked him why we had not seen yesterday's student demonstration on television, while we could see what was happening in Lebanon or other places where there was conflict.

He told me to wait five minutes. The he came back with the head and then I was taken to see the director of all the schools in Djakovica, an Albanian. He was very aggressive. He asked me if I wanted to see how the police were beating Albanian kids and said that I was a Serbian nationalist and that he would do all he could to see that my father lost his job and that it would be best if my family left Djakovica.

I remember I was really afraid. I did not know what I had done wrong. Then I was allowed to call my uncle, who was one of the directors of a very large textile factory. They said:"He is a good man, but you are Serbian garbage." After that, my mother intervened and we went to see the Albanian mayor, who said that if we had any more problems we should come back to see him. The whole thing was a trauma for me and later, although I had the best marks, the Albanian teachers tried to give me bad grades, but they were stopped from doing so when I appealed.

After 1981 the atmosphere changed. The largest slice of power was in the hands of the Albanians. When Slobodan Milošević came to power in 1987 everything remained the same, only the power was transferred into the hands of Serbs.

There is something very specific about Djakovica. The people from the town really loathe the people from the countryside. Albanians used to say:"We would prefer to see you Serbs here than our peasants!"

I went to university in Belgrade and when I came back I was asked to be the director of the Hotel Paštrik. The only problem at the time was that I was not a member of Milošević's SPS [Socialist Party of Serbia] and I did not join. I was not politically active, but I did have to make some compromises. For example I had to organise some lunches and dinners for the SPS which the mayor told me the hotel would cover for.

In December 1993 I decided to kick out 43 police officers from Serbia and Montenegro who had been billeted in the hotel, but did not pay. They had already been there for two years. But I had 144 employees to take care of, half of them Serbs, half of them Albanians. They all warned me not to play games with the state and said:"You are crazy!" But it worked, and from January 1994 they began to pay.

Because of the police in the hotel Albanians boycotted it, but I managed to bring them back, especially since it was the best place for wedding receptions. The only thing I asked of them was not to sing Albanian nationalist songs because then the police would act and make problems for me and for them.

When the bombing started on 24 March 1999 I was on the fifth floor of the hotel but by now I was the chief of Radio Djakovica. I could see half the town burning. I went into the studio and broadcast a message to Albanians asking them to stay, saying that when all this had passed, we still had to live together again.

After that I was mobilised. I was on the border and was a witness to everything, good and bad. I was sad because of that, but happy I did not have to fight.

At the end I understood that for me and my family, life was finished in Djakovica. When I got back from the border my wife, who was with our young son and was eight months pregnant, told me 60% of the Serbs in our street had already left. Because of the trauma, she lost the baby.

I started the car and my father said,"I want to stay and protect our home." For the first time in my life I actually used violence to push him into the car. We drove to Prizren and there four Albanians jumped on the car, one in KLA uniform with a gun. My gun was between my wife's legs. I told her to cover it. Then the Albanians were distracted when they saw someone else. Luckily we then met up with a military convoy, so I knew we were safe.

For five months we ended up in Svilajnac in central Serbia. Then the Serbian government sent me back here to North Mitrovica to work for the Ministry of Information and I also worked for a television station. When [Serbian premier Zoran] Djindjić was killed in 2003 though I was fired.

Then I began to work for a Serbian news agency and from 2002 I had been working for Reuters.

In the beginning Mitrovica was an unknown place for me. Although I am a Serb I was a foreigner here but over time I have met people and have got used to it. It is better for us to live here than in Serbia proper because here I earn more money. I would like to buy a house in Zvečan, which is nearby and I think we will stay here.

Regardless of the status resolution it will be like Banja Luka [capital of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia] here.

Because I speak Albanian and important people know me [Albanian-inhabited] South Mitrovica is open to me, but it feels like another country. I only go to places or cafés where I know the owner or most of the clients.

If Albanians try to use violence here I am not scared because I know 500 Serbs, ordinary people, who will stay and fight for their families. They are already organised enough to do that. If the border with Serbia was hermetically sealed and Albanians attacked I am sure my wife would take a pistol and I will take a gun, but only to defend ourselves and our kids. Actually though I don't think violence will come.

I don't believe we can build a wall here between north and south. And you know what? I can tell you that every day there are at least 250 Albanians coming to the north and 100 Serbs going to the south to do all sorts of business. Seventy per cent of the stuff sold in shops in the north comes from wholesalers in the south but the majority of those goods come from Serbia! There are no big companies here in the north so it is cheaper to buy from Albanians who buy in bulk from Serbia.

August 2007
Tim Judah

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