RIYADH: The people of Kosovo want to see greater international involvement in the Western Balkans to stem a growing tide of hate speech and preserve peace in a still tense region, its ambassador to Saudi Arabia has told Arab News.

In an interview with Arab News ahead of Kosovo’s Independence Day on February 17, Lulzim Mjeku quoted a statement issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on January 14 as the Kosovars were preparing to commemorate the 23rd anniversary. of the Recak massacre.

The statement said individuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia glorified atrocities, praised war criminals, targeted communities with hate speech and, in some cases, directly incited violence.

Mejku said OHCHR “has called on the international community to step in and take concrete action against hate speech. Unfortunately, we have seen denial lately. Denial refers to the practice of rewriting the past and pretending that historical events did not happen the way they did.

The incidents to which the OHCHR referred involved large groups of people chanting the name of Ratko Mladic, a Serbian war criminal, while holding torchlight processions and singing nationalist songs calling for the takeover of various places in the country. ex-Yugoslavia.

Kosovo Albanians pay their respects to their relatives and the victims of the 1999 Racak massacre in the village of Racak on January 15, 2022. (AFP)

The hate crimes cited by the UN statement occurred in Serbia and several locations in Republika Srpska, an entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina northwest of Kosovo. In one incident, shots were fired near a mosque in Janja, northeastern Bosnia, where local Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were mocked and threatened as they returned from pray.

Muslim populations in the Western Balkans know all too well the ugly history of ethnic hatred. “Forty years ago, the father of Donika Gervalla-Schwarz, the current foreign minister of Kosovo, was assassinated,” Mejku said, referring to the murders of Jusuf and Bardhosh Gervalla, artists, writers and political activists Kosovo Albanians, allegedly by the Serbs. – Yugoslav secret police on January 17, 1982, near Heilbronn, a town in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

The Yugoslav wars were marked by frequent massacres, such as the Rezalle massacre, where 98 Kosovo Albanians were killed by Serb forces. (AFP)

“The gunmen also killed Kadri Zeka, a friend and collaborator of the Gervalla brothers. As dissidents opposed to Serbia’s oppressive regime in Kosovo and working for the independence of their province, the three activists had lived in exile since 1980. The killers have never been brought to justice.

As a young journalist in 1999, Mjeku covered the January 15 massacre in Recak, a village in Kosovo. Forty-five people had been shot dead and their bodies dumped in a ravine outside Recak, apparently by ethnic Serb police and soldiers.

Further massacres of Kosovo Albanians followed, including in Krusha in March 1999, Meja on April 27, 1999, and Dubrava prison on May 22, 1999.

Kosovo Albanians pay their respects to their relatives and the victims of the 1999 Racak massacre in the village of Racak on January 15, 2022. (AFP)

“As we commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the Recak massacre this month, the horrific crime is still fresh in our memories,” Mjeku told Arab News. “As sad as it may seem, the Republic of Kosovo owes its very existence to the crimes that were committed against the Kosovar people.”

Nikola Sainovic, former Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia, was among those responsible for spreading terror among the Kosovo Albanian population.

Nikola Sainovic, right-hand man of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic during the Serbian crackdown in Kosovo, will be tried by the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague in 2002. (AFP)

In 2009, he was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against ethnic Albanian civilians during the Kosovo war. Shortly after being granted early release in 2015, Sainovic was appointed to the board of the Socialist Party of Serbia.

War crimes allegations have also prosecuted members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main ethnic Albanian guerrilla force in Kosovo which fought the Serbs.

After politicians unsuccessfully waged a years-long peaceful struggle for greater autonomy or independence, the KLA launched an armed uprising against Serbian rule in the Muslim-majority Yugoslav province in March 1998.

This galvanized a disproportionate response from the Serbian political establishment, which made no distinction between Kosovar Albanian fighters and civilians, sending thousands of refugees to neighboring Albania and North Macedonia.

In response to the escalating violence, including the Recak massacre, NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign that eventually forced Serb police and soldiers to withdraw from Kosovo.

An aerial photograph shows the devastation inflicted on Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, by the NATO bombing campaign. (AFP)

After Yugoslavia accepted a peace offer in June 1999, NATO ended the bombing campaign and the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1244, suspending Yugoslav rule in Kosovo and forming the United Nations interim administration in Kosovo with a NATO peacekeeping component, KFOR.

The cessation of violence has brought hope to Kosovars at a time of great desperation, paving the way for a new reality and prompting the return of refugees.

Many KLA leaders later moved into politics. Hashim Thaci, former president of Kosovo and commander of the KLA, is accused by a court in the Netherlands of being responsible for nearly 100 murders.

Mjeku believes the time has come for diplomacy to take precedence. “For all these years, Kosovo as a country has voted for stability and security, not only for its own people, but also for the wider Balkan region and Europe,” he said. at Arab News.

Lulzim Mjeku, Ambassador of Kosovo to Saudi Arabia

Kosovo, a country of nearly 2 million people, is 90% ethnic Albanian. After nine years under UN control, Kosovo declared independence through its assembly on February 17, 2008. Since then, more than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo.

The United States, several EU member states and GCC countries recognized Kosovo’s independence early on. Today, Saudi Arabia, which was among 35 states that submitted statements supporting Kosovo, covers the country on a non-residential basis from its embassy in Tirana, Albania.

Mjecku said that with the generous help of his friends, Kosovo has made progress in healing the wounds of the past. Sixty percent of the population is under 30, and many have few memories of the years of grief and violence, he said.

The Western Balkans are calmer than 20 years ago, although ethnic tensions are rising again ahead of elections in Serbia in April and Bosnia and Herzegovina in October.

UNMIK, which at its peak fielded more than 50,000 soldiers, is now down to 3,500 troops, headquartered in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. The mission aims to support a normalization agreement, better known as the Brussels Agreement, between Belgrade and Pristina brokered by the EU in 2013.

“As a young nation, we have made great strides in rebuilding our lives and healing our wounds,” Mjeku told Arab News.

“In this long journey, we have not been alone. We have had the help of our friendly countries, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the institutions of our allies, notably the United States and the EU.