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Serbs, Kosovars forge new bonds 25 years after war

Pandeli Pani
June 9, 2024

When they were born, the war had just ended. A quarter of a century later, young people from Serbia and Kosovo are working to envision a shared future.

4 people sit around a circular table with four glasses and bottles of water in front of them
Young journalists from Serbia and Kosovo meet in a Kumanovo cafeImage: Ajdin Kamber

On June 9, 1999, the Kumanovo Agreement was signed, ending the Serbian government's war against Kosovo, which it had long claimed as a province.

It was a historic moment that had been preceded by decades of repression of ethnic Albanians by the Serbian state. To stop the expulsion and murder of the Kosovo Albanian population and force Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's regime to withdraw, the NATO alliance had intervened, bombing strategic and military targets in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for 78 days.

Kumanovo, where the agreement was signed, is the second largest city in what is now North Macedonia. Located near the border between Serbia and Kosovo, it was a symbolic place to end the war. But, today, at the Kumanovo sports airfield where history was made, there is nothing to commemorate that historic day.

Nor does it live in the memory of 25-year-olds in Serbia and Kosovo, who are known as the '99 generation. Though they didn't experience the conflicts of the 1990s firsthand, tensions remain between the countries, and young people are still confronted with the sociopolitical and economic consequences of the past. Their worldviews are strongly influenced by their family backgrounds, the media and the rhetoric of political elites.

To discuss their views, what they know today about the war and, most importantly, how their see their future, journalists from Serbia and Kosovo who were born in 1999 met in Kumanovo in early June.

"I didn't experience the war in 1999 because I was only born then, but my parents and relatives have told me many stories," said Ereza Krasniqi. "It was a painful time for us Albanians."

David Petrovic, a 25-year-old from the Serbian city of Aleksinac who is studying literature in Nis and works as a journalist for the student newspaper Presing, said: "I have never been to Kosovo. Our perception of Kosovo is primarily shaped by the stories of the older generations, by one-sided media coverage and by the speeches of our politicians."

People talk at a cafe in North Macedonia as part of a DW project called Generation99
The meeting took place as part of a DW project called Generation99Image: Ajdin Kamber

'People want peace'

The discussion revealed that young people's ideas about a common future could look very different from those of previous generations.

"Young people want peace and a happy and carefree future," said Aferdita Likaj from Kosovo.

But, with a lack of economic prospects, they are vulnerable to conspiracy theories and nationalist ideas.

Young people in discussion at a cafe in Kumanovo
Participants concluded that they have many things in commonImage: Ajdin Kamber

For this reason, Filip Djordevic said he believed that it is necessary to have meetings like this not only between young journalists from both countries, but also with people from other fields, such as computer science, business or the arts.

"The journalists deal with politics and various aspects of public communication and often have the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with journalists from other countries," he said.

Creating safe meeting places for other young people "where we can discuss and exchange ideas together in order to constructively counter prejudices and tensions" would enable the first direct confrontation with the "other," he said.

Medina Pasomi from Kosovo said: "Ethnicity and origin don't play a major role in such encounters and discussions. We quickly get to discussing everyday topics and challenges. We talk about personal experiences, music, food, our salaries, stress and health issues."

Irena Cuckovic from Novi Sad, Serbia, said: "Then we often realize that we go to the same music festivals, have a lot in common in terms of culture and mentality, and like similar foods. In short, that we're actually not that different."

Aleksandar Bugarin, a junior correspondent for DW, speaks into a microphone
Bugarin, a junior correspondent for DW, advocated for opportunities for cultural exchangeImage: Ajdin Kamber

Aleksandar Bugarin, from Novi Sad, now works as a junior correspondent for DW. He remembers his first visit to Kosovo and how many young Serbs like himself are anxious about prejudice when they initially take part in cultural projects there.

"But, when they return home, they bring many personal stories and positive experiences with them," he said, adding that such cultural encounters and joint projects build bridges of understanding, respect and mutual acceptance.

For many young people, such encounters are often a source of inspiration in working toward more democracy and reconciliation in their own countries. The young journalists in Kumanovo were therefore unanimous in their conviction that more of their peers should be given the opportunity to exchange ideas and experience the "other country" for themselves — with the aim of mutually building a better future.

25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia

This article was originally written in German.