PRISTINA, Kosovo—It has been almost two decades since the United States led a sustained NATO military operation in the skies over these lands that, by some lights, could be counted the most successful war in history: over the course of 78 days and 38,000 bombing sorties, not a single American soldier was lost in combat. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader in Belgrade who spilled so much blood in the Balkans in the 1990s, and especially in Kosovo, was soon toppled and tried for war crimes, and this little nation that had seen so much suffering, finally, just 10 years ago, gained its independence.
But all did not live happily ever after.
Kosovo's prime minister, the former guerilla fighter Ramush Haradinaj, had a lot on his mind this week as he prepared to make his first visit to the United States on Wednesday. In a sit-down interview with The Daily Beast, he said he was planning to talk with the Pentagon and the State Department about the security issues threatening a stable future of Kosovo.
Specifically, the PM spoke of a triple threat: the unresolved conflict with Moscow-backed Serbia, Kosovars being recruited to fight for Islamic State forces, and mafia groups allegedly running the northern part of Kosovo, where the top politician and would-be peacemaker, Oliver Ivanovic, was murdered just last month.
Next week, the Republic of Kosovo, whose two million people are mostly of Albanian backgrounds, will celebrate 10 years of independence. But once again, Kosovo and Serbia are blaming each other for ongoing violence.
“The world should not ignore any aspects of the sensitivity in this region,” Prime Minister Haradinaj told The Daily Beast.
The Mitrovica Bridge is the crossing point between the south of Kosovo with its ethnic Albanian population from the northern part, populated by ethnic Serbs.
In 2016 it was renovated and reopened after several years when it was closed to traffic. The Mitrovica Bridge "will become the symbol of normalization of relations between the Kosovo Serb, Kosovo Albanian, and other communities," declared a statement from the European Union.
On Tuesday, a Kosovo police vehicle blocked the way across. The area felt deserted. But nobody stopped pedestrians from walking to Mitrovica’s northern side, where piles of bricks and ruined buildings evoked memories of the region’s crises, fear and violence.
A big mural on the wall was similar those you see in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, a city celebrating Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia,” it said. Serbs supported the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine even here in Kosovo.
One of the ruined buildings on the square across the bridge was a former center of Russian-Serb friendship. Somebody set the building on fire last year. Kosovo police, also divided between Albanian and Serb nationals in the northern part of Mitrovica, evacuated the residents from the burning building. But so far, authorities have failed to find the attackers.
Half of President Putin’s face still can be seen on a poster glued to the billboard facing the bridge; next to it is a poster calling to vote for a prominent Serb politician, the late Oliver Ivanovic. The slogan next to his portrait, “Regardless, there are still many of us,” sounds tragic today, a few weeks after the popular politician was gunned down outside of his office in the center of town.
There are not many politicians as brave as Ivanovic, willing to call on Kosovo’s Serbs to live in peace with the authorities in Pristina.
Much like the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Ivanovic was gunned down with six bullets in the back shot from a 9 mm pistol.
Silvana Arsovic, the politician’s secretary, heard shots and screams on the morning of January 16. She ran outside and found Ivanovic on the sidewalk by the porch of their Citizen’s Initiative party headquarters.
“I’ve felt numb ever since that day; local people, who loved Ivanovic, now fear approaching our office.” Arsovic stopped sobbing and lit a cigarette. “There is no hope left in Mitrovica, the place is managed by mafia gangs with police that have not investigated a single crime,” she told The Daily Beast.
Dr. Dragis Milovic, Ivanovic's ally in the peace process, had foreseen the murder of his friend. “Ivanovic reported to Belgrade about mafia taking control in the region, so first the criminals burned my car, then some men driving a black Audi asked my daughter how she had liked my burned vehicle,” Milovic recalled as we sat in his office at the local hospital on Tuesday. "So then I said to Ivanovic that they would kill us next.”
The Americans and their allies who played such an important role in the 1999 war for Kosovo have never left. Although the forces have been drawn down over the years, hundreds of U.S. soldiers are deployed to Camp Bondsteel in the east of the country, and are quick to say, as one told a Defense Department news report, “Our primary mission in Kosovo is law enforcement.”
NATO soldiers from several different countries patrol the streets of Mitrovic in an effort to provide security. “In Mitrovica we have a high concentration of NATO, U.N. and E.U. military, and still Ivanovic’s murder took place right on the street in daylight,” Una Hajdari, a representative of Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization defending freedom of information, told The Daily Beast.
“A professional, well-trained shooter killed Ivanovic with six bullets, hitting within an area of ten centimeters,” said Dr. Milovic, who had examined the body and noted the tight pattern. “We would like to see Russian or any Western investigators get involved to find out the truth about his murder.”
Kosovo has been on Moscow’s mind ever since Ivanovic’s assassination. Speaking at a recent press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recalled that the Balkans have been “a source for very serious conflicts” in the past. “I hope everybody understands how necessary it is not to allow the same military confrontation. The tensions have been increasing, significantly.”
Pristina does not like to hear from Moscow.
Prime Minister Haradinaj said he doubted the Kremlin is truly concerned about stability in Balkans. On the contrary, he told The Daily Beast, “We believe that Russia is only interested in keeping the region in crisis to be able to prove that the West, Europe and Washington, are unable to solve it.”
“Russia’s agenda of waking up nationalistic disruptions is disturbing, interfering or blocking the progress in the region,” said Haradinaj. “All of us should be against such a role in our region.”
Serbian politicians blame Kosovo authorities for discrediting and attacking non-Albanian minorities. Igor Simic, a politician from Serbian List, a Serb nationalist party, said he did not expect Kosovo to find Ivanovic’s assassins.
“Instead of letting international organizations investigate this crime, Pristina authorities use the murder to say that the north populated with Serbs is too criminal, that it is impossible to live here,” Simic told The Daily Beast.
The problem posed by Kosovars recruited into the ranks of the Islamic State and their families is a major one for this country, and a matter of real concern to Washington and to Europe.
In the past three years, more than 300 local Muslims have joined radical militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Kosovo police and prosecutors have been very cautious repatriating citizens coming back from the Middle East. As noted by Anne Speckhard of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, “Kosovo has the unique distinction of having the highest per capita number of citizens of any country in wider Europe who left for Syria and Iraq since 2011. Forty-four women and 29 children from Kosovo are also believed to have traveled to the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.”
“Our issue is ISIS women, who have children with non-Kosovars,” the Prime Minister Haradinaj told The Daily Beast. “Sometimes we do not know who these women had babies with. They could be children of ISIS commanders. Radical NGOs and local imams have created systematic propaganda for more than a decade, sometimes making the idea of joining attractive by making financial offers to uneducated kids.”
The family of Shqipe Ajdini and and her husband Qendrim Sejdu have been trying to recover from their Syria experience in their poor, wood-heated home in a Kosovo village of Viti, not far from the Macedonia border. Ajdini was 31 years old when her first husband took her and their 3-year-old daughter Sara on “a vacation,” first to Montenegro, then to Turkey and across the border to Syria.
“I am still haunted by my past in Syria,” Ajdini, a conservative Salafi woman in a hijab, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
Her first husband left her and their child in a dorm full of other women from all over the world, she said. The rooms were crowded, husbands rarely came to visit their wives, and never for a night.
“Some women were happy about ISIS ideology. Others, like me, felt terrified, trapped and abandoned.”
Ajdini’s first husband was killed in Iraq one month after their arrival in ISIS controlled territories. She managed to escape through Syria in 2015, return to Kosovo and soon got married to Sejdu, who, just like her, was disillusioned by ISIS ideology.
“Imams and mainly Internet propaganda helped to recruit young Kosovars, who had no jobs and dreamed of four wives and thousands of dollars,” Sejdu told The Daily Beast.
With all these problems, what is the little nation of Kosovo to do? There is no question where it looks for help. It relies on its friendship with the United States and, now, with President Donald Trump.
Forgotten are the reports that came out in 2016 reminding Kosovars that Trump disapproved in 1999 of the way the Clinton administration handled the Kosovo War.
“I would have done it a little bit differently,” Trump told talk-show host Larry King, playing fast and loose with the facts. “And I know this would sound terrible. But look at the havoc that they have wreaked in Kosovo. I mean, we could say we lost very few people. Of course, we had airplanes 75,000 feet up in the air dropping bombs. But, look at what we've done to that land and to those people and the deaths that we've caused. ... So, you know, I don't know if they consider that a success because I can't consider it a success. … They bombed the hell out of a country, out of a whole area, everyone is fleeing in every different way, and nobody knows what's happening, and the deaths are going on by the thousands.”
Today, Kosovo gives Trump’s leadership a higher approval rating—75 percent—than any other country in the world, according to a Gallup poll in January. And the prime minister on his way to Washington was full of praise for the American president’s policies.
“We think it is very important for the leader of the world to support the army and the economy. As we saw during the  war, all arguments end when there is a strong army,” Ramush Haradinaj told The Daily Beast.