When ethnic Serbian gunmen stormed the small village of Banjska in Kosovo last week and fought a deadly battle with Kosovar forces, the violence prompted Serbia to deploys thousands of military forces along Kosovo’s border and the White House to denounce the move as “destabilizing.” It also raised fears that this troubled Balkan region could be plunged into a wider conflagration.
Sinisa Jankovic, a lumberjack from Banjska, which is nestled in the green valleys of northern Kosovo, said he had heard heavy gunfire in the dead of night as the battle raged. But with the village sealed off for days by special Kosovar police forces, he was now more worried about getting enough to eat. He said food was being smuggled in through a nearby forest connecting to Serbia.
“I’m very tired of all this,” Mr. Jancovic said on Sunday, sipping a can of beer on a bar terrace — lining a street deserted except for balaclava-clad Kosovar police officers armed with assault rifles. “I don’t know if the Serbian Army will intervene,” he added. “I don’t know what the Kosovars will do. I don’t know if there’ll be bread on the table tomorrow.”
The shootout, which left three Serbs and one Kosovar police officer dead, was widely regarded as the most serious confrontation between Serbia and Kosovo since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a monthslong NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian forces from Kosovo, where the majority of the population is ethnic Albanian.
Small clashes over Kosovo’s treatment of its minority ethnic Serbian population have erupted regularly over the years, fueled by political posturing on both sides. President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia — which has long refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence — has played up his role as a defender of Serbs in Kosovo to divert attention from protests at home. Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s prime minister, has made control of ethnic Serbian areas a key element of his nationalist policy.
But years of political bickering and failed agreements brokered by the West to defuse tensions have worn down many of the 40,000 Serbs in northern Kosovo, who have long preferred to live as though they were still part of Serbia, and who have been seen as staunch supporters of the Serbian government in Belgrade. With the fear of a new war on their doorstep, many now long for a return to some semblance of normality.
Locals are “helpless and squeezed” between Serbia’s and Kosovo’s domestic politics, said Miodrag Milicevic, the head of Aktiv, a group that promotes dialogue between ethnic Serbs and Kosovo’s civil society and authorities. “It is a fight for the territory, not for the people.”
Much remains unknown about the motivations behind last week’s attack, in which about 30 masked men ambushed a Kosovar police patrol in Banjska before barricading themselves inside a Serbian Orthodox 14th-century monastery. Special Kosovar forces now guard the area.
A hard-line top official of the main ethnic Serb political party in Kosovo, Milan Radoicic, admitted organizing and participating in the attack, saying the Serbian authorities had not been informed of his intentions. But the Kosovar police said the assailants had used heavy weaponry, raising suspicions they had been armed by Belgrade.
“I don’t see how the weapons could have been supplied in any other way than by Serbia,” said Nenad Radosavljevic, a Kosovo Serb politician and journalist who has worked with the United Nations toward peace in the area. Kosovo officials said investigations were underway.
The clash prompted NATO to bolster its peacekeeping force stationed in Kosovo. Some could be seen driving toward the country’s northern border on Monday, just as Serbia announced it had withdrawn about 4,000 of more than 8,000 soldiers from the border area.
Mr. Radosavljevic and Mr. Milicevic said they believed the shootout had been the culmination of months of arcane disputes, which had fueled tensions and made life increasingly difficult for locals. One such dispute last summer centered on an order by Kosovo’s prime minister that all vehicles be fitted with Kosovar license plates. Ethnic Serbs responded by setting up barricades and clashing with the police.
Drivers are now required to cover any Serbian insignia on their plates with a white sticker — nevermind that the roads in northern Kosovo are lined with Serbian flags fluttering in the wind, a reminder of many locals’ affiliations.
“It’s absurd,” said Srdjan Andjelkovic, a mechanic living in Zvecan, a village a few miles south of Banjska.Crossing the Serbian border can now be a bureaucratic limbo, he and other residents said.
Partly in response to the car plate issue, and prodded by Belgrade, the local Serbian authorities withdrew from northern Kosovo’s political institutions. Sensing the opportunity, Mr. Kurti, the prime minister, seized municipal buildings in the area this spring and installed new ethnic Albanian mayors who had won an election boycotted by most local ethnic Serbian voters.
Mr. Vucic then ordered Serbian troops to advance to the Kosovo border. Clashes broke out, including in Zvecan, where dozens of NATO peacekeepers were injured after Serbian protesters tried to force their way into the local government building. NATO forces now guard Zvecan’s City Hall, although nobody seems to really know whether anyone is working inside.
“Both sides have turned this place into a jungle,” Mr. Andjelkovic, the mechanic, said in his garage, which was filled with the strong smell of oil from dozens of engines lined up on shelves. He added that he had not paid for electricity for years, with Kosovo paying the bills for lack of an agreement with Serbia. “I’d like to know who runs this place.”
Most locals say they would prefer it be Serbs. Residents continue to pay in Serbian dinars. Nearly all speak only Serbian. “This is Serbia,” reads a large banner on a road leading to Leposavic, a town in northern Kosovo, which is blocked by an imposing checkpoint staffed by Kosovar forces.
Many ethnic Serbs increasingly say that their plight serves only leaders in Belgrade and Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, who want to score political points and fuel nationalist sentiments.
“We are stuck in an ego game of two leaders,” said Rada Trajkovic, a longtime Serbian politician and activist in Kosovo. “Actions by both sides reignited old ethnic hatred instead of promoting reconciliation,” she added, noting that “the lives and interests of real people at stake here, Kosovo Serbs, are being overlooked.”
Talks between the two neighbors, sponsored by the European Union, broke down again last month, as Kosovo refuses to carry out a 2013 agreement that promised majority-Serb municipalities in Kosovo a measure of self-rule.
Mr. Milicevic, the head of Aktiv, blamed the international community for not paying enough attention to the growing tensions, and not acting “fast enough to respond to those threats and those obviously negative signs” by pressuring both sides to return to the negotiating table.
Mr. Jancovic, the lumberjack, said he could no longer chop wood in Banjska’s forests because Kosovar special forces have blocked off the area.
Mr. Andjelkovic said his business had shrunk by 80 percent since the recent shootout. He said he had lost trust in Belgrade, Pristina and the international community.
“Nobody cares about the small people,” Mr. Andjelkovic said. “We’re trapped now.”