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COVID-19 Exacerbates Ethnic Serb Limbo in Kosovo

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, when Serbia introduced a curfew to combat the spread the novel coronavirus, ethnic Serb local councillors in the town of Mitrovica in the north of neighbouring Kosovo followed suit.

This mainly Serb-populated pocket of Kosovo has taken its cue from Serbia on most matters since Kosovo broke away in war in 1998-99 and even after the former province declared independence in 2008. The pandemic was no different.

So while Serbs in the north of ethnically-divided Mitrovica were under orders to stay indoors between the hours of 5 p.m. and 5 a.m., Albanians in the south were free to move around.

But if this was not confusing enough, when Serbia changed the hours of its curfew, the Serbs in Mitrovica kept theirs the same. Likewise, Serbia, Kosovo and North Mitrovica all introduced different measures concerning schools, shops and public institutions, baffling local residents unsure which rules applied and the local authorities struggling to enforce them. Many of those in the north who test positive end up being treated in Serbia, not Kosovo.

While north Kosovo has long resisted integration into the majority-Albanian state, authorities in Pristina too have been accused of making only piecemeal efforts at outreach. COVID-19 has underscored just how far apart the two sides remain.

“There isn’t any kind of cooperation,” said Doctor Zlatan Elek, acting director of the Clinical Hospital Centre in north Mitrovica.

Aleksandar Antonijevic, an epidemiologist at the Institute of Public Health in the north, agreed. “We don’t have any cooperation with the Institute of Public Health of Kosovo, even informally,” he told BIRN.

Kosovo’s Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Following a sharp increase in the rate of infection in mid-July, authorities in the four mainly Serb municipalities of north Kosovo were again subjected to a curfew between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Yet there was no curfew in the rest of Kosovo.

Nemanja Nestorovic, a Serb resident of north Mitrovica who works as deputy director of the Community Building Mitrovica, CBM, a local non-governmental organisation located in the southern part of the town, said the pandemic presented both sides with an opportunity to build “a unified approach, strategy and common action.”

Instead, he said, the start of the pandemic was marked by “confusion and fear” about which measures should be followed.

Positive test results in the north and other COVID-19 related data were fed into the Serbian national statistics, not Kosovo’s, while most patients were treated in Serbia, reflecting the fact the public health system in the north continues to function as part of Serbia’s own.

Officials in north Mitrovica told BIRN that since the start of the pandemic there has been little or no communication between the Kosovo government in Pristina and ethnic Serb communities in Kosovo concerning the pandemic.

Serbs, meanwhile, have been bombarded with uncoordinated and sometimes conflicting information about the virus from Serbia, Kosovo and local officials in north Mitrovica.

“Honestly, as a resident, I’m not satisfied with the cooperation between Kosovo and Serbian institutions,” said Dusan Milunovic, a local councillor in north Mitrovica. He accused both sides of “politicising” the issue.

Likewise, Milena Pilipovic, a sociology teacher in a secondary school in north Mitrovica, said she had been left confused.

“I’m not satisfied with the way in which the health systems worked, either the one in Pristina or the one in the north,” said Pilipovic.

“As far as I know, in accordance with the law on prevention and fighting diseases, all levels in the health system have the obligation to inform the Institute of Public Health of Kosovo about the number of infections.”

Nestorovic said such a crisis should have fostered cooperation. Instead, he said, “I’m not sure that cooperation existed at all.”

This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of BIRN and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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