In Sickness, Ethnic Barriers in Kosovo Often Fall

In Kosovo, Serb doctors treat Albanians, and Albanian doctors treat Serbs, suggesting that mutual trust, after all, is not completely lost.

Paediatrician Milorad Todorovic considers it a blessing to have been born in an area of eastern Kosovo where Serbs and Albanians of his generation grew up speaking each other’s language.

Today, it means he has a steady flow of Albanians coming through his private paediatrics clinic in the town of Gjilan/Gnjilane, where Albanians are the majority.

“The nephews of my Albanian teachers are now my little patients,” said 63-year-old Todorovic. “Anyone who needs care and who respects the rules is treated here, including Albanian children. I cannot change reality or cure frustrations; my job is to focus on the health of children.”

“Anyone who needs care and respects the rules is treated here,” said Milorad Todorovic. Photo: Milorad Todorovic.

Under Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, political tensions between Belgrade and Prishtina have recently been running high over a string of issues left unresolved since Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and Serbia refused to recognise it.

Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, on the whole, lead largely parallel lives, abetted by years of parallel public institutions in Serb areas funded by the Serbian state, including health services.

But when it comes to treating sickness, in many cases the barriers fall.

“I was treated in [majority-Albanian] Pristina before and after the war; I have no fear or prejudice,” said Predrag Milanovic, a Serb pensioner in Gracanica, just outside the Kosovo capital. “As Serbs, we go to Albanian doctors, and Albanians go to Serbs.”

“I have no fear or prejudice,” said Predrag Milanovic, a citizen from Gracanica. Photo: Antigonë Isufi

Broken trust

Towards the late 1990s, a guerrilla insurgency in Kosovo eclipsed a previous policy of passive resistance to Serbian repression, a period that saw most Albanians in the public sector dismissed or resign and sent Albanian-language schooling underground.

A brutal Serbian counter-insurgency war saw the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Albanian civilians, the massacre of thousands and intervention by NATO in 1999 to drive out Serbian forces. Kosovo became a ward of the United Nations, but trust was shattered and has yet to be fully restored.

“In Kosovo, mutual distrust between Albanians and Serbs is evident and needs to be traced back to history that is still relevant today,” said history professor Muhamet Mala.

“In Kosovo, mutual distrust between Albanians and Serbs is evident”, said history professor Muhamet Mala.

Human rights activist and author Mila Mihajlovic said the situation is particularly difficult in rural areas, “not only in terms of access to health facilities but also in terms of access to informal education and platforms for civic activism. But the situation is certainly different in urban settings, such as Prishtina.”

Born in the area of Cernica, Todorovic worked in the early 1990s in the Gjilan/Gnjilane public health centre but left in 1996 and opened his own private clinic called Elixir. He has treated both Albanians and Serbs ever since.

“I was lucky enough to be born in an environment where both Serbs and Albanians, or at least the vast majority, spoke each other’s language,” he said.

“The situation is certainly different in urban settings, such as Prishtina,” human rights activist Mila Mihajlovic told BIRN. Photo: Mila Mihajlovic

North of the Ibar River, Serbs dominate four municipalities bordering Serbia. But the rest are scattered across Kosovo and reliant on the closest urban centres, where Albanians are in the majority.

Even in the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, where Serbs live on the north side of the Ibar and Albanians predominantly on the south, Albanians are known to seek treatment in North Mitrovica, where there is a large public hospital.

Even the main bridge is closed to traffic and guarded by soldiers of a NATO peacekeeping force.

“I’ve been going to the North Mitrovica hospital for physiotherapy for almost 10 years,” said Hyrije Xhemajli, 50. “I cannot describe the welcome and excellent treatment I receive.” Xhemaili said she has also been visiting a private Serb dentist since the war.

Serbs south of Ibar visit private Albanian doctors

Almost all Serbs in Kosovo hold Serbian citizenship and, as such, are entitled to free basic medical care in Serbia, but more sophisticated treatment is usually not covered by the state health insurance. Serbs from Kosovo can also face extra red tape and expenses.

Milanovic, the pensioner from Gracanica, said such issues had led a Serb friend of his to seek treatment in Pristina rather than the Serbian capital, Belgrade.

“He fell from a building and had problems with bleeding,” Milanovic said. “He was treated in Prishtina because they demanded money in Belgrade due to documents and procedures.”

The Serbian state finances ambulances and healthcare facilities in 10 Kosovo municipalities where Serbs are the majority. But there are obvious disparities in the services offered by the four municipalities north of the Ibar, and the six municipalities to the south where Serb communities are generally smaller, more isolated and dependent on predominantly Albanian urban centres.

In the Prishtina region, for example, many private hospitals count Serbs among their patients, particularly from nearby Gracanica/Gracanice or Strpce/Shterpce to the south.

The Hospital Clinic in North Mitrovica, Kosovo. Photo: KLINIČKO BOLNIČKI CENTAR

An Albanian doctor in a private Prishtina-area clinic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he has a steady flow of Serb patients. Speaking Serbian is an advantage in breaking down ethnic barriers, he said.

“I have always had Serb patients and never had any problems, perhaps because I know the language,” he told BIRN. “Their numbers are increasing as some bring family members or friends. I think language for the younger generation is less of a problem; they can communicate in English.”

Todorovic, in Gjilan/Gnjilane, cited the example of the late Kosovo Albanian urologist Shefqet Mehmeti.

“I myself was his patient and I sent Serb patients to him until the last day of his life,” he said. “There was never any doubt about receiving equal treatment. Even today, there is a large group of Albanian doctors to whom Serb patients go for examinations willingly and without fear.”

Vlastimir Dimic, an elderly Serb and former judge from the village of Ranilug/Ranillug in eastern Kosovo, said he sometimes goes for treatment in Gjilan/Gnjilane, or to the southern Serbian town of Vranje.

“I have no problem with the doctor’s ethnicity,” Dimic said.

Violence undermining peace-building

Medical Facility in Gracanica, Kosovo. Photo: BIRN

Flutra Aliu, an ethnic Albanian woman from Serbia’s southern Presevo Valley, admitted to being apprehensive about giving birth in a hospital in Vranje in 2022, but said she was treated “very well”.

“Maybe it was because I understand Serbian,” she said. “Both the baby and I were in danger, but they did their best. I was in a ward with two Albanian women, and they were not treated so well due to the language barrier and the lack of a translator.”

Aliu said she had given birth in Vranje, partly because she had been living in Kosovo and risked having her address in Serbia’s Presevo Valley declared inactive, a practice that rights organisations say disproportionately affects ethnic Albanians in the area adjacent to Kosovo. After she gave birth, she ceased receiving letters warning she risked losing her address.

Over the past couple of years, tensions between Belgrade and Prishtina have been building; violent incidents, notably in the north, undermine efforts to restore trust between local communities.

“Working in the civil sector, I have seen that the efforts of previous and current generations to build peace have been almost destroyed,” said Mihajlovic. “This poses a great threat to future trust-building processes.”

But Todorovic said he remains optimistic.

“Since the conflict, we have had 25 years to show what kind of health service providers we are,” he said. “Every evening, when I get home, I look back on my work day and ask myself the same questions: what good did I do today, and did I hurt anyone? When the second number exceeds the first, I will stop doing this job.”


11 March 2024 - 11:02

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