A country that idolizes Clinton and Bush grapples with ghosts of bloody past

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By Alexander Smith and Vladimir Banic

MITROVICA, Kosovo — When Ibrahim Delija walks the streets of his hometown, he worries someone will ask him for a light.

Here in Mitrovica, an ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo, even this innocent question can carry a sinister motive. Delija, 21, is not worried about unprepared cigarette smokers, but rather nationalist agitators eager to provoke ethnic violence.

“If you answer in your language and they can’t understand it, they know you’re not part of their community and you will be in serious trouble,” he says, sitting in a hazy, sunlit cafe during an afternoon away from his university English studies. “It’s like being in prison, living here.”

This is daily life for many people living in this landlocked country of 1.8 million — smaller than Connecticut and less populous than Nebraska.

Ibrahim Delija stands on the bridge over the Ibar River in Mitrovica.Armend Nimani / for NBC News

Kosovo is one of the most pro-American places on Earth thanks to a U.S.-led bombing campaign that began 20 years ago Sunday.

The NATO airstrikes in 1999 drove away forces from neighboring Serbia who were carrying out a brutal crackdown against Kosovar rebels fighting for independence. It was also NATO’s first war.

The bombing lasted 78 days and is often touted in the West as an example of successful military interventionism: a swift act of force to stop ethnic cleansing. It ended a conflict in which 13,000 died and hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes. Both sides have been accused of war crimes.

Two decades later — with 4,000 NATO troops including 650 Americans still posted here — Kosovo remains beleaguered by instability and division.

The pro-U.S. vibe is unmistakable. In the capital, Pristina, there is an 11-foot statue of President Bill Clinton. It’s possible to walk down the dusty, traffic-choked Bulevardi Bill Klinton, turning onto Bulevardi Xhorxh Bush — named after the 42nd and 43rd presidents — on your way to one of several clothing shops named “Hillary,” in honor of the former secretary of state and first lady.

Though it retreated in the war, Serbia has never recognized Kosovo’s independence. Neither do almost half the world’s countries, including Russia, China and Spain. This has effectively kept Kosovo stunted and in limbo, blocking its route into international organizations such as NATO, the United Nations and the European Union.

Serbia wants to join the lucrative E.U. as well. So in a bid to break this impasse, the region’s leaders have floated a plan in recent months to swap territory between the neighbors.

Supporters say it could allow the region to finally move on from the painful grief of the 1990s; opponents argue it’s nothing short of redrawing borders along ethnic lines, abandoning the concept of multiculturalism.

A land swap would be “a recipe for hell,” publicist and former politician Veton Surroi predicted on the sidelines of a roundtable discussion in Pristina earlier this month.

Reopening this regional tinderbox could provoke nationalist violence and discrimination, the detractors say, even leading to a domino effect empowering other ethnicity-driven separatists around the world.

“It would have a cascade of implications,” says Miodrag Milicevic, 49, a Kosovo Serb who lives in Mitrovica and runs a non-governmental organization promoting ethnic reconciliation. “I’m afraid that we are entering into very, very troubling period that I hope does not result in an interethnic conflict.”

U.S. National Security adviser John Bolton raised eyebrows and even some alarm bells last year when he said Washington would be open to the idea of redrawing Kosovo’s borders. “We don’t exclude territorial adjustments,” he told reporters in Kiev, according to Radio Free Europe.

In December, President Donald Trump wrote to Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vučić, urging them to make a deal and even inviting them to sign it at the White House.

Thaçi was once a guerrilla leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, before rising to the top of his country’s political system. This transition from fighter to statesman led Vice President Joe Biden to describe him in 2010 as “Kosovo’s George Washington.”

However, a report by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty later that year described Thaçi “the most dangerous of the KLA’s ‘criminal bosses,” painting him as the kingpin of a violent network trafficking drugs and even the harvested organs of murdered Serb captives.

Some in Kosovo believe Thaçi and his allies are only interested in doing a deal with Serbia if it provides them with immunity from a special court in The Hague that was established to investigate these alleged crimes. The president has strongly denied the claims.

On the other side, Vučić was Serbia’s minister for information during the NATO bombing against his country. He served in the administration of President Slobodan Milošević, who was indicted for war crimes, including 66 counts of genocide, but died in his cell in 2006 before the verdict.

Whatever Trump’s motive, many see his intervention as a clear shift, not just for the White House but also E.U. leaders, who have declined to rule out the possibility of a land swap. Whereas these international mediators have previously encouraged Kosovo and Serbia to focus on constructive dialogue, critics say they are now entertaining a potentially risky quick fix.

“One has to question Trump’s intentions with this move,” Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the former E.U. special representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, wrote for German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle earlier this month. “There has been speculation that he is pursuing a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin” meaning “Kosovo would join NATO and Serbia would remain under Russian influence.”

A Serbian national flag is hung from an apartment in the north of Mitrovica.Armend Nimani / for NBC News

Supporters of a land swap admit it would be far from perfect, but they say it represents the least-worst option.

More than 90 percent of Kosovo’s population are ethnic Albanians, mostly Muslims who feel loyalty to neighboring Albania. Some 5 percent are ethnic Serbs, mostly Orthodox Christians who feel closer aligned to the Serbian government.

Perhaps owing to the anxious political landscape, neither presidents Thaçi nor Vučić have offered much detail about what this exchange might entail. Both have said they are willing to consider it, but have used abstract terms such as “border correction,” “delineation” and “demarcation.” They have even appeared to abandon the idea outright at various points.

That’s left it to experts to decipher what a deal might look like. The most likely scenario, they say, might see Serbia relinquish part of its territory almost exclusively inhabited by Albanians. In return, Kosovo could cede the northern chunk of its land dominated by Serbs.

Kosovan Serbs walk under Russian and Serbian flags at the main square in the north of Mitrovica.Armend Nimani / for NBC News

This division would cleave the city of Mitrovica in two — with the Ibar River becoming its Berlin Wall. Already the city it is divided along ethnic lines, Albanians living mostly to the south of the river, Serbs to the north.

Standing on a bridge that serves as a de facto checkpoint, the confrontation between both sides is clear. The red-and-black flag of Albania flies high on one bank; Serbian and Russian banners festoon the streets on the other.

The bridge is patrolled by NATO and Kosovar personnel, yet many locals say they are careful not to cross its placid waters into their rival community.

Tringa Sadiku, an Albanian from the south side, lives less than a 10-minute walk away but until a few years ago was too afraid to venture over.

“I didn’t know how everyone here would talk to me or think of me,” Sadiku, 19, says. “I was really nervous.”

On the other side of the river, Lazar Rakic, a Serb, meets NBC News near an illustrated billboard of Vučić shaking hands with Putin. The accompanying cyrillic graffiti reads, “There is is no retreat from here,” a stark warning for anyone hoping the local ethnic group might relinquish control.

Lazar Rakic.Armend Nimani / for NBC News

“We have shown we cannot be a multiethnic society and we can never be, because of the strong national sentiments here,” Rakic, 30, says. “I wish it could be possible, you know, but I need to be realistic.”

Rakic sees a land swap as the only escape from a toxic status quo.

“Is it problematic? Yes, it is. Am I terrified, as somebody who lives here? Yes, I’m f***ing terrified. If there are gunshots, they will be going over my head,” he says. “But show me a better solution and I will go for it.”

There is another major concern. What happens to Serbs who live in Kosovo but outside of the areas given to Serbia? Many of them fear they would become an even smaller minority, stranded in an Albanian ethno-state with dwindling rights protecting their language, parliamentary representation and security.

The picture is not entirely bleak. After crossing the bridge for the first time, Sadiku, the Albanian teen, joined the Mitrovica Rock School, a foreign-funded initiative that helps young people form ethnically-diverse bands. Her group, Electraheart, plays dreamy, intricate pop music and features Serbs and Albanians among its members.

Tringa Sadiku at the Mitrovica Rock School.Armend Nimani / for NBC News

“I personally didn’t get to meet any of the Serb community until I joined the rock school because my family and friends said that it’s not really a good thing to do,” she says, flanked by a wall of guitars and amplifiers in one of the school’s chilly, subterranean practice spaces. “But now, music connects everything and music is our main language.”

Many in the younger generation seem to share the same spirit. Back in Pristina, three students are talking politics over cigarettes and beer in a local pub.

“Albanians and Serbs don’t have a problem with each other, it’s the politicians that do,” says one Kosovo Albanian engineering student, 21, who asked not to be named because he fears reprisals from nationalists. “I have a Serbian friend and we work together in a call center. I never thought I’d make a Serbian friend but I’ve learned it doesn’t matter who you are.”

His desire for Kosovo’s recognized independence from Serbia is no less strong. “This region is like a family,” he says, “you’re all together but everyone needs their own room, their own space.”

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