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Kosovo deals with the bloody past 20 years after NATO's first war

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9, 7:27 AM GMT

By Alexander Smith and Vladimir Banic

MITROVICA, Kosovo – When Ibrahim Delija He walks the streets of his hometown, fearing that someone will ask him for a light.

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

"If you respond in your own language and they do not understand it, they know you are not part of their community and you will be in serious trouble," he says, sitting in a hazy, sunlit cafe during an afternoon of his English study removed. "It's like living in prison here."

This is the daily life for many people in this inland of 1.8 million people – 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 in the world thanks to a US-led bombing campaign that began on Sunday 20 years ago.

NATO air strikes in 1999 drove them out of neighboring Serbia, which brutally attacked Kosovar rebels fighting for independence. It was also the first NATO war.

The bombing lasted 78 days and is often touted in the West as an example of a successful military interventionism: a speedy act of violence against ethnic cleansing. This ended a conflict in which 13,000 people died and hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes. Both sides were charged with war crimes.

Two decades later – here are 4,000 NATO troops, including 650 Americans – Kosovo remains plagued by instability and division.

The pro-US. Vibe is unmistakable. In the capital Pristina, there is an 11-foot statue of President Bill Clinton. It is possible to go down the dusty, traffic-calmed Bulevardi Bill Klinton, after Bulevardi Xhorxh Bush – named after the 42nd and 43rd Presidents – on his way to one of several clothing stores called "Hillary" in honor of the former Secretary of State and First Lady.

Although Serbia withdrew during the war, it never recognized Kosovo's independence. Nearly half of the world's countries, including Russia, China and Spain, are also not. This has effectively blocked and suspended Kosovo and blocked its way into international organizations such as NATO, the United Nations and the European Union.

Serbia wants to join the lucrative E.U. also. In order to break this impasse, the leaders of the region have in recent months developed a plan to exchange the territory between the neighbors.

Proponents say it may allow the region to finally break away from the painful grief of the nineties; Opponents claim that it is nothing but pulling boundaries along ethnic lines and abandoning the concept of multiculturalism.

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

The reopening of this regional Tinderbox could provoke nationalist violence and discrimination, critics say, leading to even a domino effect that empowers other ethnically motivated separatists around the world.

"It would have a cascade of implications," says Miodrag Milicevic, 49, a Kosovo Serb living in Mitrovica and leading a non-governmental organization promoting ethnic reconciliation. "I am afraid that we are entering a very, very disturbing time that I hope will not lead to an interethnic conflict."

US. National Security Advisor John Bolton raised eyebrows and even alarm bells last year when he said Washington was open to the idea of ​​redrawing Kosovo's borders. "We do not exclude territorial adjustments," he told reporters in Kiev, Radio Free Europe.

In December, President Donald Trump wrote to Kosovo's President Hashim Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic to intervene and even invite them to sign in the White House.

Thaçi was once the guerrilla leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) before he came to the top of his country's political system. This transition from fighter to statesman led Vice President Joe Biden to call him "George Washington in Kosovo" in 2010.

However, in a report by Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty in the same year, Thaçi was described as "the most dangerous of the KLA's". Criminal bosses "paint him as queen of a violent network that promotes drug trafficking and even organs of murdered Serbian prisoners." Some in Kosovo believe that Thaçi and its allies are only interested in an agreement with Serbia if they allow them immunity from a special court in The Hague used to investigate these alleged crimes. The President strongly rejected the allegations.

On the other hand, Vučić was the Serbian Minister of Information during the NATO bombing of his country. He served in the administration of President Slobodan Milošević, who was charged with war crimes, including 66 genocides, but died in his cell in 2006 before the verdict was pronounced.

Whatever Trump sees as motive, many see his intervention as a clear shift. Not only for the White House, but also for the EU leaders who have refused to exclude the possibility of a land exchange. While these international mediators have so far encouraged Kosovo and Serbia to focus on constructive dialogue, critics claim that they now foresee a potentially risky quick fix.

"One must question Trump's intentions with this step," said former Christian Schwarz-Schilling EU Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, wrote earlier this month for Deutsche Welle. "It has been speculated that he is pursuing a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin," stating that Kosovo would join NATO and that Serbia would remain under Russian influence.

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

Proponents of a land swap admit that this would be anything but perfect, but they claim that this is the least-vicious option.

More than 90 percent of the population of Kosovo are ethnic Albanians. especially Muslims who feel loyal to neighboring Albania. About five percent are ethnic Serbs, mainly Orthodox Christians, who feel more bound to the Serbian government.

Presidents Thaçi and Vučić may not have given details of what this exchange could mean, given the worrying political landscape. Both said they were ready to think about it, but used abstract terms such as "border correction," "demarcation," and "demarcation." You even seem to give up the idea in different places.

It remains up to the experts to decipher what a business might look like. The most likely scenario, they say, is that Serbia could give up part of its territory almost exclusively from Albanians. In return, Kosovo could cede the northern part of its Serb-ruled country.

Kosovo Serbs perform under Russian and Serbian flags in the main square in northern Mitrovica. Armend Nimani / for NBC News

This one split would divide the city of Mitrovica in half – with the Ibar as the Berlin Wall. Already in the city, the city is divided by ethnic aspects, Albanians live mostly south of the river, Serbs north.

On a bridge that de facto serves as a checkpoint, the confrontation between the two sides is clear. Albania's red-black flag flies high at a bench; Serbian and Russian banners adorn the streets on the other side.

The bridge is being patrolled by NATO and Kosovo personnel, but many locals say they are careful not to cross their peaceful waters into their rival community. Tringa Sadiku, an Albanian From the south side he lives less than 10 minutes walk away, but until a few years ago he was too scared to venture.

"I did not know how everyone here would talk to me or think about me," Sadiku 19 says. "I was really nervous."

Across the river, Lazar Rakic, a Serb, meets NBC News near an illustrated Vučić billboard shaking hands with Putin. The accompanying Cyrillic graffiti reads, "There is no withdrawal from here", a blatant warning to anyone hoping that the local ethnic group will give up control.

Lazar Rakic. Armend Nimani / for NBC News

"We have shown that we can not be a multiethnic society, and we can never be here because of strong national feelings," says Rakic, 30. "I wish it was possible, you know, but I have to be realistic. "

Rakic ​​sees a landfall as the only escape from a toxic status quo.

"Is it a problem?" Yes, that's it, am I scared as someone who lives here? Yeah, I'm scared, if there are shots, they'll be over my head, "he says. "But show me a better solution, and I'll choose it."

There is another big concern. What happens to Serbs living in Kosovo but outside the areas given to Serbia? Many fear that they will become an even smaller minority stranded in an ethnic Albanian state with dwindling rights that protect its language, parliamentary representation and security.

The picture is not completely dark. After crossing the bridge for the first time, the Albanian teenager Sadiku joined the Mitrovica Rock School, a foreign-funded initiative that helps young people to form ethnically diverse bands. Their group, Electraheart, plays dreamy, complicated pop music and portrays Serbs and Albanians among their members.

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

"I do not get it personally I met up with the Serb community until I came to rock school because my family and friends said it was not really good, something "she says, which is flanked by a wall of guitars and amplifiers in a cool, underground school practice. "But now music combines everything and music is our main language."

Many of the younger generation seem to have the same spirit. Back in Pristina, three students in a local pub talk about politics about cigarettes and beer.

"Albanians and Serbs have no problem with each other, these are the politicians," says a Kosovo-Albanian engineering student, 21, who begged not to be named because he feared reprisals by nationalists. "I have a Serbian friend and we work together in a call center, I never thought I would make a Serbian friend, but I learned that it does not matter who you are."

His desire for the recognized independence of Kosovo from Serbia is no less strong. "This region is like a family," he says. "They're all together, but everyone needs their own room, their own space."

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