An ethnic Albanian group says work has begun to build a “memorial complex” in southern Serbia to honor a controversial guerrilla commander who fought Serb troops in three Balkan wars and an insurgency.
The planned venue to honor Ridvan Qazimi, whose nom de guerre was “Commander Lleshi,” would occupy property belonging to a mosque on a hillside above Veliki Trnovac, in the heavily ethnic Albanian Presevo Valley.
The project has been challenged by Serbia’s junior ruling Socialist Party.
Their leader in parliament, Djorjde Milicevic, demanded on April 13 that the Labor, Employment, Veteran, and Social Affairs Ministry report back to lawmakers on whether town or regional officials had given permits for the memorial.
Veliki Trnovac is in the Bujanovac municipality, which was part of a trio of southern strongholds for armed ethnic Albanian resistance to Belgrade’s rule after the 1998-99 war that ushered in a UN protectorate for Kosovo.
The area is on the border with Kosovo and was a flash point for ethno-nationalist tension and violence for decades.
The president of the Serbian-based Albanian National Council, Ragmi Mustafa, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that the planned Qazimi complex “will essentially be a place where the memory of Commander Lleshi will be nurtured so that we see a hero of our recent history and a man who sacrificed [himself] for the benefit of his people.”
He warned that “there are dangerous statements coming from Belgrade in which [ethnic] Albanians are always enemies of the state.”
But many Serbians see Qazimi as a brutal and opportunistic ethnic Albanian nationalist who fought Serbs at every opportunity, including in southwestern Serbia after the signing of the Kumanovo Treaty that ended the Kosovo War.
Ethnic Albanians counter that Qazimi and other fighters of the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB) — who borrowed tactics from the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) — were forgiven along with other fighters in an amnesty.
Serbia’s 2002 Amnesty Law forgave “Yugoslav citizens” reasonably suspected of terrorism in Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac between January 1999 and May 2001, when separatists were battling Yugoslav Army forces.
Rights groups say many egregious human rights violations on both sides remain unsolved, including guerrilla fighters’ abuses and disappearances and torture alleged against Serbian special forces and pro-Belgrade paramilitaries.
A veteran of the Croatian and Bosnian wars against Serb forces and a former UCK fighter, Qazimi died under still-unexplained circumstances on May 24, 2001.
The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), an NGO created to document wartime atrocities that has offices in Belgrade and Pristina, says Qazimi was killed by sniper fire near the village of Lucane.
He was a key figure in peace negotiations with the Yugoslav government and was participating in preparations for a cease-fire in the weeks before his death, including an eventual demobilization, according to the HLC.
The Serbian head of the coordination body for the region at the time, Nebojsa Covic, called it an accident as Yugoslav forces were returning under a truce plan.
Many ethnic Albanians revere Qazimi as someone who made sacrifices for future generations and they point to the amnesty that pardoned him and other combatants before Serbian law, even posthumously.
Mustafa, of the Albanian National Council, said it’s “unacceptable to call [Qazimi] an Albanian terrorist.”
“If all these people are amnestied, that means the state has in some way acknowledged that their revolt was just and that it was the amnesty that gave them the opportunity for reconciliation,” Mustafa said.
There are already three other, smaller memorials to Qazimi in Veliki Trnovac. One is at his gravesite, another on a plaque at the entrance to the town, and one at a modest “museum” that displays the car he was in and the clothes he was purportedly wearing when he died.
The mostly ethnic Albanian inhabitants of the town of Bujanovac even mark “Commander Lleshi Days” every year.
Other monuments to figures from the war years have caused trouble in the past.
In 2013, around 200 police were called in to dismantle a marble monument in Presevo to 27 UCPMB fighters who died in the conflict, over fiery resistance from ethnic Albanian politicians.
In that case, the monument had reportedly been erected on public property without permission from the state Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments, based in the city of Nis.
Socialist leader and then-Prime Minister Ivica Dacic at the time called the Presevo monument “a provocation to which the state must react.”
Current Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also called for the removal of the UCPMB monument.
It was eventually moved to the courtyard of a nearby mosque, where it still stands.
Other efforts at monuments to war dead have created similar disputes.
A Serbian law on war memorials gives jurisdiction over the decisions of public monuments to the Labor, Employment, Veteran, and Social Affairs Ministry. But the planned Veliki Trnovac “memorial complex” to Qazimi is unlikely to fall under its bailiwick, since it is slated to stand on ground that belongs to a local mosque.
The ministry is due to respond to Milicevic’s request for a stance by May 19.