At Balkan crossroads, anger at ‘black sheep’ image: Sandžak region once voted for autonomy — now it would settle for jobs, investment and respect from Belgrade.

NOVI PAZAR, Serbia — It avoided wars all around as Yugoslavia was ripped apart. But they left their scars nonetheless.

Sandžak, a Muslim-majority region, now straddles two independent countries, Serbia and Montenegro, and borders two more, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Most of Sandžak lies inside Serbia but people in Novi Pazar, the chaotic unofficial capital, complain they get little in the way of jobs, investment or respect from Belgrade.

Novi Pazar is sometimes decried by Serbs as a hotbed of radical Islam and the area has long been known as a key stop on the smuggling routes that crisscross the Balkans. Young Bosniaks — the Muslim ethnic group that predominates here — talk of feeling isolated and disparaged by Serbian society.

“There has been no conflict in this area, but if you have any mention of Novi Pazar on the news, it’s negative. Sandžak is the black sheep of Serbia,” said Dženan Hajrović, 31, a graphic designer and co-founder of Heroj (“Heroes”), a fashionable coffee shop and social enterprise not far from Novi Pazar’s Ottoman old town.

Sandžak has yearned, at various times in its history, to have more control over its own affairs. In October 1991, as Yugoslavia began to fracture, just shy of 99 percent of voters supported political autonomy in an unofficial referendum. Serbian authorities declared the vote unconstitutional.

Later, as neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina descended into war, Sandžak’s political demands became less vociferous, in part due to fears of a crackdown from Slobodan Milošević’s hardline nationalist regime in Belgrade.

“I have a hijab and when I go into another city in Serbia they look at me like I’m from Mars” — Nusreta Hudović, a 25-year-old journalist

“Any independence attempts in Sandžak would have probably been quickly quashed in blood in Serbia, where Bosniak communities were completely surrounded by Serb-populated communities and most communication with Bosnia was severed,” said Srećko Latal, a political analyst based in Sarajevo.

More than 25 years later, “Autonomy for Sandžak” is still being spray-painted on the crumbling communist-era apartment blocks near the center of Novi Pazar.

But rather than wait for constitutional change, Hajrović and his colleagues are working to shift perceptions of their hometown. They have painted colorful murals and shot videos of those they see as Novi Pazar’s heroes. There’s an elderly man who cleans the streets for free because the local government does not.

“There are a lot of problems here. The system isn’t working. There is a lot of corruption. We are fighting to build a network of heroes because we really need them,” said architect Tarik Brunčević, 27, who returned to Novi Pazar after living in Germany and Sarajevo.

New borders

Built in the 15th century, Novi Pazar was a bustling trading post on the Ottoman route into the Balkans. In the communist Yugoslavia ruled by Josip Broz Tito, the “new bazaar” was renowned for the quality of its counterfeit Levis.

In a country proud of its Orthodox Christianity, the Serbian city of Novi Pazar is a place apart | Elvis Brukcic/AFP via Getty Images

The rag trade remains but now Novi Pazar is hemmed in by national borders, with rutted roads as bad as any in the Balkans. Illegal dump fires line the route from Bosnia-Herzegovina, spewing rubbish and acrid black smoke. Signs still point to “Titograd,” as the Montenegrin capital Podgorica was once known.

“Sandžak used to be in the center of trade routes. With the fall of Yugoslavia we became a border area between Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Serbia,” said Novi Pazar’s mayor, Nihat Biševac.

Earlier this year, over 4,000 people signed a petition calling for Sandžak to be declared a cross-border region similar to others in the European Union. That would allow Sandžak to bid for EU funds as a single region.

“We need regionalization to create natural economic regions,” said Biševac.

“At the beginning of the war in Syria, they did manage to attract some young people but more recently we have not heard of more people going to fight” — Nihat Biševac, Novi Pazar’s mayor

That case has been weakened by a dizzying level of political infighting within the Bosniak community. There are two Islamic associations, three main political parties, and around a dozen smaller outfits.

The most significant local powerbroker is Muamer Zukorlić, a controversial imam turned politician whose empire includes an international university, an Islamic center built largely without planning permission, kindergartens and a slew of other businesses. Zukorlić — whose support Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić now relies upon in parliament — is “involved in everything,” said Biševac.

Whether Zukorlic’s newly acquired power in Belgrade will bring much-needed investment in Sandžak remains to be seen. Many accuse the Serbian government of intentionally running the region down, in an effort to encourage its mainly Muslim population to leave.

“The people here want to be part of Serbia, they want to be citizens of Serbia but the Bosniak majority want to have a feeling that they are being recognized as citizens of Serbia and that their rights are being respected,” said a veteran representative of the international community based in Novi Pazar.

Some grievances seem relatively minor. Sandžak is not a standalone district within Serbia; instead it is administered from a small nearby city with a majority Serb population.

Others hint at darker prejudices.

“I have a hijab and when I go into another city in Serbia they look at me like I’m from Mars,” said Nusreta Hudović, a 25-year-old journalist who recently returned to Novi Pazar after five years in Turkey and is among the co-founders of Heroj.

Multicultural history

Bosniaks, Serbs and many other ethnic groups have lived in Sandžak for centuries. But this long multicultural history has not been without problems.

Sandžak has become more visibly devout in recent years. Men with long beards and knee-length trousers drink Turkish tea. After the muezzin calls for Friday prayers, David Bowie cover versions play in an almost empty Heroj café.

Novi Pazar has also been known as a key stop on the smuggling routes that crisscross the Balkans | Flickr via Creative Commons

There have been reports of radicalization, too. A 2011 attack on the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo was carried out by a native of Novi Pazar, Mevlid Jašarević. A few dozen Bosniaks from Sandžak have gone to Syria to fight, although some say numbers have fallen.

“At the beginning of the war in Syria, they did manage to attract some young people but more recently we have not heard of more people going to fight,” said Mayor Biševac. “But it did happen at the beginning. If you have unemployment it is easier to manipulate young people.”

Although Bosnia-Herzegovina’s inter-ethnic violence did not spread across the border in the 1990s, many Sandžak Bosniaks went to fight in that war. Tens of thousands of refugees went in the opposite direction. Nowadays many people here look more to Sarajevo and Istanbul than Belgrade.

The exterior of the central mosque in Novi Pazar. According to locals, most Muslims are happy to live in Serbia, and alongside Serb neighbors | Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images

“Since the war, many people in Sandžak identify far more with Bosnia than Serbia,” said Latal.

Calls for Sandžak to run its own affairs have not fizzled out completely, either. This month, the Bosniak National Council in Serbia will hold a commemoration to mark the centenary of the Sjenica Declaration, which called for the secession of Sandžak from Serbia and Montenegro and was signed in the south Serbian town of Sjenica.

Nowadays Sjenica is a sleepy and verdant station on the migrant route through the Balkans. A dozen or so male refugees sit on the steps of a local hotel, avoiding the midday sun before attempting yet another border crossing through the wild forests. Syrian refugees’ clothes dry on the railings outside the nearby center for asylum seekers.

“We have a lot of refugees here. We like them,” said Hrmak Cemal, who runs a small store selling fresh cheese and smoked meats in Sjenica. “We try to give them jobs if we can. We cannot leave these people without help. It is a sin if someone comes looking for food and you don’t give it to them.”

“Milošević wanted to separate us but he didn’t manage it. They tried to inspire those divisions here but it didn’t work” — Shopkeeper Hrmak Cemal

Cemal, a soft-faced 63-year-old with a warm smile, studied textiles at university in the 1970s before working in the local garment industry. He lost his job after the war. The change he wants to see now is economic, not constitutional.

“It used to be really busy. We used to make good money, during Tito’s time. That’s all gone. We have no jobs here now.”

“All the factories are closed now, except one. Milošević closed down all the factories here.”

Despite Sandžak’s perilous economic situation, and anger at Belgrade, Cemal said most Muslims are happy to live in Serbia, and alongside Serb neighbors.

“Milošević wanted to separate us but he didn’t manage it. They tried to inspire those divisions here but it didn’t work. Even now we don’t look at each other that way. We live together.”

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