By Dr. Nenad Antonijevic, museum advisor of the Museum of Genocide Victims, and Stefan Radojkovic, curator of the Museum of Genocide Victims
On February 2nd, 2022, the United Nations agency in charge of state and territorial development (UNDP in Kosovo*) shared on its social media accounts the news that the restoration works on the former house of Xhafer Ibrahim Deva, which was built in the 1930s in Kosovska Mitrovica, was initiated.
Based on the photos published by the UNDP, the house itself, built by Austrian architects and workers in a modernist style, undoubtedly requires expert intervention to prevent further deterioration. On the other hand, its conversion into a regional cultural center in Kosovska Mitrovica within the project “Cultural Heritage as a Driver for Intercommunity Dialogue and Social Cohesion” arouses distrust of non-Albanian communities of Kosovska Mitrovica of the sincerity of the project.
In the worst case, it is an attempt to base the reconciliation process between the Albanian and other non-Albanian communities (in this case, Serb and Jewish) on the fact that a person whose actions during World War II were anything but a driving force for dialogue between communities and their social cohesion was chosen as a paragon of harmonious, tolerant and peaceful interethnic life in Kosovo and Metohija.
For the people unfamiliar with the history of World War II in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1941-1945) or those who only have a superficial knowledge of it, Xhafer Deva (1900/904-1978) – who was born in Istanbul in 1900 according to one source, or in Mitrovica in 1904, according to another – was a prominent associate of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany entrusted with managing the occupation zone „Serbia“ (which spans the area of today’s Banat and the territory from Belgrade to Kosovska Mitrovica and Podujevo), which together with Thessaloniki formed a larger occupation unit called “Southeast.”
In addition to being the district chief of the Kosovo-Mitrovica district during the German occupation, General Hans Gustav Felber, the commander of the occupation unit „Southeast“ and the zone „Serbia“ from August 15th, 1943 to September 26th, 1944, describes Deva in his report as the main driving force in Kosovo and Metohija, noting that his actions against the partisans exceeded all Wehrmacht expectations.
It is no coincidence that the special representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nazi Germany for the Southeast (i.e. Balkans), Hermann Neubacher, insisted that the Kosovo Regiment – volunteer Albanian militia units organized by Xhafer Deva and commanded by Bajazit Boletini – not be incorporated into SS troops so that it could be employed in the wider area of Kosovo, Metohija, western Macedonia and Albania to fight anti-fascist movements and guard the back of German troops.
During March of 1944, however, the majority of members of Deva’s militia joined the 21st SS Division “Skenderbeg.” However, Xhafer Deva stood out not only in his fight against Yugoslav and Albanian partisans (the activities of his Kosovo Regiment in Tirana in early February 1944, when 84 people were killed particularly stand out) but also in terrorizing the civilian population of Kosovo and Metohija. Two cases are of distinctive significance, and like with the crimes in Tirana, they took place before the Kosovo Regiment joined the SS troops.
The suffering of the Jews of Kosovska Mitrovica began practically in the first days of the German occupation, that is, during April and May of 1941. Deva, a prominent figure in the Kosovo-Mitrovica district, issued an order on May 20th, 1941, to confiscate Jewish property (Jewish Historical Museum, K-22, 1a-3/9, reg. no. 3728), while commissioners, members of the Albanian Kosovo Committee, were posted in Jewish businesses.
The synagogue was demolished, archival books and documents were destroyed. The Jews were forced to wear a yellow ribbon on their left arm, while the inscriptions „Jüdichafen Geschäft“ appeared on their shop windows. The situation that the Jewish community of Kosovska Mitrovica found itself deteriorated in August, when the German occupation forces, with the help of associates from the Albanian community, escorted men, 21 to 55 years of age, to the Kosovo-Mitrovica prison.
In February 1942, women with children were interned, and in March, Jews from Novi Pazar, Duga Poljana, Sjenica and Tutin arrived at the prison. According to Christopher Browning’s research, a group of approximately 500 Jews was taken to a German camp at the Sajmiste Fairgrounds in March 1942. By May 10th, the majority of the people in that group were killed in a gas chamber.
Following Italy’s capitulation in September 1943, the German occupation zone in Kosovo and Metohija expanded to other larger places where, in addition to Albanians, Serbs and Jews lived. Consequently, the influence of Xhafer Deva grew and expanded territorially. As we noted, although he did not command the Kosovo Regiment on the ground – formed in October 1943 primarily to fight anti-fascists and the national liberation movement in Albania – his role in the establishment and management is crucial.
Moreover, using his post as the Minister of the Interior in the government of Rexhep Mitrovica, with headquarters in Tirana, he had significant funds available at hand. It was this regiment, while on its way to Shkodra and Tirana, that committed numerous crimes against the Serb civilian population in Pec from December 3rd to December 8th, 1943.
After the arrest and killing of people from the list of suspects, on the night between December 3rd and December 4th, an attack on innocent civilians began. The city was blocked. Members of the Kosovo Regiment broke into Serb houses, taking men away who they would keep locked up, initially in the towers of Zejnel beg and Ševćet beg Mahmutbegović or in the tavern Sali Dake. At night, they were taken to the execution sites around the town, killed, while their bodies were left behind or thrown into Bistrica. In the last days of the „cleansing“ of Pec, the detainees were no longer imprisoned, instead, they were taken directly to the river and the surrounding execution sites.
Thus, a message was sent to the Serbian community. The victims were primarily respectable and rich people from the Pec area (merchants, tavern owners, former state officials, retired military personnel, craftsmen, farmers).
Due to these examples, without going into the role of Xhafer Deva in organizing the Second Prizren League, in preparing and committing crimes over the Serb and Jewish population in Kosovo and Metohija in 1944, as well as the ways Deva was allowed to avoid responsibility for crimes committed over Serbs, Albanians and Jews, we believe that the UNDP’s decision to support the establishment and housing of a regional cultural center in the house of the said person as inappropriate at the very least; especially if the donors – the United Nations Development Agency and the European Union – truly care about, as the name of the project states – the dialogue between the communities of Kosovska Mitrovica and their social cohesion.
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