Mitrovica is a city in the partially recognised state of Kosovo. Naturally, Mitrovica is also a place where simmering ethnic tensions and political instability often come to a head. Add a Hitler doppelganger who fraternises with international peacekeepers to the mix – and you've got an alarmingly high dose of eccentricity, as our writer found out on a recent trip there.
This post originally appeared on VICE Serbia
"Kosovo's own reincarnation of Adolf Hitler," as he refers to himself, definitely looks the part. Emin Gjinovci, 55, is a veteran of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), who currently lives off of his veteran's pension and the money he makes as a Hitler lookalike.
At all times, Gjinovci carries with him what he calls "Hitler trinkets" – a few badges with swastika imprints, swastika necklaces and a copy of Mein Kampf.
"People have called me Hitler since my army days," he says showing me a photograph of himself in an army uniform. "They say I look a lot like him – unlike that English guy who plays him in the movie," he adds in reference to Charlie Chaplin's role in The Great Dictator.
He hands me his business card, which also carries a swastika, saying that people often invite him to events – even weddings and funerals – in "both a personal and a professional capacity."
"I go to funerals dressed as Hitler. That sometimes has a negative effect – those who've come to mourn, stop crying to talk to me instead."
As we walk around his hometown of Mitrovica, no one seems to be genuinely bothered by his presence. In fact, a lot of people stop and raise their hand to greet him in a salute that would warrant criticism – if not arrest – in most parts of the world.
Even the NATO peacekeepers stationed in the city as part of the Kosovo Protection Forces (KFOR) stop their cars to say hi. Easily recognisable in their uniforms and with flags emblazoned on their shoulders, I wonder if these guys would be greeting Gjinovci as warmly in their respective home countries.
"People respect me here. Young, old, men, women, children. They all greet me with a 'Heil Hitler'." I witnessed this as we walked through the city, although Gjinovci seems to have missed the snickering and laughter it is usually followed with.
Gjinovci seems to take his job very seriously: "Hitler didn't smoke," he says when I offer him a cigarette. He continues by criticising me for arriving late to our meeting, saying that he works on "German military time." However, he doesn't seem to be a vegetarian because he suggests we go to eat at his favourite kebab place.
"Girls like to touch my face. They think it's a mask. They pull my hair and ask if they can kiss me on the face. When I'm out of the house with my family, people stop to talk to me. But my wife is not a jealous person – she doesn't mind."
I ask him if he sees any parallels between himself and the detested historical figure. "That's easy," he replies. "I can identify with Hitler because he fought my enemy. The enemy of my enemy is my friend," he replies looking pleased with himself. Something tells me however that he is unaware of the weight his statement might carry.
-"Who is your enemy? The communists?" I ask.
-"Yes. The Serbs," he replies.
The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was a guerrilla force that rose up in the highly volatile 1990s – which is now remembered by most Kosovo Albanians as a time of oppression led by late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
Due to the situation in Kosovo that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the period of that socialist federation is not remembered fondly. In fact, many equate their memories of Yugoslavia with the difficulties they experienced in the lead up to the NATO bombing of 1999.
Gjinovci himself came to Kosovo in early 1998 – from Germany of all countries – to contribute to the war effort. "I left my family in Germany to come here and join the KLA," he says. Later, his family also joined him in Kosovo.
He hasn't been to Germany since, except for one time when he had to travel for surgery to treat multiple wounds he received in the war. "It was when I was there for my operation that I was forced to grow out part of my moustache. The doctors would come into my room and just look at me."
Realising the potential for profit, Gjinovci soon started charging for photos. "I can earn between 20 and 80 Euros per photo. Sometimes, I earn even up to 200 Euros per day if there's an event or if there are international tourists hanging around Mitrovica," he explains.
Gjinovci lives in Mitrovica with his wife and five daughters, who at school are referred to as "Hitler's children". He insists they have no problem with that.
"I go to parent-teacher meetings like this, and the parents don't mind. Every time I go to pick up my girls at school, schoolchildren surround me and want to talk to me."
With that disturbing image in my head, we near the bridge on the Ibar river and stop for a photo-op with the Italian Carabinieri stationed at the bridge. I ask him whether he goes to the north of the city, where the ethnic Serb population of Mitrovica lives.
"If I went there, I'd have to go with a gun," he replies. Before the conflict, Mitrovica's various ethnic groups, mostly made up of Albanians, Serbs and Turks, lived on both sides of the river. Now, the southern part of the city functions as a part of independent Kosovo, whereas most of the North swears allegiance to Belgrade.
"I am disappointed with post-war Kosovo. I thought we'd all be hugging each other by now," says Gjinovci. Just like many other Kosovars, Gjinovci has found it hard to find employment. He opened a restaurant after the war, but was soon forced to close it. He is reluctant to talk more about that.
So far, Gjinovci hasn't faced any strong criticism for what he does. In a recently independent country struggling to transition – where war crimes trials, corrupt politicians and unemployment are the name of the game – a whacky Hitler impersonator hardly makes waves.
The locals have written him off as a weird fluke. "I have a lot of other things to worry about in my life. I might look at him if he walks by, but that's it," says Arsim Peci, 43, a carpenter living in Mitrovica.
As for Gjinovci, it doesn't look like he'll be hanging his Hitler boots any time soon. "I am proud of what I look like and I have no intention of changing it until I die. This is what people will remember me by," he says.