By Tobias Grond
A bridge. It once was white. Today, the rusty spots are visible all over it. A massive amount of sand and dirt was dropped in the middle, making it impossible to drive to the other side of Mitrovica – a town in the north of Kosovo. Passing is only possible by foot. At both sides of the bridge, UN-jeeps with roaring engines keep watch all day long. Usually a bridge is used to connect two sides of a river. This one divides.
In 2008, Kosovo was the last region in the former Yugoslavian Republic that declared itself independent. Today, a bit more than half of the countries worldwide recognizes Kosovo as an independent nation, including most of the EU-countries. On the contrary, countries like Spain (could have anything to do with intranational politics) and Serbia don’t. Because Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo as an independent country, a power battle between Belgrade and Pristina (the two capitals) still continues.
In the run up to this moment in 2008, a lot had happened. Since the separation of Slovenia in 1991 – the first Yugoslavian province that received independence – many other regions were encouraged to do the same. Several Balkan wars in the mid 1990s were the result. The Kosovo war was the last one, which took place in 1999. Before the war, ethnic Serbs and Albanese people lived quite harmoniously together. In 1999, a few enclaves were found where the Serb minority (app. 5% of the population) was attracted to. The other 95% (Albanese) dominated the rest of the country. These enclaves still exist.
Trip to the north bank
A few years ago, I visited Mitrovica. This city is famous for its relatively large Serb enclave. The Serb live at the north bank of the river, the Albanese people at the other side. Among the Albanians, as well as among the Serbs, there are a few young people who want to leave the past behind them and move on. They have a united organization called “Community Building Mitrovica”. On the second day of my visit, we decided to walk to the Serb side of the city. After a few minutes, I noticed one of the Albanian girls – her name was Julija*, one of the most committed to the community building project – was getting a bit behind. She became less chatty than she was before. I slowed down and asked if she was all right.
But she wasn’t. Julija told me that when she was a small child, she lived in this part of the city. During the war, everything changed. At the time, she was 10 years old. She remembered the area getting less and less safe. At a certain moment, her parents decided that they had to flee to Albania. Due to the war, the regular transportation systems didn’t work anymore. The only way they could get there was by foot. They took as many things as they could carry and just left. I guess Julija deliberately left out some of the details her family went through during the 200 km journey. In the end, all het family members reached Albania safely.
They returned home after the war. In the meantime, the north side of Mitrovica had become a Serb enclave. So, it wasn’t an option to go back there. Since she left during the war, she had never been back to this place. She even told me that she still has nightmares sometimes, dreaming that she woke up in the center of the Serb part of the city. When I heard all this, I understood quite well that she didn’t feel comfortable at all.
Crossing the river
A few days later, we made a car trip. I got used to crossing the river, and I got used to the fact that other people don’t. But it was new for me to cross the river by car. As I described before, that’s not possible on the central bridge in the middle of town, due to the blockings. On the edge of the city, it is however possible to cross the river by car. When we were halfway on the bridge, we stopped. The driver stepped out of the car and took two new license plates out of the back of his car. He removed the Kosovar plates, and replaced them with Serb plates. When that was done, we were ready to enter the north side of the city.
As you might imagine, I was quite surprised. I asked him why the plates had to be replaced. The driver explained that he felt uncomfortable driving around with Kosovar plates in the north, and the same with Serbian plates in the south of the city. He told me that the few people who regularly visit both sides of the river, have two sets of license plates. And if they don’t have a Serbian plate, it isn’t a problem either. In that case, you just remove the Kosovar plates and drive further without any. The enclave doesn’t accept the Kosovar government. So the police is barely around to check.
Another consequence of this remarkable situation, is that the fuel in the north part of Mitrovica is around 50 ct/liter cheaper than on the south side. The owners just don’t pay taxes to the government of Kosovo. Since the Serb government hasn’t got the power to do so, they just don’t pay taxes at all. The driver told me that Albanian Kosovars nonetheless don’t try to refuel at these stations. Because when the pump attendant would notice that his visitor is Albanian, instead of doing his normal job, he’d put water in the tank. Quite an effective way to make sure that Albanian people stay away…
Before my visit to Kosovo, I’ve always associated Europe with safety, wellbeing and prosperity. I thought that since the end of the second world war, we had become organized. Of course, I had heard of Srebrenica, I knew about the IRA and other groups. But I didn’t realize what it genuinely meant. I guess I’m too spoiled with safety, wellbeing and prosperity in my own country.
A lot still has to happen to bring both sides closer to each other. Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some ambitious young people who are fighting for a unified Kosovo. Local initiatives like a collectively ran bar and administrative oriented efforts are made. They do however have to accept that when taking two steps forward, they have to also take one and a half back. Sadly, both community building groups still have their base at their own side of the river.
I truly believe that when these people keep believing that they can make a change, and don’t let stop them by conservative fellow Kosovars, they will be able to grow back to a harmonious society. Then this bizarre separation would no longer be necessary. Then they can finally use the UN-jeeps to get rid of the sand and clear the way for an accessible and joint future.
*Julija a fictitious name.