Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Do You Have Any Weapons?

North Mitrovica – 06.05.08
‘Do you have any weapons?’
This question greeted us as we got on a bus in southern Mitrovica. The man asking the question was the driver and his bus runs a more risky route than most. Leaving from the entrance of the main bridge on the southern side of Mitrovica, it travels over the Ibar, through the northern part of the town and to some Albanian villages in north Kosovo. It is well known that it is an Albanian bus and the driver was worried that the cameras we were carrying could draw unwanted and hostile attention towards his bus, passengers and us. He asked us if we had weapons because he wanted to know if we would be able to protect ourselves. He told us that some Kosovan Serbs may think we were spying for the Albanians. However, he seemed particularly worried about us taking photographs from the bus window, and probably wanted to scare us away completely.

We decided to get off. We had spoken to a UN police officer earlier in the morning who had told us that there would be the usual protest by Serbian Kosovans in north Mitrovica. Not wanting to cause any more concern to the bus driver and his passengers, and not really wanting to find ourselves in a situation which would require us to use weapons of any kind, we thought we could take a look at that instead.
You can travel freely between north and south Mitrovica by one of the three bridges. There are signs saying you may be checked for identity cards but I haven’t seen this happen yet, and our flat looks right over the main bridge. We walked over this bridge first. On the south side sniper positions on the top of high buildings cover the bridge and UN police officers and KFOR soldiers are posted on either side of the road but movement across the bridge is free and the security personnel seem quite relaxed. Although movement is free there is little traffic between the two sides of the town. The majority of it is security personnel, but we saw local people cross; cars, vans, workers and school kids.
Initially there seems to be little difference on the other side of the bridge. The international security forces are just as present. Political posters of candidates in the upcoming Serbian election can be seen on most free walls. Another noticeable detail is that all the number plates on the cars have a small Serbian flag on them, or they have no plates at all. Cars coming from Kosovo remove their Kosovan plates before coming over the bridge to avoid unwanted attention and vandalism.
We turned right and walked along the river to the eastern bridge. The small part of the town we walked through is still populated by Albanians. At the eastern bridge we stopped and spoke to some US KFOR soldiers. They were on a standard patrol and said that there were no extra plans for election day. The majority of the policing will be done by UNMIK and the Kosovan police. KFOR will be on standby as usual, ready to respond if any there are any problems which need their extra military weight.
Back on the southern side of the river we turned right and walked across town to the western most bridge. We passed the main bridge where three armoured UN vehicles and a number of other smaller cars and trucks were parked behind a large disused building waiting for any disturbances that may develop from the Serbian nationalist rally which was due to begin on the northern side.
The western bridge is a foot bridge, not too far away from the main crossing. We walked over and headed in the direction of the rally. The echoing sound of an impassioned speech being delivered over a PA system could be heard at the entrance to the main bridge. We asked some KFOR soldiers where the ‘protest’ was taking place. They pointed us 300 yards up the hill away from the bridge and made clear that is was a ‘meeting’, not a ‘protest’.
As we walked up the speech got louder. We didn’t have a translator so couldn’t understand exactly what was being said, but the general theme seemed obvious. When the rally came into sight we heard the orator name the current Serbian president and progressive pro-EU leader of the Democratic Party Boris Tadic. His name was followed by angry booing and whistles from the front of the crowd. Tadic believes Kosovo is still part of Serbia, but crucially he will enter the EU without requiring Kosovo to backtrack on its declaration of independence.
The rain had got steadily harder throughout the morning and was now quite heavy. The rally was on a crossroads which seemed central to this side of town. Shops and cafes surrounded the area. The speakers’ stage was to the right as we approached. On it a number of people waited for their turn to speak, all applauding when the others finished. A loud compare-type character introduced each speaker and photographers and a film team recorded the speeches from the stage.
A solemn crowd stood under their umbrellas listening. Three drenched Serbian flags were waved above the gathering of umbrellas. More people sheltered from the rain under shop awnings while the speeches continued. It may have been the persistence of the rain, but there was not a particularly heated or volatile feeling in the majority of the crowd. Occasionally one person would shout out in approval or start clapping after a certain point was made. A few other people were engaged in serious conversations, probably about Serbian politics. At one point a chant broke out somewhere near the stage, but generally the crowd watched and listened in relative silence.
These meetings are held regularly in this part of Mitrovica. To me it seemed there was an air of routine in the atmosphere. Only a small minority of the crowd seemed outwardly inspired by the speeches. Instead it seemed that most of them were here out of a sense of duty to their defiance of Kosovo’s independence. After the speeches a woman came to the microphone and sung a song about Kosovo. Gradually the crowd joined in. Most of the crowd were singing, young and old, women and men. Nobody chanted it. The volume remained low and deep, providing a quiet backing to the amplified voice from the stage. After the song drew to a close with the repetition of ‘Kosovo, Kosovo, Kosovo,’ the crowd quietly dispersed as people returned to their homes, shops and jobs.

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