Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sharp Cafes to Sharp Shooters

On Monday we moved into a flat in Mitrovica. The town has been the focus of the international security forces and international media since the 1999 war resulted in the town splitting along ethnic lines. The river Ibar, which runs through the middle of Mitrovica, has become the dividing line between Kosovan Albanians, who dominates the town south of the river and Kosovan Serbs who live to the north.
The media has made much of this dramatic split, and for good reason. If you speak to people who have worked here it is almost certain that if the security forces pulled out tomorrow there would be a violent conflict between the two sides of the city. Consequently the area is the most heavily patrolled in Kosovo, especially around the river and the three bridges which cross it. In the building directly opposite us sniper positions cover the bridge. Behind us is a KFOR base, currently filled by the French armed forces. As we sat out in the sun drinking coffee in the busy centre of the town a patrol of US soldiers walked past carrying fully automatic assault rifles. It was an unexpected contrast to the many groups of school kids, college students and other people who were sitting around chatting and enjoying the sun.
However, the split in the town is not absolute. Just across the river is a small area of town which is still populated by Albanians. Further north, beyond Mitrovica are a number of villages in which the majority of the population is Albanian. As with the Serb enclaves in southern Kosovo, like Rahovec, there are isolated communities of Albanians in the majority Serbian north. These areas are the remnants of before the war, when Kosovo was not as ethnically divided as it is now.

Still, the tension here is greater than anywhere else in Kosovo, especially since the declaration of independence. Besnik Hasanaj, a local photojournalist and film-maker, used to run a project teaching photography to Serbs and Albanians in mixed classes. The programme finished in 2007 and he had found there to be few problems. He told us that whereas the parents had sometimes been resistant to their kids participating in the programme, the kids themselves had less of an issue with it. However, he said that independence has made things different. Before independence he used to go into the north with KFOR patrols. Now he doesn’t even do that. When asked whether the kind of multi-ethnic programme he used to run would be possible today he didn’t rule it out. He said it would be very challenging but that after the election and the tension has subsided a little that is might be possible.
Another measure of how Serbian and Albanian relations have regressed since the declaration of independence is the locally based magazine for both sides of the town, M-Magazine. The magazine has been publishing monthly since 2005 but stopped in February and is yet to restart. They are planning to print the next issue in June, after the election. There is little media play between the two halves. All other media seem to stay on the side of the river they are produced. We even heard that the Serbian side of the river only heard about the declaration a few days before it was made because it was not reported. In contrast people in the south knew about it well in advance.

Overall Mitrovica seems quieter, poorer and more tense than Pristina. All the people who live here are in a situation which is far from ideal. Water and power cuts out regularly. Both Serbs and Albanians live in a tense and volatile climate. So far we have kept mainly to the southern side. Here the people feel less aggrieved. After nearly ten years since they suffered a brutal war their region has finally become a nation and the patrols, guards and armour are there to protect it. The situation on the Serbian side will be different. In their view they have been cut from their country by a government with an illegitimate claim to sovereignty which is backed by a large international force. To them Mitrovica must feel like living under a form of imperialism, something very different from the sense of liberation Albanian Kosovans feel today.

1 comment:

Sarah Bower said...

This is absolutely fascinating - keep it coming.