A land divided?

"Partition" is a dirty word in postwar Kosovo, but for now NATO troops are enforcing separation between Albanians and Serbs in at least one city.


Laura Rozen
June 29, 1999 4:00PM (UTC)

Each broken city in Kosovo has its own story. There seems to be an infinite number of ways human beings can abandon reason and the common good to make life miserable for everyone.

In the northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica, it is not the burned houses and business districts that tell the story -- although burned houses and businesses are plentiful -- but a long bridge that was built over a river to connect the city's northern and southern halves but now serves as the dividing line between the city's Serbs and Albanians instead.

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Kosovska Mitrovica could have been an example of a Kosovo city that worked. With the Sitnica River winding through its center, and its easy proximity to Kosovo's most valuable asset, the Trepca coal mine, which provides power for southern Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, it seemed to have what many cities lacked: the material resources to provide employment and a standard of living that could allow the city's ethnic Serbian and Albanian populations to live side by side in peace, even as the rest of the province went to war.

But now the war has laid waste to so much of what people value -- their families and property and communities -- that this pretty river, the Sitnica, serves as the Berlin Wall between Mitrovica's Serbs in the north and its Albanians in the south. Both groups have staked out their places on the bridge, looking with envy and longing at the other side to which they dare not cross, at what they have lost.

Although "partition" is a dirty word among NATO policy makers and peacekeepers in Kosovo, French peacekeeping forces (KFOR) are enforcing a de facto partition of Kosovska Mitrovica for now. They stand at checkpoints on either side of the bridge deciding who can cross or not, their checkpoints swirled with rolls of barbed wire and cement blocks that keep the two sides apart.

The French KFOR troops say their goal is to calm tensions between the two groups, and then gradually decrease the partition.

"The final goal is to maintain the multinational composition of the town, and to avoid partition," said French KFOR spokesman Lt. Bertrand Bowweau Tuesday at headquarters in Mitrovica. "But the French troops arrived only 12 days ago. And the ethnic troubles have been here for 10 years. It's obvious such a problem cannot be solved in 12 days."

Bowweau says that finding a way to prevent tensions from flaring between the two groups while allowing them to co-mingle will take a long time. Both groups -- ethnic Albanians and Serbs -- look at each other with suspicion and bitterness. But their mutual unhappiness at the partition of their city more than anything makes them sound alike.

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"The Serbs want to make this the border," complained Faik Kadriu, an ethnic Albanian man standing at the southern KFOR checkpoint on the bridge Tuesday, looking at the northern part of the city where he says he has Albanian relatives, but to which he dare not cross. "The Serbs are checking us when we get to the other side of the bridge. The Serbian paramilitaries check us. They all still have their weapons. The same people who burnt our houses are the same ones sitting on the other side of the bridge."

Looking across the block-long bridge, on the other side of which sit Serbs equally disgruntled with the situation, Kadriu, standing with his young son, adds: "The Serbs created this situation. They have blood on their hands."

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But the Serbs sitting in an outdoor cafe on the northern side of the bridge believe they are the lone victims. The Albanians, they argue, have all of NATO, the United States and the world on their side.

"The Albanian people have the UCK," the Albanian acronym for the Kosovo Liberation Army, says 22-year-old literature student Vasil Avic, sitting among friends at this Serbian cafe. "The Serbian people don't have anybody. Only KFOR can save the lives of the Serbian people."

Avic and other Serbs sit drinking bottles of beer on the northern side of the bridge, while keeping a wary eye on the span, as if it were their job to watch it. Instead, it is the obsession eating at the entire city, which is slowly coming back to life in the weeks since NATO ended its airstrikes against Serbia and Kosovo. While the southern, Albanian-held part of the city is largely burned down, the northern part, now held by Serbs, and only 18 miles from the border of Serbia proper, is largely intact, if somewhat more abandoned.

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While Avic, who plays bass guitar in a rock band when not studying Serbian postmodernist poetry, denies that Serbian police ever maltreated Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, he does recall a time when the city's Serbs and Albanians got on better.

"Here in communist times, 10, 15 years ago, in Mitrovica, there were several good rock bands," the heavyset Avic, in a white T-shirt and jeans and sneakers, his long hair pulled into a ponytail, says. "If there was a Serbian rock group with three Serbs, its fourth member had to be an Albanian. If an Albanian group had three Albanians, then the fourth member had to be a Serb. When they played music together, and drank, and traveled around performing, the relationship between Serbs and Albanians was good. Music was the only place where people could discuss politics."

"I guess that was the only good thing about communism," he muses.

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Intermingling between the two groups also existed among medical staff at Mitrovica's hospital, in the northern part of the city, and along this deserted bridge as well as in the rock and jazz clubs fondly remembered by Avic.

Avic's friend, Milan, used to go south across the bridge every week to the university in the Kosovo capital of Pristina. But now he says he is afraid of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and feels trapped here in Mitrovica until the tensions wear down.

"Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic must go," Milan, thin, with shoulder-length blond hair, says, speaking quietly Tuesday. "I think he is wrong. His politics caused this situation. He's had power for 10 years, and we've had war for nine years."

Among Serbs, fear of the Kosovo Liberation Army and uncertainty about the willingness of KFOR troops to intervene to protect them is overwhelming. On Tuesday, a KFOR spokesman announced in Pristina that the KLA was largely complying with a demilitarization agreement that has forced its soldiers to turn over their weapons to sites manned by KFOR forces, and to trade their KLA uniforms for civilian dress. For Serbian civilians in Mitrovica, there is hope that if the city remains calm over the next few weeks and the KLA continues to demilitarize, the partition of the city will be forgotten, and normal life can resume.

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There are a few rays of hope. Despite his fear of Albanians, for instance, Avic is visibly happy to hear about an ethnic Albanian drummer from Mitrovica who is returning to Kosovo after having been deported to Macedonia by Serbian police back in May.

"In the future we must live together, like the Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia," says Avic. "I don't want to live in fear of the KLA. And I don't want the Albanians to live in fear of the Serb people. They can live their life, and I will live mine."

Milan adds, "If it's very calm, we can all go live together. But not if something bad happens. Then the Serbs will leave for Serbia, and they will live horribly there."


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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