Mitrovica, 7 March 2008 – The divided city of Mitrovica in Kosovo has become a litmus test for those who believe in a multi-ethnic state. It is the only urban centre in Kosovo still inhabited by Serbs.
On Feb. 17 Kosovo, the disputed southern Serbian region, made a unilateral declaration of independence not recognised by Belgrade or by big countries such as Russia and China.
Western powers have recognised the move but say independence of the country of two million is conditional on, among other things, the new state’s treatment of the 120,000-strong Serbian minority, which Belgrade has vowed to protect by all non-violent means.
Up to 20 percent of Kosovo Serbs are believed to be living in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo and around. The town holds great symbolic power among Serbs who have remained in Kosovo.
What used to be the most ethnically integrated city in Kosovo now sees the Ibar River strictly separating the Serbian northern bank from the Albanian areas in the south.
The split materialised following the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) military intervention in 1999, justified on the basis of persistent abuse of former Yugoslavia’s Albanian minority by authorities in Belgrade.
Since then, 50,000 Albanians have moved into Mitrovica, and 7,000 Roma have fled Albanian areas to Serbia.
Fearful of living under an Albanian-controlled municipality, Serbs do not accept anything but a separate northern municipality directly answering to Belgrade.
With northern Mitrovica already being administered by parallel Serbian institutions, Albanians fear the division of the city could catapult a future partition of Kosovo along the Ibar River.
A sensitive spot for Albanian and Serbian hardliners, the town of 85,000 inhabitants has deservedly won a reputation as Kosovo’s most volatile flashpoint.
On Mar. 17 2004, a false rumour spread through Mitrovica that Albanian children had been chased into the Ibar River by Serbs. This resulted in attacks on Serbian homes and monuments, 19 deaths and 3,000 displaced persons.
“Every time something happens we have to re-start from scratch,” Monica D’Angelo from the Italian Association for Peace, an organisation promoting inter-ethnic dialogue in Mitrovica, told IPS.
The organisation has tried, among other things, to educate younger generations on loosening some of the deeply ingrained convictions that are keeping communities apart. “Serbians and Albanians are learning different histories,” D’Angelo says.
Some have also suggested setting up a multi-ethnic university town to bring Albanian and Serb youths together and create new jobs. The city already has a Serbian university which was re-located from Pristina.
D’Angelo is not alone in fearing that Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence will not have an immediately positive effect in bridging ethnic divisions.
“It brings us back, but not to the starting point,” Aferdita Syla, coordinator of the multilingual M-Magazine, an offspring of the non-governmental organisation Community Building Mitrovica, told IPS.
“We are all afraid about what the future will bring, but whatever happens in Mitrovica people want to live here, and we will have to communicate with each other,” she said.
There is poor communication at present between ethnic groups: some 2,000 Albanians live in enclaves in the north, whereas Serbians and the Roma have long left the south bank, and fear the consequences of re-claiming the homes they left behind.
The Roma, a group of people who are believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century, were accused by Albanians of collaborating with Serbian authorities, and not even the presence of foreign troops prevented mobs from setting their houses on fire.
“They used to interact with everyone and were better integrated than in much of Europe,” says Giannina Del Bosco, an activist with the Association for Peace, who first came to Mitrovica in 1989. “But during the war they were hired by Serbs for jobs such as lifting bodies, and accused of spying,” she told IPS.
Yugoslav authorities had in the past implemented policies to ensure neighbourhoods were kept mixed, and many in Mitrovica spoke a mixture of Albanian and Serbian, or could easily switch between the two.
Nowadays it is considered dangerous to address someone in the ‘wrong’ language. International experts have long called for steps to be taken to revive the city’s multi-ethnic atmosphere and its economy, but more journalists than international organisations seem to take interest in Mitrovica, and little has been achieved in practical terms.
It is believed that the town’s growing economic difficulties are among the main obstacles to the return and reintegration of refugees of all ethnicities.
Mitrovica is a former mining town where the collapse of socialist industries has been felt as nowhere in the Western Balkans.
Under Yugoslavia the nearby mining complex of Trepça was the most important in Kosovo, and employed up to 23,000 people, but was eventually shut down by British North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops who cited environmental concerns.
The private sector of South Mitrovica now mostly consists of micro-enterprises such as kiosks, car mechanics workshops and small construction firms. In the north Belgrade supports thousands of employees and social beneficiaries. Albanians and Serbs are finding it difficult to spot their shared economic interests as the city fails to revive the mining sector that once united them.
Few investors have put their money on reviving the industry, and many industrial complexes are allegedly used for money laundering following a shady post-1999 privatisation process that failed to create jobs.
“The effects are being felt. With 70 percent unemployment and little future prospects, many turn to crime,” Syla told IPS.
But Syla follows the line of those who are optimistic independence will bring institutional clarity and investors to the region. “The resolution of Kosovo’s status may also improve the economic situation, and this is what can really bring people together.”