(11th January) Gloomy clouds blanketed the city of Mitrovica in darkness. January wind howled, it pierced the skin of each passer-by and enveloped us with numb coldness in a sprawl of dusty roads. Few street lights flickered and their shadows laid heavy in the potholes of the Ibar River. We could hardly hear a pin drop except the gentle sound of flowing waters and our regular footsteps. In between dilapidated socialist-style buildings and shabby-brown blocks, there lies a steel truss bridge above the river. Yet it is more than just a bridge.
This New Bridge, being refurbished by the European Union until this June, does not appear significant at first glance from afar. It was just ordinary, with far end views of shallow ranges of green hills and meadows. Gone were the days when this town, near to the vast Trepeca mines, was one of the most prosperous industrial areas in Yugoslavia. Who knows decades later, Mitrovica, once with a rosy past, becomes a bisected town, with the bridge as a de-facto border, scourged by long-standing hatred of ethnic Serbs and Albanians?
The tale of this unnatural divide began and emerged soon after the Kosovo War, when there was an exodus of ethnic Albanian refugees flocking to Kosovo and most Serbs who lived there fled north. After the NATO bombings that drove Milosevic’s Serb soldiers out of Kosovo, population expulsion in Mitrovica, flamed by nationalist extremists on both sides, exacerbated from time to time even under the vigilance of the troops from Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the United Nations. Throughout this decade, while the Albanians in the South claims its belonging to the independent state of Kosovo, the Serbs in the North still vows allegiance to Serbia. Often did the time elapse with both groups’ finger pointing to each other, the smoldering threat of violence, or vicious cycle of disputes escalating into bloodshed by just an outright insult, a stone or a firecracker. Instead of connecting those two neighbours, the bridge, however, separates them.
As we reached the slab pavement of the bridge, footsteps became heavy. In the two sides were a group of KFOR guards and peacekeeping forces from EU’s Rule of Law Mission (EULEX), standing vigil and huddling beneath steel sheds, grabbing the machine guns, staring at every pedestrian in eagle eyes. Sequences of patrol jeeps and a convoy of armored cars ticked over nearby, while a pile of gravel at the end swung onto the road. In such tense atmosphere, my heart twisted with nerves and unsettled eyes glimpsed around. Anxious thoughts trundled through my brain, with no intention of stopping while experiencing such hint of tension. As we were wondering what might see next, to our relief, one of the soldiers headed and nodded to us for crossing the other side.
From the direction of the bridge, along the Mbreteresha Teute Street, what caught our heed were the striking double-headed Albanian flags, flying in line with the swift rhythm of the wind, more prominent than the blue-yellow Kosovar flags from multifarious grocery stores. A sea of men with traditional qeleshe, a white brimless felt cap, were swarming to Bajram Pasa Mosque for 5-time worshipping a day. Decorated with a gorgeous dome and an intricate mix of geometric patterns, the mosque is currently the biggest one in Kosovo. So did people place great weight on the statue of Isa Boletini, who was an Albanian guerrilla fighter against the Ottomans during the Revolt in 1910, was inaugurated in the 100th Anniversary of the Independence of Albania. To the right of the square craved a daring soldier as the Kosovo war memorial, reminding people the bravery of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and the barbarity of Milosevic’s genocide to the ethnic Albanian population 17 years ago.
At the same time, elder men sat sipping fragrant tea around the chess sets, watching people squeezing through and streamlined motorcycles moving at considerable speeds across the narrow road. Coffee houses and sidewalk stalls were a blaze of fainted color, so too were the youngsters wearing heavy make-ups, bulky coats and tight jeans. Buyers carrying full plastic bags, skillfully wove their way when groups of smiling kids stopped by and were figuring out who we were with greetings “pershendetje“. If not the guards were on the bridge few streets away, South Mitrovica is just as similar as any other city in Kosovo.
The Serbian side greeted us with a stark reminder of their bleak past, with national flags of red, blue and white everywhere. A six-metres high, dark-coloured memorial titled “the Monument of Truth” dominated the bridge entryway, dedicated to 194 perished Serbian heroes in the Kosovo war with a dome of four white angels. In the crossroads there stood a statue of Shcherbina Stepanovich, a Serbian hero from the liberation wars of the 19th century, was also placed for at the centre, at the backdrop of the rushing of cars. Nearby was surrounded by countless posters in Cyrillic alphabets that declared “Kosovo is Serbia”, reflecting citizens’ refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence in 2008 and the possible integration with the South. Vladimir Putin, who is Serbia’s greatest diplomatic backer, whom tough images have been stuck on the apartment in credit to his staunch support.
Meanwhile, rows of decrepit socialist-style houses, though looking dusty and mottled, fitted together with the graffiti of Serbia’s national flag. A wide variety of kiosks selling trays of steaming cevapi and traditional pljeskavica posted prices in Serbian dinars. Inside them, a flat, dusty TV screen from the ceiling was broadcasting a popular Serbian news channel, illustrating magnificence of the Serbian National Assembly as well as the sights and sounds of the daily lives in Belgrade. While a huge road sign, with two eagles spreading feather wings, illustrated the solid unity of major cities in Serbia. Indeed, their hearts and wallets are still closer to Belgrade than to Pristina. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in North Mitrovica.
As long as trust was overshadowed by national sentiments and past grievance of both sides, a united Mitrovica seemed to be the castle in the air. Nevertheless, the future is not as deplorable as it looked. Amid 2013, there were signs of a thaw in their frozen relationships through the Brussels Agreement meditated by the European Union. As part of the negotiations, Kosovo gained its own telephone country code while its ethnic Serb minority won greater autonomy via the Association of Serbian Municipalities. Most importantly, both agreed to re-establish freedom of movement in which the bridge will become accessible to both sides by this June, in exchange to expedite their application to the EU. As long as with both willingness to take their first step for coexistence, whether in a genuine heart or due to cost-calculated interest, such institutional rapprochement, at least, still remains a reason for us to stay hopeful to.
Serb and Albanian communities in Mitrovica, on either side of the river, have been living in a constant state of distrust plagued by the resentful feeling for past offenses. While the bridge stayed as a fixture in a frozen conflict, in contrast to a metaphorical meaning as a structural crossing area, hardly opened a path to the other side. Will tensions mount further, or will international dialogue be able to bridge the divide and break down those physical and psychological barriers? Let’s hope that in one day, this bridge will be similar to any other bridges in the world as the synonym of the union, and act as a reminder of the division of a once bitterly-divided city. ♦