Fear stalks Kosovo’s di­vided Mitro­vica

Kuwait Times - - International -

MITRO­VICA: Ten years after in­de­pen­dence, Al­ba­ni­ans and Serbs from Kosovo’s di­vided city of Mitro­vica have one thing in com­mon-fear, height­ened by the re­cent as­sas­si­na­tion of a mod­er­ate Serb politi­cian. The ma­jor­ity of the city’s 70,000 eth­nic Al­ba­ni­ans live south of the Ibar river. The north­ern side is home to 12,000 Serbs who fol­low Belgrade’s re­fusal to recog­nise Kosovo’s in­de­pen­dence, which will be cel­e­brated on Satur­day. In­stead of in­te­grat­ing, the two com­mu­ni­ties pre­fer to look down on each other.

“You will find young peo­ple who have never seen a Serb or an Al­ba­nian,” said Besim Hoti, an eth­nic Al­ba­nian deputy po­lice chief. Those who speak the lan­guage of a dif­fer­ent eth­nic group are in­creas­ingly rare, Hoti added. Afer­dita Sy­laj-Shehu, of the NGO Com­mu­nity Build­ing Mitro­vica, uses English lessons as a “tool” to help young peo­ple from both sides of the di­vide to meet and try to un­der­stand each other. But Sy­laj-Shehu her­self is re­luc­tant to cross the bridge con­nect­ing Mitro­vica’s north and south.

Su­per­vised by in­ter­na­tional forces, the bridge re­mains a sym­bol of di­vi­sion, and blocks of con­crete are be­ing placed on it. Pedes­tri­ans who dare take the bridge re­main rare, although they are no longer pelted with stones. One one side, the red-blue-white flags of Ser­bia fly in front of a mon­u­men­tal statue of King Lazarus, a sym­bolic na­tion­al­ist fig­ure who points an im­pe­ri­ous fin­ger to the south. “Kosovo is Ser­bia,” is writ­ten on a wall. The Al­ba­nian side is adorned with the flags of Europe’s youngest state and near the great mosque stands a bronze statue of Shemsi Ah­meti, a Kosovo Lib­er­a­tion Army (KLA) guer­rilla with a Kalash­nikov as­sault ri­fle across his back.

Fear of un­ex­pected

Mitro­vica has been cut in two since the 1998-1999 war be­tween Ser­bian forces and KLA in­de­pen­dence rebels. The con­flict killed more than 13,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 11,000 eth­nic Al­ba­ni­ans. Deadly ri­ots such as those in 2004 and 2008 seem to be in the past. Yet, “when ar­riv­ing here there is al­ways the fear of some­thing bad and un­ex­pected,” said Hamdi Pl­lana, 61, an eth­nic Al­ba­nian pen­sioner. Cross­ing a foot­bridge span­ning the Ibar to visit his daugh­ter, he de­scribes the feel­ing of an­guish as like fac­ing a “pack of stray dogs”. His daugh­ter lives in the dis­trict of “Three Tow­ers,” a rare mixed pocket of Mitro­vica. An­other lo­cal, Natal­ija, said: “You go to bed with fear in your stom­ach, you wake up with fear in your stom­ach. Will the (eth­nic) Al­ba­ni­ans at­tack or some of ours?” Mitro­vica “lives un­der the cease­fire regime, not peace,” added the 28year-old Serb, who re­fused to give her last name. Four months be­fore his as­sas­si­na­tion in Mitro­vica on Jan­uary 16, Serb politi­cian Oliver Ivanovic de­scribed a cli­mate of “dan­ger and fear.”The in­hab­i­tants of north­ern Mitro­vica “do not fear the Al­ba­ni­ans, but the Serbs, lo­cal bul­lies and crim­i­nals driv­ing four-wheel­ers with­out li­cense plates,” he said. The con­cen­tra­tion of po­lice of­fi­cers in north­ern Mitro­vica is im­pres­sive-120 per five square kilo­me­tres. But only ten were as­signed to in­ves­ti­gate Ivanovic’s as­sas­si­na­tion. Ivanovic’s as­sis­tant, Ksenija Bo­zovic, is con­vinced the killers will never be found. “Si­lence and fear reign over the town,” she said.

MITRO­VICA: Sol­diers of the NATO led-peace­keep­ing mis­sion in Kosovo walk near the main bridge in the di­vided town of Mitro­vica.

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