Finding new perspectives in the divide
In many aspects, Mitrovica is not an ordinary city. Kosovars who do not live in Mitrovica will often be quite puzzled when you tell them that you’ve decided to come back volunteering for another year. Most of the time, thinking about Mitrovica only brings out images of ethnic division in the minds of many people. But if you take the time to dig deeper, the city becomes one of the most fascinating ones that I have ever seen. That said, I am not saying that life in Mitrovica is easy or always funny. Apart from the hardship of daily life in Kosovo, the divisions in the city are sometimes so apparent and hit you abruptly, while leaving you wondering how anyone can continue to live with so much indifference and prejudices between the communities. Listening to stories from the war or being asked about your opinion on Kosovo’s situation is not an easy task to deal with, but it is also a part of the experience when you decide to live, or in my case, to come back to Mitrovica. And this is how I started discovering more about the exciting, but hidden parts of the city, the ones that people have a hard time to acknowledge.
A bit of context now
Before the war, Mitrovica was a unified city and used to have an intense cultural life. The Big Band Orchestra, rock bands like Marigona, or the numerous cinemas the city used to count are still remembered by some with nostalgia. Similarly, the multiethnic football team of Trepça/Trepča proudly marked the spirits by being the first Kosovar team to join Yugoslav First League in 1977 and almost winning it in 1978. In 1998, the war tore apart friendships and families, swept away tolerance and ended up with the ethnic division symbolized by the main bridge in the center of the city. Understanding and peaceful coexistence are not easy things to achieve but Yugoslavia managed to give it some kind of reality, at least from what I’ve heard from the people I met in Mitrovica. Nowadays, the city has no cinema, and the division even reached the playing field with the creation of two football teams, KF Trepça representing Mitrovica South and FK Trepča for Mitrovica North.
Mitrovica has become an example among other divided cities around the world, but as it often happens, this sad characteristic hides other complex realities. I always had the feeling that the city is too often solely reduced to the division between Serbs and Albanian. But many communities such as the Bosniaks, the Turks, the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians are left aside and their opinions forgotten. Nonetheless, these communities suffered as well from the war and from the separation that arose from it. Then with all these elements in mind, how to apprehend the violence that engulfed in 1998? How not to take a side? How to remain as neutral as possible? The truth is, you will never be objective, your opinion will change according to the people you meet, to the stories you hear. But being a foreigner in Mitrovica gives you the luxury of getting along with everyone, no matter who they are, and to discover what they see in their city that makes it so special.
About the neighborhoods in Mitrovica
Discovering the geography of Mitrovica is a must when arriving in the city as it helps understanding the lines of division along with the places where people are not afraid to meet. The Ibar river divides the city into two parts: the North and the South. The northern part of the city is quite narrow and kept the typical buildings from Yugoslavian times. On the upper hill, the Monument to the Serbian and Albanian Partisans is overlooking the city. It was built to commemorate the memory of Serbs and Albanians from the Trepça mines who fought against the German occupation. Going there will give you one of the most beautiful sights of the city, especially for sunsets. From this spot, it is also possible to distinguish Prishtina and the old coal-power plant Obilic which has been spitting a grey thick smoke for many years. As a matter of fact, Kosovo ranks as one of the most polluted countries across the world. At the edge of the northern side, the former industrial chimney of Trepça mines dominates the surroundings with its 306 meter of height and opens the way to the North of Kosovo and to Serbia. If you continue the road long enough, you will end up in Belgrade.
The Bosnian neighborhood, or mahalla, is located in the North but it works as a buffer-zone where you can interact in Serbian and in Albanian without any problem. The southern part is much more extended than the northern side of Mitrovica. Small houses adjoin big new buildings while mosques and the calls for prayer set the rhythm of life. Not far from the river, where a new shopping mall is supposed to open soon, the Roma mahalla appears and proves, if needed, that wealth and poverty sometimes go hand in hand in the most cynical way. There is a stark contrast between the new investments of the municipalities in the construction of amusement parks and the misery in which some communities from Mitrovica still live. Walls from houses are cracked and on the verge of collapsing but it didn’t prevent investors from building an expensive and ostentatious aquapark just at the border with the neighborhood. While the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo have been facing recurrent discrimination and suffer from every kind of injustice you can imagine, public money is rarely invested to improve their living conditions or social integration.
Enough about division; let’s talk about being together
One hesitation that all foreigners share when arriving in Mitrovica is to say “Hvala” instead of “Faleminderit” or the other way around. These terms mean thank you, the first in Serbian and the second in Albanian. Confusing both happened to me countless times! I would usually blush and apologize embarrassedly before realizing that most of the people in the worst case just shrug in an indifferent way and in the best case start speaking the “other side’s” language as if it was their mother tongue. This never stopped to amaze me. Some Albanians will gladly talk with you in Serbian, others will not. Some Serbs will be delighted to show their knowledge of the Albanian language, some don’t even want to hear about it. Language symbolizes as much the difference among communities as it also unveils the open-mindedness that some inhabitants nurture. Mitrovica lives with two parallel systems: two languages, two currencies (euros and dinars), two religions, two school systems, two institutions (Belgrade and Prishtina). It makes you believe that there is nothing in common on the other side of the bridge, while the truth is that people gladly mingle from time to time. The best example that comes to my mind to illustrate this latter point are the markets of Mitrovica, occurring every Saturday mornings on both sides of the city. In a nutshell, the market is one of these spots where you learn the most about Mitrovica. The one located in the north is probably the best place to find local products, directly coming from the gardens of the sellers. Arriving after 8 A.M. will most likely prevent you from finding what you are looking for; you have to arrive early if you want to have a chance to make good deals.
The learning starts here. It is very common for Serbs to switch to Albanian if they see you are struggling with the language. The same way you will be able to pay in euros if you don’t have dinars. It has been quite an experience to always switch from a currency to another, from a language to another. I have always been a bit scared to make a mistake, to pronounce a word that I should not, to mix numbers and expressions. But for the sake of selling, there are no differences anymore: only bargaining in every way possible, agreeing on a price and sharing glasses of rakija count. The market in the north is full of diversity and life, as much as it is messy and crowded. A few steps further, you will find the Roma market where you can find second hand clothes, books and household items.The first time I went to the Roma market, I was fazed by the disorganization and the chaos that I had in front of my eyes. I felt very uncomfortable and not at all ready to bargain for prices of items. But like many things that are so unusual and disturbing at the beginning, you end up getting used to them. This side of the market brings all communities together and you hear equally Albanian and Serbian languages. However, those spots where ethnic mixity sometimes occur are not yet so much frequented by young people.
Being young in Mitrovica
While eldery people living in Mitrovica have seen the city when it was unified, the younger generations, on the other hand, are fueled by political propaganda, war times’ stories, fear and prejudices. It appears to my eyes that it is much easier to enhance the division when the target group is composed of young adults that don’t know each other’s languages, culture, religion, etc. Discussing with Serbian and Albanian friends from my age (I’m 25) led me to deploy a wealth of inventiveness in my way of addressing Kosovo’s political situation. As said previously, it is a hazardous undertaking to find a balance between honesty, political correctness and lack of subtlety. If being too direct can hurt feelings, the other danger in this is to overthink too much and lose any sense of risk. Living in Mitrovica conditions you as a foreigner to be careful in what you say, to avoid ruffling feathers while the reality is sometimes different from what you expect. For instance, a friend of mine from Mitrovica South told me a few months ago that it has become quite trendy now to try to go to the other side of the city and get to know people; it is supposed to show that you are a cool kid. In that sense, things are moving a bit.
In recent years, economic problems have overtaken all previous preoccupations and enhanced the absence of communication between communities. From hatred, we slowly moved to indifference, but tinged with distrust. However, indifference does not mean forgiveness and oblivion. This is where the role of cultural organizations and Civil Society Organizations is so important and this is what we have tried to achieve so far with GAIA’s program in Mitrovica. In October 2020, GAIA volunteers finished the renovation of our social and cultural space, located in the city center of Mitrovica South. The project’s goal is to engage the youth of Mitrovica in their city’s life through cultural activities, debates, concerts, movie screenings, etc. and to provide a safe space for people to meet and exchange on different perspectives. Our initiative is not the only one trying to offer alternative events and to bypass stereotypes and prejudices among communities. If you take the time to look around you, you will discover small alternative places like Galerija Akvarijus in the North or 7Arte in the South. The first one is an art gallery/café/bar where you can enjoy a beer while looking at the paintings on the walls; the other is a cultural organization which organizes small festivals, concerts and movie screenings open to everyone. Both places, like our social space and many other initiatives, try to go beyond the division and genuinely seek to offer a space for thinking, discovery and curiosity. Even if it is not obvious, there is a dynamism at work in Mitrovica coming from both sides of the city. May it be by covering the bridge of street-art work or organizing joint poetry evenings in Serbian and Albanian, some citizens dare to challenge the status quo of separation and fear. And there are strong reasons why we do it. While Mitrovica North is known to be a very student-friendly place with young people coming from Serbia, most of the young adults from Mitrovica South go to study in Prishtina. To summarize, one side is full of students that never cross the bridge, the other side sees its new generation trying to escape at all costs from their hometown.
Then, how to give reasons for young people to stay if not by offering cultural and engaging activities? How to transform the image of division that people from Mitrovica and outside keep having if not by proving that this town has so much more to offer? Those are some of the interrogations that I have had in my mind since I started volunteering in Mitrovica. They transformed into certainties and goals to achieve, and not only for me. Step by step, actors of the civil society, citizens, young people, or volunteers from abroad put forward their own perception and ideas with the common hope to see Mitrovica, not solely through the prism of the ethnic division, but through the cultural dynamism and the proudness transpiring from it.
Célia du Plessis, February 2021