Mitrovica: divided city or city with prospect?

The Mitrovica rock school wants people to see the city differently from its current image. Photo: rock school

Mitrovica is a city in the north of Kosovo that we know mainly because of the division between Albanians and Serbs. People like Lulzim Hoti, Milos Kabasic and Emir Hasani are working on positive projects in the city to bring the population groups together. According to them, the city has a much more positive future than most people think.

The city since the war

The city of Mitrovica is divided into north and south. To explain it simply, the Albanian live on the south side and the Serbs on the north side. A river flows between the two sides of the city that clearly indicates the border. For years it was not easy to get from one side of the bridge to the other.

 

Today, both sides are easily accessible via various bridges. Only the main bridge, which connects the two city centres, is still under construction and therefore only accessible to pedestrians.

Even during the Kosovo war, the two population groups lived close to each other here. After the war, the Serbs grouped in Mitrovica and many Serbs from Pristina have also come to the northern city. The Serbian part of the city has major influences from Belgrade. Sectors such as education and healthcare are fully managed by the Serbian government.

When you read in the media about the city of Mitrovica, it is always about the division in the city. Positive stories are rare. This gave me an image of a city where there is always a grim atmosphere and where people are still busy with the war every day.

 The taxi driver who confirmed the prejudice about the city

It is my first day in Mitrovica. From the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, I stepped into a van to reach the city. In the large cities, little busses are driven by men without a job. In this way, they earn some money.

Arrived in Mitrovica it is around 8 a clock in the evening and it is dark. Fortunately, there are several taxis waiting on the side of the street. I ask one of the taxi drivers if he can take me to my hotel. When I show the man the name and address of the hotel, I see the man doubting. The taxi driver now tries to explain me something in his own language. I do not understand what he meant.

Before leaving, the man explains that I am now on the Albanian side of the city and that my hotel is on the Serbian side. Can he not take me there? Do I have to find the way to the hotel in a different way? After I keep asking if he can take me to my destination, the man makes a gesture that I can step into the car. This is good news; it seems that the man wants to bring me to my place to stay.

After a while, the taxi passes a bridge. This is positive because it means that I am on the Serbian side now. The taxi driver reduces his speed and looks around. He opens his window and asks a passer-by where the hotel is located.

The man first points straight ahead and then to the left and right. The taxi driver drives almost to the end of the street and seems to apologize that he can not drive any further. He makes the same gesture with his hand as the pedestrian he just spoke to.

Finding the hotel was ultimately no problem. But I keep thinking about that taxi driver. The look in his eyes when I asked him if he could take me to north Mitrovica. The unrest he radiated from the moment he crossed the bridge. The moment he refused to drive any further, leaving me short of my destination.

Is the prejudice about the city correct? Was the city still as divided as the many news reports made you believe?

A row of Serbian cafes located beyond the limits of the taxi driver. Photo: Jordi Wolf

Not everyone accepts the division in the city

The next day I wake up and walk through the Serbian part of the city. I am looking for the main bridge because I have my appointment with the Albanian Lulzim Hoti. He is the director of the cultural organization 7Art. With this organization, he devises many activities that connect the Serbs and Albanian, instead of separating them from each other.

When I have passed the winding shopping streets I arrive at the main street that takes me to the main bridge. Serbian flags are hanging everywhere throughout the cosy street, with a lot of terraces for people who enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of liquor. Arriving at the other side of the bridge there is a small restaurant. Not much later, Lulzim entered the restaurant on time for our appointment.

Lulzim comes across as a very cheerful and positive man, proud of his city. But he too has not always been so positive about Mitrovica.

“The city has had a lot to endure. It was not possible for a long time to see the other side of the city for me. When you grow up in the time of the war, you learn that the other side of the bridge is not for you. That is for the Serbs,” says Hoti.

You see Lulzim start laughing when he leaves the past behind and starts talking about the future of the city. I hear a much more positive story about Mitrovica now then I have heard before.

“They have a different language, beliefs and dreams. It is our job to bring them together and find common ground,” says Hoti.

The organization 7Art has multiple plans with the city. They want to make Mitrovica a green city with solar panels on the roof of the bridge. And the bridge must also have a free Wi-Fi zone where Serbs and Albanians meet. 

Collect waste with CBM. Photo: CBM

The organization also organizes a festival every year on both sides of the river. During that festival we watch movies together, there are concerts and we organize debates. But the organization with Lulzim in front also dares to dream aloud. In 15 years he wants to make Mitrovica the cultural capital city of Europe.

”This city was once known as a rock city, we have diversity and cultural history. Our dream is a bit strange now. But you have to be a little bit crazy to live in this city”

Besides working for 7Art, Lulzim Hoti also works as a teacher of the Albanian language. Despite this man being very positive, you also feel that he has experienced bad things in the past. He tells a story that he had an Albanian book with him when he visited Pristina.

The Serbs saw his book and beat him, just because of that book. Now he teaches in the same language, also on the Serbian side of Mitrovica. Hoti realizes that this kind of negative experiences from the past sometimes hold the population from making peace with the other side.

“That is also the problem in politics. There are still the same people in charge. We need young people. They are much more neutral and can help us further,” says Hoti.

Not everyone is so positive about a future where Albanian and Serbs live side by side in one city.

The Serbs are more reserved

On both sides of the bridge, you see that the will to leave the past is there. Speaking with different Serbs, they seem more reserved on this side of the bridge. Milos Kabasic works for Advocacy Center for Democratic Culture (ACDC), an organization that sees the improvement of the involvement of the multi-ethnic population as the biggest goal. Simply put, they want to make all institutions accessible to every population group living in Kosovo.

Milos understands that people see the city as divided from the outside.

“But the people here look at it in a different way. Medications are cheaper on this side. So people come here for this, it’s as simple as that,” Milas says.

Continued construction of the Mitrovica bridge. Photo: Jordi Wolf

Milos says he is slightly more open to contacts from the other side of the bridge than most people around him.

”I have friends on both sides of the bridge, but that is because of my work. But most people do not have those friendlies,” he says.

Some of his Serbian friends accept those friendships, others see him as a traitor. Milos does not know if this will change in the coming years. According to him, the divide only increases only after every incident that happens.

When Milos hears about the plans that Lulzim Hoti has with the bridge, he laughs. He likes that there are positive people like him. In the eyes of Milos, however, these plans are totally unrealistic.

“In the next 10 years there will be no meeting places for Serbs and Albanians. We tried that with a common playground for children. But the first night there were fights and the place was destroyed,”

Some other Serbian organisations such as Aktiv share this thought with him. According to this organization, Kosovo first has to work on good human rights. The organization indicates that on paper everything looks good, but that in the area of ‘law’ and ‘education’ there is still a lot to improve towards the Serbs in Kosovo. Yet there are examples of organizations that enable collaboration between the two population groups.

CBM proves that collaboration is possible

Community Building Mitrovica (CBM) is a non-governmental organization that believes that cooperation between Serbs and Albanians in the city should be possible. The organization exist since 2003 and was established at a time when cooperation between the two population groups was not a natural thing. According to them, you have to deal with each other if you live next to each other.

“In 2011, we opened the office in the north of the city. Not because we could not be together but because we wanted to be closer to the people on that side,” says Aferdita Sylaj Shehu, who is executive director at CBM.

The director indicates that it was not easy in the beginning.

“It was difficult to get from one side to the other side of the bridge,” said Aferdita Sylaj Shehu. The organization had the idea that peace was only possible by having joint activities. Looking at the past, the city of Mitrovica is known as a rock city.

According to the director, it was, therefore, an ideal opportunity to bring young people together with rock music.

“It started with a summer school in Skopje, Macedonia. At that time, it was not safe to have a mixed band play together in Kosovo. Now they also play in Pristina in pubs and cafes”

The rock school is not the only example by witch CBM tries to bring Serbs and Albanians together. Many different activities such as waste collection and English lessons are examples of this. In English classes many are separate but sometimes they have various inclusive activities.

In all activities that CBM organizes, the organization wants to show that you do not have to be afraid of the other side of the bridge.

 

Presentation CBM in classroom. Photo: CBM

The organization believes that Mitrovica has a bright future. Above all, think in terms of possibilities instead of problems, Aferdita Sylaj Shehu has to admit that some things are not possible yet.

“At the moment I do not think that a Wi-Fi zone on the bridge is possible. We as CBM also see the bridge as a place where people can meet each other. Cultural activities help with this. But you should not force it either,” Aferdita Sylaj Shehu says.

According to her, places like the market are more suitable to meet people from the other side of the bridge. Bringing people together on the bridge is a bigger step because Serbian politicians, in particular, are putting pressure on the opening of the bridge for cars.

Where there is a will there is a way proves the Rock School

There are arguments for and against Mitrovica having a favourable future. But the young generation seems especially ready for it. Ready to not only survive with the people on the other side of the bridge but also to work with them and become friends with them.

The Rock School in Mitrovica is perhaps the best example of this. Not looking for the differences between people, but looking at the similarities and using a bit of history, such as the rock city that Mitrovica used to be.

Amir Hasani is a teacher at the Rockschool and wants to contribute to the positive character of the city.

“In the beginning, it was a trial with Serbs and Albanians. We had one band that played in Skopje, Macedonia. It was too dangerous in Kosovo. Two years ago we started concerts in Pristina. So I definitely see a positive change,” Amir Hasani said.

At the rock school, young people are between 10 and 25 years old. They play together in mixed bands. Every band consists of around five people, Serbs and Albanians. The school has two buildings, one in the north and one in the south side of the city. But teachers and students run between them over and over again. It is one school with students who are not there to talk about the political situation.

“We are talking about music. That what counts for us. We leave everything else outside the doors”

According to the teacher, real friendships develop between the two population groups. But not because the school insists, just because it happens. The teacher thinks it should happen automatically.

”Parents support their children and are fully behind this collaboration. It is simply not about where you come from. It’s about how good you are in music,” Amir Hasani says.

Mitrovica is a city where you can clearly see the past. Not everyone has been able to close that chapter. Especially since the people who have been in power since the war continue to insist on the differences between the population groups.

The young people want to meet with each other in many different ways. They especially hope that, in the coming years, these positive stories will be the reason for Mitrovica’s appearance in the news.

Rockband practices in school. Photo: rock school