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Yugoslavia: Differences Seem Unbridgeable In Divided Kosovo Town

  • Alexandra Poolos



Nowhere in Kosovo are the divisions between Serbs and Albanians so stark -- and the problems facing the international community so profound -- as in the northern town of Mitrovica. RFE/RL's Alexandra Poolos traveled to Mitrovica and reports that little progress has been made in bridging differences.

Mitrovica, Kosovo, 16 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Coils of barbed wire snake across the bridge that divides this northern Kosovo town. Ethnic Serbs live on the north side of the bridge, ethnic Albanians on the south. Serbs and Albanians monitor the bridge from nearby apartment buildings. Each person who passes is closely watched by both sides.

Patrolled by French peacekeepers, Mitrovica is gripped in tension. The town's 90,000 Albanians complain that their homes and the town's hospital in the north are being unfairly controlled by Serbs. For their part, the 14,000 Serbs say they are trapped in the north, fearing that they will be attacked by Albanians if they dare to venture southward to their own small businesses.

A frustration to the international community, Mitrovica is a testament to the seemingly irreconcilable differences in Kosovo. Recent aggressions have led to murders and kidnappings. Two weeks ago, explosives on a nearby bridge were detonated, injuring four peacekeepers. The attackers are not known.

The international community remains unable to soothe the tensions in the divided town. But a spokeswoman for the United Nations administration UNMIK, Beatrice Lacoste, says the UN-led police force and the KFOR international peacekeepers are determined to establish multi-ethnicity on both sides of the bridge. She says KFOR and UNMIK will have failed in Kosovo if they do not resolve ethnic hatreds between Serbs and Albanians.

"So, you can say that Mitrovica is in fact a microcosm of Kosovo and of the Balkans. And if these problems manage to be solved, it could be an example for the whole of Kosovo and the Balkans -- even of the world. But we're not there just yet. I believe that things will have to move. We are optimistic that it will move in a positive way. I cannot imagine a 'no-man's land,' a stalemate going on for a long time, as it is now. I think things will have to move forward."

But Olivier Ivanovich, the president of the Serbian National Council in Mitrovica, says the town will not become multiethnic just because the international community says it must. Ivanovich says most Serbs in Mitrovica are armed and they are ready to fight to stay in the town.

"On our side, our people are afraid. And ... when men are afraid, it's possible for them to attack simply because of the fear. This is why they [the international community] cannot speak of integrating the town. We have citizens who are constantly ready to react if necessary, if someone or a large group tries to cross the bridge, especially with a weapon. If someone tried to cross the bridge with a weapon, who knows, I suppose we would react with a weapon. "

Ivanovich says Serbs are ready to handle a conflict if it develops:

"First of all, we tell our people to be very, very careful. [We tell them to] look and observe the south side from our entire area. I can say that the boundary line is constantly observed and that every movement from the south side is recognized."

Ivanovich says if things continue as they are, tensions in the divided town will erupt into an armed conflict by spring.

Albanian residents also say the international officials are foolish to believe they can easily overcome the wounds of war. Ali Durmishi, an ethnic Albanian who has lived in southern Mitrovica all of his life, echoes the sentiments of many on the south side who say the whole town belongs to the Albanians:

"We never thought something like this could happen to Mitrovica. I hope that something will be done quickly. But, I think that there are many Albanians who don't want the Serbs to stay in Mitrovica because they carried out too many massacres. They treated too many people badly here, and I think this is the reason why they can't stay in Mitrovica."

Despite the hostility, both sides of the bridge are strikingly similar. Markets in both the north and south teem with activity. Young girls walk amiably arm-in-arm, and the cafes are full of conversation. Perhaps someday the tension will ease. But not, Serbs and Albanians say, anytime soon.

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