By Alan Crosby and Maja Ficovic
At first, Ivana Petronic was hesitant to travel from the Serbian side of the divided city of Mitrovica to the Albanian side. Then she discovered ETC, Kosovo’s answer to big-box stores all around the world.
Petronic now crosses the Ibar River regularly to hunt for bargains because the superstore's giant red letters have shown her and many other Mitrovicans that the one thing that trumps politics in the city is economics.
"Trade is the easiest way to get in contact. It always has connected us and I believe that this is the first step toward establishing a normal relationship," Petronic says as she hauls bags full of goods she says she can’t find in the north.
The Ibar cuts through Mitrovica, dividing ethnic Albanians to the south and ethnic Serbs who have clustered together to the north since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999.
Including villages and nearby small towns, about 40,000 ethnic Serbs live in Kosovo north of the river.
Political leaders of northern Kosovar Serbs refuse to recognize Pristina's 2008 unilateral declaration of independence and insist that Kosovo will always be part of Serbia.
But inside the Elkos Trading Center (ETC), where shoppers wade through aisles stacked with everything from air conditioners to laundry detergent, goods, not dirty looks, are traded.
"Unfortunately, politics is a factor that often manipulates the masses. It’s not in the interest of either the northern part or the southern part to widen the gap between us. Instead, it’s in our interest to establish new relations that are even better than they used to be," says Adem Salihaj, an ethnic Albanian from the south.
“Here, everyone is the same; we’re all shoppers. We aren’t interested in anything other than commodities. There are no boycotts or misunderstandings,” he adds.
The de facto partition of Mitrovica emerged in June 1999 during the chaotic days after NATO's bombardment campaign against Serbia. As hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees were returning to Kosovo, Serbian houses and businesses south of the river were torched. Most Serbs who lived there fled north.
That's when Serbs erected barricades and informal checkpoints on Mitrovica's three main bridges to prevent ethnic Albanians from returning to homes in the north. Ethnic hatred -- fanned by nationalist extremists on both sides -- was acute and almost tangible in the divided city.
Almost 19 years later, many Serbs in northern Mitrovica still haven’t crossed into the southern part -- either because they are afraid or they simply have no interest. The same can be said for many ethnic Albanians in the south, who have kept to their side of the river.
Sanja Milovic has no such qualms.
She used to live in the south but has resettled in the north. Unlike most folks, she walks freely across the bridge to shop under the bright blue roof that covers the store on the river’s southeastern bank.
“The situation wasn’t always pleasant, but now it’s different,” she says.
“People freely come and go to the store. I don’t feel uncomfortable making the trip, and to me it’s completely normal to trade with Albanians. Plus, it’s cheaper!”
Staff at ETC say they cannot comment to media when asked by RFE/RL about the store.
On busy days, the chaos inside ETC is the good-natured kind, with children running through aisles screaming and laughing. The carefree atmosphere belies the tensions that simmer, mainly below, but sometimes above the surface in Mitrovica.
Just two months ago, the detention and expulsion of senior Serbian government official Marko Djuric by Kosovar authorities heightened friction between the two neighbors to the point that ethnic Serbs walked out of the country’s government and set up a roadblock in the north.
That incident came a day after Djuric was briefly detained after entering Mitrovica because authorities said he had entered the country illegally.
Djuric, who is the head of the Serbian government’s office for Kosovo, was transferred to a court in Pristina before being expelled from the country.
European Union officials were forced to make an urgent trip to Belgrade to calm the situation, which had only fanned the flames ignited by the January 16 assassination of Oliver Ivanovic, a leading ethnic Serb politician gunned down in front of his office in northern Mitrovica.
"When tensions arise, it’s logical that people won’t go from one part of the city to the other," says Zeljko Tvrdisic, a Serb from northern Mitrovica.
"But do I feel free when I come to ETC? Absolutely. I've never encountered unpleasant shopkeepers here," Tvrdisic adds.