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Mitrovica’s symbol: reconciliation amidst inevitability, history, and violence in Kosovo

Mitrovica’s bridge as ‘symbol’ helps obscure the forces of elite manipulation and institutions of power in constructing Balkan nationalisms, and falsely presents inter-communal tensions in Kosovo as inevitable. 

In recent months, Serbia and Kosovo, long pitted as eternal enemies by international and local narratives, signed a broad range of agreements for regional cooperation. As part of the negotiations, Kosovo gains its own telephone country code while its ethnic Serb minority wins greater autonomy via the Association of Serbian Municipalities. Many are hailing these “landmark” decisions on telecom, energy, and infrastructure as the successful progression of the April 2013 Brussels Agreement to normalize relations between Serbia and Kosovo, paving the way for Serbia’s EU bid.

But the most symbolic of these agreements is the decision by both national parties to reestablish freedom of movement across Kosovo’s most contested northern region. Such a mission requires the inevitable demolition of a “Peace Park” in the middle of the Ibar Bridge in the city of Mitrovica. This “park” strategically blocks the passage of people and cars from the ethnic Albanian-dominated side of the northern city to the Serbian side.  

The bridge over the Ibar river is a site of carnage and politically-charged hatred, with some violent incidents occurring there less than a few months ago. It stands in the backdrop of still raw campaigns of ethnic cleansing, nationalist propaganda, and international interventions and bombings. Thus, the bridge is both a symbol and a product of the material manifestation of the ethnic divide in Kosovo, the politicization of ethnic differences, and the inability of both ethnic Serbs and Albanians to co-exist under one national border. As long as this structure delineates Serb versus Albanian narratives within Kosovo, it will continue to portray a dangerous, unproductive, and painstakingly constructed dimension of Balkan identity politics.

Kosovo policeman stops a car on Mitrovica bridge, 2010. Photo: Allan Leonard via Flickr, some rights reserved.

After experiencing several delays in October, the EU-facilitated “revitalization” process of the Mitrovica bridge and its Peace Park is now under way. The construction is set to be finished by June 2016, at which point the bridge will become accessible to both sides of the city, allowing free movement between Kosovan Serbs and Albanians. But even if such an aspiration comes to timely fruition, the damage already inflicted by this symbol will require years of repair and dramatic narrative changes.

Mitrovica divided

I was finally there, my mother’s birthplace and my academic obsession – Kosovo. But not just Kosovo – Mitrovica, the infamous town divided. Somehow, having lived almost half of my life in Albania and traveled across the Balkans for years, I had yet to cross paths with this city of survivors, one that held my own family’s story of escape and restoration since the 1950s, let alone those of a thousand other families.

Of course, I had learned much about Mitrovica through my decade-long research, family, friends, colleagues, the news, and any primary accounts I could grab hold of. I know well the city’s journey from prosperity to degradation in the post-war period, torn apart during the 1998-99 war and government-sponsored terror campaigns. The city is fragile, fractured – separating around 80,000 Kosovar Albanians in the south from half as many Serbs living to the north of the river, with 20,000 Kosovan Serbs residing in north Mitrovica.

Since the 1990s, the bridge over the Ibar river running through Mitrovica has marked a de-facto divide between people, or – as portrayed by those with a flair for the dramatic – civilizations. The April 2013 agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo's independence, brought Serbs in northern Kosovo back under the overall authority of Kosovo’s institutions, with the offer of limited autonomy through an association of northern Serb municipalities. But that did very little to change the daily reality, as Serbs in the north still clung to their own parallel, Belgrade-linked institutions.

In this northern sector, the Serbian dinar, rather than the euro, dominates as currency; Serbs use the Serbian telephone, health and educational systems and sometimes even receive a second wage from the Serbian government as an incentive to remain in Kosovo. After Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Belgrade only strengthened these parallel structures, including police, judiciary, border control, transportation, telecommunications, and cultural heritage sites.

Ultimately, this de-facto divide not only impedes technical cooperation in Kosovo, but more so, it signals parallel, yet starkly different narratives on the past, present, and potential future. It strengthens an ethnicity-obsessed perspective on the region, as does the fact that most actors today are propelled to discuss Kosovo and Mitrovica only under the lens of ethnic demographics. This narrative of “them” vs. “us” was staunchly solidified many years ago, and it will remain the dominant lens unless explicit efforts are made to replace it with something less zero-sum and more amenable to change.

Encountering sites of fracture and construction: the bridge

Echoing the reluctance of its inhabitants, the Mitrovica bridge does not connect populations and regions. In the past several years, a large barricade manned by local Serbs prevented the free flow of traffic over the bridge. This year, a Serbian-crafted “Peace Park”, consisting of large concrete pots of plants, blocks the entryway of the bridge. The peace park remained despite intense clashes and protests by Albanians to have it removed last year, following its construction in June 2014. Local Serbs claim that the Peace Park protects their side from persistent ethnic Albanian “intrusions,” while Albanians have demanded that the concrete vases and grass be removed to restore the flow of traffic and movement. Although both sides maintain their positions with little room for compromise, there is renewed hope for a resolution in the context of the recent negotiations.  

I knew what to expect at this site as well. I expected KFOR troops and Kosovo police intervention units guarding the main bridge – with their armed vehicles manning the crosswalk. What I didn’t expect was how tragic it would all appear in person and how real and successful those distant accounts of division and isolation had truly become.

Walking up to the Ibar river bridge was easy from the Albanian side. It would have been easier to hop over the rows of potted plants blocking the main entryway between the Albanian and Serbian side, ironically called the “Peace Park.” But the closer I came to the main bridge, the more attentive the manning forces became to my presence. Eventually, several policemen approached me, vague in their intentions. Yet their attention was enough to keep both myself and an incoming group of Serbian youth from crossing the bridge at that moment.  

At the advice of a friend, I turned around and crossed the Ibar river via a narrower, less visible bridge a bit further south. But let’s not confuse things: everyone is free to cross the bridge onto the other side of Mitrovica; but history, media accounts, and the general atmosphere leave much to be desired, and naturally, individual agents immersed in this environment perpetuate the structural, historical “inevitabilities.”

Memorial stone for Serb nationals, Mitrovica, 2010. Photo: Allan Leonard via Flickr, some rights reserved.

The Serbian side greeted me with a stark reminder of a heavily contested past, one that always seems to scream out whenever voices of pragmatism and unity whisper. A dark-colored memorial titled “the Monument of Truth” dominated this bridge entryway, dedicated to the fallen Serbian heroes of the Kosovo war. In the eyes of ethnic Albanians, however, these war heroes were the same men who encouraged and then finally executed a government-sponsored campaign of ethnic cleansing in the region. Another one of the bridge’s functions, it seems, was to turn war heroes into war criminals, and vice versa, in less than five minutes – with ethnic Albanians creating their own rival monuments on the other side of the bridge. Surrounded by banners of the Serbian flag and graffiti declaring “Kosovo is Serbia,” the memorial was also coupled with an utterly destroyed pavement by the entry-point of the Ibar bridge, making it look like an earthquake had selectively struck the small radius.

Mitrovica as a symbol

The Ibar bridge in Mitrovica is one of many scenes where the Balkanization of identities, both local and international, play out. The bridge itself merely acts as a tangible symbol of these divisive narratives, blocking entry not primarily through rigid material structures or even armed guards, but through refurbished history between two mutually exclusive groups of peoples.

Similar to the problematization of Bosnia in 1995, Mitrovica signifies the dominating ethnicization of the political field, leading to an interpretation of “intractable” conflicts. The solutions, thus, automatically appear to necessitate politics of partition. As with the process that culminated in the Dayton agreement for Bosnia, which supposedly disavowed partition in favor of unity, the politics that have encouraged the Ibar bridge narrative and reality of geographic separation in Kosovo have fostered partition under the guise of multi-ethnicity. Opposing ethnic communities are inextricably drawn into a zero-sum game, and human agency is suspended as nature takes its inevitable course – a course defined by fixed identities of “ancient hatreds,” supposedly defying centuries of outside efforts. Counter-narratives of potential heterogeneity in identity perceptions, multi-culturalist legacies, and solutions moving outside of the triangle of sovereignty, territory, and national identity are vastly overlooked in Kosovo as they were in Bosnia.

This is not to say that all Kosovan Albanians and Serbs should be expected to activate sudden amicabilities in the name of multiculturalism. In Balkan historical narratives, ethnic identity is required to substantiate gruesome events that leave their evidence in blood.  The 1990s cannot be erased in the minds of individuals and their linked group identities. Thousands of Kosovar families live with mere memories of their lost loved ones; many of these families still don’t know what happened to their sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers. Serbian families have lost civilian members as well, mainly to the ill-planned NATO bombings of 1999 and to post-war revenge attacks, civilian crimes and lootings – not systemic, state-sponsored campaigns of ethnic violence, now also admitted by Serbian police officials themselves. 

Of course, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the ethnic Albanian paramilitary fighting against the Serbian state during the Kosovo crisis, also has blood on its collective hand. Amidst its hero status in Kosovo, it, too, holds a dark legacy – including civilian killings, the destruction of Serbian cultural sites, and retaliatory attacks on Serbian enclaves. We must not forget or marginalize these dimensions of ethnic narrative. However, the differentiation between state-sponsored, planned eradication versus private citizen paramilitaries and revenge attacks must remain in place.

Kosovo war memorial in a square in Mitrovica. Photo: Allan Leonard via Flickr, some rights reserved.

Individual Serbian citizens do not and should not bear the brunt of blame and responsibility for the atrocities of the 90s. Yet it is still unwise to assume that the “violence” that overtook Mitrovica, along with the rest of Kosovo, was merely a “civil war”, with equally warring, culpable factions. It was instead an act of international aggression driven by a conscious, coherent, and systematic Serbian policy to get rid of ethnic Albanians, through murders, displacements, and imprisonment, as in Bosnia.

But the mislabeling of the conflict by the international community, domestic elites, media, and some civil society elements delayed and even minimized the amount of aid and attention that the victims of the conflict received in the 1990s and in the post-conflict era. Such tragic consequences of perceiving an asymmetric conflict as simply another irreconcilable civil war have already been heavily discussed in David Campbell’s National Deconstruction and Ken Booth’s The Kosovo Tragedy: The Human Rights Dimensions. Thus, I simply refer to the candid and brave words of human rights activist and lawyer Natasa Kandic: “If we want changes, if we want a democratic future…it means that we need new people who will take responsibility for past abuses and base the future on the need to respect victims…”.

For the sake of the future, a balance must be found here. On one hand, one should not sugarcoat the past for the sake of easier policymaking. It may be easier to claim that all ethnic, religious, national, and political “factions” in the Balkans were equally to blame for the 1990s atrocities – but that obscures the most prominent narratives of reality in favor a false neutrality, equalizing all actors amidst grave power imbalances. This easy narrative skews learning and policymaking for the future. Nonetheless, Balkan natives must also break free from narratives that pit their politicized ethnicities and religious affiliations against one another, as if these characteristics were always naturally hostile and mutually exclusive – as if these characteristics within each individual were to blame for the mass violence of the era.

Examples of this dynamic are easy to find in the contemporary Balkans. For instance, Croatia recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of its military victory in Operation Storm, which killed hundreds of Serbs and displaced many more, while Serbia held a day of mourning for the Serb victims. This one-sided memory was also active during the 20th anniversary ceremony mourning the Srebrenica genocide. The event was met with inter-ethnic anger and protests, largely targeting Serbian Prime Minister Alexandar Vucic who refuses to label the Srebrenica massacres as genocide. What we see is a cycle of politicized memorialisation in the Balkans, which further caters to shallow, hostile ethnic identities in history and in contemporary politics. The most recent deal between Kosovo and Serbia echoes and strengthens the ethnic-religious divides as well – formalizing Kosovo’s division into ethnic Albanian and Serbian regions in lieu of common democratic ethos. 

This is what the Mitrovica bridge symbolizes in sum – that the divisions and violence in the Balkans are fully ethnic or religious. The bridge helps remove from the spotlight the less passionate forces of elite manipulation and institutions of power which constructed ethnicities along violent lines to begin with.

Standing at the bridge and surrounded by the environment that it has fostered, this selectivity of narratives is more apparent than ever. Unfortunately, the eventual removal of the Peace Park will not be enough to reverse this picture. It will take brave individuals and groups to begin chiseling away at the dominant perspective, revealing alternative ways of viewing one another, the past, and the future. Efforts similar to those of Valdete Idrizi of Mitrovica, who founded an NGO called Community Building Mitrovica in 2001 that connects women from Serb, Bosnian, and Albanian communities, may serve to bolster more complex inter-personal narratives between ethnic groups. Similar initiatives should seek to involve not just local political elites and international actors, but every day citizens – women, children, and small business-owners in the reconciliation process and in the de-ethnicization of social realities in Kosovo and beyond. 

It will take the persistent interaction of Albanians, Serbs, and other divided Balkan groups, outside of formal political diplomacy, economic cooperation, and EU structures, to turn decades of ethnic politicization into critical analysis of more amendable, less inevitable forces shaping regional events and crises. 


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