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Trying for a normal life in a divided city

October 1, 2020

Twenty years after the Kosovo war, the city of Mitrovica in the north of Europe's youngest state remains divided between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. What's life like for people who live on one side and work on the other?

Pedestrians walk over the main bridge in the town of Kosovska Mitrovica
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Nimani

The Ibar River flows through Mitrovica, effectively dividing the city and its inhabitants. Those living on the south side are mostly ethnic Albanians, whereas the north is inhabited mostly by ethnic Serbs.

Few of the city's inhabitants dare venture across the main bridge, which acts as a de facto border and is blocked to vehicular traffic. Heavily armed Italian troops patrol the bridge as part of NATO's international peacekeeping mission Kosovo Force (KFOR).

Read more: In Kosovo, survivors of wartime sexual violence speak out

Inside Europe: Stemming the exodus from Kosovo

Twelve years since Kosovo's declaration of independence, Serbia still refuses to recognize the country as an independent state.

And the ethnic Serb minority who live in the north of Kosovo do not recognize the government in Pristina. They have formed their own assembly, which works closely with the Serbian government in Belgrade.

On the northern side of the bridge, men in plainclothes who appear to be casually waiting around in cars carefully observe anyone who crosses from the south to the north. They scowl at passersby, sometimes making rude comments.

Read more: 'Islamic State' returnees in Kosovo guided back into society

Upon arrival on the north side of the river, all trace of Kosovo disappears. Red, white and blue flags featuring the Serbian eagle are everywhere, with no Kosovar flag in sight.

Kosovo: Independent and divided

Bridging the language gap

Dhurata Prokshi, a 33-year-old translator, crosses the bridge in this direction every day to work at the courthouse in North Mitrovica. "It's not great to be an Albanian who works in the north," she told DW. But, she said, "the Serbs in the north have the same feelings when they have to go to southern Mitrovica." 

Prokshi told DW that she hasn't had any trouble in the year since she started work, explaining that she gets on well with her Serb colleagues. She said it's easy for her to communicate in Kosovo because she speaks both Albanian and Serbian.

Dhurata Prokshi crossing the bridge
Dhurata Prokshi crosses the bridge to northern Mitrovica every day for workImage: Vjosa Cerkini/DW

"There are no problems in places like the court if I speak Albanian," she said. "But if I were to order in Albanian in a restaurant or cafe in the north, I'm not sure how people would react."

Read more: Serbia, Kosovo agree to normalize economic ties

At the south side of the bridge, a red flag bearing a black eagle — Albania's coat of arms — dominates the entry to this part of the city. There's no Kosovar flag here, either.

Milos Vucinic, a 23-year-old Serb, regularly crosses the invisible border to go south, where he teaches English at an aid organization. He told DW that he used to always be scared when he was in south, but that he was also very curious. "I wanted to find out what life was like in the other part," he said.

Milos Vucinic in Mitrovica
English teacher Milos Vucinic works for an aid organization in the Albanian-dominated southImage: Vjosa Cerkini/DW

Since he doesn't speak any Albanian, he explained that he uses English to communicate when he's in the south. This also helps to avoid any conflict. "I have some Albanian friends at work, too," he told DW. "I go for a coffee with them from time to time. At first they were surprised when I told them that I had never come to southern Mitrovica before. They showed me around the city, and then also brought me to Pristina."

Vucinic said the young Serbs living in the north are the most affected by the city's division. "They want a life without restrictions, and they want to get ahead professionally, but there are hardly any opportunities in the north. We hope that the future will be better."

This article has been translated from German.

A young woman (Vjosa Cerkini) with long black hair
Vjosa Cerkini Reporter focusing on Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries