It has been two decades since Serbs and Albanians stopped fighting in northern Kosovo, but relations between the two communities remain strained to this day. In Mitrovica, the bridge over the river Ibar is a testament to that divide, separating the two communities - often literally - from each other.
Ian Bancroft has spent more than a decade in Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as a writer and a diplomat and lived in Mitrovica. The following is an extract from his book, Dragon's Teeth: Tales from North Kosovo.
The reopening of Mostar’s Ottoman-era ‘Stari Most’ (‘Old Bridge’)— destroyed in November 1993, its makeshift car tyre defences finally pierced by Croatian shelling—was supposed to reunify the city’s East and West banks, predominantly populated by Bosniaks and Croats, respectively.
Yet its restored magnificence—through the retrieval of the sunken original stone and painstaking handiwork by some of the few surviving masters of the craft—only masks Mostar’s troubled past, present, and future. Nonetheless, the bridge as a metaphor infects many a speech, exalting the transformative effect physical connections can have on divided communities.
Mitrovica’s Main Bridge is similarly burdened by reconciliatory expectation since the cessation of hostilities; becoming both a symbol of the town’s division and its most popular tourist attraction.
Tasked with its revitalisation in 2001, French engineers and an equal number of local Serb and Albanian workers—whose names are etched into a plaque erected at the bridge’s central point: Murat, Milan, Pierre, Jean, Bertrand, Marko, and Ismet, to list but a few—inverted Paris’s own Austerlitz Bridge; placing the arches on instead of beneath the bridge, before turning them outwards up-and down-stream to resemble a roller-coaster.
A neon blue strip of light is emitted from within the arches, leading some to dub it the ‘Blue Bridge’.
The Bridge (sometimes referred to as the ‘New Bridge’) has since been a site of contention, though its history has been far from linear. It has found itself barricaded at intermittent junctures and in various ways: dragon’s teeth inspired fortifications improvised out of whatever they could lay their hands on.
Only some four years on from the war, vehicles and pedestrians crossed freely in both directions.
A sense of normalcy returned, as epitomised by early evening promenades on the north Mitrovica Corso.
Yet when I first visited in 2006, piles of gravel, a tangle of barbed wire, and French Gendarmes—many feasting regularly at ‘Chez Pascal’, a nearby restaurant, serving stodgy onion soup and crème brûlée made with vanilla essence—blocked the way, a legacy of the retrograde March 2004 riots across Kosovo.
The French codenames for roads—‘Balzac’, ‘Zola’, ‘Flaubert’, and ‘Rimbaud’—contrasted sharply with those of their American counterparts (‘Bull’, ‘Hen’, and ‘Chicken’). During these years of barricades, the Bridge was the preserve of international forces, tasked with controlling movement from one side to the other.
linkMultilingual signs were once erected instructing people on how to cross. Possession of a ‘legal identity card’ was obligatory, and document checks by ‘law forces’, as it was expressed in clumsy English, possible at any juncture. Gatherings were prohibited, and those engaging in ‘malicious’ or ‘provocative’ behaviour were threatened with immediate repression.
During my time, it was tightly trimmed Italian Carabinieri who manned static observation points; a handsome if hardly reassuring presence, prone to lapses in concentration. What limited English they could muster was once used to remind me about the English football hooligans they still vividly recalled from World Cup Italia 1990; for whom I duly apologised on behalf of Queen and country.
The Bridge Watchers
North of the Ibar one found a native equivalent in the form of the Bridge Watchers, who occupied the ironically named, ‘La Dolce Vita’; a rather unassuming cafe, which offered a comfortable vantage point from which to survey all who dared venture north.
They had developed a reputation for intimidation and thuggery, with the punishments they meted out being dubbed the ‘Kosovo Kiss’. In the past, certain of their members had been involved in the wartime murders of numerous Kosovo Albanians, and the forced eviction of many others from their homes.
A solitary white container (like those used by the UN for humanitarian purposes) once sat opposite, permanently manned by members of the Bridge Watchers. The diversity of its membership, and their individual motivations for participating, make it difficult to speak of the group in terms beyond that of a parallel security formation, engaged in all manner of operations and often regarded as one of the most trusted ‘institutions’ in north Kosovo.
Bridge watching has long been a noble tradition, often with historical and romantic connotations.
The aforementioned Mostar derived its name from the ‘Mostari’ (or ‘bridge keepers’), who guarded the sixteenth-century bridge over the emerald green river Neretva. Today’s ‘Mostari’ dive headfirst into the fast-flowing waters before exhilarated crowds at Red Bull sponsored events.
In Pristina’s post-independence eyes, however, the Bridge Watchers of north Kosovo constituted a ‘para-military formation’, formidably trained and armed to the hilt.
For others, they were a rabble of ragamuffins, bloated on rakija (despite its supposed medicinal virtues) and pork belly, with receding hairlines; inclined to talk up their courage, wisdom, and achievements.
At this juncture, they fought only natural disasters and memories of the past. The perception of insecurity that surrounded the Main Bridge masked the hundreds, if not thousands, of daily crossings, typically by residents of the south coming north.
Shoppers eagerly passed over the narrow, swaying, ill-kept pedestrian bridge, across decaying planks of wood, into the north’s Three Towers area (its name deriving from its architecture), where green market traders proffered rural fare—pickled cabbage in winter; red, ripe tomatoes in summer; young, white, salty cheeses all year round.
Further along lay the flea market, where old toys, clothes, telephones, and seemingly all manner of household items were laid out on flimsy pieces of mat or cloth. Each of these journeys took place without fanfare, yet ensured thousands of micro-connections were maintained between south and north; the very seeds of future coexistence nurtured through green and flea market commerce.
There are, however, a number of invisible, psychological restraints on movement, which often appear incomprehensible from afar.
In order to enquire whether security cameras were functioning or not (and where the cables led), I took a former colleague across the bridge for the first time since 1999. I never asked whether they were comfortable doing so, but simply presumed that they must have done so in some capacity, personal or professional.
My own routine, especially after the first year, became largely confined to the north side of the Ibar (save for trips south for Italian food or football), where I settled into a routine pattern of cohabitation with colleagues, friends, and acquaintances.
I experienced first-hand how geographical divides can become a matter of habit, not hatred.
Another colleague once noted blackbirds resting on the branch of a tree and commented how even they don’t have the habit of crossing the river. Nor was the Main Bridge the only path into the north. North Mitrovica’s layout is that of a standing compass (that used for drawing not direction).
Its arcs are inscribed from two bridging points—one the Main Bridge, the other the East Bridge (roughly half a kilometre away) into Bošnjačka Mahala.
From here vehicles can circulate freely, though be warned—there is not one single functioning traffic light in the north (a point drawn to my attention by comparison with stray dogs elsewhere who wait patiently with pedestrians for the little green man to appear).
In late 2017, rumours of generous discounts in the ETC supermarket attracted Serbs south of the Ibar. The East Bridge became a temporary parking lot, most vehicles lacking the license plates to risk venturing any further. It is this point that demonstrates the extent to which the squabble over the Main Bridge has been largely symbolic.
There is a stark contrast between life on the respective river banks. During the summer, the returning ruck of diaspora generates a festival-like atmosphere on the south-side.
As more and more people have departed Kosovo in recent years, so their trips home have become more carnivalistic. Music booms out from café-bars, children bounce up and down on trampolines, and extended families promenade purposelessly.
'Peace Park' or 'Garden of Shame'?
On the opposite side, all is dark and quiet as night falls. Backs are turned. A building is being constructed without a window onto the Ibar; prized river-side real estate that is being effectively blindfolded.
Only victory brings chanting football fans clutching flares, as when Serbia defeated Albania in 2015; a year after their head-to-head in Belgrade had been abandoned after a drone carrying a Greater Albania image over the stadium sparked violent confrontations.
Similarly, vitriolic reactions from the south marked the 2014 removal of the latest Main Bridge barricade, cars screeching into the north with flags waving and nationalist songs blaring.
The Serbs promptly resealed the bridge, this time planting a ‘Peace Park’ on half of the Bridge’s plot (north Mitrovica being famously devoid of parks); though they also flirted with constructing a more provocatively named ‘Prince Lazar’ square.
This was a battle to determine the Bridge’s function, and violence ensued against what those in the south called ‘The Garden of Shame’.
Once quelled, there was collective resignation about another barricade, albeit of a much softer character.
A solitary elderly gentleman would collect litter and tend to the large pots of conifers, and I regret never asking what he hoped the park could, if anything, contribute to the cause of peace.
The ‘Peace Park’ would eventually be replaced by a ‘Peace Wall’ in the north. Amidst posters celebrating Donald Trump’s presidential triumph (‘The Serbs stood by him all along!’, one boasts), a two-metre high concrete wall of innumerable shades of grey was constructed almost overnight.
It ran almost the entire width of Kralja Petra (King Peter’s) street—itself pedestrianized, which for some constituted another form of barricade—where students cram into the string of bars and cafes, beneath eight-story high-rises. Its concave arc resembled an inverted riot shield. Its towering height—apparently unintended, but they had more cement than expected—foreclosed perspectives of either side towards the other.
The lie of the land made it even more imposing when viewed from the south. The gauche wall would funnel pedestrians through two narrow openings, subjecting them to scrutiny that would quickly curtail their inevitable curiosity. It was a flagrant violation of the spirit of normalization—that empty signifier, capable of wrapping itself around each and every positive instance of interaction—the Bridge’s revitalisation was intended to promote.
Only a lack of Trumpian bravado prevented the Serbs from asking those south of the Ibar to fund its construction. It was immediately denounced as Mitrovica’s ‘Berlin Wall’; a supposed anachronism in the post-Cold War age.
The Serbs proclaimed that it was not in fact a wall but an ‘open-air amphitheatre’; a new entry in the pantheon of euphemisms for physical barriers between peoples. Whether the wall was required to support the amphitheatre, or vice-versa, we will likely never know.
Those who described it as a wall were accused of being obsessed with narratives of division; whilst those who saw it as an amphitheatre were eager to build connections between people—though it wasn’t clear what sort of plays would be performed.
According to such logic, division is in the eye of the beholder. In a world of computer-generated and manipulated realities, no visual representations as to how the project would beautify the north were disseminated; no pixelated perfection of an aspirational lifestyle for its residents.
The long-running Bridge tragicomedy entered a new act on a different stage. Veterans from the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) stuck their noses through temporary metal fences erected as a preliminary divide.
Whilst threatening protests and unilateral demolishment, they brandished selfie sticks to capture their bewilderment and adrenaline, gripping each other around the waist or shoulders and smirking widely.
Several may have even looked on with an enviable longing to construct a wall of their own. The Wall had brought more people from south to north than all the other attempts at reconciliation combined, challenging the stereotypes and prejudices which had accumulated like rust on Trepča’s machinery.