The book: Kosovo’s divided city of Mitrovica one month before the Albanians declare independence…January 2008…
Late one night, J tells me he is driving to Kosovo to write a story on the pre-independence tension in the divided city of Mitrovica.
He invites me to go with him.
Serb and American together in Kosovo in the days before it is declared independent…we both know it….this is too good a story not to write.
Of course, as an American I don’t know how I will be received in the Serb section of Mitrovica. As a Serb, J may not be taken to well on the Albanian side.
But no matter. As J says, “There is a desk, but a journalist’s job is to be with people. We go.”
Two days later, the car is stocked with cans of beer and packages of chips and crackers. Dragana, another Serbian journalist is with us. Her spiky bleached hair corresponds to her tenacity.
“Justin, how old are you?” J asks.
I tell him.
“I am thirty-one. You are twenty-one. You are young. You are a baby. You are so young you are stupid. When I was twenty-one I was searching for freedom. But in Serbia you cannot have freedom. So I thought I found freedom in heroin. Now I do not want freedom. I am anti-freedom. Freedom does not exist.”
I like J. He reminds me of a Dostoyevsky character. He is completely convinced of the fallacy of the world. The words and actions of people and their inability to do anything correct. This is the conclusion he has come to after spending his life locked in Serbia. The only time he left was to spend two years working construction in Moscow, an experience that seems to have disturbed him greatly.
A country’s roads speak volumes.
The autoput south from Belgrade is smooth and well cared for, but when we turn off it towards the border with Kosovo the roads become cracked and narrow. In some places the road is so ruined it is impossible to distinguish from the surrounding farmland. The villages are scatterings of brick buildings sitting a few hundred feet off the ill-kept road.
Massive trucks begin appearing.
“They’re coming from Kosovo,” J says.
“What are they carrying?” I ask.
“Drugs probably. Cigarettes. People,” D says.
Smuggling in Kosovo is rampant.
It is a hub for heroin and opium from Afghanistan, as well as the trafficking of humans, mostly women, but also some men, from places like Moldova and Ukraine who surrender their passports to smugglers promising better lives in Western Europe, but instead find themselves trapped, forced into prostitution or labor.
The road squeezes us out into southern Serbia. A sign points the way to Raska, the place where the Serbian Kingdom was founded over a thousand years ago. Belgrade seems very far away. At the border with Kosovo, the Serb guard waves us through. As it has not yet been declared independent passports aren’t checked going into Kosovo from Serbia. If you enter Kosovo from a different country and then want to continue into Serbia, you first have to leave Kosovo and enter Serbia from a neighboring country, or you will be considered to have illegally entered Serbia.
It is very dark and while approaching the UN control point J runs the Fiat up on a small divider in the middle of the road. He tries accelerating off it in both forward and reverse, but all we hear is the grinding of metal.
A group of UN border guards walk up.
They pace around the Fiat and then without ceremony lift the car up and off the divider.
“Thank you,” we say.
They don’t bother stamping our passports either, or even looking at them, and send us off with a wave.
Thus we enter Kosovo.
It is not far from Belgrade to Kosovo, but with the bad roads and weather we have been in the car for hours.
“Mitrovica…Mitrovica…where are you?” J calls out the window to the night.
Suddenly we find ourselves behind an armored personal carrier.
It lumbers along, patrolling the highway slowly.
J accelerates and passes it. A few hundred feet ahead is a truck of Kosovo Force (KFOR), the multinational troops in Kosovo They are sitting on benches in the back of a covered truck and looking at us, their rifles lit up by the Fiat’s lights.
In front of the truck there is a slowly moving Yugo.
J passes the Yugo as well. He is driving with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Outside the dark hills loom around us through the fog.
J asks, “Are you scared?”
“You should be. I am.”
The next morning D interviews Dobrivo.
A retired Serb economist, Dobrivo lives in a neighborhood of north Mitrovica where there are still a small number of Albanians.
North Mitrovica is generally described as being Serb, while south Mitrovica is described as Albanian. However a small number of Albanians live in north Mitrovica. Along the river and then also below the 14th century church of St. Demetrius in the neighborhood where D and I meet Dobrivo.
UN surveys say that no Serbs live on the Albanian side.
Dobrivo is a massive nearly bald man in his mid-sixties. He speaks no English so I tell D to go ahead with her interview while I talk to Dobrivo’s daughter, Marija.
She is thirty-two and shy about her English. I ask her if they ever have problems with their Albanian neighbors.
“There has never been any problems,” she says. “During the war we were scared, but nothing happened.”
The house is small. Rugs cover the floors. Dobrivo and his wife sleep in the living room. Marija and her twelve year old son sleep on couches in the bedroom. In the bedroom there is a computer with Internet access, a TV, and a collection of DVDs. It is Orthodox Christmas Eve and the sweet smell of slowly cooking food comes from the kitchen.
Marija returns to cooking.
Trying to make up for my lack of language skills, Dobrivo pours rakija, a strong fruit liquor. As he and D talk, I sip the rakija and reflect.
The largest city in northern Kosovo, Mitrovica is a ghetto. It sits forlornly amid sharp mountains and hills that jaggedly surround the city. The two sides of the city are divided by the Ibar River which flows south to north, its dark waters witness to many centuries and much unnecessary bloodshed.
With Serbs and Albanians living in such close proximity to each other Mitrovica is usually referred to as a ‘flashpoint’ city. Now it is calm. There has not been heavy violence since 2004. Then it started in a village just outside of Mitrovica called Cebar when four Albanian boys trespassed on a Serb man’s property.
A UN investigation found that the Serb had come out of his house when the boys came onto his property and with his dog chased them towards the river. The boys fell in while trying to escape and three drowned in the quickly moving Ibar.
The incident is widely contested. Serbs insist that the boys were actually playing by the river and fell into the Ibar by themselves. Albanians insist that the boys were chased in.
Death is death. The boy’s drowning set off two days of mass violence throughout Kosovo. In downtown Mitrovica, crowds of Serbs and Albanians clashed at the bridge dividing the northern and southern parts of town and gunfire was exchanged across the Ibar from the roofs of apartment buildings. Taken by surprise KFOR found themselves overwhelmed by the mobs and were forced to retreat.
After the riots, the need for a resolution to Kosovo’s en limbo status was acknowledged in foreign capitals and the wheels that would lead up to Kosovo’s independence began turning.
Attempts were made to negotiate with the Serbs, but nothing worked.
The Serbs insisted on keeping Kosovo.
The Albanians insisted on total independence.
There were no deals that could be made.
In the final few months the negotiations even left the UN and went behind the closed doors of the Contact Group, a private organization composed of representatives from the US, England, Russia, Italy, France, and Germany who have the ubiquitous task of mediating on Balkan affairs. The result, however, was inevitable.
Kosovo was to be independent.
Leaving J sleeping at the hotel, D and I walk through north Mitrovica.
“This is so depressing,” D says.
Depressing or not individuals still practice kindness. After about an hour of talking to Dobrivo, a neighbor knocks on the door with a basket of fresh baked bread. Dobrivo is delighted. He grabs a knife and cuts up smoked meat to eat with the bread. Marija lays out fresh pickles, winter tomatoes, peppers, and pours thick Turkish coffee.
He then tells D that north Mitrovica is full of former Serb soldiers and paramilitaries. “They are organized and very bitter,” he says. After independence is declared “incidents” are expected. North Mitrovica might even try to declare itself independent from a newly independent Kosovo. He knows some people have guns hidden, but is not sure they would attempt anything. They are too few.
What Dobrivo is sure of however is that Mitrovica and other Serb areas of Kosovo will never accept an Albanian government.
After the food, D ends the interview. Dobrivo is becoming more interested in pouring me rakija than answering her questions. He demands we return that evening for Orthodox Christmas dinner and sends us off with a wave to meet Jovan and cross the bridge into Albanian south Mitrovica.
Like most Serbs, Dobrivo has not crossed the bridge since before the war. He does not express any desire to do so. On the other side of the city there are only Albanians, the people who are destroying what he wants his country to be.
This is where everything gets fuzzy. D is angry.
She snaps her fingers at J and I.
“What have we come here for? So you can bullshit with each other or to talk with Albanians?”
D has a point. Dobrivo’s countless rakijas has effected my concentration. Upon our return to the hotel Jovan declared, “It is 11 AM and you are drunk!”
He began downing beers. Wanting to fit in, I did the same. In this state, since crossing into south Mitrovica, we have asked a few Albanians to comment on how excited they are about independence, J has bought batteries, and I have photographed UN guards on the bridge check the IDs of some Albanian men crossing into south Mitrovica. Not much.
Now, sitting in a dark restaurant, drinking Peja, the Albanian beer named for a town Serbs call Pec, D has had enough of it.
She turns to the group of Albanian men sitting at a nearby table and begins interviewing them, boldly identifying herself as a journalist from Belgrade and speaking to the men in Serbian.