Justin Vela

The book: Orthodox Christmas Eve in north Mitrovica, Kosovo…Milosh…January 2008…

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The bridge spanning the Ibar defines Mitrovica. It is written about by almost every journalist that reports on Kosovo, many of whom do a story on how the bridge symbolizes the division of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo without walking far from it, knowing that to do so is an unnecessary risk.

The bridge itself is a dramatic enough story.

Having been given the erroneous reputation as “the most dangerous bridge in Europe” it serves as both a connector and divider in Kosovo’s sad tale of Serbs verses Albanians. At the same time it provides an avenue for people to look down and see their enemies moving about and to perhaps feel some curiosity.

When we cross the bridge the UN guards say “day to day” there are no problems. Many of the buildings in this part of the city are older and collapsing to a greater extent than the buildings on the Serb side. Everything is darker and there is more trash on the streets. Street vendors sell fruits and vegetables around a mosque. Many of the men wear plis, the cuplike brimless hat traditionally worn by Albanians.

Serbs believe that Albanians are simply the descendants of Serbs whose bloodline became mixed with the Ottoman invaders. As Noel Malcom writes in Kosovo: A Short History however, “All origins become mysterious if we search far enough into the past.” Historians cannot agree exactly from where Albanians came. Like all of life however the explanation to this question is a mix of different answers.

Most likely, modern day Albanians are descended from Illyrian tribes that remained hidden in Kosovo’s mountains when the Serbs took over Kosovo in the 12th century. There were Slavic tribes in Kosovo as early as the 600s, but it was not until the foundation of the Serbian kingdom that they began to expand southwards.

Today the Albanians are the majority people in Kosovo. “…it can never be said too often that questions of chronological priority in ancient history-who got there first-are simply irrelevant to deciding the rights and wrongs of any present-day political situation,” writes Malcom.

Before going into the restaurant, J and D pose in front of a store selling Albanian wedding dresses.

In south Mitrovica there seems to many more unemployed people and the city isn’t as well take of as north Mitrovica, probably because north Mitrovica gets money from Belgrade.

D says that forty percent of the salaries in north Mitrovica are paid by the Serbian government.

Based on the logic of outside money making one side of a ghetto slightly nicer, I wonder where all the money from the international community is going in south Mitrovica.

What should perhaps not surprise me, but does, is that when D begins talking in Serbian to the Albanian men in the restaurant, they respond do her in Serbian.

Having lived before the war with Serbian neighbors, the Albanian men speak Serbian well. They don’t currently have jobs, but think that “after Kosovo declares independence US companies will invest in Kosovo.” While they claim not to have problems with individual Serbs, they believe that co-existence is impossible. They do not want to live alongside Serbs.

“A new war will start if Serbia tries to stop this independence,” one of the men says.

The Albanians are in their early to late forties. Based on their age and enthusiasm for sending a message to Belgrade, they most likely were fighters during the war. They are curious to know what people in Serbia are thinking about Kosovo. They look at me, an American traveling with Serbs, strangely, but list off where they have relatives living in the US.

When we leave, they shake our hands.

“This was good,” D says.

Between Dobrivo’s rakija and the beer the Albanians were buying us, we are quite drunk and, no longer cautious. We wander back to the bridge and into north Mitrovica, laughing wildly for reasons I cannot remember.

In north Mitrovica, on a hill above the city, several hundred Serbs gather outside the church of St. Demetrius to watch the traditional burning of banyan tree branches that marks Orthodox Christmas.

The Albanian independence declaration is looming in front of the Serb residents of Mitrovica. Their city is about to be separated from their country. With the memory of violence fresh in their minds, no one wants to guess about their future.

Priests in long red robes give speeches about the need for Serbian cohesion and repeat the famous expression, “Only Unity Saves the Serbs.”

A line forms and one by one people come forward to kiss a crucifix held by a priest. Mitrovica lays below, dark and very cold.

Later, Dobrivo pulls us inside his house and introduces us to his wife and grandson, Milosh.

“I speak English very well,” Milosh says.

“Where did you learn English?” I ask him.

“Movies and video games,” he says.

Milosh does speak English nearly flawlessly, though he says he almost never has a chance to practice. He says that he likes Mitrovica, but even at twelve he has a dream to leave and go to England to become a university professor.

“Have you ever heard of Oxford?” I ask.

He hasn’t, but seems excited by my descriptions of academia. He says that for fun he and his friends play either basketball or monopoly.

“When we play monopoly I always win. Almost always. We drink beer and smash the bottles afterward with rocks.”

“How many beers can you drink?” I ask him.

“Two. I have to stop after two.”

Milosh has a reason for wanting to move to England. His impression from TV is that you need a great amount of money to have a girlfriend in the US. He is visibly concerned by this and thinks that an American girlfriend will spend all the money that he earns.

“That is not necessarily true,” I tell him. “There are some girls that are actually interested in you more than money.”

He seems relieved. “I talk like a man, don’t I?” he says.

“Yep,” I say.

Dobrivo will not let our rakija glasses go empty. When Marija sets out plates he jumps up and tells her to wait. He disappears outside. When he returns he is cradling a bottle of wine which he says is from the church.

We toast. The wine is sweet and syrupy. Mixed into it are some herbs and spices. We assemble ourselves on the floor to eat, juggling our glasses of rakija and wine. Additionally, Dobrivo sets massive bottles of Lav beer in front of J and I.

Then he lays down on his side, spread out and grinning like some kind of great pasha at a feast.

After dinner, suddenly, I realize I am extremely drunk. I attempt to lay down on the couch and fall asleep clutching my camera bag. Seeing this, Dobrivo sweeps me up and half drags half carries me outside, through the snow, and into a two room building built off the side of the house.

Inside there is a bed, a cage with two small green birds, and cacti in pots.

Dobrivo, he pulls off my shirt, wrestles a clean one down over my head, and, smilingly kindly, says goodnight.

The next morning D asks about where the Albanians live in the neighborhood.

Dobrivo points to a house up the road. It is collapsing and half covered in snow. Dragana knocks on the door for a time and a man and several boys come to the window.

The man says that he moved to north Mitrovica because he thought he could make more money than in south Mitrovica.

So far, he had been unsuccessful and faced intimidation.

The boys look frightened.

D gets back in the car.

“I didn’t know what to ask them,” she says. “Their situation is clear.”

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Written by Justin Vela

October 7, 2010 at 4:46 pm

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