Bridge to Nowhere

Exploring the Two Sides of the River Ibar in Mitrovica

Bridge to Nowhere

Ethnically-divided Mitrovica is the largest city in northern Kosovo. All that separates the 40,000 Serbians in the north from the 80,000 Albanians in the south is the Ibar, a river that cuts gently through the center of town. The Serb-dominated north became a separate municipality in 2013, following the North Kosovo Crisis in which hundreds of citizens and police were wounded and several died — Mitrovica is no stranger to violence. Journalist Freddie Reynolds visits the bisected Balkan city and explores the tumultuous history of a violently-divided town in the northern reaches of only a partially-recognized state.

It was getting dark and blackbirds filled the sky above us, returning to the central plains of small and compact Kosovo. The few street lights that worked flickered and failed and the shadows lay heavy in the potholes that freckled the road ahead. Looking north, as we walked across the Ibar River, I traced the somber outline of the hills, a charcoal line against a starless sky. Hung high in the hills was the golden dome of the city’s Serbian-Orthodox church, which appeared as a low moon rising above the tops of tower blocks which were black and largely lightless.

“It’s very quiet,” I said to Alban as we continued across the city’s pockmarked eastern bridge. The Ibar River circled the low hanging branches of the willow trees below, their soot-gray leaves washed by water that had risen in the Halja mountains of Montenegro and was flowing north now, north toward Serbia.

“Yes,” said Alban, breathless. “It is always quiet. If there is a noise, it will be a bad noise.”

“And when was the last time you heard a bad noise?” I asked.

“Maybe three years ago,” he said and flicked a lighter at the tip of a cigarette that dangled from his lips. “But still some punks will come, quietly,” he continued. “Come from the south or north, wrestle someone into a ditch. I have seen this before.”

As we reached the Ibar’s northern bank, we passed a group of Italiancarabinieri (national military police) who huddled beneath a steel shed, the loose remnants of a NATO presence that is responsible for keeping the peace between ethnic-Albanian residents in the south of the city and the ethnic-Serbs who live in the north. A single light bulb hung above them, illuminating cigarette smoke which palmed from their huddle as if bailing boredom. An armored car ticked over nearby. One of the soldiers turned to Alban and nodded as we walked past.

An Italian Carabinieri vehicle parked at the New Bridge in Mitrovica
An Italian carabinieri vehicle parked at the New Bridge in Mitrovica

Mitrovica is the largest city in northern Kosovo, sunk between shallow ranges of green hills which rise toward the north and west from the flush Kosovo polje, the mellow meadows that dominate the center of this tiny Balkan country. The city clings to both banks of the Ibar and, since the Kosovo War ended in 1999, this meandering river has formed a dividing line. According to an Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE) report in 2014, over 97% of the population south of the Ibar classified themselves as ethnic-Albanian, compared to 0.02% ethnic-Serb (just fourteen individuals in a population of over 70,000 people); while in the north, the population was 76% ethnic-Serb, 16% ethnic-Albanian.

“That place is like a Palestine,” I was told by a musician I met in Pristina, Kosovo’s congested capital. But there’s no wall in Mitrovica, just the supple flow of a Balkan watercourse and the three bridges that span it that few people cross. The “wall,” as such, is the invisible hand of Belgrade that still claims the north of the city (as it does the rest of this young country) and still operates parallel structures in education, post and telecommunications. It supports the economy, too — cash transfers from Belgrade finance over half the monthly incomes of the ethnic-Serbs who live north of the river.

If rivers divide, then roads unite. Yet the road from Pristina to Mitrovica cuts a miserable line through the Kosovan countryside. It is broken and bent and far from finished. Gravel spews across the tarmac as if spat from a burst pipe, carriageways jump sides and traffic is re-routed around poorly built bridges, deemed too unsafe to pass beneath. Cars and buses churn up a thick dust that clouds the air, traps the sunlight and catches the breath. Even where the tarmac’s new and white lines flash beneath the hood, there are ratty bumps that appear without warning and divots that swallow tires.

But travel the road from Pristina to Tirana — the Albanian capital still haunted by the bizarre idols built under the Albania’s former-socialist leader Enver Hoxha — and the tarmac will roll smoothly beneath your wheels. It’s a speedy, buttery connection between allies, both related by a shared Albanian ethnicity. Even the road to Skopje in Macedonia is comparative bliss, cutting through the range of mountains that run the length of the Balkans. When the author Rebecca West drove this way in the 1930s, she described “great hills pattered with shadows blue as English bluebells” — a romantic scene still tangible today. West recounted her journeys throughout Yugoslavia in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a true great of travel literature that attempted — and succeeded — to show the past side by side with the present it created. West’s ambition is pertinent to the story of Mitrovica and where it finds itself today, trapped as a result of fierce conflict, international geopolitics and nationalistic rhetoric.

In 1974, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia announced a new constitution that gave its six republics greater autonomy and introduced a de facto government to the then Serbian province of Kosovo. The case for Kosovan devolution was made on account of the region’s majority Albanian and nominal Muslim population — which was at odds with the Orthodox Serbian majority across the rest of Serbia — and, under the terms of the constitution, gave Kosovo the right to run its courts, police and determine its official language. Where the six republics — Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia — were allocated rights on reflection of distinct nationalities, Kosovo’s distinction was ethnic and many Serbs, who considered Kosovo a key part of their country’s history and identity, resented the transition.


By the 1980s, semi-autonomous Kosovo was suffering high rates of unemployment that led to civil unrest and in turn bought greater scrutiny on the autonomous local government. Slobodan Milošević, who was rising up the ranks in Belgrade, saw this unease as an opportunity and, sensing a collapse in the relevancy of the one-state socialist ideology of Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia, masterminded an new ideology based on a fierce Serbian nationalism which he believed could bring the republics — and crucially Kosovo — back under direct Serbian control. Milošević had soon declared a state of emergency in Kosovo and had over 600,000 Kosovar Albanians arrested, imprisoned or interrogated. In one of the most symbolic examples of unrest, Kosovar Albanian miners from Trepca — the enormous mining complex on the outskirts of Mitrovica — went on hunger strike and were punished heavily for their role in encouraging wider civil strife. By the late 80s, less than a quarter of Trepca’s previously mixed-ethnic workforce were ethnic-Albanians.

Then, in 1989, Milošević effectively repealed the 1974 constitution and stripped Kosovo of its autonomous government. In a now infamous speech made at Gazimestan, a monument to the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, which can be seen from the broken road to Mitrovica, he further vilified Kosovo’s non-Serb population and placed Kosovo at the center of ethnic-Serbian history, culture and memory. He spoke of “armed struggles” and of “betrayal in Kosovo [that] will continue to follow the Serbian people like an evil fate through the whole of its history.” Kosovar Albanians ignored the repeal, nominating the academic Ibrahim Rugova as president of a new republic in September 1990, and a steady rise in ethnic tensions and armed unrest, bolstered by the founding of the Kosovan Liberation Army, followed. By 1998, the two sides were at war.

One million people gathered at Gazimestan for Milosevi's speech on June 28, 1989, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo .
One million people gathered at Gazimestan for Milosevi’s speech on June 28, 1989, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo

The Kosovan War, which ended in the summer of 1999 as a result of a NATO-led bombing campaign on Belgrade, resulted in 800,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees, 12,000 deaths and thousands reported missing — many of whom are still not accounted for today. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo described Milošević’s campaign as “one of ethnic cleansing, intended to drive many, if not all, Kosovar Albanians from Kosovo, destroy the foundations of their society, and prevent them from returning.”

Repercussions on Kosovar Serbs was fierce, and some 70,000 fled following the war. In Mitrovica, French-NATO troops oversaw the transition that pushed ethnic-Serbs north of the Ibar and Albanians south, the root of the situation that remains today. Serbia still does not formerly recognize Kosovo as an independent state (despite the country’s declaration of independence in 2008) and encourages ethnic-Serbs still living in Kosovo to do the same. Following declaration, more than 100 Serb police officers in Kosovo turned in their badges as a sign of rejection for the new ethnic-Albanian-led government.

Mitrovica remains the focal point of the ongoing dispute. In 2004, following the death of a Serbian teenager in Caglavica, and the accidental drowning of three young Albanian boys, the city descended into violence, with Serbs and Albanians exchanging gunfire and grenades in clashes across the Ibar. The unrest, which soon spread across the country, resulted in twenty-eight deaths and the widespread destruction of Serbian property. In 2008, weeks after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the UN withdrew from the north of the city following violent rioting — around thirty UN police and NATO troops were reported injured. And in the mid-summer lull of 2014, demonstrators in the south of the city clashed with police over a new barricade constructed by ethnic-Serbs in the north. Police cars were set on fire, tear gas was used to disperse the crowds.

Kosovo Albanians clash with police in Mitrovica
Kosovo Albanians clash with police in Mitrovica

Each nationalist chant, each rock thrown and each new clash adds to the perception that the city “is like a Palestine”: trapped, volatile, impossible to solve. The battered road that leads to it is as political, as divisive, as the river it meets.

* * *

The first time I traveled that road to Mitrovica I drove with Jeremy, a British diplomat who had followed time in the armed forces with diplomatic stints in Helmand and Central Asia. He’d been in Kosovo on and off for the past fourteen years, helping a proud democratic system take root without alienating the minorities. He drove a rusty white Golf, a mark II (which, like mountains, are a staple part of the Balkan scenery, thanks to a former VW factory in Sarajevo) and he drove at a frantic speed. He’d been keen to show me “what a divided city looks like” and I was keen to see it, too, knowing little of the country that once dominated the news.

As we approached Mitrovica, we passed an Italian-Kosovo Force base and road signs indicating special speed limits for armored cars and turreted tanks. It has been fifteen years since bombs had fallen on Belgrade and nine years since Milošević died of a heart attack in his ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) cell in The Hague. Things, I thought, are much too stable for such an obvious military presence.

As a convoy of armored cars swung onto the road ahead of us, Jeremy told me that as long as Serbia claims hegemony and Kosovo is unable to defend itself, the military presence will remain; as long as the ethnic-Serbs of Mitrovica denounce the Kosovan government, build barricades in the roads, and ethnic-Albanians seek closure, NATO stays put.

A vast, dilapidated factory welcomed us as we arrived in the south end of Mitrovica. “Look!” Jeremy said excitedly. “That’s what the dawn of the industrial revolution looked like!” The factory was part of Trepča, which once employed over 20,000 people and played a crucial role in the run up to the Kosovan War. For centuries, the mines have dominated the economy of the region and impacted the rest of the world in complicated ways. During the Second World War, when Yugoslavia was occupied by the Nazis, the Trepča mines produced 40% of the German army’s lead, and the factories produced countless batteries for Nazi U-boats. Minerals from the hills of Kosovo are now, therefore, sunk deep beneath the world’s oceans and hidden beneath the fields of Western Europe.

Trepça's factory, part of the Mitrovica identity, located at the entrance to the city.
Trepça’s factory, part of the Mitrovica identity, located at the entrance to the city

Beyond the factory we past an Orthodox graveyard where old headstones tipped into each other, clearly vandalised. We continued north, doing what few cars do by crossing the eastern bridge over the Ibar. Jeremy’s car, registered in Zagreb, had neither Kosovan nor Serbian number plates, which allowed it some neutrality. The few local cars that do cross the river often remove theirs.

The ambitions of north Mitrovica’s architecture are markedly less evident than those in Pristina, which may look brutal and impenetrable but often possess a more obvious political ambition. The architectural styles of south and north Mitrovica betray no true political allegiance, but there’s still no confusing which side of the river you’re on.

In the Serbian-dominated north — which is all red, blue and white — there are political murals and graffiti slogans painted over tricolors and a black statue of a Serbian war hero placed at the center of a roundabout, surrounded by countless posters of Novak Djokovic, a professional Serbian tennis player. Cafes are full of young men with spikey hair sipping espressos and young women in tight jeans. At the northern edge of the New Bridge stands a barricade, a “Peace Park”, a tarpaulin-covered market, Jelen pivo beer advertisements and a parking lot where there used to be a mosque.

* * *

Back across the bridge, Jeremy took me to a bar where he introduced me to Alban, an Albanian who had spent his entire life in a district of Mitrovica called Bosniak Mahala, where he still lives with his wife, two sons and elderly father. It’s one of only two ethnic-Albanian enclaves north of the Ibar. The residents of Bosniak Mahala defied the land-grab that took place in 1999.

“On my wedding night we get home and we go to bed,” Alban said as we sat together in the empty bar drinking Peja, a Kosovan pilsner. “My wife is from the south of Kosovo and it’s her first night in Bosniak Mahala. Then, boom. I hear one grenade.” I look over at Jeremy and he’s silent, nodding, as if he knows the story well.

“My wife wakes up,” he continued. ‘What is that?’ she asks. ‘It’s okay, Fatima, it’s okay. Sleep, Fatima, sleep.’”

“The second night there were two grenades,” he said. “And Fatima wakes up again. ‘Sleep, Fatima,’ I said and I go to the window but there is nothing there.’

“Then, the third night, boom, boom, boom. Three grenades. And I am thinking that this time they were very close. I am thinking they were on the street or behind the house so I get up again and open the window and look, but there’s nothing there and I return to bed. I turn to Fatima, but she is sleeping.”

* * *

Ten days after my visit with Jeremy, I bumped down the desperate road to Mitrovica again, this time on an old French bus. I was returning to visit Alban at his invitation. The road was wet with recent rainfall. I climbed off the bus south of the Ibar and walked along a road lined by shops selling byrek in large metal dishes, dull-colored underwear hanging like curtains across darkened windows, cafes full of men, shops full of football shirts and rows of Albanian flags.

I reached the large Bayram Pasa mosque that is flanked by two tall white minarets and turned towards the river until I stood at the southern end of the New Bridge, built by the French government in 2001. At the center of the bridge was an armored truck and two soldiers in berets leaning on the railings. They smoked and spat into the river below. On the far side of the bridge, the northern side, a rough pile of rubble spread right across the road and, in front of it, a patch of earth and green leaf plants in concrete pots: the so-called “Peace Park”, raked together by residents of the north in 2014, prompting further unrest.

A plaque, written in four languages — Serbian, Albanian, French and English — read: “The rehabilitation of this bridge was financed and realized by France for the benefit of the city’s population with the participation of Kosovars workers.”

Snubbing the inaccuracy of translation, I liked the idea of rehabilitating a bridge, and I consider it in keeping with this idea of reconciliation that I’d read about, and in which some people in the city were working toward. But the “Peace Park” shrouded it. West had written of Kosovo’s residents, saying that “a people can be compelled by misfortune into an existence so confused that it is not life but sheer nonsense,” which was just how it felt when I stood looking across that bridge. The sheer nonsense of that garden, the bridge to nothing, a symbol of divide, not unity. A symbol carrying a French inflection.

The Peace Park at the northern edge of the New Bridge caused riots in 2014 when it was built. 21 people were injured in the clash.
The Peace Park at the northern edge of the New Bridge caused riots in 2014 when it was built. Twenty-one people were injured in the clash.

When, later that night, Alban and I had crossed the eastern bridge, we had looked up to see the Orthodox church lit up like the moon and past the Italian troops, we came to a similar barricade of tarmac, forced up from the road until it stretched across it at knee height. This time, I was reminded of a picture I’d once seen in Friedrichstrasse in Berlin: a black and white photograph of a barricade in Berlin. It, too, was a long pile of rubble, pushed until thigh-high, spanning the width of the road. When I’d seen that barricade it seemed an almost comical obstacle, something dumped without trajectory. I’d thought at the time that it wasn’t as physically or ideologically significant as the Berlin Wall proper, which was a hundred miles long, eleven feet high. But in north Mitrovica, as we crept around that barrier separating Bosniak Mahala with the Serb-majority north, it was no longer comical or trite. In fact, it became unnerving, aggressive; a clear refection of a community’s desire to separate themselves from their neighbors. In Berlin, around Palestine — those walls were built by governments, supposedly for the will of their people. But that wall in Mitrovica, no matter what support came from Belgrade, was seemingly built by the people. It was crude and crumbling and pathetic and yet it stung with a poisonous and personal lilt.

Alban stepped around it and walked on, and I followed him to the entrance of a Serb bar just a couple of feet from this barricade. “There shouldn’t be any trouble,” he said as he pushed the door open and Sasha, the Serbian owner and a friend of Alban’s, met us at the door and pointed to a table, one of six scattered about a newly painted room. No photographs or patterns on the walls, only a flat screen TV hanging from the ceiling showing a Serbian news channel. Sasha stood behind a small counter and often disappeared through a gray door, only to reappear with cold bottles of Serbian and Macedonian beer, and trays of steaming meats and white loaves.

A group of men sat around the only other occupied table. One man, facing away from us, had a black-gray ponytail and belched often, bringing a large paw to his mouth and I watched as a thick silver chain slipped down his wrist. In front of them the table was scattered with a mess of the evening: countless empty rakia shot glasses, chunks of uneaten bread and the remnants of a meal smeared across metal plates — thick slices of tomato, onion, half-eaten pickles, a chicken flayed and grilled and torn apart with thick fingers, and knives covered with soft white cheese. Alban stared at them for a while and then turned his attention to a new pack of cigarettes which he unwrapped, tapped open and proceeded to smoke, one after the other until Sasha brought over another pack and he emptied that one, too.

Alban ordered more drinks and soon his hands were shaking, each cigarette spitting embers that started to dot the paper tablecloth. At one point a turbo-folk song started playing on the TV and Alban glared at Sasha who returned a blank expression: two of the men at the other table had started to clap while the others circled shot glasses. Turbo-folk is a strongly nationalistic genre of music that exploded out of Serbia in the 90s. Its videos feature laser shows, obscene cleavage, leather jackets and piles of banknotes, and its machine-enhanced melodies — based on traditional Balkan folksongs — are backed by synthesizers and uncompromising beats at breakneck BPMs. Its stars are often bankrolled by the mafia and are very much loved by a passionate following. But for everyone else, its irritating jingles are synonymous with the wars that followed the fall of Yugoslavia and its popularity has come to represent a perceived lack of remorse for the events that unfolded.

A make-shift barricade built by Serbian citizens prohibiting Albanians from crossing from the south
A makeshift barricade built by Serbian citizens prohibiting Albanians from crossing from the south

The itching melody of the Serbian turbo-folk song seemed to tear into Alban’s ears, darken his eyes, turn his stomach. “Look at this,” he said, turning to me and tapping me on the arm. He lifted his chin and pointed to a short scar that ran perpendicular to his Adam’s apple. “That was these motherfuckers. And for what?” We quickly left and I supported his lurching body as we walked around the barricade, back to Bosniak Mahala.

* * *

That Mitrovica has become a symbol, a pawn in the often heady politics of the region is unquestionable. As long as Belgrade fails to recognize Kosovo as a new and separate state, and as long as Kosovo Force (KFOR) troops are required to guard Kosovo’s Serbian-Orthodox churches from attacks by local Albanians or stand guard on the bridges across the Ibar, the fear is that the situation in Mitrovica will remain.

It’s cemented by the tough economic situation that both Serbia and Kosovo face (in early 2014, tens of thousands of Kosovans fled to Hungary, hoping to claim economic asylum in Western Europe), which further implicates the role that Trepca could play. With investment for Trepca, it’s likely the local economy will start to progress, and things can begin to move on. Both countries are keen to join the European Union, a body that has encouraged Serbia to accept Kosovo’s new, independent statehood. The Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has signaled an intent to propose a change to his country’s constitution in regard to Kosovo, a situation that could provoke outrage among many Serbian nationals, but which could do wonders for the people of Mitrovica.

But below the negotiating tables, nationalistic music videos and political ramblings, Mitrovica remains a city of the people, and it is primarily through them that the situation could improve. Both Alban’s community in Boshniak Mahala — where due to the volatile situation in 2000, US Marines conducted house-to-house searches for weapons — and the city’s Rock School, which has gained international media coverage in recent years, have brought people together from both sides of the ethnic divide.

* * *

Alban’s house is a squat, concrete block three-storys tall, that sits a block north of the Ibar. He, his wife and two sons live on the first floor, above an empty shop. Above them, is a roofless room, where Alban used to keep a drum kit but now only visits to smoke cigarette. His job with an NGO affords him some wealth beyond others in Bosniak Mahala and, behind the house is a small shed where his father lives. Alban’s father spent his working life down a mine shaft at Trepča, but, over a decade ago, suffered a stroke and woke up partially paralyzed. It was a result, Alban told me, of all the rakia he had drank after the war.

When we arrived, after tripping through darkened streets, Alban’s wife brewed Turkish coffee and showed me to the living room of the shed. I laid down on a sofa, my feet toward an open door. I woke at some point in the night and through a darkened corridor lit by a single lamp, I watched Alban’s father’s limping silhouette as he struggled along the corridor to the bathroom. I imagined him as a young man, head dropped as he descended into the mine, the heat of the earth pressing against his muscular skin. It seemed to me that the downward view of that mine shaft had somehow taken over, and now echoed in each step he took. Every movement he made was still impeded, not by the dirt walls of a mine shaft, but by the walls of his own constraining body.

To protect the identities of those involved, some names in this article have been changed.