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Tensions Run High in Divided Kosovo Town

Tanja Lazarevic stands on the Mitrovica Bridge, which divides the city.  Serbs live in the north, and Albanians in the south.
Eleanor Beardsley
/
NPR
Tanja Lazarevic stands on the Mitrovica Bridge, which divides the city. Serbs live in the north, and Albanians in the south.
A demonstrator cries as he waves a Kosovo flag and Kosovo Albanians shout slogans during a rally for an immediate declaration of independence in Pristina, Kosovo province, Serbia.
Carsten Koall / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
A demonstrator cries as he waves a Kosovo flag and Kosovo Albanians shout slogans during a rally for an immediate declaration of independence in Pristina, Kosovo province, Serbia.
Pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin plaster buildings in Mitrovica. Putin is considered a savior by Serbians for his rejection of Kosovo's independence.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
/
NPR
Pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin plaster buildings in Mitrovica. Putin is considered a savior by Serbians for his rejection of Kosovo's independence.

Kosovo's Albanian majority is expected to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia after efforts to find a compromise solution on the province failed. Serbia is vehemently opposed to such a move and so are the 100,000 Serbs living in Kosovo. The largest and strongest community of Serbs lives in the city of Mitrovica in the northern part of the province which borders Serbia.

Tanja Lazarevic, a Kosovo Serb, lives in the ethnically divided city, a place where there has been much talk about Kosovo's possible independence. Unlike the Albanians, who are joyful over the prospect after eight years of United Nations rule, the Serbs are frightened by it.

"What worries me the most is my life here," said Lazarevic. "What will happen with us? The thing is that we are planning to stay, we are planning not to accept the independence."

Since 1999, the city of Mitrovica has been split along hostile ethnic lines, with Serbs living in the north and Albanians in the south, divided by the Ibar River, with its barbed-wire-strewn bridge guarded by U.N. police. Psychologically, the gulf is even wider, said Gerry Galluchi, a U.N. administrator in the city.

"For the people who live on the two sides of the Ibar, it is unfortunately as if it was two different realities," Galluchi said. "The river is the shore of an ocean and none of them know really much about the other side."

Serbs here have never accepted the presence of the U.N. in Kosovo. Unlike the rest of the province, the Serbian state still runs things here. It's as if nothing has changed since 1999. Except for the refugees.

The sidewalks in North Mitrovica are choked with ramshackle kiosks where merchants sell fruit, cigarettes and knickknacks. Most of the Serbs working here, like Branislav Jeremic, lived in other towns around Kosovo before fleeing to the north after the 1999 NATO bombing.

"We are afraid that the Albanians may expel us, because I already was expelled from my home in Vucitern once, and now it may happen twice," Jeremic said through an interpreter.

On the streets of North Mitrovica there is a sense of outrage over the coming breakup of Serbia. How can part of one's country just be taken away and given to someone else, people ask. While despised by Albanians, Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen as Kosovo's savior. Stickers bearing his face are plastered on windows and lampposts, and a banner saying "Russia Help Us" hangs in the center of town. Russia has been a solid supporter of Serbia in the dispute over Kosovo's future and has warned of dire consequences if Kosovo is allowed to break away.

Western diplomats who have warned of violence surrounding Kosovo's birth as a new nation say it is most likely to break out in Mitrovica. In 2004, rioting between Serbs and Albanians that eventually killed 19 people erupted on the bridge. There is a tension that isn't felt in the rest of Kosovo.

Adem Mripa is one of a handful of Albanians who remained in North Mitrovica after the 1999 division of the city. Mripa returns home after crossing the bridge to buy Albanian-language newspapers in the south. Despite the pressure, Mripa said, he refuses to leave.

"I receive threats every day," he said. "You know so many slogans were written down on the door. Different crosses and stuff like that. Also they threw bombs. Would you like to see?"

Mripa points to where a grenade exploded in his garden, leaving pockmarks on the side of his house. Many Albanians fear that northern, mostly Serb-populated Kosovo, will try to split off from an independent Kosovo. Mripa said he stays to make sure that doesn't happen.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

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