Kosovo’s divided city

Stark social divisions stand out in Mitrovica amid talks over Kosovo’s independence.

Like many others, Valon Canhasi is still feeling the trauma of the war

From the balcony of his small flat in southern Mitrovica, Valon Canhasi can see the remains of the house he fled during Kosovo’s 1999 war.

Serb paramilitaries forced him and his family from his home one night before looting it and burning it to the ground.

“My entire family have lived with the biggest trauma ever since the day that the Serb paramilitaries entered my flat,” he told Al Jazeera as he looked towards the north of the city.

Mitrovica is the clearest sign of the divisions that continue to trouble Kosovo.

The river Ibar splits the city into two – ethnic Albanians live in the south and the north is now the only urban Serb enclave in the breakaway province.

Canhasi and his family fled to Macedonia. After several months they returned to the city, along with thousands of other Kosovo Albanians, but they were only able to move back into the south.

“Seeing my home from here makes me really feel … disturbed because I do not know when I can go back to rebuild,” he said.

Land not for sale

Despite the hostile reception he would likely receive if he ever tried to return, Canhasi is adamant that he will not sell the land his home once stood on.

“We have a nice memory of living in that part, and I would think to go back,” he said.

“Living in southern Mitrovica to me is like in another country or another part of Kosovo.”

Bojan Jerotijevic was also displaced by the fighting.

“You can’t imagine how the war changed my life, since then nothing has been the same,” he told Al Jazeera.

The only difference is that Jerotijevic is a Serb who fled in the opposite direction, moving his wife and three children into his mother’s small flat and leaving all his belongings behind.

“I was forced to come to the north from the south and start from nothing,” he said.

“I had to leave my home because the Serbs were forced out because of the violence that spread across the country, but especially in southern Mitrovica.”

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in a report in 2006 that all of the 300 Serb families that lived in the south had moved to the north.

About half a dozen had stayed south of the river after the war but they fled after violent riots around the bridge across the Ibar in 2004 left several people dead and scores wounded.

Separate authorities

Ongoing fears about security mean that there is a continuous police presence on the bridge and the ethnic divide has led to the establishment of separate authorities and services in the two communities.

However, Jerotijevic is most upset that the situation prevents him from visiting the cemetery where many of his ancestors lie.

“The grave where we buried my father is in the south. They have destroyed it, they said it was mined,” he told Al Jazeera.

The cemetery, which can be seen in the distance from Jerotijevic’s new home, is indeed in a sorry state with many tombstones smashed and the faces on others apparently scratched out.

“When I sometimes look at the grave from the window it is very hard to look at the cemetery and remember that whole generations of Jerotijevics are there,” he said.

Canhasi’s concern, however, is for the next generation.

“My daughter is asking me every year ‘when will we have to change my neighbourhood friends again?'” he said.

The family has lived in five different flats since they returned from Macedonia.

Uncertain future

The future is uncertain for both Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo.

Talks to decide whether the province will be granted independence are to conclude shortly. Technically it is still part of Serbia but it has been run by the United Nations for the last eight years.

“The solution, I am 100 per cent optimistic, is independence. Not just for the Albanian community but all the communities that want to live here.” Canhasi said.

“I think Serbs and Albanians can live together because we are talking about communities who lived together before … this is why I believe.”

But differences on independence are much wider than the river separating the city and Jerotijevic is dead against Kosovo breaking free of Serbia.

He told Al Jazeera that independence was “absolutely impossible”.

“We cannot even think of such solutions,” he said.

“If Kosovo declares independence I cannot say I am going to leave … people like me will stay as long as they can, until the violence spreads and we are left at the mercy of the terrorist groups.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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