Friday, 28 July 2017

Kosovo: Tea and Tito in Mitrovica's North

Text by Besa Beqiri and Ilija Djordjevic for Southeast European Times*   
It's known as "Bosnian Mahalla". Home to many of northern Mitrovica's Bosniaks, the neighbourhood in the city in northern Kosovo is also frequented by Albanians and Serbs, making it an ethnic mixing bowl.

On the surface, life feels tranquil. At the stores, you can buy chocolates as well as traditional specialties such as ajvar (hajvar) and lutenica. New buildings have sprung up, financed by the Serbian government. Landmarks include a Jugobanka branch office and, above all, the locally famous Shera's Café.

A little girl, 5 or 6 years old, stands in front of a small shop run by her mother Arbnora, a Kosovo Albanian. "I have registered her for school," she says, pointing to her daughter. "She will go to school in the south; there is no school for her here."

Noisy trucks bring vegetables, fruits and goods to the "multiethnic market", as the area outside the shops is known. A parked car still bears the letters SCG, representing the now non-existent country of Serbia-Montenegro.

Shera slowly makes his way down from the apartment above his cafe, where he lives with his family, and starts making tea. Adem Mripa, a 62-year-old professor and former political prisoner, has finished his classes for the day. He sits down to chat.

"We talk with the Serbs about the good days of the past, before the war, about the joint boulevard in the middle of town," he says. "They ask us about people they used to know before … they ask if those people are still alive, if that certain street is still there, if and what has changed."

And then he points at the brand new buildings, just in front of the café. "The newcomers, the Serb newcomers who came from other places, are a problem, not only for us, but for the Serbs here too."

His home has been vandalised several times -- windows broken, bullets in the walls, but luckily, no victims. "They wanted to burn my house, but they couldn't," he says.

Not far away, the yard of a three-story building serves as the backdrop for several Serb families sitting together to drink coffee. Offering sceptical glances, they say they have had bad experiences in the past with journalists. "We say one thing, but they write something completely different."

They are not surprised when asked about co-existence. "Albanians are people, just like us ... Someone will help you, but someone else will stab you in the back," Milosh Stosic, 21, says.

"We are not so different. Here, you will find both good and bad," he says. "Take me for example: these are the bad times, there is a crisis going on and there is no work. When I am without money I go to my Albanian neighbour who keeps a store here in our area. He always welcomes me kindly and when I don't have the money he gives me what I need on loan."

However, he continues, all is not ideal. There are provocations and comments, but they mostly come from youngsters.

"You never know when it will start and on which side," says longtime Mitrovica resident Pavle Nedeljkovic, 57. "It is not on a rare occasion that 'heroes' turn up … from their safe apartments in the centre of the town and create troubles. I am referring to both sides. But the ones who suffer are us, people who live here and who are directly threatened. Those 'heroes' go back to their apartments and houses, while we stay and fear for our children."

Back at the café, Mripa's phone rings. He starts talking in a mixture of Serbian and Albanian, saying the name Drago many times. It's his buddy Dragoslav Markovic, an auto mechanic who used to live in south Mitrovica, working with his father. "He wants to go back to the south," the professor explains. "He asked me to help him."

Drago's Albanian is very good. How did he learn it? "We have been here 300 years," he explains, laughing.

He says he and his Albanian friends mostly talk about ordinary things. "They ask how things are up there, we ask how they are down there, whether we can help each other fix papers or arrange documents, are there jobs anywhere, money."

"Most people are not interested in politics, they are interested in daily life. There are a lot of Serbs who would like to return," Drago says.

"We greet each other, I say hello to my Albanian neighbour and he says 'good day' to me, but we don't visit each other. We live in constant fear. I don't dare let my daughter outside without seeing her out and waiting for her later," she says.

As they try to come to grips with the future, people here take solace in an idealised past. Drago hopes the coming years will be more like the Tito era. "It was better, certainly better in Tito's time," he says. "Work, money, friendship, nobody cared who you are and what you are, [you had] free movement anywhere."

Mripa agrees. "It was better in Tito's time, yes." The café boasts an impressive portrait of the late Yugoslav dictator, as well as a poster of Kemal Ataturk and flags from around the world.

"When someone comes to [the] Bosniak quarter for the first time, he would think that everything is functioning normally," Nedeljkovic says. "Serbs and Albanians live here, the stores are open, we shop there, we trade. But a person can never be calm. Here everything explodes in a second."

"All in all, this is not a life I would wish on anyone," he concludes.

*This text is courtesy of the Southeast European Times (SET), a web site sponsored by the US Department of Defense in support of UN Resolution 1244, designed to provide an international audience with a portal to a broad range of information about Southeastern Europe. It highlights movement toward greater regional stability and steps governments take toward integration into European institutions. SET also focuses on developments that hinder both terrorist activity and support for terrorism in the region.

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