Thursday, June 30, 2005

Serbs Thwart Plan to Reopen Mitrovica Bridge - IWPR

United Nations plan to allow free movement in divided Kosovo town meets angry reception in Serb-run northern sector.

By Përparim Isufi in Prishtina (BCR No 563, 30-Jun-05)

Kosovo Serbs living in northern Mitrovica have given a hostile welcome to UNMIK’s new strategy for establishing freedom of movement in the divided town of Mitrovica

The strategy, launched in mid-June, aims to gradually open the bridge over the river Ibar - which divides the Serb-majority north from the mainly Albanian south - to civilian vehicular traffic.

Earlier, Kosovo’s NATO peacekeepers scrapped the checkpoints they had re-established on the bridge after ethnic riots shook Kosovo last March. Security on the bridge is now in the hands of the Kosovo Police Service, KPS.

During the first week of the UNMIK plan, which was put into action June 13, the bridge was opened for two hours per day, which increased to four hours in week two. UNMIK sources say that by mid-July, there will be no restrictions on cars or pedestrians moving between the two sections. However, the plan has run into resistance in the north of Mitrovica where many Serbs fear free movement over the Ibar will end in unification of the town and their loss of control over the districts they currently hold.

For eight days running, not one car driver ventured north after a solitary driver on June 13 met a volley of stones hurled by Serb crowds gathered at the square, just north of the bridge.

The Serb protesters have kept their vigil up ever since. Alex Anderson, Head of the International Crisis Group, ICG, in Pristina, said UNMIK appeared to lack a strategy that took into account the predictable opposition of many Serbs to the scheme.

“UNMIK does not appear to have planned a broad political initiative to accompany this measure and implementation seems to be very floppy on the ground,” he told IWPR.

“Serb ‘bridge watchers’ are demanding IDs from people who pass. They are being allowed to decide whom to let across.” The bridge watchers are organised groups of Serb civilians who patrol and monitor all traffic across the Ibar. Though supposed to comprise local volunteers, many Albanians believe they are ultimately controlled by Serbia’s security forces. Mitrovica has been a security hotspot throughout the UN’s six-year administration of Kosovo. Many displaced Serbs from other parts of Kosovo settled in the town in the turmoil of 1990-2000, occupying houses of Albanians who had fled south.

Ethnic tensions have frequently boiled over in Mitrovica since then, resulting in bloodshed. In incidents in 2000 and 2001, more than 20 Albanian inhabitants of the north were killed while peacekeepers failed to intervene.

In March 17, 2004, ethnic riots, starting in Mitrovica, then engulfed most of Kosovo, resulting in the loss of 19 lives over two days. Several thousand Serbs were forced from their homes by Albanian extremists, while dozens of Serbian churches and shrines were attacked and damaged. In spite of the hostile reaction from the Serbs in the north, UNMIK seems determined to go to ahead with its initiative for the bridge. “There is no reason to protest because the opening of the bridge in Mitrovica will help improve the freedom of movement in Kosovo,” said the UNMIK spokesperson, Neeraj Singh. Mitrovica Serbs do not agree, seeing UNMIK’s initiative as a prelude to an invasion of the north by Albanians concentrated in the southern part of town.

Milan Ivanovic, a Serb representative in northern Mitrovica, told IWPR, “UNMIK’s decision to allow the circulation of private vehicles over the bridge threatens the security of Serbs.”

The town’s Albanian mayor, Faruk Spahia, on the other hand, said the Serb protests “were to be expected”.

“[The local Serbs] are directly inspired and controlled by the government in Belgrade, which has an interest in obstructing the process leading to [Kosovo’s] final status,” he added. Serb concerns about the use of the bridge are linked to recent diplomatic developments over Kosovo.

Two months ago, the Contact Group of big nations said it had ruled out the partition of Kosovo into Serb and Albanian zones.

A partition line, following the current ethnic dividing line of the Ibar, has been one of Serbia’s reserve options in the event of its nightmare scenario, the international recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

Last year, the EU’s foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, said the problem in Mitrovica had to be resolved before talks on final status began. Blerim Shala, a Kosovo Albanian political analyst, said the furore over the bridge represented “a counter-attack from Serbia to undermine UNMIK’s initiative”.

Whether UNMIK’s latest plan will succeed where so many others have failed remains to be seen.

Even the local Albanians are sceptical about the initiative’s chances. Without other major plans to reconcile the two communities, the problem of this divided town, of which the bridge is only a symbol, may well continue to haunt Kosovo. Përparim Isufi is a journalist with the newspaper Zëri in Pristina.


Chris Blaku said...

Again the isolationist ideologies contained within the Serbian people are made apparent to a world that continues to make excuses for their behavior. Where is the international outrage for this blunt refusal of a multi-ethnic society? The world has showered Kosovars with condemnation and criticism over their inability to immediately forgive their former occupiers and butchers over atrocities commited only six years ago, however, the Serbians' behavior is somewhat acceptable for unmentioned reasons. The international community must stand and unite in the ideas of a democracy and a free society, and contend the Serbian tactic of ethnic purity and isolation.

Anonymous said...

UNMIK and KFOR are making this look more complicated than it really is. Troublemakers are right across the bridge sitting on cafes waiting for trouble. Why is it so hard to identify them, mass arrest them, find out who their leaders are, and neutralize their operations?
Assuming that there is no proof to keep this gang in custody, (which is sad but most likely although UNMIK had 5 years to do it) you let selected groups of Albanians go to their dwellings and then heavily police the streets to protect them and kep tab on the troublemakers. Policing the northern border is also very crucial but KFOR could do it if it focused on this issue.

Chris Blaku said...

UNMIK is too busy controlling Kosovar television, embezzling funds, and overpaying its employees to worry about such silly things as Belgrade-inspired financial support for Serbians in Kosova.

Anonymous said...

Blaku is wrong. The UN is too busy placating Albanian sentiment to think about the consequences of what they do.

Serbs know what to expect: when the bridge is open the next edition of the march 94 riots will be in Northeren Mitrovica. And after the last Serb has been driven from Northern Mitrovica there is no future for the Serbs in Kosovo.

Blaku has all the usual blah-blah about multi-ethnic society in which he obviously doesn't believe. Let's face it: northern Mitrovica is multi-ethnic. You find there all kind of nationalisties including Albanians. Look at southern Mitrovica and you have an ethnically cleansed town, where not a single Serb lives and even the gypsies have been driven out. To me it would seem clear that the UN priorities should be in the south.

fellow peacekeeper said...

Considering last years riot (not 1995, or 2000 but LAST YEAR), when in broad daylight around lunch on 17 MAR 2004 a large mob of Albanian rioters from S Mitro crossed the bridge and attacked everything vaguely Serb on the N side of Ibar I'm not real surprised that the Serbs paranoid streak is showing up - Despite Mr. Blaku's dismissiveness it has some objective roots.

Anonymous said...

And yet in those riots, Serb snipers managed to have a little bit of fun, didn't they? Riots are different from murder, and crossing the bridge would have been peaceful if those Serbs didn't throw rocks, granades and sniper bullets (shoot these)...when there's guns of course it will blow, and if someone has kept guns for now 15 years (as is the case with serbs), then that someone is making a clear statement: "we are stubborn, we are ready to kill, for reasons such as racism, cause we, the serbs, stand above all, especialy albanians, and we seek to be treated specialy, and we seek freedom of movement, but only for us, not for the rest, not even for KFOR..."

Serbs are like spoiled children, they always get what they want, and if they dont get it, they make so much noise and lies that eventualy they get it...the difference is, these spoiled kids are also quite those kids you have in junior high who act all nice, but evilness in them is unbelievable...

Chris Blaku said...

If you claim that the Serbians know what to expect, what about the Albanians who risk open contact with a people that still rely with Belgrade? Are you actually claiming that the recent Serbian experience and hardship compares to the Albanian one?

It is the Albanians who know what to expect, yet still open their arms to the ideas of a multi ethnic nation and progressive European integration, and the Serbians who avoid it.

Northern Mitrovica consists of Serbians (supported illegally by Belgrade) and a few Roma citizens. Southern Mitrovica consists of Albanians, which would make it ethnically Albanian. However, the main difference which you avoid, the southern part of the bridge remains open and the north remains closed. So the Serbians are striving to keep an ethnically pure region, not the Albanians.

Anonymous said...

Where is the outcry from the westerners, especially EU, now that the serbs are blocking the bridge?

They clearly don't want a multiethnic society. They show this again and again. Yet the Kosovars are made responsible for the decisions made in Belgrade...

Some claimed Albanians would want their flats back. Damn right they will! The serbs cry all the time about their "stolen" property and everybody listens but not so for Albanians.

And on top of it all, UNMIK allows the serbs to play police on the bridge. Disgraceful!