SOUTH MITROVICA, Serbia-Montenegro, May 2, 2006 (AFP) -
In spite of tensions that still threaten to boil over seven years after war, a train service has come to symbolise harmony between Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and Serbs.
"No one asks you about your nationality. You just sit down and take a ride," says a 57-year-old from the Serb enclave of Slovinja, Milorad Trajkovic, as he lugs two heavy bags on board.
"There were gangs which used to mistreat passengers at first and police were needed to secure the train, but it is better now," adds Trajkovic, before taking a seat on the train from Kosovo Polje to visit his wife and children, who are refugees who fled Kosovo for the Serbian town of Kraljevo.
Chatting away in his carriage were Albanians, Roma and Serbs -- a rare sight in Kosovo where minor violence still occurs on an almost daily basis between the southern Serbian province's main ethnic groups.
But Trajkovic refuses to breach the subject of politics, not even about the ongoing UN-backed talks between Belgrade and Pristina that the international community hopes will resolve the future status of the province by the year's end.
"I only want my family to be returned home to Kosovo but my sons don't want to," he says, looking out of his window across the fields of Kosovo Polje, the scene of a 1389 battle that defines Serbian attachment to Kosovo.
The "Train of Freedom", as it was first dubbed by a multi-ethnic team of engineers, was established by the UN mission (UNMIK) that has run Kosovo since the war between separatist Albanians and Serbian forces ended in mid-1999.
Travelling from the province's southern border with Macedonia to the northern boundary with Serbia proper and back twice a day, the train service was launched by UNMIK to enhance the movement of minorities, particularly Serbs.
Despite the early troubles, the train has also become highly popular among the ethnic Albanians that make up about 90 percent of Kosovo's population of around two million people, and other minorities including Roma, Bosniaks and Gorani, or Slavic Muslims.
"To me it is absolutely normal to travel with people of different ethnicities for we are all human in the first place," says another passenger, Avdi Syla.
"Everybody in the train travels for their own business," says the 20-year-old ethnic Albanian student.
"There hasn't been one single incident in the train in last two months since I started using it from Obilic to South Mitrovica," she adds.
The "Train of Freedom" offers passengers Kosovo's safest and cheapest mode of transport, with a ticket for an average journey costing as little as 50 euro cents (62 US cents).
The euro is the official currency in Kosovo, but in order to make the train service more attractive to Serbs, its operator UNMIK Railways has allowed the minority to pay for their tickets using the Serbian dinar.
Refugees travel free of charge.
The usually impassable "border" in the ethnically divided northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica doesn't represent an obstacle for the train, although the last stop for Albanian passengers is on the southern side.
The train was originally only operated by foreigners because local drivers never felt safe enough to travel between the Albanian-dominated southern side and its Serb-majority north.
Although the situation has improved and the train is now driven by two teams of Albanian and Serb drivers elsewhere, the train is still steered by two foreign drivers as it makes its way through the tense town.
Behind the controls of the engine as the train chugs through the security hotspot is Peter Cutha, a 63-year-old Kenyan who says he has never experienced any problems over four years.
"I only speak a little Albanian and Serbian, but that's not a problem because when I talk to my colleagues about the locomotive we understand one another very well," says Cutha.
"My biggest trouble is the climate here."
Although UNMIK has often been criticised for not laying stable foundations for ethnic reconciliation in Kosovo, the train's passengers agree that the train experiment has been a success.
"In the beginning, the diverse group of passengers did even not communicate with each other," says Mustafe Murtezi, an ethnic Albanian taking the train between the town of Vucitrn and Mitrovica.
"Peace was declared between us a few years ago. We even talk to each other now," said the 61-year-old, sitting in an ethnically mixed compartment of Albanians, Roma and Serbs.
"They united us in this train and we function very well at present. How long it is going to last, nobody knows."