There are times when I get frustrated on the road.
I understand that a problem can be so much more complex and far-reaching than I even can comprehend sometimes. I can live with that. The best I can do is to understand different perspectives and let myself be happy with that. But I get frustrated when those complex issues lead to petty actions, especially in the name of nationalism. In my opinion, that’s what is happening both in with the so called Peace Park in Mitrovica and with the Serbian Orthodox churches in Prizren.
Mitrovica, and north of it, is where the Serbians are keeping their stand within Kosovo. Coming from Prishtina and the south, you cross the bridge and you walk straight into a barricade. In spite of a flower arrangement, it is not pretty – from either side.
The south of Mitrovica uses Euro as currency, the north accepts Euro – but you get change in Serbian Dinars. All the prices in the north of Mitrovica are listed in Serbian Dinars. But that’s not enough. Because when you have passed the barricade there are Serbian flags on everything, backed up with nationalistic graffiti (or anti-Kosovo graffiti). Yes, this side is an enclave and I can understand the necessity to keep up the Serbian heritage. But that is possible even without a barricade and a Peace Park. Life would be easier for everyone if the bridge was open.
Mitrovica could be an attractive city with a long pedestrian street, reaching from the Xhamia e Zallit mosque south of the bridge, crossing the Iban river and up to the square on the northern side with a impressive statue of the former Serbian ruler Prince Lazar (who – of course – was the one who lead the Serbian forces in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389). Now, you have to pass KFOR-soldiers, the barricade, change exchange rate and – from whatever side you started – end up with a feeling of not belonging at all. And this is still within the same inner city area.
In Prizren – a city I came to spend three days in and loved (almost) every minute of it – the locals have taken to the destruction of all Serbian things. We are not talking new Serbian buildings or tearing down flags, we are talking a World Heritage (Serbian) church, the Church of the Ljevisa Virgin (or Our Lady of Ljeviš).It is a wonderful little church in the middle of the city’s back streets and was built early 14th century. The church was heavily damaged due to arson by locals in 2004 and for some strange reason there never seem to be funds for restoring it. The police are keeping a watch every minute from a little cubical. Otherwise, even the ruin would be gone by now.
As it turns out, all of the orthodox churches have police protection in Prizren. I am an atheist and in one way couldn’t care less about religion. But when locals try to solve a complex problem simply by destroying something that is left for everyone to see, not just the people of Prizren, it is just wrong. These buildings, in this case churches, are there for everyone to see, hence the WORLD Heritage list.
I never went up to the very famous Visoki Decani monastery between Peja and Prizren.It was founded in the 14th century and is run by a small number of Serbian monks, making cheese and wine. According to the Lonely Planet guide, this is “one of Kosovo’s highlights”. The monastery also have around-the-clock KFOR surveillance due to attacks by locals in the past, most recent a grenade attack in 2007.
Bottom line: they work really hard in this country on not getting visitors.
As the Swedish paper Dagens nyheter recently reported, Mitrovica might actually end up being the border between Serbia and Kosovo. One suggestion that has been put forward to resolve the crises is that the two countries swap land with each other, in reality turning both states into nation-states. One nation, one state. If that would happen, the Iban river will in the future be a de facto border.
Hopefully, there will be a solution on the negotiating table that both sides can accept. I will truly be happy for both sides that day. But in my book, it still doesn’t make up for putting up barricades and trying to prevent people from crossing an inner city bridge or trade in another currency. Just as it doesn’t make up for the destruction of Serbian churches and monasteries.
Just to be absolutely clear. I loved visiting Mitrovica and hang around in Prizren for a number of days. Both cities are well worth going to. They are, in their own right, interesting places and they say a lot about the complex situation in Kosovo today. And make no mistake, there will always be a KFOR soldier near you.