Saturday, June 17, 2017

Where does the Ibar Bridge lead to?

By Klaudia Klonowska

This was the second day we had the privilege to travel in a UN bus. Besides visiting local NGOs, university campuses, and the international organizations’ offices, we spent some spare time walking the streets of Mitrovica - a city located in the northern part of Kosovo or southern part of Serbia (depends on who you ask). 

The city itself is divided by the Ibar river; the northern side is inhabited by the Serb majority while  Kosovo Albanians / Kosovars live on the southern side. There are a number of projects ran by the local NGOs, UN, EU, and OSCE that facilitate communication; however, the bridge over the Ibar river continues to be both a physical and a symbolic separation of the two groups. 

During our spare time, a number of friends and I decided to look for our luck meeting new people on the northern side of the bridge. After crossing, we immediately spotted ubiquitous Serbian flags, prices in dinars, and loud Serbian exchange of words on the streets. Serbian presence was all in the air. The real adventure, though, started after we stopped a young man from Montenegro. 

As a student at the University of Pristine in Mitrovica with a Serbian-Montenegrin background, Peter is an open-minded young soul. He shared with us his concerns about daily life in this town he called “a black hole”. His biggest frustration is due to slow or almost non-existent internet connection, which makes searching and texting incredibly inefficient. He didn't show any particular resilience towards Albanians; however, he confessed that he has no friends on the southern side of the bridge. This could be due to little opportunities of exchange, but also his reluctance to cross the bridge. We were curious about his future career plans. As a passionate and ambitious student, he wants to travel abroad to work, because the living standards “in the Balkans” are incredibly challenging. 

Soon after, his Serbian friend joined. We continued talking about food and sports, which allowed us to find some common interests. It was inspiring to see them open up to us. Before we realized, we made friends. 

It was lunch time and all of us were hungry. To our surprise, the guys took us with them to their student ‘meza’ cafeteria and then arranged that we share a meal with them for free. Entering local student area, our foreign faces were quite an attraction, with all eyes on us. We shared rice, some deep-fried chicken legs, beans, and apples. 

Typical student lunch at the University of Pristine in Mitrovica

Our happy faces right before we sat down for lunch with Serbian students

Their other friend from Belgrade also joined our table and so we had a great opportunity to learn about their perspective on the regional stability and future prospects. 

“I am not friends with Albanians”, said our new Serbian friend in a black shirt. “Why? We met a few of them and they all seemed very nice”, I said naively. “Yes, they are nice, but it’s political. We don't make friends with Albanians.” His answer saddened me. We kept digging deeper. While acknowledging the existence of Kosovo as a state, they were at the same time neglecting legitimacy of their government. One of them said that Kosovo Albanians chose terrorists, human traffickers, and international criminals as leaders of their parliament. They would have never trusted such a government. 

Student cafeteria or 'meze' 

To lighten up the topic, we decided to go back to talking about our life stories. “Where are you from?” asked our new friends. “I’m from the Netherlands”, said Robbert, “and I am from Poland”, I continued. At this time, the guy in a black shirt exclaimed “Yaaaay! Poland! Come here my friend!”, and he raised his hand to a high-five. I returned his handshake but was deeply troubled. His approach was all of a sudden so much more friendly once he found out I’m Polish. I felt like it was more important where I come from than who I am. Here I was making friends with Serbians and my identity facilitated this process, while just a second before he was ready to trash any opportunity of making friends with Albanians just because they are Albanian. This reminded me of “artificial hatred” we spoke about with the representatives of the Community Building. Many people that we had a chance to meet speak from the script. This is one of the biggest challenges.  

Due to time limits, we had to run back to the bus. Our new friends walked us back but stopped short of the Ibar Bridge. This is where we said goodbye and they let us cross the bridge on our own. This experience was a valuable lesson about the region, identities, but especially about the importance of the cross-cultural dialogue that has a great potential of building (or rediscovering) bridges.

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