The Dividing Bridge
What’s the problem with a bridge that is still not being used as planned 16 years after its reconstruction?
Let’s have a closer look at the notorious main bridge of Mitrovica.
At the beginning, the ambitious project to refurbish the bridge over the river Ibar was both very promising and symbolic, as is everything related to the bridge. One condition for financing put in place by France — only two years after the end of the war — was that the bridge had to be built by a multi-ethnic construction team. An Albanian-Serbian team was formed and only a few months later, in June 2001, the bridge had successfully been renovated.
However, for political reasons, the bridge could not be opened. From the Serb side a barricade of stone and sand was installed to block passage over the bridge, and so called “bridge watchers” volunteered to observe all movement close to the bridge. Before the war, Albanians and Serbs shared communities on both sides of the river. For the last 18 years, they have lived separately.
In 2015, a new renovation project, this time funded by the European Union, aimed to reopen the bridge, but this too has been hindered by several incidents. Recently there were new disagreements and tension between the governments of North and South Mitrovica due to the “wall”. In December 2016 — overnight — a wall was being erected on the North side, which was interpreted by the South as a provocation and in violation of the agreements, while the Northern partners insisted that the construction was purely practical (restricting the flow of traffic over the bridge) and implied no aggression.
Whatever the intention, it was clear that in the context of the bridge’s history, any action would be very sensitive. The new wall reminded the Albanians of the Serbian barricades that made free movement impossible over the years.
In February 2017, most of the issues related to the reopening of the Mitrovica Bridge between Serbia and Kosovo were resolved, which is seen as a crucial step forward in Belgrade-Pristina negotiations on regional cooperation.
Right now it looks like this:
Currently there are NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers and local police officers positioned on both sides of the bridge. Only pedestrians may cross even though the lawn that replaced the driving lanes has been removed, so, theoretically, you could drive over the bridge. Actually when you see it, you do not see any reason why it could not be used normally. But, to ask the question when the bridge will be reopened to traffic (initially planned for January 2017), nobody has a definitive answer:
“It can happen any day between tomorrow and in 20 years”.
I “watch” the bridge often. While most people without a concrete reason are still hesitant to cross the bridge, more and more use it to take a walk to the other side and back. To me it looks as if the people were “testing the ice” of a lake in spring. How far can I go? Most people cross the bridge to visit their family or out of curiosity or to go to the market.
The people I ask are not unanimous in regard to the evolution of the bridge. Is the number of people crossing increasing? Many young people tell me that they have never crossed the bridge. Others share my feeling of a thawing out period, strengthened by the fact that the first days of spring are here. After a long cold winter it is warm again, and the sun makes people literally blossom in front of my eyes. They share the feeling that everything is possible.
However you put it, crossing the bridge remains a political statement (except for those people who live in the mixed neighborhoods in the North — who make up the majority of the bridge crossers). As a bridge crosser, you present yourself as someone supporting the rapprochement of the two ethnic groups. People who are not in favor of reconciliation still take radical action against those who are.
Crossing the bridge, or being seen with someone from the other side, can lead to aggression, often from your own community.
The Rock School I am visiting here — which organizes trainings and rehearsals on both sides involving young people from both ethnicities — organizes special transport by car from its southern branch to the northern branch and vice versa, to ensure the musicians arrive safely to their class or rehearsal.
Building trust takes time. An incident such as the “wall” can stop the transformation process and increase mistrust, and every abuse of trust makes the divide wider, even harder to cross.
How many successful crossings does it take to normalize the crossing?
How many setbacks is the population ready to overcome and believe in — in spite of it all — as a joint community? And will the persistence of those working toward inter-ethnic cohesion be stronger than the power of the ones doing everything to strengthen the division?
Standing on the bridge I feel as if I am on a seesaw: As long as one of the parties wants to control the other, who is up or down, it just will not work. Both will be blocked. One slight movement can cause an imbalance, an endless teeter-tottering, to the whole situation.
Given the bridge’s history, a positive change would be particularly meaningful.
I wsh the bridge could change from being a symbol of division into one of connectedness,
overcoming the ethnic impasse and becoming a place for positive encounters and unity.