A River of Bad Blood
Ethnic divisions persist in Kosovo after years of uneasy peace
Schisms remain over 20 years after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The territory that used to claim the name is now a series of smaller independent states. Like neighbors building higher, stronger fences, the separations are often representative of distrust and divergent priorities.
Nowhere do the fissures between people show more than the city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, where the Ibar River segregates a minority Serbian community from their Albanian neighbors. The river is a geographical, cultural, and figurative border. It’s almost poetic in its symbolism, a microcosm of a human tribalism that’s as old as our species.
Photographer Jasper Bastian wanted to know what life was like in this divided city, where bitter memories of war continue to haunt people more than ten years after it officially ended.
“Today, the question of nationality still strongly determines the lives of those living in Kosovo,” says Bastian. “The interaction of the Serbian and Albanian population is characterized by intense feelings of resentment for past offenses and a general distrust of the ethnic counterpart.”
During repeat trips to Mitrovica for his Across the River project, Bastian found anger constantly simmering. Serbs, who occupy the north shore of the Ibar, have been blockading bridges to prevent vehicular traffic. When recent political agreements forced one bridge to be cleared residents replaced them with trees in planter boxes and called the obstruction a peace garden. Albanians marched on the bridge, and by the time the tear gas had cleared several protestors and police were injured and cars had been set alight. Tensions are so volatile in the city that international peacekeepers maintain a presence.
The series of wars which tore the region apart were characterized by ethnic violence between people living in mixed communities. In Kosovo, Albanian rebels waged guerrilla campaigns while soldiers and paramilitary groups from Serbia went town to town rounding up suspected militants and sympathizers. Atrocities were committed by both sides. Neighbors turned on one another. By the time peace accords were signed in 1999 entire populations had shifted and coalesced into the enclaves of today.
Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation, but representatives of both governments met weeks before Bastian arrived in 2013. An agreement was reached to normalize relations, and a particular focus of the talks was to enact protections for the Serbs who remain in the disputed territory.
“Especially in the north of Mitrovica, detonations of car bombs and grenades take place from time to time, reinforcing the citizens’ anxiety. The city has become the seat of wide-spread organized crime, controlled by corruption and mafia structures. The judicial system is not functional. Many take advantage of the situation and prefer the situation to stay as it is.”
Both sides live under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Political extremists push their own views, at times to the extent of outright violence. The economy has been moribund since the wars, and unemployment remains high after the closure of the Trepča Mines which was once one of the largest companies in Yugoslavia. Everyone lives in a place which has only partially been recognized as its own republic, making it impossible to court foreign capital.
However Kosovo is overwhelmingly Albanian, with Serbs making up a tiny minority of the population, mostly concentrated in the north along the border with Serbia. Ethnic tensions keep them isolated in the state, and the government of Serbia has failed to find a solution.
“The sensation of uncertainty is prevalent,” says Bastian. “Serbs strictly oppose the erection of an independent Kosovo because they consider Kosovo to be the heart of their Serbian history and culture. The people in this district, however, feel they have been in turn abandoned by the Serbian government in Belgrade, which in their opinion follows their own interests in their desire to become a member of the European Union.”
Everyone has legitimate grievances about the past, and the complexity of the situation meant everyone had their own version of the past as well. Upon returning to the area, Bastian found that Serbs criticized the work from his first trip as unfairly focusing on the Albanian perspective, something Bastian had noticed in most foreign reporting on Kosovo. One side’s war hero is the other side’s war criminal, making it nearly impossible to unearth buried truths. So he aimed only for balance.
“I carefully considered which people are representative and which stories are truthful, objective, and exemplifying,” Bastian says. “The rancor caused by the conflict in the ‘90s, the perceptions of perpetrator and victim, is still very strong. Albanian and Serbs, therefore, view the same incidents or circumstances from entirely different perspectives.”
Fixers were key in earning acceptance and meeting the people who would ultimately act as spokespeople for Mitrovica. Bastian mainly partnered with students who had studied English to arrange interviews and act as translators. Sometimes a lucky conversation at a restaurant or on the street would yield a connection.
North and south were worked in the same fashion, trying to find as varied a representative population as possible. To balance perspective he found both Serbs and Albanians from the same age groups, ranging from teens with little memory of the war to longtime residents who remembered life when the city was whole and the people intermingled.
“Most of the people I met had the urge to speak about their tragic fates,” says Bastian. “They were often eager to participate because they felt unheard and left alone with their fate. The general discontent with the current situation in the city can be felt throughout the city. The people in Mitrovica long for an improvement of their situation.”
Albanians were especially welcoming. During the war refugees found their way to Germany where Bastian is from, and many have stayed to build new lives. Serbs, on the other hand, were generally suspicious of reporters after seeing their side of the story ignored in the press.
Not everyone was willing to participate in the project. Extremists intimidate politicians and bombings are still an occasional reality, particularly in the north. The growing power of criminal gangs adds an extra layer of suspicion and distrust, as does falling afoul of the law. A group of young Serbs boycotting last year’s elections cancelled a meeting with Bastian when they came to suspect him of being a police informer.
“I was in the northern part of Mitrovica on the first day of the municipal elections in Kosovo on November 3, 2013,” says Bastian. “It was the first time the government in Belgrade advised the Kosovo-Serbs to vote. During the entire day, Serbian extremists, who arrived in buses from central Serbia, gathered around the polling stations to threaten and insult Serbian voters as traitors to their nation. Masked protesters entered the polling stations, destroyed ballot boxes, which forced a repetition of the election. The international forces passively observed the voting process on that day. They were unable to take action because they did not have a mandate. It was a bizarre scene.”
Today Bastian is collaborating with another journalist to create a print version of the project which will include in-depth articles illustrated by his photos. So far everything has been self-funded, but future production will be crowd-funded.
Across the River has already exhibited throughout Europe and earlier this October was shown in Serbia for the first time. There are hopes to hang it in Mitrovica itself one day, but for now Bastian is occupied by a related project which will serve as his thesis. The experience of reporting on the divided city has left it’s mark, but a more positive one than the deep scars which haunt the Serbs and Albanians living on either side of the Ibar.
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