“Villages and towns are reportedly running out of food …”

This information is buried three paragraphs into a 19 September Balkan Insight report on the ongoing border dispute in northern Kosovo, which escalated last week as Serbs blocked roads in the north to protest the deployment of Kosovo police to two key checkpoints. But that’s it – nothing more substantial in the story on the food shortages or other deprivations people are certainly suffering.

I’m not trying to pick on Balkan Insight – only to point out what is often missing from the coverage of this story and the larger story of Pristina and Belgrade’s fight for control of northern Kosovo: the human cost of this so-called “frozen conflict.”

The fate of the majority-Serb north has been a hot topic since bi-lateral talks began between Pristina and Belgrade in March. Many Kosovo Albanians fear Serbia will use the negotiations to push for the partition of Kosovo above the Ibar River. While the EU has ruled this out, Belgrade evidently hasn’t given up hope. Moreover, it funds parallel governing structures in the north alongside Kosovo and international institutions. So the territory is effectively political no-man’s-land and an embarrassment to Pristina 12 years after the conflict.

When Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci sent police to the border in late July to enforce an effective embargo of Serbian imports, he was trying to flex his muscles in the north. The hostilities that have followed — Serb extremists (who hardly reflect the larger population) attacked the aforementioned checkpoints and continue to block roads despite a 2 September deal to end the conflict — upended the lives of residents.

Take Mitrovica, a city straddling the Ibar River that was de facto divided after the conflict, with a predominantly Serb population north of the river and ethnic Albanians in the south. A bridge connects the sides, but locals rarely (if ever) cross it. The bridge itself is a locus of potential conflict. So-called “bridge watchers” – code for nationalist extremists – monitor everyone who crosses, while Kosovo, Serbian and international authorities stand guard around the clock.

After the border hostilities began, the bridge closed to traffic, businesses in the north shuttered at 3 p.m., and the streets cleared. Tense for weeks, the atmosphere was “the worst I’ve seen in five years,” one aid volunteer told me during a visit. My friend, one of the few ethnic Albanians living north of the Ibar, began to walk her son to school because she didn’t want him crossing the bridge alone.

“We have been held hostage for 12 years,” she fumed to me over coffee one afternoon in August.

Especially in Mitrovica, the front line in the fight for the north, many people feel they are hostage to the state-level power struggle. Yet you rarely hear their voices in coverage of the current conflict, partly because it’s difficult to report from the area. It’s also true, though, that journalists and analysts have long eschewed the personal for the political when it comes to the north. As the Kosovar Stability Initiative (IKS) wrote in a 2009 report:

Amidst the political standoff between Prishtina and Belgrade about who controls and governs Kosova north of the Ibar River, the people of Mitrovica are easily forgotten. Until today the debate on Mitrovica has focused on everything but on everyday needs and concerns of citizens. Too little is known regarding daily needs of the people living there …

Those needs are many. Unemployment is around 80 percent; electricity and water supplies are spotty; health care is abysmal (post-war Mitrovica south didn’t have a hospital until 2010); and residents are captive to political instability. Indeed, for the citizens of Mitrovica and larger northern Kosovo, the post-conflict period is a story of stagnation at best and, at worst, enervation at the hands of the political standoff. Take the economy. Mitrovica used to be among Yugoslavia’s industrial jewels thanks to abundant mineral reserves. Under British investment, the nearby Trepca mine employed 23,000 people in the late 1980s. But today it is nearly defunct, largely because the city – as part of a contested territory within a contested territory – can’t attract foreign investment.

Understandably, most Kosovo Albanians and many Kosovo Serbs are fed up with the situation north of the Ibar. By focusing on the common social costs of the northern conflict rather than the politics, IKS’s 2009 report suggests, a compromise might be reached. Many people in Mitrovica, at least, argue similarly.

As one local aid worker put it to me this summer: “Despite all the differences between Albanians and Serbs here, we share the same problems.”

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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