Enterprising young people and natural beauty shine through persisting ethnic divisions and international security forces.
Zubin Potok and Lake Gazivoda
No one knows how Zubin Potok, which translates roughly as “the tooth’s stream” or “toothy stream,” got its name. One legend has it that an elderly woman suffering from a toothache pulled out some teeth and threw them into a little stream in front of the house she built in what was then a small village. Another myth has it that livestock died in the stream, and when the water dried up all that remained was their jawbones. A more likely reason could be the angular contour of the Zubodolska River, which looks like a tooth’s root.
Of the four mainly Serb-populated municipalities of northern Kosovo, water-rich Zubin Potok is the most geographically isolated. “It is a small place, and of 20 young people who leave for university studies, only one will come back,” Zeljko Dobric said. Aged 26, he is one of the few young people to have returned after studying management in Belgrade.
I visit northern Kosovo regularly to report but I’m normally inside a municipal building talking to local government officials, not scoping out hiking trails or mountains from which to paraglide. This could be considered one of Europe’s most unstable corners. EULEX regulations oblige their employees to wear bulletproof gear and be accompanied by armored guards. But for me it was just another sunny day in the countryside, and by the sound of it, many ordinary people from across Serbia and from Kosovo are starting to get the outdoor sports bug.
Four years ago, Zubin Potok was the scene of fierce rioting because residents did not want its border outposts to be staffed by Albanian employees of the Kosovo government. Most of the barricades along the road have been dismantled now, though EULEX officers and KFOR peacekeepers still seem omnipresent and there is a flow of funds from the European Union and Prishtina.
Dobric took me to some of his favorite places. He has been trying to put Zubin Potok on the map as a destination for outdoor adventure sports: rafting, hiking, paragliding, mountain biking, sky running, which seems like a rare form of torture and involves athletes running up mountains. They are building a Via Ferrata, a climbing route.
“People are sick of spending all their time on Facebook,” he said. “They are turning to nature.”
Dobric works for Outdoor In, an initiative mostly funded by the EU and by Serbia’s office for Kosovo to promote sport and build the tourism capacities of the isolated but beautiful region, which is also home to Gazivoda, Kosovo’s biggest lake. The campaign is bringing much-needed tourism and recreation to the region.
The management of the artificial lake is disputed between Kosovo and Serbia, as it sits on both territories, although it is generally agreed that more of it sits in Kosovo than Serbia.
The lake was created in 1979 when the Ibar River was dammed to provide hydroelectric power and supply water to Kosovo’s largest power plant, Kosovo B, in Obiliq. It provides the region with vital electricity and, without it, Kosovo A could not function properly. Nemanja, 13, oblivious to the disputes, dove into the water as his older friends took selfies of themselves tanning on the makeshift dock.
He pointed to a patch of sand on a far bank and told me, “That is the Albanian beach,” using a derogatory term for Albanians. I wondered how many Albanians he had known in his short life. Dobric explained that before the war in Kosovo, many Albanians came to the beach from Istog and nearby. Although they no longer come, the name remains.
This could be considered one of Europe’s most unstable corners. EULEX regulations oblige their employees to wear bulletproof gear and be accompanied by armored guards. But for me it was just another sunny day in the countryside.
Just beyond Gazivoda lies Brnjak, the border with Serbia. It was the scene of rioting in 2011 by Serbs who did not want Kosovo border police to assume control of the checkpoint. Now Kosovo Police and Serbian police jointly patrol it, while EULEX police are there to ensure everything goes smoothly.
On the way back from Gazivoda into Zubin Potok, a convoy of KFOR soldiers sped by. Armored EULEX cars followed. “You can set your clock by those guys,” Zeljko said. “When I see or hear them pass by the town, I know it is exactly 7:20 pm.”
The security measures are there because in September 2013, a EULEX border police officer was shot and killed in Zvecan while returning from his shift. Now the border police, like other EULEX employees, are under a heavy security regime as they travel to and from the border points.
The international presence is an unwelcome mainstay in northern Kosovo, where the overwhelmingly Serbian population has held out against recognizing Kosovo’s independence and still sees Belgrade as its capital.
An agreement between Kosovo and Serbia signed in April 2013 has paved the way for the Kosovo government to gradually extend its authority in the north. Elections in November 2013 resulted in the creation of four municipalities whose mayors answer to the Prishtina government, but most of the old municipal structures have not been completely dismantled.
The place remains a patchwork of overlapping authorities. Many institutions, like education, health care and municipalities, remain under Serbia’s control while the police and security sectors have been integrated into the Kosovo system. There is a judicial vacuum; the only functioning court is a EULEX court for serious crimes.
At the entrance to Zubin Potok, we were greeted by a massive UN-sponsored billboard showing a picture of a helicopter and the exhortation “Respect United Nations Resolution 1244,” the resolution of June 1999, which authorized the international civilian and military presence in Kosovo and established the UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. We passed the billboard again on the way out. The other side proclaims, “Ove Je Srbija/This is Serbia.” Given that the UN Mission is neutral about Kosovo’s status, the two signs are not really in conflict with one another.
The place remains a patchwork of overlapping authorities.
The same sign announcing Serbia stands in Leposavic, Kosovo’s northernmost municipality. It is also a sprawling, sparsely populated area, dotted with small churches and monasteries – and a single mosque. It is the “last free place in Europe,” a local politician told me last autumn.
An estimated 18,000 people live in Leposavic, but you wouldn’t know it from the appearance of the small town, which centers on a municipal building, a hospital and a library/cultural center. In Leposavic, the same man is mayor according to both the Kosovo and Serbian systems, which also means that he gets two salaries. I had soup and salad at Restoran M, a small, empty restaurant in the center, served by a waiter originally from Prizren.
Driving back from Leposavic on the road to Mitrovica, the first petrol station outside of the town honors Russian President Vladimir Putin with a rotating sign featuring his face. It is indicative of Serbia’s sense of brotherhood with Russia and its longtime leader, and perhaps a nod to the source of petrol.
On the road it seems just as likely for a car to have a license plate as not. There are several types of license plates: those issued by Serbia a long time ago, others issued by UNMIK and a rare few issued by Kosovo. Unlike in the rest of the country, not having plates does not appear to result in a penalty. Drivers often have both Serbia and Kosovo plates, which they change depending on where they want to go. In the free space of northern Kosovo, many don’t use either.
Although we had plates, we got pulled over on the 40-minute ride from Leposavic to Mitrovica and an officer asked for the car documents in Serbian. Unsure of what was going on, I tried my usual tactic of smiling and chatting, raising the officer’s curiosity. I told him I was from America but my friend hesitated to say that I lived in Prishtina, instead using a vague term meaning “these parts.” Another officer wandered over to make sure his colleague understood everything. “What do you know?” laughed the first officer. “A Serb driver, American passenger and an Albanian police officer.”
It was proof that the Kosovo police are successfully conducting joint Albanian and Serbian patrols. We were on our way, laughing about how it was hard to tell who was an Albanian and who was a Serb.
Soon we entered Zvecan, where Putin was once again featured on several signs declaring him an honorary citizen. So was Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic, whose father was born in the town, as well as surgeon Zoran Krivokapic and a former Yugoslav president, Jugoslav Kostic.
The worn-out chimneys loom over the landscape and the decimated processing buildings stand as a reminder of the destruction wrought by years of war, sanctions and territorial disputes.
Zvecan proper is adjacent to north Mitrovica. An old fortress flying the Serbian flag watches over the town. The town looks like other small towns in Kosovo and Serbia, but what sticks out is a relatively new black-and-white mural of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander on trial for war crimes in The Hague. Next to Mladic’s face the graffiti artist has written “Northern Army,” which is the name of the local fanclub of Belgrade’s football team Red Star.
Between Zvecan and Mitrovica lies part of the dilapidated complex of Trepca, once one of the largest single employers in Kosovo with a workforce of 23,000. Few people now work in the northern part. The worn-out chimneys loom over the landscape and the decimated processing buildings stand as a reminder of the destruction wrought by years of war, sanctions and territorial disputes.
Mitrovica, or Kosovska Mitrovica as many Serbs call it, is a big university town, with some 12,000 mostly Serb students from across Kosovo and the region. They study at the “University of Prishtina temporarily relocated in Mitrovica,” which is a mouthful. It has had this name since 1999, when Serbian professors and administrators of the University in Prishtina, founded in 1969, moved everything to Mitrovica.
I met one of the university’s more active students, Stefan Veljkovic, at a row of cafes near the newly built student center. Young people sat drinking Turkish coffee and beer across from an open amphitheater surrounded by a track. Guys in sports clothes and girls with fancy sunglasses were chilling out, enjoying the late sunshine.
“I’ve been in London, Berlin, Belgrade and all around, but for me, Mitrovica is the most beautiful city.” Veljkovic
“I’ve been in London, Berlin, Belgrade and all around, but for me, Mitrovica is the most beautiful city,” said Veljkovic, 23, who runs an NGO whose activities range from anti-domestic violence campaigns to the environment.
“It can be frustrating that some people in this city are so passive and aren’t interested in doing anything other than drinking 50 coffees,” he said. “But Mitrovica is changing for the better,” he added, citing a spike in social and cultural events, such as the first “International Kosovo and Metohija Film Festival,” which was to begin the day after we met, and the “Northcity Jazz and Blues Festival,” which draws musicians from as far as Colombia to play in the divided city.
Mitrovica is shorthand for Kosovo’s remaining divisions, for the tension between Serbs and Albanians, and all that remains unresolved between the two countries. “In Mitrovica we love being the center of attention,” Veljkovic joked. He walked us up to Monument Hill, a memorial to the Partizan fighters who died in World War II. It overlooks a new church, built in 2004, because the Orthodox church used by the Serbian community before the war lies in predominantly Albanian southern Mitrovica.
Krajla Petra I (King Peter I), north Mitrovica’s main street, is chock a block with cafés and Serbian flags fly every few yards. A billboard reminds passersby of the anniversary of the 2004 rioting in Kosovo, in which many Orthodox churches and homes were damaged or destroyed.
I stopped in TIM Market, a small shop, for a bottle of water. The owner, noticing my inattention to Serbian grammar, found out that I live in Prishtina. He said he grew up in the Dardania neighborhood, but moved to north Mitrovica in May 1999, when most Serbs living in the Kosovo capital left for Serbian towns in Kosovo or for Serbia proper.
The owner, who gave his name as Beli, said he eked out a living but the economy is slow compared to five years ago, when he said there was so much demand for goods it was hard to keep products on the shelves. He said neither the local politicians nor the Serbian government had provided for the needs of the community.
“We need a source of profits, not 1,000 fairy tales from our leaders,” Beli said.
Down the road a small barricade separates that part of the town and the Bosnjacka mahala, or Bosnian neighborhood. Cars and people can still drive over it, so the barricade’s only apparent purpose is to look ominous. One block down is a pile of tires stuffed with cement, and an Albanian flag hanging from a flagpole in the middle. It is an improvised traffic circle, with a plaque showing that this is Adem Jashari square, named after the Kosovo Liberation Army commander who died along with more 50 members of his extended family during an attack by Serbian security forces in 1998.
The Ibar River bisects Mitrovica. Serbs mostly live to the north and Albanians to the south. One year ago the barricade that stands on the Serbian side was removed overnight and Albanians began to drive over it, singing songs. The northern residents were incensed. The mayors decided to build a so-called “Peace Park” in the middle of the bridge and planted grass and trees. Someone else decided to dig up the asphalt on the Serbian side of the bridge.
A host of Italian Carabinieri and KFOR guards patrol the bridge today. While the previous barricade could be removed overnight, fixing the asphalt will prove to be a much more difficult process.
We crossed from the Serbian side in a lovely evening, watching children riding around in circles in toy rental cars. Across the other side of the river, children were doing the exact same thing.
Further down in front of the municipality, the mayor of Tirana and the mayor of the south were addressing a crowd amassed in red and black. The bones of the Albanian national hero Isa Boletini, who came from the village of Boletin in northern Kosovo, had made a stop in Mitrovica and the crowd was there to celebrate his life. Trepca miners had an honored position in the front of the crowd. A troupe of folk dancers was poised to perform on stage and a row of men on horseback stood guard. Red and black flags emblazoned with the image of greater Albania waved throughout the crowd.
Further up town graffiti artist Bardhyl Dobroshi was busy leaving another of his marks on the city: a portrait of Boletini with one of his quotes about patriotism. Dobroshi is as young and enthusiastic as Veljkovic about improving his city, but wants to do it through creative outlets. He is so dedicated that he commutes daily to and from Prishtina to study. He and his friends have painted more than 20 or so murals around the city.
“This city is broken but the people still have spirit, they have something to give,” he said. “Poor towns are good places for artists.”
But it can be difficult trying to keep culture in the city. “Most of the talented people are in Prishtina or have gone abroad,” he said. “I want to keep something for them in this city.”
He showed us another mural, of a group of Albanian men doing a traditional dance, while the man leading the dance is taking a selfie with his iPhone. Sitting across from the mural and sipping on a beer was Mitrovica’s very own Hitler impersonator, who charges tourists between 20 and 80 euros to take photos with him. His real name is Emin Gjinovci and allegedly is a former KLA fighter who went broke but realized his uncanny likeness to one of the 20th century’s most menacing men, and decided to profit from it.
As Mitrovica is a small place, everyone seems to know him, and a colleague who followed him around for a day told me that he also chills out with the peacekeepers on the Mitrovica bridge.
Municipal authorities are at work creating a new pedestrian zone in the town, off the main drag. At the heart of the zone is one of Mitrovica’s oldest buildings, home to a family bakery that has been in business for more than a century. The bakery, Adriatiku, is the source of the perec I bought in North Mitrovica. I bought it less than a kilometer away but paid for it in dinars. At Adriatiku it was on sale for 15 cents.
Granit Collaku, who was selling several kinds of bread, showed me his wood-fired oven, which he says is the secret to their business success. Collaku is from Has, a region in western Kosovo known for its baking tradition. He said his family was in the baking business across Kosovo and indeed the world.
“We prefer a slow and classic process,” he said with a smile. “Even if it makes our work a bit more difficult.”
The bakery is one of the few old buildings visible from the top floor of the municipal library, also the location of 7Arte, an NGO that brings together young people from north and south Mitrovica. Lulzim Hoti, head of the NGO, pointed out all of the new buildings.
“Fifty per cent of this side of the city was destroyed,” he said. “Before you had a clear view across the bridges but now it is much more built up.”
Hoti grew up in the south but told me he used to spend most of his time in the north of the city. “So much life was over there,” he said. “This area was not attractive for young people, it was just full of old people playing chess,” he said, gesturing to the immediate vicinity.
“After the war people believed we would eventually regain access to the hospital and the cemetery, which was on the northern side, but now we see that instead we just got our own new hospital, and a new cemetery – the division remains.”
*This article was initially published in 2015 in the June 19-July 2 print issue of Prishtina Insight. To browse seven years of Prishtina Insight online, click here to become a subscriber.