Losing the Plot

Serbs and Albanians are seeking to bridge grave differences with a little help from the dead and buried

Losing the Plot

Serbs and Albanians are seeking to bridge grave differences with a little help from the dead and buried

Divided they stand and divided they fall. Since the end of the war in 1999, attempts to integrate Serbian and Albanian communities in the divided northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica have proved fruitless.

The southern Albanian side and the northern Serbian enclave square off across the River Ibar. The bridge dividing the 40,000-strong Albanian side from the 15,000 Serbs is guarded by French KFOR troops and, rather more menacingly on the north side, by the Bridge Watchers, Serbian heavies who hang out at the Dolce Vita café, checking out everyone who comes and goes.

The living certainly have their movements monitored and restricted, but at least they're freer than those who have passed on. The deceased, whose last wish is for burial in family plots the wrong side of the divide, are the focus of an initiative which is using the dead to bring together the town's divided communities.

For years now, Albanian Muslim families have been unable to bury their dead or even visit relatives in the plot on the northern side. Likewise, Orthodox Serbs feel cheated of the chance to inter their loved ones in the graveyard of Father Svetislav Nojic's church in the south.

In a scheme backed by the UN Mission in Kosovo, communities are seeking some way to share solace. If funeral processions to cross the Ibar Bridge are out of the question, at least consideration is being given to allowing the respective communities to tidy up each others' graveyards.

Hilmi Gashi, 60, buried his wife and two brothers in the grounds of a now destroyed mosque. "The last time I visited their graves was before the war. When my mother passed away I tried to bury her at our cemetery as she had wanted to be buried next to her sons. Unfortunately that was not possible."

Likewise, Nada Radovic is saddened by the fact she had to bury her six-month dead husband in the north while her daughter's final resting place lies to the south. "I cannot visit her grave. Father and daughter cannot be united even after death. The situation is killing me."

But if families couldn't visit their loved ones, at least they could impress on people that they were averse to the family plot being desecrated - something on which both sides agreed.

Two groups of Albanians who were allowed to visit their kin were appalled by the state of the cemetery. "Part of the cemetery is destroyed. It's not been looked after and its overgrown," Islamic community leader Asllan Murati told IWPR.

Neither is Father Nojic particularly impressed at the way Orthodox cemeteries have run to rack and ruin. "Albanians have left their cattle to graze there," he said angrily. "It's a sin to take revenge on the dead."

The situation sent some to thinking about a possible solution. One philosophy professor likened the situation to Nicosia in Cyprus - how the city divided between Turkish and Cypriot communities had to get around the problem of having its water supply on one side and its electricity generating facilities the other. "Why shouldn't we find the language of cooperation?" asked the professor.

In the same spirit, religious leaders knocked heads together and decided to appeal to peoples' sense of the propriety of death. The UN was asked to coordinate. The Albanian municipal garbage collectors Horticultura were roped in to organise working parties - protected by international peacekeepers - to start clearing up the graveyards.

The financial side of the project needs to be finalised but so far it's been agreed that once 16,000 DM have been raised, Serb and Albanian working parties, escorted by KFOR troops, will go in and start cleaning up each others cemeteries. Armed visits could be arranged in future. As yet, neither side is ready to go as far as to allow for burials the other side of the divide.

Faruk Spahija, the Albanian major on the south side, has given his full support to the project saying that he sees it as an excellent way to foster links between the two communities.

UN police official Michael Casimir was rather more cautious in his approval of the scheme. "We know Albanians and Serbs cannot be friends, but at least let them look each other straight into the eyes and stop hating each other," he said.

And in the spirit of religious goodwill the Mitrovica southern municipality has taken its first step towards ecumenicalism with the approval of a new, mixed Albanian-Catholic and Muslim cemetery. "Albanians should be buried in one place regardless of their religion," said Father Jak Prenku.

"The dead cannot wait for the living to agree," said an old Albanian gravedigger ruing the fact that he has been unable to return to his old job for two years now.

Violeta Hyseni is a journalist with Radio Mitrovica.

Support our journalists