Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbs Thwart Plan to Reopen Mitrovica Bridge

United Nations plan to allow free movement in divided Kosovo town meets angry reception in Serb-run northern sector.
By Përparim Isufi

Kosovo Serbs living in northern Mitrovica have given a hostile welcome to UNMIK’s new strategy for establishing freedom of movement in the divided town of Mitrovica


The strategy, launched in mid-June, aims to gradually open the bridge over the river Ibar - which divides the Serb-majority north from the mainly Albanian south - to civilian vehicular traffic.


Earlier, Kosovo’s NATO peacekeepers scrapped the checkpoints they had re-established on the bridge after ethnic riots shook Kosovo last March. Security on the bridge is now in the hands of the Kosovo Police Service, KPS.


During the first week of the UNMIK plan, which was put into action June 13, the bridge was opened for two hours per day, which increased to four hours in week two. UNMIK sources say that by mid-July, there will be no restrictions on cars or pedestrians moving between the two sections.


However, the plan has run into resistance in the north of Mitrovica where many Serbs fear free movement over the Ibar will end in unification of the town and their loss of control over the districts they currently hold.


For eight days running, not one car driver ventured north after a solitary driver on June 13 met a volley of stones hurled by Serb crowds gathered at the square, just north of the bridge.


The Serb protesters have kept their vigil up ever since. Alex Anderson, Head of the International Crisis Group, ICG, in Pristina, said UNMIK appeared to lack a strategy that took into account the predictable opposition of many Serbs to the scheme.


“UNMIK does not appear to have planned a broad political initiative to accompany this measure and implementation seems to be very floppy on the ground,” he told IWPR.


“Serb ‘bridge watchers’ are demanding IDs from people who pass. They are being allowed to decide whom to let across.”


The bridge watchers are organised groups of Serb civilians who patrol and monitor all traffic across the Ibar. Though supposed to comprise local volunteers, many Albanians believe they are ultimately controlled by Serbia’s security forces.


Mitrovica has been a security hotspot throughout the UN’s six-year administration of Kosovo. Many displaced Serbs from other parts of Kosovo settled in the town in the turmoil of 1990-2000, occupying houses of Albanians who had fled south.


Ethnic tensions have frequently boiled over in Mitrovica since then, resulting in bloodshed. In incidents in 2000 and 2001, more than 20 Albanian inhabitants of the north were killed while peacekeepers failed to intervene.


In March 17, 2004, ethnic riots, starting in Mitrovica, then engulfed most of Kosovo, resulting in the loss of 19 lives over two days. Several thousand Serbs were forced from their homes by Albanian extremists, while dozens of Serbian churches and shrines were attacked and damaged.


In spite of the hostile reaction from the Serbs in the north, UNMIK seems determined to go to ahead with its initiative for the bridge.


“There is no reason to protest because the opening of the bridge in Mitrovica will help improve the freedom of movement in Kosovo,” said the UNMIK spokesperson, Neeraj Singh.


Mitrovica Serbs do not agree, seeing UNMIK’s initiative as a prelude to an invasion of the north by Albanians concentrated in the southern part of town.


Milan Ivanovic, a Serb representative in northern Mitrovica, told IWPR, “UNMIK’s decision to allow the circulation of private vehicles over the bridge threatens the security of Serbs.”


The town’s Albanian mayor, Faruk Spahia, on the other hand, said the Serb protests “were to be expected”.


“[The local Serbs] are directly inspired and controlled by the government in Belgrade, which has an interest in obstructing the process leading to [Kosovo’s] final status,” he added.


Serb concerns about the use of the bridge are linked to recent diplomatic developments over Kosovo.


Two months ago, the Contact Group of big nations said it had ruled out the partition of Kosovo into Serb and Albanian zones.


A partition line, following the current ethnic dividing line of the Ibar, has been one of Serbia’s reserve options in the event of its nightmare scenario, the international recognition of Kosovo’s independence.


Last year, the EU’s foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, said the problem in Mitrovica had to be resolved before talks on final status began.


Blerim Shala, a Kosovo Albanian political analyst, said the furore over the bridge represented “a counter-attack from Serbia to undermine UNMIK’s initiative”.


Whether UNMIK’s latest plan will succeed where so many others have failed remains to be seen.


Even the local Albanians are sceptical about the initiative’s chances. Without other major plans to reconcile the two communities, the problem of this divided town, of which the bridge is only a symbol, may well continue to haunt Kosovo.


Përparim Isufi is a journalist with the newspaper Zëri in Pristina.