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A delicate peace exists in Mitrovica, Kosovo’s second largest city. Ethnically divided by the Ibar river, Serbs live in the north, and Albanians in the south. A bridge connects the city but is heavily guarded by NATO troops. For those that live here, it’s a life of fear. Since the Kosovo War of 1999, ethnic tensions have remained a volatile issue, Mitrovica regularly being the focal point. It’s a city where speaking the wrong language in the wrong part of town can be life-threatening. It’s a city where having the wrong number plate in the wrong part of town can lead to vicious attacks. It’s a city where grenades are thrown at inter-ethnic couples and graves are desecrated. Neither Serbs nor Albanians accept the authority of one another in Mitrovica. Hatred runs deep in this city. Watch our video to the left. Learn more about Kosovo below.
For Zoje Prendi, an 82-year-old ethnic Albanian woman from Gjakovë Municipality, there is no forgiveness for Kosovo’s Serbs following the war of 1999. She lives in the south-west of the country, not far from the Albanian border, in a village called Mejë. Her story is one of tragedy, loss, bitterness and hatred. On 27 April 1999, five of her seven sons were killed in what is alleged to be the worst massacre committed by Serbian forces in Kosovo. Some 372 ethnic Albanians are believed to have been killed in a single day, with more still missing and feared dumped in mass graves in Serbia. Any male who was 15-years-old and over was targeted. The Mejë massacre was typical of the nationalistic conflict that raged in Kosovo, where people were killed on the basis of ethnicity and nothing else. Serbians killed Albanians and Albanians killed Serbians.
There is no forgiveness here, the people of Mejë cannot forget. Inside Zoje’s home, a modest building surrounded by chickens and puppies, she sits with her two widowed daughter-in-laws and tells her story, beneath pictures of her five dead sons and husband. She is unable to move on from what happened in 1999, and still harbours great resentment towards Serbians. She wishes similar massacres on their children. Ethnic tensions in this part of Kosovo remain high. Watch our interview with Zoje above. Learn more about Kosovo below.
Vetëvendosje is the new political force in Kosovo. Their demonstrations are notorious for violence and their bold political slogans can be found throughout the country. The word Vetëvendosje translates to self-determination, and by turning to the electorate in 2010 they picked up 12 seats in Assembly, becoming Kosovo’s third largest party. They oppose the Brussels Agreement, which normalises relations between Belgrade and Pristina, and support unification with Albania, despite this being banned in their constitution. Their growth is heralded by the large number of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo that refuse to negotiate with Serbia, but also feared by Kosovo’s increasingly alienated Serbs. Listen to our audio feature on Vetëvendosje to the right. Learn more about Kosovo below.
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Kosovo is a partially-recognised state in the Western Balkans disputed between Serbia and the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo. Unilaterally declaring independence from Serbia on 17 February 2008, Kosovo is currently recognised by 100 UN member states, yet faces strong opposition from Serbia, Russia, China, and some EU members including Spain, Cyprus and Greece. Populated by mostly ethnic Albanians, Kosovo’s Serbian population maintain that Kosovo remains an integral part of Serbia.
The Brussels Agreement, signed 19 April 2013, is the first formal basis for normalised relations between Pristina and Belgrade, the capital cities of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. It sets out the conditions for large-scale devolution of northern Kosovo and its Serb population, and opens the pathway to EU membership for both countries. It is yet to be implemented. Below are a list of important events that have both fueled ethnic tensions in Kosovo and led to this historic agreement.
• 1389 28 June: Battle of Kosovo between the Ottoman Empire and Serbia leads to heavy losses on both sides, but Ottoman victory. Over ensuing decades many Christian Serbs leave the region. They are slowly replaced by the religious and ethnic Muslims and Albanians.
• 1974: Kosovo becomes an autonomous province within Yugoslavia.
• 1987: Future Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević makes an historic speech at the site of the Battle of Kosovo to a large crowd of Kosovo Serbs. They are protesting against alleged abuses by the majority ethnic Albanian community.
• 1989: Slobodan Milošević strips the rights of Kosovo’s autonomous status.
• 1990: Ethnic Albanian leaders declare independence from Serbia. Belgrade dissolves the Kosovo government.
• 1991: Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia break away from Yugoslavia as they declare their independence, leading to war and ethnic tensions in the Balkans.
• 1998: Open conflict between Serb police and the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) flare. Serb forces launch a brutal crackdown, and civilians begin to leave their homes.
• 1999: NATO begin airstrikes against Yugoslavia which last for 78 days. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees pour into neighbouring countries, speaking of ethnic cleansing by Serb forces.
• 1999 April: Mejë massacre is committed by Serbian forces.
• 1999 June: President Milošević agrees to withdraw troops from Kosovo and NATO calls off air strikes. The UN sets up a Kosovo Peace Implementation Force (KFOR) and troops enter the province. The KLA agrees to disarm, but as ethnic Albanians return to Kosovo, Serb civilians flee revenge attacks.
• 2003 October: First direct talks between Serbian and Kosovo Albanian leaders since 1999 take place.
• 2003 December: The UN sets out conditions for final status talks in 2005.
• 2004: 19 people are killed in the worst clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians since 1999, the violence starting in the divided town of Mitrovica.
• 2006: UN-sponsored talks on the final status of Kosovo begin, while Serbians vote in a referendum that approves a new constitution which declares that Kosovo is an integral part of their country.
• 2008 February: Kosovo unilaterally declares independence from Serbia.
• 2008 March: Serb opponents of independence seize a UN courthouse in Mitrovica. One police officer is killed.
• 2009: Ethnic clashes break out in Mitrovica.
• 2010: Serbs hold local elections in two Serb-controlled districts in northern Kosovo. The vote sparks violence in Mitrovica.
• 2011 March: Serbia and Kosovo begin their first direct talks since independence in an attempt to end their feud.
• 2011 July: Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi orders police to take the Serb-controlled north and set up administrative border posts with Serbia. Violence breaks out as Kosovo Serbs resist the Kosovo government’s authority.
• 2012: Hashim Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart Ivica Dačić meet in Brussels for their first direct political talks since Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
• 2013 April: Kosovo and Serbia reach an historic agreement on normalising their relations. Under the terms of the deal, which grants a high degree of autonomy to Serb-majority areas in northern Kosovo, both sides agree not to block each other’s attempts to join the EU.
Crossing the Bridge is an in-depth multimedia project carried out by MA student and freelance journalist Joshua Longmore, investigating ethnic tensions in Kosovo as Belgrade and Pristina attempt to normalise relations through the Brussels Agreement. This media production has been made possible by the journalistic training programme Beyond Your World. Beyond Your World is funded by the European Commission and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Special thanks to Xhemajl Rexha, Taulant Qenaj, Teuta Arifaj, Mat Charles, Nash Sibanda, Bournemouth University, Reporters Without Borders, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Global Horizons Fund and One World Media.
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