By Patrick Markey
MITROVICA, Kosovo — If there is a symbol for the difficulties in rebuilding a multi-ethnic Kosovo, it is here in this divided town just 40 minutes from the province’s capital, Pristina.
Every day Kosovars and Serbs sit on opposing sides of the town’s battered, dusty bridge across the River Ibar and warily watch each other as French troops patrol their separate neighborhoods.
In their enclaves each community gathers by the river in cafes to tell tales of harassment, threats and robberies. To cross the 200-meter bridge over the Ibar is to venture into the unknown.
Nezir Ferati, a 71-year-old retired doctor, comes here every day. But he stays mainly on the Albanian side for fear of returning to his home across the bridge.
"I was beaten over there three times last week," the frail Kosovar said, pointing to a gathering of Serbian men outside a cafe on the opposite side.
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"I had to get money from the bank on the other side. But they dragged me into a side street and beat me. The French army, they saw it, but they did nothing.
"If the army doesn’t do something soon, we’ll end up fighting again."
Fears are just as apparent among those in the Serb enclave.
"I wouldn’t mind the Albanians coming here," Radovan Janicijevic, a 60-year-old retired policeman, said pointing across the river. "I have a home over there, but I’m afraid to go over there. I’m afraid they’ll kill me."
The tensions are palpable when a reporter approaches a group of Serbian men sitting on folding chairs near the bridge. They ask for identification, they ask for proof of nationality. They question an Albanian translator on his background. He lies and tells the small crowd he’s a Macedonian. Brewing discontent soon spills into anger.
"NATO destroyed our country. You shouldn’t be here," one elderly man shouts.
"Listen, people here are angry," explained 18-year-old Milosovic Draganic. "Nobody tells what the Serbs here are thinking. I can’t go over there because of the Albanians. They pushed me out of my home. I have to stay here with my sister now. We’ll only go back when someone can control this.
"Albanians should go to Albania. This is Serbia," he said in English.
Mitrovica, Kosovo’s third-largest city, is only 18 miles from the Serbian border and the Serbian enclave here is one of the more visible pockets remaining in Kosovo. As many as 60,000 Kosovo Serbs fled the province fearing retribution after the war ended.
French officials commanding troops in the area acknowledge the situation is tense but say it will take time for the communities to learn to live together.
"You can talk about tension. You can talk about conflict. But it is non lethal. We have a secure and safe environment," said Bernard Sandretto, air force captain and media officer for the KFOR French troops.
"Here something minor could take on major importance. We treat both communities with an equal point of view. Things will get better. It works now and it works well. Tomorrow it could turn to trouble, but we are aware of that."
The French point to the success of the local hospital in the Serb section where the staff is now roughly half Kosovars and half Serbs coordinated by a French military doctor. The four demonstrations that have taken place since the French arrived have passed with relatively minor incidents.
While the city has not seen any more open clashes, the underlying distrust between the two communities festers. Kosovars claim Serbian paramilitaries are arriving from two northern towns near the Serb border, Zvecan and Leposavic. The French say that issue will be dealt with as will Serbian claims of Kosovo Liberation Army house prisons in the area.
"It will come. Give people the time to see what’s going on and the rumors will die down," Sandretto insists.
But many here remain uncertain about their town’s future and unconvinced the KFOR forces can do enough to dampen tensions along the divide.
"Most of the Serbs over there are from Serbia. We know who are our neighbors and who are strangers," said one man who would give his name only as Izi.
"Mitrovica has never had two sides, This was always one town. If the French do nothing, this town will turn out like Mostar. We don’t want that," he said, referring to the Bosnian town where Muslims and Croats clashed during the Bosnian war.