|Renovation work on the Mitrovica bridge. Photo: Zulfiya Yakup /Anadolu.|
Only a handful of locals were present to watch the commencement of renovation works on the bridge that separates the Serb-dominated north and largely Albanian south of the divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica.
While some did not want to talk to media, those who spoke to BIRN on Sunday, the day the works began, hailed the start of the restoration and the eventual reopening of the bridge as a sign normal relations could be restored to the ethnically divided city.
As heavy machinery began dismantling the so-called Peace Park – a barricade made of potted plants erected by ethnic Serbs to block cars travelling across the bridge – some were optimistic the move would mean a return to life almost as it was before the Balkan wars of the 1990s.Nusha Haradini, an ethnic Albanian resident, spoke to BIRN while passing on foot across the bridge from north to south.
Nusha Haradini, an ethnic Albanian resident, spoke to BIRN while passing on foot across the bridge from north to south.
“Revitalisation should have happened much earlier, but as long as we can benefit from this, it is not too late yet. This bridge should function like it did before the war, where people could freely drive on both sides,” she said.
“I can see that lately citizens from both sides of the river started to travel more from north to south and vice versa. It seems like we are finally moving forward.”
Similarly, Zivojin Simic, a Serb living in the north of the city, described the works and the re-opening of the bridge to traffic as “extremely good for residents on both sides of the river”.
“This bridge should never been blocked. Blocking the bridge leads to stronger division between the two ethnicities,” he said.
The bridge, which spans the river Ibar, is expected to be open to both pedestrians and vehicles by January 20, 2017.
For the past several years, a large barricade made of stone and sand that was manned by local Serbs – known as bridge watchers – has prevented the free flow of vehicles over the bridge.
When the barricade was removed in June 2014, it was immediately replaced with a so-called Peace Park, made largely of conifers planted in concrete pots. The new barricade sparked protests among Kosovo Albanians, some of which turned violent with several injured and numerous vehicles burned.
|Photo: Zulfiya Yakup / Anadolu.|
Representatives from the Kosovo police service, the EU rule-of-law mission EULEX and the UN Kosovo Force, KFOR, are monitoring the dismantling of the barricade. There were no large gatherings of people or protesters from either ethnic group.
“I think it is good that this… is happening in a calm environment. This is what we expected as this is an important step, which will soon lead to the opening of the bridge to traffic,” Thomas Gnocchi, who heads the Political, Economic and European Integration Section at the EU Office in Kosovo, told BIRN.
While no Serb officials were present, Gnocchi said he has ensured that they are in full agreement with the continuation of the bridge works.
“We have been in touch with them and everything is normal,” Gnocchi said.
Agim Bahtiri, the mayor of the southern Mitrovica municipality, said the works were a very important step for all city residents, both Albanians and Serbs.
“Today is a good day for all citizens. Today the union of our citizens is becoming possible and they will freely move after the bridge revitalization,” said Bahtiri.
The works on a bridge started after Edita Tahiri, Kosovo’s minister for dialogue with Serbia, and Marko Djuric, Serbia’s chief negotiator, reached an agreement during EU-facilitated talks held on August 5.
The renovation of the bridge is being funded by the EU at a cost of more than €1.2 million. The project received EU backing in order to facilitate contact between the people in the north and south of the city.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, which Serbia refuses to recognise. However, since 2011 both sides have participated in EU-facilitated talks aimed at normalising relations.
After the conflict in Kosovo ended in 1999, the north of the country has been beyond the full control of the Pristina government, as Belgrade has continued to finance security, judicial, health and educational institutions in Serb-dominated areas.
An April 2013 agreement between Kosovo and Serbia brought Serbs in northern Kosovo back under the overall authority of Kosovo institutions, on condition that limited autonomy be guaranteed for them through an association of northern Serb municipalities.