In dramatic events during the summer of 1999, when Kosovo Albanians led by UCK/KLA militants managed to ethnically cleanse a large part of Kosovo Province, and after the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops and the arrival of international peacekeepers, Serbs in Mitrovica organized their defense and did not allow Albanian militants to cross the Ibar River and drive them away. All Serbs with the exception of a dozen souls have been expelled from the southern part of the city; the Roma community was totally eradicated and their quarter or "mahala" burned to the ground by the KLA. Serb houses and businesses were occupied overnight by new Albanian "owners". At the same time, North Mitrovica, comprised of only one-fifth of the entire city area, has remained a multiethnic area until the present day, a fact even recognized in a recent report by the International Crisis Group.
In fact, according to OSCE figures, Mitrovica municipality (both north and south) currently has a population of over 100,000 people. North of the Ibar River there are 12,000 Serbs, 3,000 Albanians, 2,000 Slavic Muslims, 600 Turks and 500 Roma, including approximately 5,000 internally displaced Serbs, who mostly found refuge there upon fleeing from the southern part of the city. Paradoxically or not, North Mitrovica is one of the most multiethnic urban areas in Kosovo but nevertheless a most serious problem for many, especially Albanian extremists. In the southern part of the city, there are only 15 Serbs currently living in an old church compound surrounded by barbed wire and heavily protected by KFOR soldiers. The number of Slavic Moslems (called Bosniaks) has rapidly decreased too. This part of the city is "multiethnic" only because international peacekeepers and UN personnel work and live here beside the Albanians. Local non-Albanian communities simply do not exist, as in most if not all other Albanian dominated cities.
No one can deny that there are problems in the North. A few criminal groups operate in this part of the city, taking advantage of the extremely difficult economic situation. But keeping in mind that the rest of Kosovo is overwhelmed with drug gangs, mafia, semi-legal security agencies and prostitution rings, an objective observer could hardly point to North Mitrovica as the most serious Kosovo problem.
In fact, the problem of North Mitrovica and the northern part of Kosovo, predominantly inhabited by Serbs (c. 60,000), is that Kosovo Albanians do not rule this area and cannot drive the Serbs out as they did in other mostly urban parts of Kosovo, regrettably, in the presence of KFOR and the UN. Serbs in the north are not ready to accept the new Kosovo institutions as long as they are under the strong influence of Albanian political parties which evolved from the KLA after the war. For Serbs, North Mitrovica is the last hope of multiethnic Kosovo. As an area in which Serbs, Albanians, Turks, Roma and Slavic Muslims still live in relative peace and equality, it should serve more as a model for the rest of almost ethnically cleansed Albanian dominated Kosovo than an obstacle for a better future. It goes without saying that all these above mentioned communities live on the territory of Central Serbia and Montenegro without conflict, enjoying freedom of movement and full cultural and human rights. However, as soon as one enters the UN-administered Kosovo province, the reality changes abruptly. While cars with passengers of different ethnicities freely travel along Yugoslav roads, especially towards the Montenegrin coast, and while increasing numbers of Kosovo Albanians go to Belgrade for medical treatment, in the rest of Kosovo Serbs still live in ethnic ghettoes and enclaves without free access to Kosovo Albanian dominated institutions.
For example, in Pristina, the capital of the province, despite a strong international presence only 110 Serbs (excluding interpreters from Central Serbia) remain out of a pre-war total of 20,700 urban Pristiners. In Prizren out of 8.300 pre-war Serbs only 65 elderly people remain; in Djakovica the last remaining Serbs are only 6 old Serb women living in a parish home, while in Pec there are no Serbs in the town, in which 9.100 Serbs used to live, and only 26 nuns live in a convent outside of the city under KFOR protection (see the table). In fact, in all Kosovo cities the number of international personnel is higher than the number of Serbs who originally lived there, which is not quite the best substitute for the lost multiethnicity. Pristina Serbs live in a small ghetto known as the "YU program building" and around the old Serb Orthodox church. While 20 Serb children travel every day by military vehicle to the neighboring Serb village to attend their classes, in the city of Pristina all schools are reserved only for Albanian speakers. The Pristina University does not have a single Serb professor or student while the main Pristina hospital is free only for the majority population -- the Albanians. Neither in Pristina, nor in any other Kosovan city except North Mitrovica can Serb doctors do their job normally and Serbs were forced to establish a network of village clinics which are supported both by the Belgrade Government and UNMIK.
Is Pristina then a better and more encouraging model for multiethnic Kosovo than North Mitrovica? Quite the contrary: Pristina, Prizren, Pec, Urosevac, Djakovica and some other smaller Kosovan towns are examples of what Mitrovica and the north of Kosovo would look like if there were a "reunification" on the basis of what Albanian political parties and extremists want. Therefore, it is so difficult to understand that the international community often accepts such a wrong view of the reality based on reports which abound in unfounded information and prejudices, if not outright propaganda.
At the moment Kosovo Albanians deny the Serbs the right to have their university in Mitrovica where young Serbs and other Serbo-Croat speakers would be able to attend classes in their own language and the Serbian speaking professors would freely teach as everywhere else in Yugoslavia. In the seventies, it was exactly this right that the Belgrade government granted to Kosovo Albanians and they got their university in Pristina which unfortunately soon became a hotbed of separatist ideas with Albanian professors from Tirana spreading Hoxhist [Albanian Stalinist dictator] and Maoist ideas and cultivating hopes for a Greater Albania. Serbs understood very soon that the Pristina University was creating new political and cultural identities in Kosovo in which there was less and less room for Serbs and other Serbo-Croat speaking students. In denying Serbs their right to a university and at least one out of a dozen regional hospitals in North Mitrovica, not only Albanians but also the international community is committing a serious injustice. Insisting on "multiethnicity" of the Mitrovica University and Hospital while at the same time leaving all other hospitals and the Pristina University virtually ethnically clean, Albanians want to prevent Serbs to have at least one regional center in which they would enjoy basic freedom and rights. In fact, under the guise of "multiethnicity" one can discern attempts to destroy one of the last remaining areas in which Serb students, engineers, professors and other promising young people can work freely using their mother tongue. In all other parts of Kosovo, urban areas are closed to Serbs and young intellectuals can only choose to work for KFOR or UNMIK or cultivate the fields as farmers.
So-called parallel institutions in Mitrovica are not "parallel" but the only existing institutions for that area which offer the Serb speaking population basic services without discrimination and repression, quite unlike institutions in Albanian dominated areas in which remaining Serb enclaves are either left to themselves or rely on international support. Non-Albanian participation in these new Kosovan (read Albanian) institutions is only symbolic because hardly any Serb would dare to freely go to a Pristina, Prizren or Pec hospital or court to get what he needs. There are no Serb parents who would send their son or daughter to the Pristina University risking the life of their child in an environment based on overt ethnic discrimination.
This is well-known to all internationals in Kosovo but is intentionally kept hidden from many people in the West who rely on false reports which try to cover up the failures of the Kosovo administration. Very few international officials who come to Kosovo for the first time understand that this society is ethnically divided into a privileged and free population, and those who are not free. Hardly any of these visitors understand at first glance that the smiling faces of children and young people in the streets of Pristina, Pec, Djakovica or Prizren are almost 99.99 % Albanian because the presence of a Serb speaking his or her mother language in a public place is headline news in Kosovo. Also, many European and U.S. donors do not know that the institutions they support are largely inaccessible to the minority populations, primarily the Serbs. Finding one or two Serbs to write at least their names on an application is sometimes enough to present a public institution as fully multiethnic and free for all regardless of ethnicity and religion. This is exactly how many Kosovan institutions received ample funds from the West although they are not multiethnic at all.
Therefore, calls for "reunification" of Mitrovica as long as this process is based on the idea of the domination of the majority population over the minority is profoundly wrong and unjust and would never win the support of Serbs in either the North or in other parts of the Province. Serbs in Kosovo have the undeniable right to maintain their links with the country to which they legally belong according to the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and resist forceful integration into Kosovo regional institutions for as long as they are denied their basic human rights and dignity. They also have the fundamental right to preserve their identity, culture, language and religion in a society which is progressively eradicating anything which is not Albanian. When Serbs one day are able to get their basic administrative, medical and educational services in Pristina, Prizren and Pec, normally and without any obstacles, then there will surely be no reason for Mitrovica to remain divided. The situation in Mitrovica cannot therefore be understood outside of a wider Kosovo context and is more a symptom of the general Kosovo problem than a source of the problem itself.
In actuality, the battle for Mitrovica is not being fought at the bridge over the Ibar River but in those areas which have been ethnically cleansed of their non-Albanian population in the international presence.