Walking across the bridge over the Ibar River, which links the Albanian south side to the Serbian north side of the Kosovar town of Mitrovica, is like crossing an international border. NATO sentries guard each end of the span, the local currency switches from euros to Serb dinars, and the script on signposts shifts from Latin to Cyrillic. On the Albanian side, slogans on buildings call for Kosovo's independence, while a banner hung prominently on the Serb side proclaims the region as Serbia's legal domain. Both sides honor their war heroes: Albanian neighborhoods are adorned with pictures of Ramush Haradinaj, the former Kosovar Prime Minister who is awaiting trial in the Hague for atrocities against Serb and Roma civilians, while Serb store windows flaunt posters honoring ultranationalist politician Vojislav Seselj, on trial at the same war-crimes tribunal for his role in the murder of Bosnian and Croatian civilians during the 1991-99 Yugoslav wars. A visitor arriving in a vehicle bearing Kosovar license plates prudently parks on the Albanian side of town, for fear of provoking Serbs.
Like Mitrovica, the entire province of Kosovo is caught between two masters: Serbia, which lays claim to the landscape Serbs regard as the birthplace of their nation, and the majority Albanian population, dreaming of a country of their own. Six years have passed since a U.S.-led bombing campaign drove Serbia's forces from Kosovo and ended their campaign of ethnic cleansing, but the tug-of-war for Kosovo is not over yet. After a bitter standoff under NATO control, the two communities could soon find themselves fellow citizens of a new nation. U.N.-sponsored talks on the future of the province are expected to start by year's end. The negotiations over minority rights, a free-market economy and an impartial legal system will be enormously contentious, but the outcome is virtually assured: independence, perhaps as soon as the end of next year. Is Kosovo ready?
Since fighting ended in 1999, NATO troops have patrolled the hilly roads and towns in armored vehicles, guns at the ready, to prevent renewed clashes between the province's 1.7 million Albanians and the 130,000 Serbs who stayed put despite losing the war. But the tension endures. "We have tolerance, but not much more than that," says Larry Rossin, a former U.S. diplomat who is now deputy head of the U.N. Mission in Kosovo. A new group of Albanians calling itself the Army for the Independence of Kosovo has set up roadblocks and shot at several Serb police vehicles, issuing threats against anyone who stands in the way of independence. In Belgrade, the Serb parliament last week ruled out that possibility. Coexistence not to mention reconciliation will be tough.
Oliver Ivanovic, one of the province's few Serb politicians, knows just how hard the task will be. Sipping coffee in his Mitrovica neighborhood, he recalls the day his son Janko asked, "'Daddy, will you show me a real live Albanian?'" Almost 90% of Kosovo's 1.9 million population are ethnic Albanians. Yet at 12, Janko has never met one a measure of the chasm that separates the two communities. "My son has the impression that Albanians are so evil, they must have horns," says Ivanovic, 52. To the 15,000 Serbs in Mitrovica, he says, an independent Kosovo is unthinkable. "No way. This is our whole identity."