An unremarkable bus journey through northern Kosovo

Kosovo Pristina Newborn

As border crossing go, it was one of the quickest I’ve ever encountered. A burly policeman boarded the bus, shook hands with the driver, exchanged a few jokes with the passengers at the front and left, waving us through. We had crossed from Serbia to Kosovo or, according to the border police and every one of our fellow passengers on the bus, from the Serbian district of Raška to the equally Serbian district of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 and considers Kosovo to be an integral part of its own nation. Treated by one side as an international border and by the other as a boundary between two administrative regions, the border at Leposavic has been a flashpoint for trouble in recent years as Serb anger at attempts to establish an international border has spilled into violence.

Our bus was bound for Pristina and as many passengers dozed the television above the driver played non-stop Serbian pop, sung by a variety of scantily-clad but always well-endowed girls. The conductor passed through the bus collecting the fares from passengers who, with the exception of the two of us, were heading from Novi Pazar and Raška to the Serb enclaves within Kosovo. As we approached the modern blue border post the scene looked exactly the same as at the other borders we’d already encountered on our way through the former Yugoslavia.

It was only after we’d been waved through that I could see that this was no ordinary border. A road sign, presumably saying something to the effect of ‘Welcome to Kosovo’, was covered in graffiti and now impossible to read. A short distance along the road we passed the charred remains of the former border post, fire-bombed in an attack in 2011. Above it a solitary watchtower stood amid rubble and barbed wire. A woodman’s hut proudly bore a Serbian flag. Another flag flew on a nearby outcrop, and then a larger one on the summit of a hill. There was no question of allegiances here.

As we approached Mitrovica, banners and posters hung from every available spot, urging voters to boycott the upcoming elections in Kosovo. Graffiti included various combinations of EU/US/NATO/Germany accompanied by a swastika. Around half of the passengers left the bus in Mitrovica, a city split by the river Ibar with the Serbian population living to the north and the Albanian population to the south. Mitrovica was frequently in the news during the conflict as the main bridge across the river became the site of prolonged conflict. We saw the bridge from the Serb side and beside the large mound of rubble that blocked access for any vehicles, pedestrians walked freely between the two sides – a remarkably mundane scene, at least on this day.

Around 1km to the west we crossed the Ibar on a second bridge and left northern Kosovo. The contrast was immediately obvious – all signs were in Albanian, licence plates bore the Kosovan ‘RKS’ rather than the Serbian ‘SRB’ and orthodox churches made way for mosques (and yet in all likelihood most of our fellow passengers, along with the majority of Serbs from Novi Pazar, were Muslims). I was concious that we had suddenly become the only vehicle on the road with Serbian plates, although the people we passed on the street didn’t seem to notice or care.

As we approached Pristina the driver pulled up by the side of the road next to a non-descript roundabout and all the passengers got off, piling into minibuses and taxis that would take them to the surrounding Serbian enclaves. We remained as the only passengers on the bus for the final kilometre ride into Pristina bus station and the end of what had been an uneventful bus journey through an uncertain land.

Note: The Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to northern Mitrovica and advises travellers to avoid the border crossing at Leposavic.

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Freelance travel writer

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