Gripping Tales from North Kosovo

In Dragon's Teeth, writer and diplomat Ian Bancroft explores the paradoxes and absurdities of life in North Kosovo. With interviews, historical anecdotes and first-hand observations, he gives a human face to one of the most disputed territories in Europe.

Graffiti in North Mitrovica shows the popular cyrillic sign 'Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava' ('Only Unity Saves the Serb') and the slogan 'Eulex go home', 1 March 2009.

Jorie Horsthuis

Imagine being from Kosovo and longing for a weekend sojourn to Greece. Looking at the map, the route seems logical: you travel south. Not for the Serbs from Kosovo, though. They have to take a detour and travel north, through the Kopaonik mountain range in Serbia, before they can head south to the border with North Macedonia. Why? Because their passports are not recognized at Kosovo’s southern crossing points.

Even though a weekend sojourn to Greece might not be a priority for many Kosovo Serbs – certainly not during the current corona crisis – it illustrates the many Kafkian obstacles these citizens face. Since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, their situation became even more complex than it already was after the last war in former Yugoslavia ended in 1999. Suddenly, this population lived as a minority in a new state, without moving, and without recognizing the new authorities.

How this new reality influences the daily lives of the Serbs from North Kosovo, is clearly illustrated in Dragon’s Teeth: Tales from North Kosovo (March 2020) by writer and diplomat Ian Bancroft. Bancroft worked from 2015 until 2018 in this highly contested part of the Balkans, after living in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for almost a decade. He combines historical anecdotes with first-hand interviews and observations. Some extracts of his stories have been recently published by Balkan Insight.

The book is highly relevant from a political point of view, as the debates about the status of Kosovo and possible land swaps with Serbia are still ongoing and have grown more intense during the last years. The remarkable aspect of Bancroft’s work, though, is that it does not get bogged down in bureaucratic analyses of this seemingly eternal dispute, but provides great insight into the struggles of the people who actually live here. The writer and diplomat gives a human face to this volatile region.

Days after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, the Serbs in North Mitrovica gather on the square next to the main bridge to show their discontent. UN peacekeepers prevent them from crossing to the Kosovo Albanian side, 20 February 2008. Jorie Horsthuis

Bancroft explores the paradoxes and absurdities of a life in a place that has unofficially counter-declared independence from the newly established country, which is ruled by a Kosovo Albanian majority. De jure, the North is an integral part of Kosovo; de facto, it remains a part of Serbia – although the situation is even more complex, as Serbia is also working with different standards towards this region. For the Kosovo Serbs, it is a schizophrenic situation: they don’t fully belong to Serbia anymore, nor to Kosovo. ‘They are (…) second class citizens of two states’, Bancroft concludes.

The diplomat gives some in-depth insights into the usual suspects of the conflict between the Serbs and the Albanians in Kosovo. One chapter is fully dedicated to the Main Bridge in the divided city of Mitrovica. This bridge has been a flashpoint in history, and the symbolic value of the barricades that are erected and demolished time and again is substantial. The role of the infamous Bridge Watchers is also explored by Bancroft, one of them being the later politician Oliver Ivanovic, who was murdered in early 2018.

Purposefully not digging too much into the war itself – other books have been written about this theme – Bancroft sheds a light on the more recent hostilities in 2004, 2008 and 2011, when the conflict between the Serbs and Albanians flared up again and the Serbs in the North clashed with the Pristina authorities over its sovereignty. Crossing points were set on fire, new barricades were erected and protests were organized. With his anecdotes, Bancroft challenges the stereotypes and prejudices about the local population, and shows they all deal differently with these situations. Kosovo Serbs are oftentimes considered as ‘one’, and it is revealing to read about the wide array of views in this region. Therefore, the book is a must-read for all parties concerned: diplomats, journalists, policy makers and politicians from the international community, Kosovo and Serbia alike.

Kosovo Serbs take the streets in North Mitrovica to protest against Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence, 18 february 2008. Jorie Horsthuis

The best elements of Dragon’s Teeth, however, are not the stories about the war, the bridge and current challenges and hostilities in the region, but the tales that received less attention from the media in recent years. They tell about music, about humour and the minority communities within the minority community, and the way they try to survive in this curious corner of the Balkans. The population in North Kosovo is living in a cocoon, and it is not their leaders or politicians, but the normal people who are affected most by these borders. Bancroft is a master of detail, and gives a glimpse into a world that many outsiders won’t be able to penetrate – not even the ones who have been working in this region for many years.

Then, we might also come to one of the flaws of this book. Bancroft only gives a sneak peek of his own struggles as a diplomat in the north of Kosovo in the margins of his book. His side anecdotes about drinking kruskovaca (pear brandy) with the mayor of Mitrovica North and the nights he spent in the local bar Bebop taste like more. It would have been illuminating to read more extensively about the challenges that he faced while working for the EU’s Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (Eulex) – for sure, he has encountered many. With his great writing style, this book would not only have given insight into the lives of the local population, but also of the members of the international community, who have become an integral part of this region since the end of the war in 1999. The impact of the presence of people like Bancroft on life in North Kosovo should not be underestimated.

A second regrettable omission in this book are the Kosovo Serbs living south of the Ibar river. Obviously, the focus of this book lies on North Kosovo, but without the Serbs living in the south, the story is incomplete. The Serbs living in the enclaves are mentioned only in the side lines of this book, which increasingly seems to become their fate – they are simply overlooked, not only by the international community, but also by the Serbs of the North and Serbia proper. Talking about land swaps – North Kosovo “given back” to Serbia, and the Presevo Valley incorporated into Kosovo – the consequences for the Serbs living in the south would be massive.

It would have been interesting when Bancroft would also have explored the different ways these Serbs are coping with their new realities. South of the river Ibar, he might have found some pragmatic views on the future Serbs could have in a Kosovo where the role and influence of Belgrade has decreased. More and more, Serbia is withdrawing from this particular territory, and the current challenges that the Serbs from the enclaves face, are in many ways different than the ones from the Serbs in the North. Here, the options might be diminished in due time: leave, or integrate into the Kosovo society.

Some weeks after Kosovo’s declaration of independence, Kosovo Serbs still gather on a daily basis at the main bridge in Mitrovica, with flags and chants against this ‘illegal move’, 3 March 2008. Jorie Horsthuis

What the future will bring, both for the Serbs of the north and the south, is highly uncertain. One conclusion that could be drawn from Dragon’s Teeth is: barriers are not just physical, but psychological as well. Even when removing walls, barbed wire and barricades, the division lines are drawn deeply through society and grow further year by year. While the older generations of Serbs and Albanians are still aware of each other’s culture and language, the new ones grow up in more homogenous environments, with ever narrower perspectives. Geographically, they are completely separated, and in schools, they are confronted with different versions of history.

Without being aware of one’s culture and language, and growing up in different realities, the prospect of reconciliation between the two communities should not be too high. Nevertheless, Bancroft refuses to lose all hope. Still, the diplomat acknowledges that he experienced the division himself while residing in Kosovo: the geographical divide between ‘north’ and ‘south’ became a matter of habit. His routine became largely confined to the north of the Ibar river, where he lived with his family, friends and colleagues. The only reason to travel south was ‘for Italian food or football’.

Ian Bancroft, Dragon’s Teeth: Tales from North Kosovo. Ibidem Verlag, 196 pages, 24,90 euros.

Jorie Horsthuis is journalist, political scientist and editor of De Facto. She wrote extensively about the Balkans and spent a tiny part of her life in Mitrovica, the divided town on the unofficial border between Serbia and Kosovo.