Selling Hamburgers on the Mitrovica Bridge

From their hamburger shack on the bridge of Mitrovica, Šućo and Suad can oversee both the Serbian and the Albanian part of their city. The clientele of their hamburger business has decreased rapidly. "Albanian people crazy, Serbian people stupid."

Instructions to cross the Mitrovica bridge: Malicious or provocative behaviour shall be repressed immediately

Jorie Horsthuis

Suad taps on the window . “Sir?” He bends forward and looks through the small window. Two police officers from Bangladesh are talking to one another in front of his hamburger shack. They don’t seem to react to his question. Once more, Suad taps on the window, this time a bit louder. “Sir!”. The smallest of the two turns around abruptly and looks him in the face. “Everything, sir?”, Suad asks. The man nodds. The boy adds ketchup, mayonnaise, some lettuce and herbs to the burger. ” Thank you sir”, he says, and while he hands over the burger a Euro coin rolls in through the small window.

The radio is playing a traditional Albanian song. Suad plumps down on the small stool in the corner of the hamburger shack. He is still tired of a hectic morning, when suddenly the whole French army unit of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) went out to eat at his shop. “They were having some trouble over at the kitchen of the army base”, Suad explains. “So then the whole unit went over to have breakfast here. They say our chickenburgers are the best in the whole of Kosovo. Whether it is morning, afternoon, or evening, they are always in for one of my burgers.”

Together with his father, Suad runs a hamburger business in Mitrovica, a small town in the north of Kosovo. Their bright red hamburger shack, the size of a medium sized caravan, stands in the middle of the bridge that separates the Serbians from the Albanians since the end of the war in 1999. They used to sell their burgers to people from all over the city, but nowadays there is hardly anyone daring to cross the bridge anymore. Except for the policemen from the United Nations and the NATO soldiers who come by every once and a while to have a burger.

“I speak seven languages”, boasts Šućo, Suad’s father. “Serbian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Turkish, French, English and Italian. Well, not fluently of course. How are you, ..everything ok…everything on it, sir? These kind of things. Just the basics.” His customers now come from all over the world. “I am like a chameleon. I can adapt to every single person who orders here.”

Šućo and Suad work in shifts. Every morning, Šućo gets on his old ramshackle bike to get to his business. He sees it turning light on both sides of the river Ibar every day. At 11am his son will arrive with freshly baked bread and fresh meat prepared by his wife. Šućo then leaves and returns to his business at 2pm. These shifts go on until 9pm. “Never a vacation, never ill”, says Šućo.

Šućo and Suad used to sell their hamburgers to people from all over the city, but nowadays there is hardly anyone daring to cross the bridge anymore. Mitrovica guide

Šućo used to work as a mechanic in the Trepca-factory a few kilometres North of Mitrovica. But in the late 80s he was forced to leave his job, because, as a Bosniac (a Serbian speaking Muslim), he was often harassed. “When tensions between the Serbians and Albanians rose, I was no longer tolerated by both groups. The Serbs avoided me because I was a Muslim, the Albanians disliked me because I spoke Serbian. I could no longer work there.”

He started his business twenty years ago. It was rush hour from the start. “I had six employees. The whole town came to eat here. New bread had to be delivered every hour.” Because business was flourishing, Šućo saw chance to open up a butcher’s shop in the Northern part of the town. He even decided to build a new home close to the river with good sanitary facilities (instead of only having a hole in the ground).

Then the war broke out. The Serbians demolished the windows of his butcher’s shop, stole everything of value and threw a bleeding cow’s head through the window. Šućo’s wife shows pictures of the devastation. “Because we were Muslim, they thought we were spies for the Albanians”, says Šućo, “we had to flee to my sister, who already lived outside Kosovo. But we returned after the war”. When they came back, the city had been divided into two parts. The Northern part became Serbian, the Southern part became Albanian. The bridge, which had been the scene of heavy fighting, was closed off and heavily guarded by the international community. Šućo was forced to close down his business. Because they did no longer feel secure amongst the Serbians nor the Albanians, Šućo and his family spend most of their time inside their old house.

It took until 2004 for the bridge to be open for traffic again. Šućo succeeded in getting a permit from the French army to take up his old business. His old clientele however never returned. He was not able to employ extra personnel and Šućo had to stand behind the grill himself. “The only customers we now have are policemen and soldiers”, he says. “Before the war we used to sell a thousand hamburgers a day, now we only sell fifty”. Just after the reopening of the bridge in 2004, new riots broke out between the Serbs and Albanians. Mitrovica was the scenery of many riots, with the bridge forming the centre of many of the fightings. “The Albanians broke through the UN barricades”, Šućo recalls. “The French soldiers had to use teargas. I quickly closed up and went home. Again I had to close down my business for a few months”.

Mitrovica was the scenery of many riots, with the bridge forming the centre of many of the fightings. Jorie Horsthuis

A UN-jeep crosses the bridge. The driver horns at his colleagues who wave back at him and then quickly put their hands back in their pockets. It is freezing outside. The bridge is covered with snow. One of the policemen orders a cup of tea and asks if he can come in. He takes of his cap and settles in the corner. Suad presses the switch of his waterboiler. “A handgranade was found in the Zubin Potok area”, it sounds through his radiotelephone. Suad pokes into the glowing coals of his grill. He remains silent. The policeman finishes his tea in two minutes and leaves.

At the other side of the road, at the end of the bridge, a car stops. A woman steps out, opens the trunk of her car and takes out two license plates. She attaches the license plates to the car. Suad explains why: “You get beaten up if you have Kosovar license plates in North-Mitrovica, because that means that you recognize the existence of the Kosovar State. But in South-Mitrovica you have a fair chance of being arrested while driving with Serbian license plates. So people now change their plates as soon as they cross the bridge.” He shrugs. To him this has become normal.

In the living room of his house Šućo takes a last sip of his tea before getting to work in order to take over from Suad. ‘For sale’ it says on the outside wall of his old house. “That has been there for quite a while”, Šućo says. “But no one has placed a bid yet. We would like to move outside Kosovo, like many others. We Bosniacs don’t have a life here anymore. My wife and kids scarsely come outside, because they do not feel secure anymore. They cannot play with other kids, walk through the city or visit a local pub. Albanian people crazy, Serbian people stupid.” He shakes his head and gets on his bike. Slowly he moves out of sight, cycling to his son and the Mitrovica bridge.

This story was published in Z Magazine in the Netherlands in 2008.