MITROVICA, Kosovo — The stalemate that keeps U.S. troops in this small Balkan country is most visible here, a depressed silver mining city split by a river and an even wider ethnic divide.
Ethnic Serbs live north of the river, ethnic Albanians to the south. A pile of boulder and gravel spans the width of the bridge — a barricade erected by Serbs in 2011 to keep the two sides apart.
The 13-year-old NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo has boiled down to policing sides in a standoff that occasionally erupts into violence. Last year, a border dispute between Kosovo, which is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, and Serbia, which has refused to recognize the independence of its former province, erupted into riots north of the Mitrovica bridge.
Today, high-level talks between Serbia and Kosovo, facilitated by the European Union, offer hope for an end to NATO involvement. Success could lead to the departure from Kosovo of nearly 5,600 NATO troops, about 800 of them Americans. Failure may further entrench both sides and spark more violence, lengthening U.S. and NATO commitments.
“We have high hopes for this year, but we’ll see,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Carruthers, commander of a multinational battalion in the country’s volatile north. “I’ll tell you, what happens up here will depend on what happens in the talks.”
A mountainous, landlocked region roughly the size of Connecticut, Kosovo, like much of the Balkans, is scarred by a history of ethnic division and brutal violence between neighbors.
Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians speak a different language than their Serb neighbors, and they worship in mosques instead of the ornate Orthodox churches common to Serbia.
In 1989, Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic revoked Kosovo’s autonomy. In the late 1990s, the Kosovo Liberation Army offered armed resistance aimed at achieving Kosovo independence.
Serbia responded in 1998 with a military campaign that displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, beginning a conflict in which thousands were killed. When NATO intervened with a 78-day bombing campaign in 1999, Serbia relented, and the alliance sent 50,000 troops to keep the peace under a United Nations mandate.
Thirteen years later, NATO’s Kosovo Force mission, or KFOR, remains, albeit much smaller. Violence is down. Milosevic is gone, and so is the Kosovo Liberation Army. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence, with support from most — though not all — major Western countries. Serbia, its chief backer Russia, and others refuse to recognize Kosovo.
Yet while life has resumed and Kosovo has held elections and adopted a constitution, feelings have hardened in some areas and divisions have grown wider.
A large portion of the country’s Serb minority population settled in the northern-most region of Kosovo, against the border with Serbia. With financial support from Serbia, they elect their own municipal governments, refuse to recognize an independent Kosovo and resist its government.
The region exploded in the summer of 2011, after the Kosovo government abruptly dispatched a special police unit to take control of two crossings between Kosovo and Serbia, both of which were manned by international mediators. Serb protesters repelled the effort. An officer from the unit was fatally shot in the ensuing violence, and protesters burned one of the checkpoint facilities to the ground.
In the weeks that followed, Serbs erected barricades across northern roads, heaping mounds of dirt, concrete and boulders. Extremists among them stoked fears of a return by the special police unit, which many Serbs believed had KFOR support, said Lt. Col. Joseph Lynch, predecessor to Carruthers.
KFOR soldiers faced violent protests as they removed barricades throughout the north over the following months.
During an especially contentious operation in the town of Zvecan, two German soldiers under Lynch’s command were wounded by gunfire.
“It started out with rocks the size of your fist being thrown at them,” Lynch recalled. “(The soldiers) responded with tear gas. Shortly thereafter, the small-arms fire from Serbians began. And they responded with live ammunition.”
Some local Serb leaders tried to calm the situation, he said, while hardliners stood by.
The violence in 2011 forced NATO to strengthen a force it had been drawing down. It assigned a German-Austrian reserve battalion to the region in summer 2011 and increased troop numbers before Serb elections the following May.
The U.S. battle group responsible for much of the north reinforced its command hub at a forward post near Mitrovica, and it expanded a squad-size outpost near one of the contentious border crossings, turning it into a company-size semi-permanent camp.
Tensions gradually settled after the June operation, Lynch said. Believing a lack of communication had heightened some of the problems, Lynch encouraged his men to interact more with Serbs.
“It had become such a benign operation that our soldiers would go about their patrols and they wouldn’t stop,” he said.
Carruthers runs his battalion from the same forward post, Novo Selo, where he continues to gauge tensions in the north.
His men patrol northern roads, keep up with locals and watch one of the two contentious border crossings. They block illegal routes across the border and occasionally run vehicle checkpoints to force Serbs to use the official crossing.
They talk with Serbs who remain by sections of the main road in the north, and they warn them against erecting further roadblocks.
“They know we will come in very quickly and remove them and the roadblock,” Carruthers said, soon after the latest U.S. deployment began in September.
Though the tour has thus far been quiet, the fault lines that could set off another round of violence remain.
Ismet Salhiu, 29, an ethnic Albanian house painter who lives in north Mitrovica, said ethnic Albanians move freely during the day but risk being chased and beaten at night. Still, he says, he won’t move from the home his family has owned for 100 years.
“I will never go away from my land,” he said. “I will die over there.”
South of the river, in the Serb enclave of Gracanica, just outside Pristina, the capital, clinic manager and Kosovo assembly member Rada Trajkovic claims Albanians want to ethnically cleanse Serbs. She offers a list of crimes against Serbs she says the Albanian-led government failed to resolve, and she expresses a wariness common among the country’s minority.
“It means that people with blood on their hands, they are around me somewhere and I don’t know who they are,” she said. “Because they were not held responsible. Nobody was held responsible.”
Political talks between Serbia and Kosovo restarted in October, with a resolution over northern Kosovo being a primary issue. As Serbia pushes for autonomy for the region, Kosovo wants its borders recognized and its authority undiluted.
The European Union has said a normalization of relations is required before Serbia is permitted to join the club. Kosovo knows it will have to solve the issue of the north if it ever wishes to join the United Nations — where Serbian ally Russia blocks entry — or NATO and the European Union, five of whose members have not recognized Kosovo.
An encouraging sign came in December, when the two sides peacefully implemented an agreement for joint border checks. One of the two gates placed under the new system was the one burned by Serb protesters in 2011.
As discussions continue, NATO has vowed to refine its focus on the problematic north, a response to recent complaints by Germany, the largest contributor to KFOR.
“NATO is pretty much stuck here,” said Naim Rashiti, a field representative in Kosovo for the International Crisis Group. “It has to stay in the north, because if it goes out, there will definitely be problems.”