A divided city in the north of Kosovo
, with a predominantly Serbian population living in the part north of the River Ibar and an almost exclusively Albanian population living in the rest of the city. This division is partly the result of the Kosovo War of 1998/99. And in this place the conflict isn’t really resolved yet. There have been instances of violence since the war and also since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, which the Serbs do not recognize. To this day KFOR police guard the main bridge between the two parts, which is blocked for vehicle traffic, but pedestrians can cross from one side to the other with ease. Doing so as tourist is a rather unusual experience.
More background info:
Mitrovica is an old mining town, going back to ancient Roman times. Mining was vastly expanded from the 1920s onwards, and peaked in the Yugoslav
era, when the mining and associated smelting complex employed over 20,000 people and was one of the largest enterprises in the country.
Decline already set in in the late 1980s, then came the turbulent 1990s, and today only a fraction of the former operations are still ongoing, even though there are still substantial deposits of zinc, lead and silver in the ground. Yet most of the industrial facilities now lie derelict and unemployment figures are staggering. The overall population has also declined from its peak of over 100,000 in 1991.
All this is in no small part the result of the Kosovo
War of 1998/99, in which Mitrovica was a hotspot. Thousands of KFOR peacekeeping troops were required to pacify the city when it came under UN administration. It was also during that time that the near total ethnic segregation took hold. Almost all Serbs moved to the northern part (or away) while the vast majority of Albanians concentrated in the south. Moreover several thousand Roma left altogether, mostly to Serbia
. Today some 15,000 inhabitants live in the northern part, almost 95% of them Serbs, while in the south there are some 70,000 residents, over 97% of them ethic Albanian. There are tiny minorities of Turks, Bosnians and Roma.
There have been ethnic clashes during the 2000s too, especially in 2004 and again in 2008 after Kosovo
’s unilateral declaration of independence. The Kosovo Serbs in northern Mitrovica never recognized this and refused to come under Kosovo jurisdiction. According to a 2013 agreement, Kosovo Serbs officially accepted Pristina
’s rule over Mitrovica and Kosovo police in principle, but most Serbian inhabitants still boycotted the 2016 general election in Kosovo.
Moreover, in northern Mitrovica the euro, the common currency used in Albanian Kosovo
, is not accepted and the Serbian dinar is used instead. Naturally Serbian is spoken and Serbian flags fly. And as I noticed (see below
), North Mitrovica also aligns itself with Belgrade
with regard to Russia
, which since the beginning of the Ukraine
War in February 2022 has led to yet more differences between the north and south of Mitrovica.
It’s doubtful whether this “frozen”, or rather “simmering” conflict can ever be resolved. Most of the time, people just carry on with their lives, but the fundamental division remains in the background. And to this day the city’s main bridge between the two parts has to be guarded by Italian Carabinieri (who seve as part of KFOR).
What there is to see:
I visited Mitrovica as part of an all-day excursion from Pristina
, which also included Prekaz
as the other main element, with a driver-guide from the company Balkan N’Adventure. With them I booked a slightly adapted/tailored “Western Kosovo Political Tour
”. And after a short stopover at Gazimestan
, Mitrovica was the first main stop.
We arrived in the city from the south (driving past some derelict abandoned industrial complexes) and the driver-guide parked the car in the centre so that we could continue on foot.
We headed straight for the infamous New Bridge across the Ibar River towards northern Mitrovica. The heap of soil that once blocked the road across the bridge has disappeared, but at the northern end concrete roadblocks still preclude any car traffic from using the bridge. Moreover there was an armoured vehicle and guards of the Italian Carabinieri who are on duty for KFOR. But as a pedestrian you can freely cross. The Carabinieri barely looked at us. So it’s quite normal.
Once on the other side, it feels like you’re in a different country … Serbia. Most inscriptions are in Serbian Cyrillic, Serbian flags fly and I also spotted the odd Russian one. You hear Serbian being spoken and the street cafes along the main drag advertise Serbian beer brands.
And then there is the graffiti
. I saw several pro-Russian
wall murals, such as one that proclaimed “Kosovo is to Serbia what Crimea is to Russia” underneath an image of the Serbian and Russian tricolour flags knotted together. There were other rather militant examples too, and I also spotted a few simple “Z”s sprayed onto walls. That’s the non-Cyrillic letter that the Russian forces use in the Ukraine
war (together with a similarly non-Cyrillic “V”), and this “Z
” has become a symbol for pro-Russian support for the invasion. So it’s quite clear on which side the north Mitrovica Serbs stand. (Whereas in Pristina, as well as in Albania, I found several expressions of solidarity with Ukraine also in graffiti form.)
My guide had phoned ahead so that we could meet a friend of his who lives in North Mitrovica as one of the few ethnic Albanians still in this part. We sat down for a coffee in one of the street cafes and he told us about life in this city and the politics involved. It was all very convivial and relaxed, though. If there were any hard feelings they were kept under wraps.
Not only were our coffees paid for by this local guy (good job, as we wouldn’t have had any Serbian dinars to pay with here), he then also accompanied us for the rest of our tour of Mitrovica – true Albanian hospitality (which is very highly valued in this culture).
We walked around the north a bit and then headed back to the Albanian side across the river for a walking tour of that part. We were also given a local street snack (some bread dough rings). In the heart of Mitrovica there are a few old buildings amongst all the drab modern apartment blocks that otherwise characterize the cityscape.
One old house stood out because of its derelict state, yet it has some historical importance. Namely it was the house of Xhafer Deva
, the Kosovo Albanian Minister of the Interior in the early 1940s, who collaborated with the Nazis
and endeavoured to establish a pro-German government in Kosovo. He was also associated with an SS
unit, for which Kosovo Albanians were recruited, that committed massacres against anti-fascists. After WWII
he emigrated but continued to organize anti-communist activities. His former house in Mitrovica is basically a ruin, but there are proposals for restoring the building and turning it into some kind of cultural centre. Time will tell.
After the walking tour of central Mitrovica we got back into the car and drove into North Mitrovica. Yes, even though the New Bridge is blocked, this is perfectly possible. There is an unblocked road bridge a bit further to the east – which shows that the blocked bridge is just symbolic, really. We drove through parts of North Mitrovica where ethnic Albanians live – and accordingly lots of red-and-black Albanian flags were flying here instead of the Serbian colours.
Eventually we headed up the hill, parked the car and walked to the giant Miners’ Monument
that towers over the city and is its Yugoslav
-era landmark. The huge concrete monument, completed in 1973, was designed by renowned sculptor-architect Bogdan Bogdanović (who also designed the Flower Monument at Jasenovac
and the Dudik Memorial Park in Vukovar
). Officially it’s dedicated to fallen miners from the nearby Trepča mine who formed a partisan unit fighting against the occupation of Kosovo in WWII
. The monument’s design is supposed to symbolically represent a miner’s ore-cart suspended by two figures, supposed to be a Serb and an ethnic Albanian working together. This is probably abstract enough to be not too in the face of the locals. There’s some damage from neglect and vandalism, especially some stolen metal plaques, and the copper covering of the symbolic ore-cart has mostly disappeared too, so that it is just raw concrete, and of course graffiti. The base of the pillars supporting the monument is where most graffiti is applied, but it gets regularly painted over in white to cover it up. And there have been some restoration efforts in recent years, including the installation of lamp posts and the construction of a dual viewing platform to the south of the monument. From there you get an excellent panoramic view of Mitrovica.
Directly downhill to the south is a pretty new looking Orthodox church, to the west is a larger cluster of houses, with the odd war ruin visible until very recently. Now it’s mostly restored old houses and many more newly constructed ones. To the east you can make out some slack heaps from the local mining operations.
Another nod to Mitrovica’s mining history is to be found in the form of a mining train serving as a monument on one of the traffic islands on the way south out of town on the main street.
After having dropped off our local companion near his home, my guide drove us to a large memorial complex on the western edge of Mitrovica. Here there is an independence monument at the far end of the complex, with the date 17 - 02- 2008 inscribed at the bottom beneath what looks like a structure that should contain an eternal flame. But it was unlit at the time. A huge Albanian (not Kosovan) flag flies next to it. In front of the monument is a large cemetery in which members of the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK in Albanian) are buried.
All in all, it was an eye-opening and interesting tour and I’m glad I made the investment. Visiting a place like Mitrovica, where the contemporary conflict is still simmering and could at times erupt again, is of course a bit on the edge of kosher dark tourism. Only a few years ago it would have been even more adventurous. But the very fact that a local tour operator offers these tours goes to show that it is by now fairly safe and ethically justifiable to go to Mitrovica. Even though there are still official warnings against travelling there in place issued by some governments. I’d say, if the tour operator is happy to take foreigners there, then it’s OK. If it’s too dicey at other times they’d hopefully say so or not even offer the tour. On my tour I never felt personally threatened or unsafe at any point, though it felt a little awkward taking photos of those dodgy pro-Russian murals and graffiti, but I tried to do so as discreetly as I could.
in northern Kosovo
, ca. 22 miles (35 km) north-west of Pristina
, about an hour’s drive away (traffic is slow in both Pristina and Mitrovica).
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: possible independently, but recommended as a guided tour; the former is inexpensive, but with a guide naturally more costly.
You could just get a (cheap) local overland bus to Mitrovica from Pristina
; but it is recommended to go with a guide, also given the sometimes volatile security situation in Mitrovica. A local guide will know where to tread and where to avoid.
I visited the place as part of a longer (all-day) “Western Kosovo Political Tour
” offered by the operator “Balkan N’Adventure”. The itinerary was slightly adapted/tailored (to include Gazimestan
but not Gračanica Monastery). For a price quote email them at <info(at)bnadventure>. Expect to pay in the region of 120-160 EUR for the day. The guide I had was very good, enthusiastic and knowledgable (he speaks both English and German, in addition to Albanian and Serbo-Croat, and his name was Arianit Mula; I’d recommend him).
If you’re going independently, expect a lot of walking and navigational difficulties. The first part is easy enough: from the bus station just continue on the same main road north until you come to the New Bridge – that takes about 20 minutes for the ca. one mile (1.5 km) distance. From the square in front of the northern end of the bridge, the road forking off slightly to the right is the main drag of North Mitrovica, where many of the street cafes are.
To get to the Miners’ Monument, however, you have to take the road that forks off slightly to the left and then either keep walking through the residential parts west of the hill with the monument on top. Where the road forks again, keep to the right. Eventually you’ll come to the top of the hill behind the monument.
Alternatively, half way up, turn sharp right into Kolubarska, which will take you to the new Orthodox church at the bottom of the hill. From there you can climb up to the monument along a steep path behind the church. Either way it will be a little workout.
Another alternative, and the route by car, is going up on the eastern side of the hill on a difficult-to-find road that meanders up round the back of the hill (the Spomenik Database website has directions and a map for this approach).
Time required: on my tour we spent just under two and a half hours in Mitrovica in total, including a break for coffee at the beginning and a stop by the independence monument and cemetery on the outskirts at the end. I reckon that if you go independently and concentrate just on the bridge, Miners’ Monument and a bit of the city centre, you’ll need at least a similar amount of time because of all the walking (and hill climbing) required.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
My “Western Kosovo Political Tour” was a combination of Mitrovica with Gazimestan
and a few war-related sites en route, and a return to Pristina
. If you’re doing it independently then you will have to visit Mitrovica and Prekaz independently on separate days, while Gazimestan is a shorter taxi ride from Pristina, that would require only an hour or so.
For those into industrial urbexing
, the abandoned mining and smelter complexes around Mitrovica might be an attraction, if you can get in at all (we didn’t try, as we wouldn’t have had the time in any case, nor would it really have fitted in with the theme of the tour).
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Mitrovica has few non-dark sights, but amongst them is the old Ottoman-era hamam and the new grand mosque right in the centre (a donation from Turkey
In addition to the now ruined former Xhafer Deva house (see above
), there’s another older piece of architecture dating back to 1928, originally the Hotel Jadran, but now home to a branch of that well-known US chicken fast-food chain from the Bourbon whiskey state …
There’s also a City Museum of Mitrovica with plenty of ancient archaeological artefacts and contemporary art, but I think it’s aimed more at a local clientele than international tourists.
- Mitrovica 01 - infamous dividing bridge
- Mitrovica 02 - EU presence
- Mitrovica 03 - road blocks and Carabinieri security
- Mitrovica 04 - the Iber River
- Mitrovica 05 - in the Serbian part of town
- Mitrovica 06 - with Serbian pivo
- Mitrovica 07 - Serbian-Russian propaganda graffiti
- Mitrovica 08 - graffito of the Russian symbol for their Special Operation in Ukraine
- Mitrovica 09 - more pro-Russian graffiti
- Mitrovica 10 - the pigeons seem to have other views of Russia
- Mitrovica 11 - historic warrior
- Mitrovica 12 - back in the Albanian part of town
- Mitrovica 13 - old building
- Mitrovica 14 - hamam
- Mitrovica 15 - abandoned and shuttered old building
- Mitrovica 16 - no access
- Mitrovica 17 - UN behind bars
- Mitrovica 18 - apparently speaking German is an asset here
- Mitrovica 19 - mall and miners monument
- Mitrovica 20 - miners monument close up
- Mitrovica 21 - looking down from the miners monument to a Serbian Orthodox church
- Mitrovica 22 - some old ruined houses and plenty of new ones
- Mitrovica 23 - evidence of coal mining
- Mitrovica 24 - mining train monument in the city
- Mitrovica 25 - old industry in the south of the town
- Mitrovica 26 - grand mosque
- Mitrovica 27 - Independence monument and KLA cemetery on the western edge of town