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Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Sunday, 13 July 2008 12:23 UK

Buses tell of Belgrade-Kosovo links

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Belgrade

Serbian politicians and their Kosovo Albanian counterparts tend to have nothing to do with one another - but at Belgrade's bus station you discover this does not apply to everyone.

Travellers at Belgrade bus station
Buses to Pristina and Mitrovica both leave from bay 10
Nearly a decade after the war, and five months after Kosovo declared independence, the Pristina Express leaves three times a day, carrying passengers from all ethnic backgrounds.

Whether it's for business or healthcare, family visits or consular services, there are ties that still bind.

But there are also, in some cases, bad memories and distrust.

I glimpsed some of these on the coach from Belgrade to the Kosovo Serb stronghold of northern Mitrovica.

Lifeline

I spent a couple of hours on the comfortable air-conditioned Pristina Express, as it sped down a highway towards Nis, on the first part of a six-hour journey.

Kurta Sultan
An Albanian doctor told me I should go to Belgrade for radiotherapy
Kurta Saltan

Some of the people I spoke to were returning from Belgrade hospitals, either as patients or carers.

The patients had been receiving treatment for serious conditions, which they could not get in Kosovo.

One was an elderly Albanian travelling with his sick son, another a Bosnian Muslim in his 40s living in southern Kosovo. None had a bad word to say about Serbian doctors.

I also talked to a Serb, a young woman who has a fashion shop in a suburb of Pristina.

She had been visiting a foreign embassy to apply for a visa so that she could join her boyfriend, a Bosnian Muslim, in the West.

Her business, she said, depended on ethnic Albanian suppliers in Pristina and she had good relations with them.

Nobody wanted to talk about politics.

About an hour out of Belgrade, the conductor gathered up everyone's ID cards or passports. I noticed many Serbian cards in his hands.

The coach, like other traffic approaching Kosovo from the east, is checked by Kosovan customs at the administrative border.

Open border

When I boarded the coach to Mitrovica - which leaves from the same bay as the Pristina coach, bay 10 - I stayed on it all the way.

Belgrade-Mitrovica coach
On this bus to Mitrovica, passengers were more reluctant to talk
Approaching Kosovo from the north, we flashed past the administrative border - an open barrier manned by a few Serbian policemen - without stopping.

This vehicle had seen better days. Its seats were torn and the only relief from the 30C heat was the draft from a skylight.

It rolled along an interminable mountain road, after which the fields of Kosovo were such a welcome sight, you could begin to appreciate why its inhabitants feel so passionately about it.

Everyone I spoke to aboard was Serbian. They were more reticent than the passengers on the Pristina coach and none wanted to be photographed.

The most voluble passenger was a middle-aged man returning to his home village north of Mitrovica, after visiting family. He said he had he once been treated "like an animal" by K-for peacekeepers who had searched him.

One passenger was a student, returning on vacation from college in Belgrade to his family in the Strpce enclave, in the far south of Kosovo.

His life seemed to be a constant battle, trying to make ends meet while studying and worrying about his family's safety.

He was due to continue his journey with friends by car after leaving the coach in Mitrovica.

An athletic, middle-aged man on the coach, who had lived in Pristina before the 1998-99 war and now lived in Mitrovica, politely declined to be interviewed because, he said, it would make no difference.

Different rules

In Kosovo, the car is king but driving to Belgrade entails problems of its own.

Motorists with Kosovan number plates - a small symbol of independence - cannot enter Serbia and are obliged to attach temporary plates.

Cars with Serbian number plates can circulate in Kosovo, but non-Albanians complain of harassment by police.

Police may expect drivers to have a green card, permitting them to drive in a foreign country.

As for other alternatives to the coaches, there is no air link between Belgrade and Pristina and the railway connection is suspended.

However, international peacekeepers have lately spotted an unauthorised Serbian train running into north Kosovo



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