Page last updated at 04:40 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 05:40 UK

Kosovo lives: Albanian in Mitrovica

Driton Gerguri

In the second of five pieces by BBC journalists examining life in Kosovo today, Nick Thorpe meets one of the few remaining Albanian families in northern Mitrovica.

On the table in his front room, Driton Gerguri opens a red album, like a family heirloom.

"Other kids collected stamps, but I collected these," he says proudly.

Page after page of carefully mounted badges and tie pins, from sporting events and factories, anniversaries and celebrations.

Each is like a crumb of the common life that people of different nationalities used to live in the old Yugoslavia.

Taken together, the album is like a carefully preserved cake of a bygone world.

The badges are relics of a country that disappeared in 1991

Driton and his family too are like rare items in a collector's scrapbook - one of the last Albanian families in the Mikronaselje neighbourhood, in Serb-dominated northern Mitrovica.

Nearly 300 Albanian families lived in this part of town before the war. Now there are only 58.

"There have been very sad periods," Driton says.

"During the war [1998-99] many people fled, and we witnessed the burning of many houses."

But as the Albanians who used to form the majority of the population in northern Mitrovica were driven out, the Gerguris clung on. "We were very lucky. None of our close relatives were killed, or murdered, or died."

He uses all three verbs.

"Two things stopped us leaving. We didn't know where to go, and even how safe it would be to travel. And secondly, my mother suffered from diabetes. It would have been very hard to move her."

Diverse residents

So they stayed. The great complication for them, as for many families in this divided town, was the bridge over the River Ibar, linking the mainly Serbian north to the mainly Albanian south.

During the worst days, demonstrators, police, and Nato soldiers regularly fought on the bridge, which the girls needed to cross in order to get to school.

Their oldest daughter, Besarta, was only 10 then.

Her parents took the difficult decision to send her to stay with her aunt in relatively peaceful Pristina. Sometimes they did not see her for months on end.

Besarta repaid their trust by studying hard. This summer, she is on a scholarship in New Jersey.

Mitrovica is quieter now, but trouble can flare up at any time.

If a man can't afford to buy food for his family, or a toy for his child, how can he enjoy sitting and talking?
Driton Gerguri

Their second daughter Mediwa, 17, crosses the main bridge, or the footbridge nearby, each day to school in the south. The two youngest children, Mohammed, 10, and Sumea, 13, go to school in the north.

"This was always a mixed neighbourhood. No-one ever asked 'what is he or she?'" says Driton, remembering the pre-war days.

Driton worked until 1990 in the Grand Hotel in Pristina, as a cashier in the casino. He was fired in 1990, as the nationalism of Milosevic's Serbia grew.

"More and more racketeers were staying in the hotel," he remembers.

Today, he runs a funeral service, on the southern, Albanian side of the river.

His wife Shadije started as a translator, then became a judge in the UN-run courthouse in Mitrovica.

But the court - another focal point of clashes - has been closed since February, so now she has to travel to Vucitrn, the next town on the road to Pristina, to go to work.

As we talk, there is a sudden commotion on the street outside. A kitten has climbed up into the gutter of a neighbouring house and got stuck.

Children come running from all directions. Serbs and Albanians, and the town's other minorities - Bosniaks, Turks and Roma. Alarmed by so many spectators, the kitten eventually leaps to safety.

"What I like about Mitrovica, is that I know a lot of people. It takes me an hour to walk down the street, into town. I stop and talk to so many people," says Driton.

"If I go to a restaurant, and can't pay the bill, I can always pay later."

'Endless stress'

Inside the bathroom of their house, water containers are everywhere, full to the brim. While northern Mitrovica is spared the power cuts which plague the rest of the country, the problem here is running water.

There are other discomforts. An ambulance cannot come from south to north without a police or Nato escort.

Relatives and friends from the south are afraid to visit them.

The Gerguri family
The Gerguri family have faced many challenges

The psychological pressure is always high. Especially at times of major political events - the independence declaration in February, or the setting up of a Serb Parliament at the end of June.

Before we leave, Driton shows me some of the prizes from his badge collection. A squirrel with a rainbow tail from the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984. "Kosovo my desire", written in Slovenian, from 1980.

Once upon a time there was a town named after Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslav leader from 1945 to 1980, in every republic and province of Yugoslavia. And in Kosovo, this was Titovska Mitrovica.

"He was supposed to visit the town in his famous blue train in 1978," remembers Driton. "We waited for hours at the railway station to wave. When the trip was cancelled at the last minute, we cried all day."

"Until recently, I was a community leader here, with a Serb," he explains.

"We met so many donors. They organised so many seminars. When all we needed was basic services - and work."

When he realised that he couldn't fulfil any of the hopes his community placed in him, he quit.

"If a man can't afford to buy food for his family, or a toy for his child, how can he enjoy sitting and talking?"

The people of Mitrovica deserve something better than "this endless stress", he concludes, adding that politicians could be part of the problem, rather than the solution.

"I sometimes have the impression that the international community, together with local leaders, are the ones who are keeping this town divided."

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