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JDC helps bridge ethnic gap in Kosovo

MITROVICA, Kosovo, May 15 (JTA) — The dignitaries were gathered to celebrate a local youth center’s move to a massive community center in this northern Kosovo town when, suddenly, the mayor’s translator came upon a word she couldn’t relay in Serbian. Mayor Farouk Spahiu, an ethnic Albanian, stepped in to remind her. It was a subtle gesture, but one rich with meaning: It was an acknowledgment of a shared past and of a basic desire, after years of tension in which speaking the wrong language in the wrong place could have fatal consequences, for things to be normal again in Kosovo. That, after all, was the hope of those who attended the April 29 ceremony for the Multiethnic Children and Youth Peace Center. The audience included the heads of the U.S. Office — the de facto embassy in Kosovo — and senior officials from the U.N. administration. It also is the goal of the peace center, a non-governmental organization that aims to bring together youth of all ethnicities by offering opportunities and resources to better themselves and their communities. The organization has been operating in Mitrovica for several years, but it wasn’t until a few months ago, when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee took up the cause in earnest, that it was able to really serve “as a bridge between communities,” says Eli Eliezri, the JDC’s main representative in Kosovo. In cooperation with the Soros Foundation’s Kosova Foundation for Open Society, the JDC facilitated the peace center’s move into the community center building and outfitted it with a large computer lab with an Internet connection. The “bridge” that Eliezri mentioned is a fitting metaphor in this town. Kosovo’s ethnic divisions are starkly embodied in Mitrovica, where the Ibar River divides the town into a Serbian section in the north and an Albanian one in the south. There is an Albanian enclave in the north, but residents must be escorted in and out at appointed times by troops of KFOR, the NATO force in Kosovo. There also are pockets of Bosniaks — Serbian-speaking Muslims — and Roma. For all intents and purposes, however, members of the various communities live separate lives. When their paths do cross, there often is violence. The so-called “bridge-watchers,” who casually monitor the northern side of the main bridge over the Ibar to prevent Albanians from crossing, have clashed violently with U.N. police and KFOR peacekeepers. Murders and abductions, especially in the villages surrounding the city, are not uncommon. Many Serbians fled in the aftermath of the 1999 NATO-led military campaign, fearing revenge from Albanians, and it’s estimated that more than 200,000 Kosovar Serbs are still refugees in Serbia. For them, north Mitrovica is Serbia’s last foothold in Kosovo, which they regard as their cultural motherland. Kosovar Serbs once made up 10 percent of the population of Kosovo, but now are significantly less. Most of them insist that Kosovo should remain part of Serbia. With ethnic tension still palpable in the city, it would appear that the peace center has its work cut out for it. The organization has no delusions about the youth of the city joining hands in a sing-a-long. Rather, through its facilities and programs — which include a multiethnic kindergarten and a youth journal — it offers the children resources that at least will bring them together under the same roof. One peace center project is training and coordinating a team of journalists from different communities to produce Kosovo’s only multiethnic youth magazine, Future, published monthly in Serbian and Albanian editions. The center also produces a weekly half-hour radio show. The magazine reflects the interests of the 15- to 20-year-olds who produce it. In last month’s issue there was a spread on Jennifer Lopez and a story on the new line of Audi cars. There’s a reason for the internationalist bent: MTV and international or American professional sports form a kind of neutral territory where youths can share interests. The youths are sensitive to divisive topics and steer clear of them. The peace center’s director, Miranda Hochberg, recalls an incident when visiting representatives of the Rockefeller Foundation pressed a group of Serbians and Albanians for their opinions on Kosovo’s future political status. One youth nervously whispered the center’s credo: “We don’t talk about politics.” While such issues are occasionally discussed in Future’s editorial room, they never make it into the magazine. “The kids are really afraid,” Hochberg says. “It’s not the time, they’ll say, and then they’ll name murders. We don’t want to be next, they’ll say. ” That doesn’t mean the journal limits itself to cultural diversions. The focus on pop culture may be a way to garner mass appeal, but the journal increasingly addresses issues of importance to youth on both sides of the river: the state of schools, libraries and sport facilities, as well as the situation of some of the region’s most marginalized communities, such as the Ashkalli, Albanian-speaking Roma. One of the greatest challenges remains getting wary parents, especially in the north, to allow their children to cross the bridge to come to the center. Training for Serbian participants continue to be held in the north. “If they weren’t, no one would come,” Hochberg says, referring to the offsite sessions. For the next session, however, she is going to insist that the Serbian students come to the center. For many of the older youth, drawn by the new computer lab, the center is the opportunity they have been looking for to finally cross the bridge. The hope is that, as more and more young people venture into the south, they will lead the way for their parents. That’s exactly what happened when Tamara, a Serbian from the north, brought her mother to the opening ceremony: It was the first time the mother had been to the southern part of town since the war. For Tamara, the center and its media programs have been more than just a way to pass idle time: She insists she has found her calling as a journalist, though she would prefer to work somewhere else. “I don’t want to stay here,” she says. “I don’t like the situation. I want peace, a normal life, without restrictions.” Hogan, a young Bosniak, basically shares Tamara’s view. Both of them would like to live somewhere warm. “Maybe Miami,” he says, and Tamara laughs and nods approvingly. They carry on with such easy familiarity that an onlooker wonders how long they have known each other. “About half an hour,” he says.