The status of conflict-riven Kosovo, the UN-administered Serbian province that is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, is being considered by an international envoy who has spent nearly a year searching in vain for common ground between Serbs and Albanians. VOA's Barry Wood visited the northern city of Mitrovica, home to many of the remaining 120,000 Serbs who comprise a small minority of Kosovo's population.
Kosovo is quiet now but NATO-led peacekeepers are on guard against any recurrence of the kind of anti-Serb riots that erupted in 2004. Kosovo's status could be decided shortly. Ethnic Albanians demand independence, Serbs oppose it.
Nowhere is mistrust and ethnic separation deeper than in decaying Mitrovica, a once flourishing mining center now divided by the Ibar River into a Serbian north and an Albanian south.
Jeta Xharra is a journalist and filmmaker, part of a team that produced an acclaimed video ("Does Any Body Have a Plan?") on Kosovo's future.
"The worst case scenario is that the north is so upset--whatever the solution. If Kosovo is declared independent, the north (could) declare itself independent. That's the worst case scenario."
About half of Kosovo's Serbs--and only a few Albanians--live in north Mitrovica and the wide strip of territory that leads up to the Serbian border. The UN rejects any partition and yet it is very much in the minds of the local population.
Gerard Gallucci, the UN administrator of Mitrovica, says partition won't happen. "I don't think there is any real prospect of that. I don't think anyone wants it. I don't think the Serb leadership wants it. I know the Kosovo Albanian leadership doesn't want it."
Gallucci admits that ethnic reconciliation is a long way off. But he's hopeful that Serbs and Albanians can cooperate on practical matters like municipal services. He supports decentralized local government as a means of building trust. "Decentralization simply means strong local rule in areas in which local people want to control their own lives, whether they're Serb or Albanian. I don't think anyone is explaining that to anybody, unfortunately, here in Kosovo."
Gallucci complains that because there has been little public education on the issue, many Albanians are suspicious that decentralization is a code word for partition.
Ethnic Albanian filmmaker Jeta Xharra supports decentralization and says that for Serbs to feel secure they need an urban center like north Mitrovica.
"Of course, it is sad that Serbs can't come to all the urban centers where they used to be, but unfortunately the reality is such that northern Kosovo is going to remain a largely Serb inhabited urban center," says Xharra.
For now Mitrovica and its bridge over the Ibar remain symbols of division and uncertainty. Serbs to the north, ethnic Albanian on the south, with UN police keeping the peace.