Letter from Mitrovica
by *Eileen Kovchok
In Kosovo’s besieged city of Mitrovica, the Ibar River divides the Serbs in the north from the Albanians in the south. Patrols of the United Nations’ Kosovo Force guard each of the bridges and checkpoints in neighborhoods on either side of the river where the populations are mixed. Their tanks, and an occasional armed patrol, monitor the streets.
Unlike Pristina the provincial capital city 40 miles to the south where sidewalk cafes are crowded, heat and light are rationed, phones occasionally work, and the scars of last year1s war are being removed Mitrovica has ethnically mixed neighborhoods on the north side where housewives seldom leave their homes to shop for milk or bread without asking for an armed Kosovo Force escort, and a 12-year-old student from an apartment building where both Serbs and ethnic Albanians ride to school in an armored personnel carrier. Across the river in the south of the city, where most of the population is composed of ethnic Albanians, life is no less easy. This past winter, 400 students at one grammar school sat through their lessons in unheated classrooms where the temperature reached four degrees below zero.
The rector, a former teacher of German, French, and English, had not worked officially for the years following his arrest in 1986 for holding the presidency of the city's Democratic League of Kosovo. Violence marks access to the bridges that divide the city. A few days earlier, French Kosovo Force troops secured a bridge and cordoned a few blocks of the Serb side allowing Albanians to cross the bridge in relative safety. Serb demonstrators protested, and French soldiers in riot gear tossed stun grenades. Two people stepped on grenades and were seriously wounded. Both lost their legs.
Jovanka Antovic lives at number 1 John Kennedy Street, Kosovska Mitrovica, on the north side of the river. She is a 52-year-old Serb whose living room is now the office where the pensions of the city’s 18,600 Albanian and Serb retirees are calculated. She manages these pension accounts alone, with only a calculator and her memory.
Before the NATO bombing, there were six people working in the city’s pension office on the south side of the river. Jovanka was the only Serb working in the office.
In 1974, she hired an Albanian named Ramadan. For more than 25 years she supervised his work and that of others who later joined the staff. Ramadan and Jovanka became friends. He taught her to speak Albanian and she taught him Serbian. When, last year, ethnic Albanians took control of much of the city, Ramadan told her to speak only Albanian and accept all Albanian laws, or leave the office. She left and set up the office in her home.
The task of monthly calculation and request of pensions for Mitrovica’s retirees used to be performed by computer from the Mitrovica office, with additional services provided from the main office in Pristina. But the Pristina office ceased to function during the war. When Jovanka set up the pension accounts office at home, she had neither computer records nor hard copies of the accounts. She began by trying to remember the information on all 18,600 pensioners from her past 26 years in the job. She would miss a pension payment period if she waited for Belgrade to provide the lists, so she worked days and far into the nights sometimes getting only three or four hours sleep to reconstruct the accounts in her own handwriting. She mailed the lists to Belgrade for verification, and eventually they sent her a computer-generated list.
During last year’s bombing, the city1s electricity was cut off at 7 p.m., so she worked by candlelight until it came on at 5 a.m. She continues to perform all of the tasks once performed by a staff of six. Because of Jovanka’s diligence and her ability to recall the work of her 26-year career, pensions have been paid punctually throughout the city’s conflict.
The pensions are, in many cases, the only source of income for the elderly residents of Mitrovica. The average pension in Kosovska Mitrovica is 60 deutsche marks a month, which is about $30. It is these economics that moved Jovanka to take on her work single handedly, performing the work of six people and sleeping only a few hours a night.
Pensioners and new applicants call her throughout the day and into the evening with their questions and concerns. Late in the evening her son, Ivan, takes the phone off the hook. Jovanka mails notices of payment to each pensioner once a month. The national government in Belgrade wires the funds to a newly established post office in Mitrovica. The pensioners must report to that post office carrying their statements provided by Jovanka in order to pick up their pensions in cash payments. But the post office is on the northern side of the river, and Albanians who constitute about 90 percent of the pensioners on her lists are afraid to cross the bridge.
How do they collect their pensions?
Jovanka doesn’t know.
The percentage of Serb pensioners in Mitrovica has increased, she says, as many have escaped Pristina’s violent anti-Serb atmosphere. But there are also Serbs who talk of leaving Mitrovica for the same reason.
Will she stay in Mitrovica, she is asked?
Yes, she says. She, her son, and grandson live in this house. Their family has lived in this city for over 500 years. They feel that ethnic Albanians are trying to push them out of the city, but they have nowhere else to go.
“I don’t want to give up this part of Mitrovica, even if I have to fight with my hands.” However, the family recently took the precaution of sending their nicest furniture to relatives outside the city.
“There must be peace in the end,” she says. “We must live together because we don’t want to leave. But a lot of time must pass to get over the emotions.”
*Eileen Kovchok is a freelance journalist living in Budapest, and has frequently written from the Balkans for the magazine