The Mitrovica Rock School: bridging the divide between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo

The Mitrovica Rock School: bridging the divide between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo

ElectraHeart during a rehearsal in August 2019.

(Rock school Mitrovica/Stefan Rajhl)

“Alternative pop, funky, something like that...I can’t really put a label on our music.” Jelena does not care much for labels and classifications. The young metal fan tunes her bass in the Mitrovica Rock School studio where she is about to rehearse with her pop-rock band ElectraHeart. They are doing a gig in the south of the country the next day and there are still a few adjustments to be made before the concert. “We’ve got six or seven songs now,” explains Baton, the drummer. “We also do covers and things like that.” There is nothing, on the face of it, that differentiates ElectraHeart from any other pop-rock band. But things are a bit different in Mitrovica, the biggest city in northern Kosovo, split in two between Serbs and Albanians. Jelena goes several times a week to play the bass with her group on the other side of the Ibar, the river that separates the two communities.

The Mitrovica Rock School was founded by Musicians Without Borders and Community Building Mitrovica in 2008, the year Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. Just short of a decade after the bloody conflict that ravaged this former province of Yugoslavia (leaving around 800,000 people displaced and 13,000 dead, according to the Serbian NGO Humanitarian Law Center), creating deep divisions amongst the population, the school was designed to bring together young people from the two parts of the city. “There have always been organisations that have been working, since the war, to bring us together, Serbs and Albanians, on holiday or other occasions,” says Jelena. “As for me, at least, I don’t feel like an outsider when I’m surrounded by Albanians, it has always been like that.”

Whilst Serbia still does not recognise Pristina’s authority, the Rock School is one of the few structures in the city that straddles both sides of the river.

It is late afternoon and Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters is playing at full blast, in the school’s basement. Emir Hasani, with his long, tied-back hair and impeccably neat goatee, is one of the music teachers. The thirty-something-year old with light coloured eyes lives in the north of Mitrovica. He comes to the Albanian side of the city almost every day now, but that has not always been the case. “I had never been to the southern side until the school was opened,” he admits, somewhat embarrassed. “I was still young when I heard about the school. I was in a ‘mixed band’ at the time. We had some great times together, with really good music,” he says, laughing. “There were three Albanians, two Serbs, and me, from the Gorani minority.”

A former pupil at the school, Hasani is now one of the teachers. He is in charge of one of the flagship courses, the ‘mixed bands’ programme. Young people from the different communities in the country learn to compose and develop their music together thanks to the school. “I’ve had a lot of support from my family, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “My father was a musician…we didn’t call it a ‘mixed band’ back then, because we were just a normal band,” he laughs. “And I think that’s the school’s aim, or one of them: not to think about such divisions. It’s just about the music and about being creative.” Hasani does not like to talk much about the divisions in his city. For him, the Rock School is a music school like any other.

Bringing people together through music and the arts

With Albania’s red and black flag in the south, Serb and Russian flags in the north and inflammatory slogans on the walls, Serbs and Albanians are still far from being totally reconciled with each other, although the situation in Mitrovica has been fairly calm in recent years. Marija Perović works at Europe House, in the northern part, where she grew up: “The schools are separate. The schools in the northern part are financed and governed by the Serbian government. You won’t find any Albanians studying there. And there are no Serbs studying in the southern part. But then we have this incredible thing which is the music school. The basic idea is to avoid conflict and to bring people together through music and the arts, which is probably one of the best ways of doing it. And I think they’ve succeeded.”

Europe House is located near the bridge linking the two parts of the city. The atmosphere there is rather relaxed, although the presence of a NATO patrol serves as a reminder that the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo has not yet been resolved. “We are at the separation point, a place that was the scene of so much conflict, so much violence, when I was a child,” recalls Perović. “But it’s peaceful now. You see all these people going from one side to the other. Most of them are Serbs who go to Bosnjacka Mahala, where the Albanians have all their shops.” In this country of less than two million people, projects bringing together Serbs and Albanians are still rare.

Eleven years after Kosovo declared independence, the negotiations with Serbia are deadlocked. And yet, according to Perović, the 80,000 residents of Mitrovica have had enough of this political posturing that pollutes everyday life for the citizens of Kosovo.

“I think most people want to see an end to it all and for things to be sorted out. But the politicians do nothing to help. They are the only ones benefitting from the conflict and they are turning us against each other. But Serbs and Albanians are not interested in fighting any more. There are still, of course, a few hotheads. I can’t do anything, unfortunately, about the nationalists and the hotheads. They exist everywhere.”

In the last Kosovan elections, in October 2019, the Serb List, remotely controlled by the very authoritarian Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, secured 96 per cent of the vote. At the beginning of 2018, one of the few Kosovo Serb political leaders in favour of dialogue with Pristina was murdered in the streets of Mitrovica. Although playing rock music with the city’s southern neighbours is something Jelena sees as quite natural, not everyone is of the same view. “When I posted the songs of my mixed bands on Facebook, some people sent me messages saying I was a traitor and things like that. But they don’t get to me, they’re not my close friends, and I don’t pay them too much attention.”

It comes as no surprise to Jelena that the school and its ‘mixed bands’ don’t make the headlines. “People only often focus on the negative. If something negative happens between Albanians and Serbs, then they take notice. But there’s no scandal at the school. Most people have probably never even heard of it. Most people only pay attention to politics.”

The Mitrovica Rock School has welcomed over 1,100 young people over the last 11 years and now has around 80 students a year. Seven ‘mixed bands’ regularly perform on the Balkan scene and many have been able to tour the various stages in the region. For this new generation of musicians, it is not about being Serb or Albanian. The most important thing is to make good music.

This story has been translated from French.