Relations between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo remain tense. An international group of photographers has tried to capture the mood in Pristina and is looking for evidence of reconciliation.
It is massive, run-down and highly visible: The national Martyr's Monument in the Kosovar capital, Pristina, seems out of place in this era. The bulky concrete Socialist construction, once a symbol of brotherhood and unity of the Yugoslav peoples, represents a long-gone past. Today, the monument stands as a silent historic witness of an outdated political system.
But the monument was important to people in the 1970s and '80s, said Jetmir Idrizi . The Kosovar photographer took black-and-white photos of the monument, and cut the images lengthwise into thin strips. "They document the time when Serbs and Albanians lived together without prejudices of nationality," Idrizi said.
The ethnically divided city of Mitrovica in the Serb-dominated north of the country is also a source of inspiration to the photographer. The barricaded bridge over the Ibar River has become a symbol of the conflict between the Serbs and the Albanians.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but many Serbs still refuse to recognize that independence and continue to regard Kosovo as a Serbian province. An EU-brokered deal, agreed in 2013 by both Belgrade and Pristina, could help normalize relations.
Reconciliation is closely tied in with the common past shared by the two ethnic groups in the country, according to Kosovo-Albanian Idrizi. Sometimes, he said, it is important to look back if you want to move ahead. By invitation of Germany's GIZ government aid agency and along with five colleagues from Mongolia, Hungary, the Palestinian Territories, Mali and Germany, Idrizi spent a week in Kosovo exploring the topic of reconciliation. An exhibition entitled "Reconciliation in Kosovo" shows the photographers' interpretations of the topic simultaneously in Berlin, Bonn and Pristina.
Facts of life
Idrizi was born in Pristina. During the Kosovo war, then 15-year-old Idrizi and his family fled to Macedonia and on to Belgium before returning home. Today, he is a renowned photojournalist who works in Pristina as well as in Belgrade. To him, reconciliation is a fact of life, but he said he understands the anger and hatred felt by "people who lost someone during the war; the memory is still fresh, it's only been 14 years." His family was lucky: "Personally, I haven't lost anyone from our families during the war, so it made it a bit easier for me not to have issues if someone is a Serb."
German photographer Merlin Nadj-Torma, who also took part in the GIZ workshop in Kosovo, said Idrizi's clipped photographs impressed. "The symbolism is very strong: Jetmir shows that these monuments still exist in Kosovo, but no longer function there."
It was difficult at first to engage in the topic of reconciliation in a country where the conflict is still so evident - even unsolved - in some regions, the German photographer said. "My initial reaction was: Kosovo is definitely the wrong place for this," Nadj-Torm said. However, she experienced memorable moments during her week-long stay: "We met Serbs and Albanians simply working side-by-side in a bakery and in a drugstore." Affiliation to an ethnic group played no role whatsoever.
A shift in perception
Nadj-Torma took photos of everyday places, including a sports field and people's homes in Pristina. Her pictures are blurred, which gives them a dream-like quality. "The places appear in a different light," the photographer said. "I wanted to show that a small shift in our perception can have a big effect."
Idrizi praised his German colleague's photos. "At first, I feared the other photographers would just position a Serb next to an Albanian," he said. "But they showed me that reconciliation is much more than that."
The exhibition at the Landesmuseum Bonn shows the two photographers' work placed side by side. Merlin Nadj-Torma was born and raised in Germany, but her parents come from Serbia.
"We joked a lot about each other and challenged each other, but in a good way," Nadj-Torma said. On a small scale, the two photographers show what could one day apply to all Serbs and Albanians: leave the past behind and face the future together.
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