Divided Cities, Space and Territory: Belfast, Skopje and Mitrovica

By Peter Geoghegan

Lanark Way
Cupar Way, West Belfast

Pictured opposite is one section of an imposing 800-metre long multi-level barrier that has, in various forms, separated the largely Protestant Shankill Road from the largely Catholic Falls Road at Cupar Way in West Belfast since it was erected by the British Army in 1969, at the start of the Troubles. Belfast is one of the most segregated cities in Europe, with most people living on streets that are overwhelmingly Protestant or Catholic. Around a hundred ‘peace lines’ separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Belfast, around 90 per cent of the total in Northern Ireland. Many of these have been built since the Peace Process began in 1994.

While visitors to Northern Ireland often wonder why the peace lines are still in place, the reality on the ground is that the barriers are seen as necessary for both defensive and demographic reasons. According to a recent survey conducted by the University of Ulster, most people in Northern Ireland cannot envisage a time when there will be no peace lines.

Bombay Street
Bombay Street

This picture shows a peace line that separates republican and loyalist residents of Bombay Street in West Belfast. It was here that the British Army were first deployed in Northern Ireland, on Sunday August 15, 1969, following serious overnight loyalist violence that saw almost every house on the street burnt out

Initially the troops were very well received by the Catholic population on the grounds that it was a sign that Westminster was willing to intervene. Such was their popularity that the inchoate Provisional IRA explicitly did not target soldiers in the early years of the Troubles. But this was soon to change. In February 1971, the British Army lost its first soldier in what became known as Operation Banner. The following year it suffered over 100 fatalities. All told, the army has lost 765 servicemen in Northern Ireland since 1969. While the legacy of the British Army in Northern Ireland is still contentious, were it not for the soldiers’ arrival, the loss of life on Bombay Street in August 1969 would certainly have been much greater.

Ulster Defence Association Mural
Ulster Defence Association Mural

While walls and fences are frequently used to separate ethno-national communities in Northern Ireland, visual culture plays an important role in defining space as belonging to one side or another. Murals and flags are particularly strong territorial markers of identity. They also play a role in maintaining these territorial divisions and can serve to reproduce narratives of identity and belonging rooted in sectarian division.

This mural, located on the Newtownards Road in predominantly Protestant East Belfast, celebrates the activities of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a Protestant paramilitary grouping formed in September 1971. Despite being linked to a string of killings – many committed under the cover name Ulster Freedom Fighters – the UDA itself was not classified as a terrorist group until August 1992. According to Malcolm Sutton's Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland, the UDA/UFF was responsible for 260 killings during the Troubles; most of its victims were Catholic civilians.

East Belfast
East Belfast

This photograph shows a street in East Belfast. In the background, stand Samson and Goliath, the imposing cranes of Harland and Wolff, the shipyards where the ill-fated Titanic was built. Union Jack bunting flies above the street, identifying the neighbourhood as Protestant/Unionist. East Belfast was the area worst hit by the violent protests that followed Belfast City Council’s decision, in December 2012, that the Union Jack will fly from City Hall on 15 designated days during the year, rather than continuously as was previously the case.

The rioters, many with red, white and blue scarves across their faces, that clashed with police were mainly young men from working class neighbourhoods in East Belfast where levels of educational attainment are low. Job opportunities are scarce: at its peak Harland and Wolff had a workforce of 35,000, mainly Protestants from East Belfast, but now employs a fraction of that. The rise in tensions has coincided with a slump in the Northern Irish economy. The situation in East Belfast has been complicated further by the involvement of loyalist paramilitaries in the unrest

Divided Bridge in Mitrovica
Divided Bridge

The River Ibar provides a natural barrier between Serb-dominated north Mitrovica and the largely Albanian south, effectively dividing the disputed territory of North Kosovo and the Republic of Kosovo proper. The main bridge over the Ibar (pictured) has been blocked since July 2011, when local Serbs blockaded it in protest at the decision to send Kosovo Special Police Unit (ROSU) troops to implement customs policies at the northern border with Serbia.

The north is ‘the biggest challenge’ facing the young Kosovan state (which is not recognised by Serbia) said the former head of policy at the International Civilian Office, the body charged with implementing the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovan independence. Home to around a third of Kosovo’s estimated 130,000 Serbs, North Kosovo takes in urban north Mitrovica as well as three less densely populated municipalities that lie between the town and the border with Serbia proper. In this region, power is largely vested in Serb-run institutions controlled from Belgrade, not the Kosovan capital, Pristina, about forty kilometres to the south.

Serbian Mural in North Mitrovica
Serbian mural in North Mitrovica

Murals and flags in north Mitrovica attest to the Serb population of North Kosovo’s rejection of integration into Kosovo (see photograph). In February 2012, an unofficial referendum asked residents in the municipalities north of the Ibar, “Do you accept the institutions of the so-called Republic of Kosovo?” 99.74 per cent of voters said ‘no’

Government services in North Kosovo are a mixture of local institutions created under UNMIK, now functioning more or less independently, and Serbian financed security structures. The Mitrovica North Administrative Office was set up in an attempt to encourage Serbs in the North to take up Kosovan papers and other official documents. This has had mixed results. Over lunch, I met a group of Serb men in a dingy bar in downtown north Mitrovica. One said that he held Kosovan papers. None of his drinking companions would admit to taking Kosovo papers. ‘They want to force us to take the Kosovo documents but we won’t,’ said another, breaking the silence.

Albanian Flag in Mitrovica
Albanian flag

The atmosphere in south Mitrovica was less tense than in the north, when I visited. The double-headed Albanian flag was hung from lampposts and shop fronts (see photograph) but was less ubiquitous than its Serb equivalent north of the river. Now that Kosovo is independent, the Albanian population have less need for overt symbols of national identity and territorial markers, even in Mitrovica.

In 2011, former Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić proposed the partition of Kosovo north of the Ibar River as a ‘realistic’ solution. The notion of partition, potentially explosive in the ethnic patchwork of the Balkans, has been widely renounced by the international community.

‘In Mitrovica everything is political. To try and find common issues between the two communities is hard,’ said Aferdita Syla from Community Building Mitrovica, an NGO that works to promote cross-community dialogue between Serbs and Albanians. The tendency to view Mitrovica’s problems as primarily a product of ethnic difference is often unhelpful. 

Ratko Mladić in Zvecan
Ratko Mladić in Zvecan

Mitrovica was the economic powerhouse of Kosovo under socialism. Much of this prosperity emanated from the Trepca mines industrial complex. Built in the shadows of Trepca, the town of Zvecan is now almost exclusively Serb. Displays of Serb nationalism abound. In one instance, the entire gable wall of a house is given over to a massive mural of Ratko Mladić (see photograph), the Bosnian Serb general currently on trial at the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

With around 23,000 workers at its height, the Trepca mine was one of the biggest employers in the former Yugoslavia. Trepca can be read as a symbol of contemporary Kosovo’s economic difficulties: the mines are now largely empty, two giant cooling towers and an elongated black slag heap the only remnants of its former glory. Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe and almost certainly the highest rate of unemployment — unofficial estimates suggest that as many of 40 per cent of the population are out of work. Among those aged 15 to 25 the figure is even higher. 

The Arch of Macedonia
The Arch of Macedonia

The photograph opposite looks like it was taken from a Parisian boulevard, but in fact it was snapped on the streets of the Macedonian capital, Skopje. Officially named the Arch of Macedonia, this neo-classical arch was opened in 2012 by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who said it symbolised the triumph of Macedonia in winning independence in 1991.

The arch, which is estimated to have cost over €4 million to build, is part of ‘Skopje 2014’, a massive government-initiated works program that has seen a plethora of kitschy, quasi-baroque buildings erected in the Macedonian capital in recent years, including a new national theatre, history museum, a foreign ministry, a concert hall and two bridges. The bill for the entire project is expected to exceed €500 million (according to some estimates). The economic rationale behind Skopje 2014 has been called into question. Unemployment in Macedonia is around 30 per cent. Last year, the government were forced to take a series of emergency loans including a €250 million loan from Deutsche Bank and a €75 million loan from the World Bank. 

Alexander the Great statue
Alexander the Great statue

‘Welcome to Macedonia, the cradle of civilization.’ So began an automated text message I received not long after passing over the border into Macedonia. A central plank of this construction of Macedonian national identity is the celebration of Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon) as a Macedonian hero. This has angered Greece, with whom Macedonia has a long-running dispute over the country’s name. Greece maintains that as a Greek province is called ‘Macedonia’, the Balkan state’s use of the name is tantamount to a claim on Greek territory.

This 22-metre high bronze-coloured statue of Alexander (pictured) dominates Ploštad Makedonija, Skopje's central square. Erected as part of ‘Skopje 2014’ the statue sits atop a water fountain that plays music and changes colour at night. Behind the statue, high up on the top of the Vodno Mountain that overlooks Skopje, stands the 66-metre tall Millennium Cross. The Macedonian national football team play at Philip II of Macedonia arena, named in honour of Alexander the Great’s father. Skopje airport is also known as ‘Alexander the Great airport’.

Dimitar Popgeorgiev
Dimitar Popgeorgiev

This statue (pictured), in Ploštad Makedonija, depicts Dimitar Popgeorgiev, a revolutionary born in what was then the Ottoman city of Berovo (now in eastern Macedonia). Popgeorgiev, who is claimed by both Bulgaria and Macedonia, was a member of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, a revolutionary national liberation movement in the Ottoman terrirories of Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many Macedonians appear ambivalent about the changes to the city’s urban fabric: an Albanian taxi driver told me that the statues are ‘crazy’, while many younger Macedonians I spoke to seemed embarrassed by Skopje’s gaudy reconstruction. Opposition politicians arguing against December’s budget which proposed drawing a new €250m loan from the World Bank, said that dramatic savings could be made in a large number of areas, including spending on Skopje 2014. The budget was eventually passed, but only after plain clothes police from the Interior Ministry expelled opposition lawmakers from the parliament. 

‘Don’t Panic, We’re Muslims’
‘Don’t Panic, We’re Muslims’

Skopje 2014 is part of a wider project to construct an explicitly ‘Macedonian’ national identity based on cleavages such as the Macedonian language, the Orthodox Church and the legacy of Alexander the Great. However, this vision of ‘Macedonian-ness’ seems to have little place for almost a quarter of Macedonia’s population – the half a million or more Albanian citizens, most of whom live in the west of the country.

Albanians have their own language, very different national figures, and many practise a different religion, Islam (see photograph taken near Skopje’s Old Bazaar). In the spring of 2001, an Albanian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (NLA), demanded full legal, religious and political equality for Albanians in Macedonia. The resulting conflict cost hundreds of lives before the Ohrid Agreement brought major political reforms for Albanians. However, there are very real fears that Macedonians and Albanians are becoming separate states within the nation state and that, in time, the country could break up along ethnic lines.

Lanark Way
Bombay Street
Ulster Defence Association Mural
East Belfast
Divided Bridge in Mitrovica
Serbian Mural in North Mitrovica
Albanian Flag in Mitrovica
Ratko Mladić in Zvecan
The Arch of Macedonia
Alexander the Great statue
Dimitar Popgeorgiev
‘Don’t Panic, We’re Muslims’
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