Mitrovica/Mitrovicë, Kosovo — This is a city divided by a river, by walls topped with sharp razor wire, by heavily armed soldiers and, most of all, by ethnic discord. Some regional analysts have derided the place as "a dead city."
Dozens of area youth disagree — and they're helping compose the city's critical next chapter through the power of the written word.
In Mitrovica/Mitrovicë — which, like most cities in Kosovo, bears both the Serb and Albanian names to reflect the importance of both ethnic groups — Mercy Corps is helping these youth become citizen journalists who can effect social change. The Youth Voice project is promoting peace, tolerance and dialogue through youth engagement, including publication of student-written newspapers and magazines.
Mercy Corps, with the support of local partner organization MINGOS, has created a variety of forums to rally youth around the issues that affect them: the two organizations have sponsored seminars, debates and trainings designed to help youth develop their writing and advocacy skills.
A voice of action
When Mercy Corps began the initiative, many were skeptical.
"At the beginning there were doubts, because other organizations had come here, promised things and then left," said Luzlim Hoti, a MINGOS staffer. "But Mercy Corps has remained here, kept working and is fulfilling its promise."
Hoti, 30, knows firsthand about the deep ethnic divisions in Kosovo and especially around Mitrovica/Mitrovicë. During the Kosovo conflict of the late 1990s, Hoti was severely beaten by Serbian police when they found an Albanian language book hidden in his shirt. Soon afterward, when regional violence escalated, he and his family were forced to flee from their homes then coerced to march for almost a week to the Albanian border. Once there, they spent more than two months in exile as refugees.
Today, after earning a college degree in literature, Hoti is mentoring youth in using their voice to make sure such things never happen again.
"Activating youth through this program has been a real success," Hoti said. "They feel involved in their communities now, and are really connected to the issues that affect them and their families."
More than 100 youth in the Mitrovica/Mitrovicë area participate in the Youth Voice program. One of the most noticeable features of their work is a local newspaper with youth-focused articles and articulate opinion pieces. The monthly newspaper, which prints more than 3,000 copies, is distributed free of charge to schools, libraries and other places frequented by youth.
The newspaper also has another notable distinction: it's the first newspaper printed in Mitrovica/Mitrovicë for at least five years.
Action without borders
There is a similar publication and project going on in neighboring Serbia — but, because of ongoing tensions, it's nearly impossible to have participants interact and collaborate. There are also challenges within students' homes in Mitrovica/Mitrovicë.
"It's really hard, at least at first, to get Albanian kids to interact with Serbs at all, and vice-versa," Hoti said. "Their parents often stop that from happening."
However, just getting together and talking things over has made a difference.
"Over the course of the trainings and seminars, most of our students have changed their minds about not just being around, but interacting with other ethnic groups," Hoti explained. "They're more curious about dialogue and more serious about meaningful collaboration."
Because border issues make travel between Kosovo and Serbia difficult if not impossible, Hoti and other Youth Voice staff came up with another way to get students together. They sent ten students from Mitrovica/Mitrovicë to a conference in Budapest, Hungary where they were able to meet and spend time with youth from Bulgaria, Poland and Serbia. These youth returned with new ideas for cooperation as well as renewed vigor for organizing and energizing their fellow students.
Although the bridges between the Albanian and Serb parts of Mitrovica/Mitrovicë remain closed and heavily patrolled for now, Hoti is optimistic about the future of his city. With help from Mercy Corps, his organization continues to transform youth into well-informed and empowered social activists.
"They're real journalists now - they can look at things in a discerning way," Hoti said. "They know how to bring relevant issues to the public eye. And if they can change just one mind, that person could change their community."