High Albania by Edith Durham is a classic, and ought to be required reading for all students of the Balkans. In 1908 this redoubtable Englishwoman travelled through northern Albania and Kosovo, and travelled to Mitrovica by train from Pristina. In 1908 political developments made the region relatively safe but Durham writes that to catch the train from Pristina one had to travel three-quarters of an hour outside of town to reach the station – now in Kosovo Polje. On the way to get the train Durham is told by a man, her "Moslem travelling companion" that at the moment there were "very more people travelling" because the road out of town, normally deemed to dangerous, was currently safe from bandits. On the train Durham met an elderly Sephardic Jew and his wife from Pristina. They were on their way to Sarajevo to say goodbye to his brother before emigrating to Jerusalem.
The train ran through fertile land, cultivated fairly well, passing only one town, or rather village, of any size, Vuchitrn (wolf's thorn) said to be largely Serb.
Mitrovica, on rising ground at the very end of Kosovo plain, is small, but cleaner and less hopeless-looking than Prishtina. It is a new town made mainly since the railway; and, as it is on the junction of the Sitnitza and the Ibar, has a good and ample water supply, and fine vegetable gardens.
Durham writes that "the large majority" of the population were Moslems but "the number of Orthodox I failed to learn; they are building a large new church." This is probably the church of St Sava, now in south Mitrovica, that was begun in 1896 and torched during the riots of 2004. Durham writes: "Mitrovitza, though it looked so peaceful, is tinder waiting for the spark".
Almost one hundred years after Durham's visit Mitrovica is again on the frontline.
Mitrovica may be called a "frontier" town. Albanians and Serbs alike claim it jealously.
Durham lays part of the blame for tensions over Mitrovica on the shoulders of foreign powers, specifically Austria and Russia. While Austria is now no longer a world player, the echoes of 1908 can clearly still be heard today.
Austria (to gain her private ends) wins Albanian support by promising that never, never will she allow the sanjak to become Serb.
The town looked so peaceful that it was hard to believe that but six years years ago it had been the scene of fierce fighting, in which Shtcherbina, the Russian consul forced into the place in the teeth of Albanian opposition was killed. Of his gallantry on behalf of the Slav interests that he was sent to protect there can be no question, nor of indiscretion, alas! with which he set to work. Austria at once planted a consul to watch her own interests; and there the two most interested Powers watch to this day.
High Albania. Edith Durham. 2000.
[pp. 292-97 / Phoenix Press, London]