Mitrovica Rock School making music across the divide

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Jelena and Edona from Sublime Six: 'Art and politics don't go together at all'

Mitrovica is an extraordinary place.

Somewhere close to 100,000 people live in this city in northern Kosovo. But the population is split by the River Ibar. And for the past 15 years, since the conflict in Kosovo, this line has been echoed by a strict ethnic divide.

On the north side is one of the main ethnic-Serb communities in Kosovo, including many people displaced from their homes in other areas. They refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the Republic of Kosovo and remain citizens of Serbia.

To the south live ethnic Albanians - the majority group in Kosovo and staunch supporters of Pristina's unilateral declaration of independence six years ago.

It would be going too far to say that "never the twain shall meet". But meeting is not exactly straightforward. Mutual suspicion - and occasionally enmity - is widespread.

The New Bridge across the Ibar is crudely blocked to vehicular traffic by a pile of rubble. There is another crossing nearby - but cars with Republic of Kosovo number plates do not venture north, and Serbian-plated cars will not head south. Many fudge the issue by removing their plates completely.

So starting a musical venture to bring young people from both sides together was not a project to be undertaken lightly. But for the past six years, Mitrovica Rock School has done precisely that.

"The big idea of the school was to bring people together through rock and roll," says Wendy Hassler-Forest of Musicians Without Borders, who was one of the founders of the project.

Rehearsing in 'exile'

Originally the plan was to set up a single school close to the New Bridge where young people from both ethnic groups could gather. "But that was a bridge too far," says Wendy, with a wry laugh.

"Nobody wanted to cross the bridge because it was too much of a symbol of the conflict."

Instead the first classes of Mitrovica Rock School were held "in exile", as Wendy puts it, in Macedonia's capital, Skopje. When that was successful, the school set up branches on either side of the Ibar.

These days, as afternoon turns to evening, Rock School (North) has the air of the best possible extra-curricular activity. On the stage, a small group practice acoustic guitar with a tutor. In one room to the rear, a drum lesson is in progress. In another, a metal band tests the limits of the soundproofing.

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Wendy Hassler-Forest says a shared taste in music is often the only thing needed for young people to form a connection - and a band

Small groups gather around the table football and the bar, where guitar guru Goran holds court - discussing the merits of Ritchie Blackmore-signature Stratocasters with some of the more gear-hungry students.

In the South, there may be no bar, but there is a student band playing more than passable Incubus cover versions and a small studio for recording sessions.

As well as lessons on individual instruments, there is "band coaching" on both sides to help the musicians to mesh.

But getting the two sides together is still the key.

"We're not trying to manipulate the political situation - just make connections between people," says Wendy.

That still has to take place in Skopje, during the Rock School's summer camps attended by students from both sides of the Ibar. But once there, a gentle nudge in the right direction is often all that is needed for the music-making to start.

"The way we start up the bands is to make a suggestion: You like punk, she likes punk - why don't you get together?"

Edona Ibishi, from the south, and Jelena Zafirovic, from the north, both took the hint - and now sing together in Sublime Six.

With the full, five-piece band line-up, their sound is not a million miles away from the melodic rock of Paramore. But as Jelena strums her acoustic guitar and harmonises with Edona, the effect is altogether more fragile.

The two have become firm friends. Yet developing new material can be problematic. It is easier to get the band together outside Kosovo than it is in Mitrovica.

"It's important that people are open-minded," says Jelena. "I'm making music - that's not a crime. Many cultures collaborate together - it's not a big deal."

"I would like to go freely - to meet, write and rehearse together," adds Edona. "If it's not a big deal for me, it shouldn't be a big deal for others."

Sublime Six and several other bands who formed in Skopje continue to collaborate using social media. Wendy Hassler-Forest is proud of what Mitrovica Rock School has achieved so far, and hopes it will help to build understanding between young people on either side of the river.

"They're in their early 20s - they haven't lived in any situation other than this. It must be hard to know other possibilities.

"But contrary to how it's normally represented, Mitrovica is mostly populated by normal people who want a normal life.

"Maybe 10% are taking the big majority hostage. That's why projects like ours work."

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