After the First World war devastated France, the authorities picked one of the numerous fallen soldiers who could not be identified, and buried him under the ‘Arc de Triomphe’, one of the main monuments of the capital city. To this day, people gather to pay tribute to this young man who represents so many other unknown ones like him. This story inspired us to entitle one of our murals, a portrait of a miner, one among so many who lived in Mitrovica. “The unknown miner”.
From 26th of August to 9th of September 2019, GAIA hosted 9 volunteers in the city of Mitrovica, where they could participate in our first edition of the workcamp “Paint The Walls Away”. From Switzerland, Czechia, France, USA, Serbia, Finland and from Kosovo, our participants came with their own fresh ideas and their own vision. After introductory visits of the city, which attempted to give a sense of the history and typical atmosphere of Mitrovica, our international and local artists started to sketch their ideas, to elaborate their plans to create ambitious frescos, to decide how to arrange the whole pieces of street art. From the discussions emerged the final decisions: in a small pathway-street, they would paint the portrait of a miner with a trumpet-player blowing his colourful music on him. Next to the bridge, they would depict a common blackbird (Turdus Merula, from which originates the name “Kosovo”) overseeing the landscape of Mitrovica, and on the opposite side three big round motives would face it. Under the bridge, on both sides, vast patterns inspired by the traditional motives of the Balkans would colour the path.
Reactions from the passersby were numerous, and of various nature. “Are you sure about doing it here?” asked some young people worried about our decision to cover part of an old graffiti. After one day, the shape of the pictures is more discernible. A lot of people stop and stare, from the bridge or from the side of the street. “We had a lot of miners in my family” is a sentence we heard a lot, when they understood this old man on the portrait was holding a pickaxe. “You know, I forgot that Mitrovica used to be a city of jazz” confessed a young guy after asking why we would display a brass instrument player.
Today, Mitrovica is known for its division. Since the war in Kosovo, the city is separated between a north mostly inhabited by Serbs, and a south mostly inhabited by Albanians. Still today, interactions between the two communities remain too rare. Visually, we can see the differences between both parts. When you cross the main bridge, you sometimes feel like you are stepping into another dimension. But inhabitants of Mitrovica share a lot in terms of culture and history, and volunteers wanted the murals to reflect these common points, from one side of the bridge to the other.
As people stop and stare for a couple of minutes, we wonder when was the last time they took a minute to take a look at the different murals of the city. Do they think about the walls as their walls? How do they perceive this grey surface sprinkled with racial slurs? An almost unanimous voice reassured us: what we did is for sure more beautiful now. A lot of citizens from various ages greeted us, offered us drinks, thanked us for “doing something for the city, finally”. They rediscovered their city through our eyes, through colourful and positive messages. They stopped and shared their stories with us, explaining why these places are meaningful, or how they relate to the messages we wanted to share.
Mitrovica is a city rich in cultures, and is sadly too often remembered only for its most negative aspects of being a divided city, where coexistence failed after the war, and where local communities fear each other. But today, when you walk in the city and on the bridge, you will have an idea of what makes this city amazing: a vibrant history, a mix of traditions and symbols, a city of common people and great men alike, and a chance to actually meet and live together in peace. On those walls, we hoped to provide a bit more of peace, contentment and pride in the city we share.
Written by Jeremy Flauraud (GAIA volunteer).