Contesting Peace in the Postwar City

By Ivan Gusic

26 February 2020

Postwar cities – i.e. cities which no longer experience war yet are still socio-politically contested – tend to be one of the most entrenched and volatile flash-points when societies transition from war to peace. These cities are often dangerous for citizens to live in; they tend to function either poorly or like two or more parallel cities in one, with conflict lines both permeating everyday life and hindering wider peace processes. Several principal cases illustrate this poignantly. Belfast attracts and/or generates around twice as much violence as the Northern Irish average. Mitrovica is so divided between Albanians and Serbs that the city is perhaps best described as two Kosovar cities – with parallel politics, services (healthcare, education), and infrastructure (water supplies, electricity lines, communication networks). And Mostar remains a stumbling block in the wider peace processes between Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This reality is surely both problematic and widespread, with other postwar cities like Jerusalem, Nicosia, Beirut, Kirkuk, and Derry/Londonderry suffering from the same problems. It is also quite peculiar. Cities are theorized and historically proven to have great potential to transcend societal divides, bridge communities, and foster coexistence – e.g. by forcing heterogeneous populations to mix on an everyday basis, by having almost indivisible assets  (water supplies, sewer systems) and shared problems (public transport, housing) that are best addressed through cooperation, or by demonstrating to their wider contexts that coexistence is possible. Yet, postwar cities realize little-to-none of this potential. Why this is the case is the principal question of my newly published book Contesting Peace in the Postwar City: Belfast, Mitrovica, and Mostar (Palgrave). 

The book is an interdisciplinary endeavor – combining primarily urban studies with peace research but also tapping into political geography, gender studies, international relations, political science, and anthropology – in which I explore different aspects of postwar Belfast, Mitrovica, and Mostar to answer the principal question. While the book also explores the ontology of peace, human agency in entrenched postwar settings, and the role of space in war and peace, this blog-post will focus primarily on why the postwar city reinforces – rather than transcends – conflict lines between previously warring groups.

The analytical setup of the book is that I answer the principal question by studying different urban conflicts over peace(s) in these three cities. This analytical lens builds on a theorization of peace as contested, multiple, and subjective rather than given, universal, and objective. This means that war-to-peace transitions are understood as difficult and problematic not because they constitute struggles between those “for” and those “against” peace, but because everyone wants to impose their version of peace – with each peace implying different ways to order postwar society territorially, politically, economically, and socially. War-to-peace transitions in postwar cities thereby emerge as urban conflicts over peace(s) in which different groups attempt to order the postwar city according to their take on peace. Using this analytical lens, I reveal how groups advancing different peace(s) contest – as well as exercise influence through – almost all aspects of everyday life in Belfast, Mitrovica, and Mostar. This on-going and seemingly perpetual contestation permeates everything from political institutions, public spaces, and education systems to housing, employability, and defensive architecture.

These multifaceted, yet hardly exhaustive, analyses lead me to the following three conclusions regarding the principal research question. First, it is clear that urban conflicts over peace(s) tend to undermine the aspects of the city (e.g. its heterogeneity, permeability, mixing) which give it transcending potential. Residential segregation in Mitrovica has transformed this once heterogeneous city into two almost exclusively homogeneous (Albanian and Serb) city halves that have little to no interaction with each other. Belfast’s defensive architecture (best epitomized by its infamous “Peacewalls”), its car-centric planning, and its middle-class biased regeneration has in turn made the city thoroughly impermeable, especially to its working-class population – who are surrounded by walls, have substandard access to transportation, and lack the money needed to experience the increasing number of “shared” bars, restaurants, and festivals (primarily concentrated in the regenerated city centre). Finally, ethno-national predominance in Mostar has made mixing with “the other side” something that is best avoided if you want to keep your job or avoid intimidation. These are mere examples of what urban conflicts over peace(s) lead to in postwar cities. Yet the overall result is that their transcending potential is considerably undermined. Postwar cities are simply less heterogeneous, have fewer contact points and ways of getting there, and function through non-contact and exclusion rather than through mixing and accommodation. 

Violent protests on the Main Bridge over Ibar in Mitrovica, 18 June 2014.
They epitomize continued conflict over peace(s) in Mitrovica, over two decades since the war ended and twelve years since Kosovo’s declaration of independence (photo taken by author).

Second, it is as clear that urban conflicts over peace(s) also reinforce the aspects of the city (e.g. its conflict and fragmentation) which give it destructive potential. The continued predominance of territorial contestation in Belfast means that minor conflicts intrinsic to all cities – e.g. where to build schools, how to design parks, what cultural activities to support – almost always become about the war-to-peace transition, are seen in zero-sum “us and them” terms, and must be carefully calculated not to disturb the ethno-national balance. Parallel institutions that provide education, healthcare, and services almost exclusively to Albanians or Serbs have in turn fragmented Mitrovica to the extent that spontaneous everyday contact with “them” is almost impossible. It should also be noted that neither conflict nor fragmentation are destructive by default. The creation of new “things” (in the broadest sense) so intrinsic to cities is dependent on constant, but non-violent, conflict between heterogeneous ideas, groups, and movements that cities are constituted by. Fragmentation of city life is in turn what enables people to hide or escape from tight socio-political control, meaning that it is no accident that minorities and/or marginalized people like migrants or LGBTQ communities concentrate and prosper in cities. Yet urban conflicts over peace(s) tend to make everything in the postwar city so conflictual that no common ground is possible and so fragmented that people come to live almost completely parallel lives.

Third, it seems that the city itself also tends to reinforce the urban conflicts over peace(s) that come to permeate it. The centrality of cities in their wider contexts often means that postwar cities become much more important to hold on to, much less acceptable to lose, and in effect much more contested than other places. Mitrovica’s centrality in Kosovo is illustrative. The city has the largest urban concentration of Serbs, is where Belgrade concentrates its support, and hosts the only “Serb” (i.e. Belgrade-financed) advanced hospital and university in Kosovo. As such, it has emerged as the invaluable epicenter of continued Serb presence in Kosovo yet outside of Kosovar institutions. A by-effect, however, is that this ability has made Mitrovica almost as central to Albanians, who see it as undermining Kosovar sovereignty and facilitating territorial fragmentation.

Yet, that is not the end of it. I also show – much in line with common theorizations of the city as Janus-faced – that the postwar city nevertheless both retains its transcending potential and experiences (limited) instances in which societal divides are transcended, communities are bridged, and coexistence is fostered. Despite decades of entrenched contestation, the three cities still retain pockets of heterogeneity, still have contact points (and ways of getting there), and still foster mixing. Bosniak Mahalla, which sits on the northern shore of Mitrovica’s Ibar River, is still populated by both Albanians and Serbs who not only live side-by-side but also trade and socialize with each other. While the cityscape of Mostar is almost entirely coded into ours/theirs and Bosniak/Croat, “shared” cafés and “border” parks along its Austro-Hungarian Boulevard – the former battlefront and current delineation line – offer those who dream of past and future coexistence somewhere to interact. The postwar removal of all physical barriers also means that the city is as permeable as it once was, even if far less people live on “both sides”. Belfast also holds numerous spatial pockets – e.g. its regenerated city centre, its university campuses, and its multinational corporations – where mixing is prevalent, even if it happens primarily between middle-class Catholics and Protestants. These cities also have different individuals and groups that utilize what is left of their transcending potential – from NGOs in Belfast who want to bring people together, to cultural centers in Mostar who construct “shared” spaces, to farmers in Mitrovica who trade with each other across conflict lines.

Based on these conclusions, I make several broader reflections. It initially seems that postwar cities neither have default trajectories nor play coherent roles, but rather are Janus-faced in the sense that they can transcend and reinforce societal divides, bridge and divide communities, and foster and undermine coexistenceWhich of these faces will appear in war-to-peace transitions very much depends on the postwar city itself.

Another reflection is that the postwar city is able to forcefully move their wider postwar societies from war to peace. This reflection might be unexpected, both given the analyses in the book and insights from other cities.  Yet if the focus is shifted from outcome to potential, it becomes clear that there are not many other domestic political entities where “the other” can be met with such ease, where people are as heterogeneous, and where cooperation is as common as in the postwar city. Belfast may be the invaluable asset that no one compromises over. Yet, despite this centrality—or rather: because of it—Belfast is a magnet for people and thereby emerges as the place in Northern Ireland where heterogeneity and mixing are most prevalent. Mitrovica in turn is undoubtedly the place in Kosovo where antagonistic clashes concentrate as well as spread from. Yet, there is no place in Kosovo in which people can and do engage “the other” as much. Mostar may also seem as the entrenched “grad slučaj” [roughly: special case city] it often is portrayed to be. Yet, just a glance at its demographics illustrates that, at the same time, there is no place in Bosnia-Herzegovina as heterogeneous as Mostar.

The last reflection is that urban studies and peace research need to cooperate to fully account for the postwar city’s problems and potentials. While both fields indeed already do focus on almost all phenomena found in the postwar city, these problems and potentials tend to be understood through postwar or city lenses. This is highly problematic given that the postwar city tends to either alter and/or exaggerate the nature of these phenomena – e.g. when the city concentrates postwar territorial struggles down to urban micro-scales or when war-to-peace transitions make bad planning decisions much harder to undo because everything becomes about the wider conflict. This means that to comprehensively deal with the postwar city, we must be able to account for both its postwar and city-specific dynamics, and such an ability is gained only by combining peace research and urban studies. Future research on postwar cities must therefore be interdisciplinary.  

Ivan Gusic is a Researcher at Malmö University and Lund University, Sweden. Ivan’s research focuses on the war-peace nexus, postwar cities, and the causes, effects, and patterns of urban violence. You can follow him on Twitter @ivan_gusic

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