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Quickly into Kosovo

I’m just about to enter Kosovo. Aleks and I are queuing for the border crossing formalities and I’m excited. Will this be a thrilling experience? Difficult border crossing? Will we be dragged out of the car and told to spread our legs and checked for weapons or secret bugs or something?

Before leaving, I had checked the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advice for potentially troublesome Kosovo. Keep a low profile, the FCO advised. Stay alert at all times and take particular care to avoid public gatherings, political rallies, and so on. Furthermore, I was advised against all travel to North Mitrovica following violence in that area on 17 March. Northern Kosovo is often described as a lawless space.

Pristina – marked by war

This was April 2008, about three weeks after the reported violence and I was going to Pristina, not to northern Kosovo. Also, people in neighbouring Macedonia assured me Kosovo was quite safe.

The manager at my hotel in Skopje was sceptical. When I checked in, I put down “writer” as my profession. “Sure,” he said. “Everyone says they’re writers and journalists. But in reality they’re with a company.” “And which company would that be,” I asked innocently. Seriously. I had no idea what he was talking about. “The CIA,” he replied darkly. Apparently, the area was teeming with agents. Pointing to my red, non-US passport, I assured him I was not one. He was still sceptical but offered to find someone who could take me to Pristina. Minutes later Aleks picked me up.

Back at the border, crossing into the fledgling Kosovar republic is remarkably, almost disappointingly, hassle free. Had I entered from the north, things would be different, I’m told. But here my passport barely warrants a cursory glance before it’s given the UNMIK-stamp. Since the war ended in 1999, the country has been run by the UN, the EU and NATO in a cooperative effort called The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.

With no further ado, I’m welcomed by a huge sign saying I’m now in Republika e Kosovës. This is the world’s youngest country. Less than two months old during my visit, Kosovo’s birth hasn’t exactly been trouble-free. Formerly a Serbian autonomous province, the Kosovar National Assembly declared its independence on 17 February 2008 and was immediately recognized by a number of EU states and the USA. Serbia is none too pleased at what it views as the creation of a “false state” and with Serbia’s good friend, mighty Russia, in the Security Council, Kosovo is unlikely to be allowed to join the UN any time soon.

Victims of the Kosovo War

During the Balkan wars in the 1990s, Kosovo saw more than its fair share of fighting and killing. Fortunately, a new war seems unlikely. Also, Kosovo and Serbia will likely rejoin at some point in a further enlarged EU. The Balkan Wars will then be but a sad memory of a futile, unnecessary war in a Europe that should have known better.

My first sight of Kosovo – apart from a rather large sign announcing that the road we’re on is being financed by the EU – is the border community General Jankovic, and includes, rather romantically, a mule pulling a cart.

The landscape of southern Kosovo is varied; some areas appear green and fertile, others dry, almost barren. There’s a clear military presence here. Along the way, we pass several KFOR checkpoints; brown army vehicles, barbed wire and soldiers of varying nationalities. Austrian and Polish soldiers walk around, looking relatively happy; not as if they have been posted to hell or anything.

We pass by several villages and Aleks is eager to point them out. Often he appears frustrated about his limited knowledge of English. He wants to share information or a story and is lacking the right words. Along the Macedonia – Kosovo border are the Sarplanina Mountains, home of the Gorani, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. The still snow-capped mountains beckon through the smog. Come, look at my inviting hillsides, they say. And they do look inviting; pine trees, green pastures and rolling hills dappled with white houses. I’m tempted to stay a while. From afar at least, they look untouched by war.

Nearing Pristina, we pass, or rather are passed by, several Audis, Mercedes and Land Rovers. There’s plenty of building activity and Aleksandar tells me fashion houses like Gucci and Hugo Boss are present in Pristina. Large bill boards advertising the virtues of Slovenian white ware giant Gorenje dot the landscape, accompanied by promises of financing from banking giant Raiffeisen.

We soon fall into a discussion of capitalism in Kosovo. Has it run rampant? Aleks thinks so. It’s too much too soon, he says. Some people are almost obscenely rich, while others live in dire poverty. Social differences have increased enormously. At least before, people had a job, a place to live, food on the table and schools for their children.

Mother Theresa in bronze

It’s the same story I’ve heard so often in what was once the Eastern bloc countries. There seems to be a nostalgia for the communist past. When I argue the virtues of freedom of speech, many will dryly reply that you can’t eat freedom; can’t clothe your children in it during harsh winter months. Taking care of basic human needs must come first. “We want democracy, but not capitalism,” I’ve heard many times.

Americans seem to be popular in Kosovo. In Pristina, tattered stars and stripes wave alongside Kosovo, EU and UN flags. The USA also makes its presence known in Pristina through an idolisation of one William Jefferson Clinton. There’s a Bill Clinton avenue, a Bill Clinton statue and a three-storey tall Bill Clinton poster on the side of a building. And that’s only what I saw.
Once a very important city and a capital during the 13th century, Pristina today is worn, torn and sadly pockmarked by recent warfare. Outside the imposing UN building, the fence is covered with pictures of people who died in 1999; almost all men, of all ages. Many share surnames. Flowers and candles surround the faded pictures. It’s difficult to find anyone who can tell me who they are, so I jot down some of the names. During an Internet search later, I find them, along with thousands of others, in a Humanitarian Law Center-database of victims of war crimes. They were all murdered.
The website goes on to point out that an estimated 12000 people disappeared or were killed during the conflict in Kosovo. The Red Cross further documents more than 2000 still missing. 
But life goes on! Today, people are enjoying the weekend. Cafés abound and Nena Tereze Street, named for that saintly Albanian nun, is full of people out promenading. Families stroll leisurely, teenage girls walk arm in arm, chatting and giggling, young parents push strollers and children laugh as they chase each other around statues of Mother Teresa and Albanian folk hero Skanderbeg.

Hawkers trade in mobile phones, sun glasses and cigarettes from packing crates and camping tables. Some sell pirate CDs and DVDs. They are cheerful, not at all pushy. Some even appear shy, but always ready with a smile. When I ask the price of various items, none seem to speak English though. Sadly, my knowledge of Albanian is somewhat lacking.

Pristina is a pleasant little city to explore. Not once do I feel even remotely threatened, not even by pick-pockets or begging children. In fact, I don’t see very many beggars at all. The public gatherings and political rallies are also notably absent this fine Saturday afternoon.

Six months later: In the months that have passed since Kosovo’s declaration of independence, things haven’t been running too smoothly. Ethnic segregation is again in place in north Kosovo. The EU’s Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) that is established to assist and support Kosovo’s authorities is facing rejection in the Serb enclaves. On a brighter note, as of today (15 October 2008), more than 50 nations have so far recognized the new republic.

It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for the world’s youngest nation.

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