While I figured fairly early in my big Balkans trip three years ago that I probably would not get to see all the countries I had originally thought about, I also knew that there were certain countries that I would most definitely not skip. Mainly those that my mum would have felt better if I’d skipped them. „Honey, you sure you need to go to Albania and Kosovo, all by yourself?“ Hell yeah. I’m not going to go to Serbia and not also go to Kosovo! There was a story there with those two countries, and one I had not the slightes understanding of, and I was not about to let that be the case for much longer. So I did go to Kosovo. And the country surprised me in all the right ways.
I went into Kosovo from Skopje in Macedonia. If you enter into Kosovo from Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro, you won’t be able to leave the country straight to Serbia, and if you enter it from Serbia, you won’t be able to leave straight to Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro. Getting into Kosovo from Skopje was certainly the easiest route in my time, if only for the direct bus connection between Skopje and Prishtina, but that may have changed and other options may be available. So why is it so complicated again?
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, after there had been war there from 1998 through 1999, followed by a long UN administration period. I won’t go into detail because I don’t know much about it myself, but as is custom in the area (note the irony!), it was mainly a conflict of ethnicity, religion and possession. Serbians see Kosovo as an area of their cultural heritage, with beautiful Serbian orthodox monasteries and the site of the Battle of Kosovo – a founding myth of modern day Serbia, if you will. It took place in 1389 between the Ottoman Empire and the Serbians and delayed the Ottomans taking over the area for a little while. Today, however, Kosovo is mostly populated by Albanians who are Muslim. And that is where the problems start. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, so if you enter Kosovo from, say, Macedonia, through Serbian eyes you have entered Serbia already, but don’t have an entrance stamp which is why you cannot cross the boarder from Kosovo to Serbia. And if you enter Kosovo from Serbia, in Serbian eyes you have never left the country.
Going to Kosovo was, considering all of this, not at all a big deal. The boarder police asked me if I was coming on holiday, and bid me good day. I never even got a stamp, which I chose not to mind because I wanted to return to Serbia at one point and knew that a Kosovo stamp might give me trouble. I am still a bit sad though that I have no sign of having been there in my passport.
Prishtina was grey and ugly, and the traffic was pure craziness – but downtown there was a pedestrian zone where the atmosphere was that of an on-going fair. Hideous plastic toys of all provenance where sold, and I immediatly felt the information to be proven that the average age in the country was 25. There were no old people – not even older people, it seemed to me. But there where children – everywhere! They ran and played and screamed with the joy of life, and they made me smile with the realization that beauty exists even in a grey, dull pedestrian zone with ugly plastic toys and socialist concrete buildings. And sitting or working in coffee places, the Kosovar people laughed just like the children of their country – open, untainted, honest.
Peja reminded me of Ulcinj in Montenegro and Novi Pazar in Serbia – formerly Yugoslav cities with a big Muslim minority and influence. I had a cappucino in a street cafe. It was pouring rain. Just outside the terrace that I was sitting on, there was a fountain. The waiter put the coffee on my table, had a water glass in his hand, went over to the fountain to fill it, and put it on my table where it was dripping water on the notebook I was scribbling my impressions into. The waiter gave me a big smile with this. Then electricity stopped going. I had heard the generator all the while. Kosovo runs on two power plants, and one had gone broke that morning, so half the country was on generators, and a bit overstrained with it, I take it. No one seemed to mind, though – and that fact calmed me with quiet joy.
Prizren, which I have written about already, was certainly the prettiest town there. I had met an American guy on the bus and we went to see the Serbian Orthodox church up the mountain. Meters of barbed wire and KFOR protection. We were not allowed to enter even the premises.
Back down in the town, we passed the Catholic church, and two teenagers that saw us asked us right away if we wanted to go in, and fetched the priest. He spoke German very well and I translated to English for my American friend. „We don’t need military protection down here,“ he said, „but in my opinion the Serbian churches don’t need it either.“ In the yard, yellow and orange roses were in full bloom. There was peace.
Every coffee house had me meet someone who I had a quick chat with. I got asked on dates and invited to house parties in Kosovo, had delicious Albanian food and bought an English book in a great little international book shop. War? Please, that was more than ten years ago!! Still there were the occasional reminders. Bombed out Serbian houses. A long fence showing pictures of missing relatives.
And the big statue of Bill Clinton in a suit with a briefcase, waving fatherly – I almost broke into loud laughter at the sight of it because it seemed ridiculous, but it is a serious matter for Kosovar people. The States have supported the country massively in its fight for independence.
I had asked couchsurfing hosts in Serbia what the big deal was with Kosovo – a naive question that might have gotten me in trouble in the wrong company, but quite usually the answer to me was simply: „What would you say if a part of your country decided to break away and be independent?“ I didn’t say it, but thought: „Well, some Bavarians would like to do that, and to be quite honest, whatever, you know, let them do it, only the German economy would break down and not be able to handle it I guess.“ Kosovo is not economically relevant to Serbia though. So I still didn’t quite know what to do with that argument. I understood, though, that it was really mainly, if not purely, cultural.
One impression was particularly overwhelming in Kosovo: This was not Serbia. It was not Albania, either. It was Kosovo.