Saturday, September 12, 2009

Kosovo Continued

It really seems odd that I was just in a country which, only a few short years ago, was a complete war zone. Over 250,000 refugees spilled into Macedonia during the conflict - and keep in mind that Macedonia's population hovers just around 2 million. United States and NATO soldiers (not to mention the thousands of Serb and Albanian soldiers and civilians) were killed, and were killing each other. Even today, Kosovo isn't really a functioning nation. It's under the administration of EULEX, the successor "program" of the previous NATO administration of the country.

There are still no-go areas for travelers in the country. While the country is around 90% ethnic Albanian, the rest are mostly Serbs, and they still both deny the legitimacy of the new government, and with funding from Serbia, run their own parallel court systems and police forces. The city of Mitrovica, divided between Albanians on one side of the river and Serbs on the other, is a constant flash-point. There were fresh riots there just days before I visited. The country has almost no economy to speak of, minus international aid and diaspora money. A quarter of the vehicles on the two-lane highway to Pristina were KFOR or NATO military trucks.

And when I describe it that way. . . riots, barbed wire, military personel, no-go areas, it's easy to think, "Why on earth would anyone go there?!" Only a very few of my Macedonian friends have crossed the border, just ten miles away. They were all very eager to hear what my trip was like, what Pristina was like, what the people were like, as if it were some exotic nation far away . . . when you can probably see Kosovo from the top of some of the apartment complexes here in Skopje.

It's funny, really, because my Macedonian friends act in exactly the same way as my American friends when I speak to them about Macedonia. Earthquakes? Albanian insurgencies? Corrupt governments, black markets, gypsies, villagers?! How do I function here?! It must be so strange, so different. . . When I explain the bewilderment of Americans about Macedonia to Macedonians, they really don't understand. It's just home. There are cafes, hotels, schools, friends, and all the makings of a normal, pleasant life. And for the most part, the same goes for Kosovo. Pristina has cafes, English-themed pubs, schools and universities. There are bus services, even to Mitrovica. It's amazing what people can accept, get used to, or deal with in life.

There were two very surreal, very creepy moments during my short trip. The first was near that hideous library. It sits in a huge field, overgrown with weeds, next to the refurbished University of Pristina. Far behind it, in the corner of the field, next to piles of dirt from some sort of construction, stood what once was a Serbian Orthodox Church. It was stripped of its roof, the empty doorways filled with barbed wire. It looked more ruinous than any actual 14th century ruin I've seen in Macedonia. There were military helicopters flying overhead. Yet near this war casualty of a church, in this overgrown field, were the fashionable students of Pristina, wandering in and out of the university, chatting, with those helicopters overhead. Life continues.

The second moment was on Bill Clinton Boulevard, with that giant smiling picture looking down. I had just commented to my friend that the Albanians in Pristina - mostly Muslim, presumably - dressed much less conservatively than those in Macedonia. Just as I said this, we stopped and noticed roughly 100 people on the sidewalk, three rows deep, facing a building. As we walked closer, we noticed that they were Muslims preparing to pray. This seemed odd, because the building wasn't a mosque. . . until we noticed the green-and-white banners and Arabic signs. Saudia Arabia has funded a lot of new mosques and Islamic centers in Albania and Kosovo, which spread their ultra-conservative type of Islam. This was one. . . sitting just under old Slick Willy's American smile.

Life goes on.

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