Out of the Darkness

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
Trip End Mar 09, 2008

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Flag of Serbia and Montenegro  ,
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

With a few days left before our flight across to South America, we had felt the need to prioritise one last "see it or regret it" place to go. Getting to Enver Hoxha's crazy legacy that is Albania was going to prove an overly complex commute, but heading down to Kosovo (and then a hop to Sofia for the flight) looked easy enough.

It was the timing that made this potential genius or idiocy: the province of Kosovo is now just days or weeks away from declaring independence from Serbia. On the one hand, this would make for some euphoric scenes of nationalism and ecstatic crowds. On the other, the Serbs can be assured to take it... personally. Anticipation when we arrived was thick and delightful: from the taxi drivers to the street vendors a sense of victory exudes from every smile. The mood was reinfored with stencilled graffiti on hundreds of buildings: No Negotiating.

Prishtina is surprising in a lot of ways. I have a new understanding of the heretofore blah phrase "ethnic Albanian". This is not the mere bland historic descriptor it is in other countries: people in the street look quite distinctly ethnically different, the books and souvenirs you buy are about Albanian culture and language, every business precedes its names with its Albanian identity (I particularly liked the odd number of Enver Hoxha XYZ business names, given other Albanians aren't that unhappy he's dead) - the list is endless. Travel guides and advisories suggest speaking English rather than diving into Serbian or Albanian language to avoid causing offense. In practice, its all Albanian.

It didn't take long for us to figure out that the independence that Kosovo seeks will likely be followed one day by a union with Albania. Watch Serbia and friends go bananas at this prospect. Its just that - for now - independence is all they can get away with.

We took a day trip down to Prizren, which lies at the core of the Serbs hurt feelings. Way back in times (think 1389) this was the place they held off the Turks, so its at the centre of Serb national identity, sufficiently so that you try to drive a million or two people southwest back to Albania. Beyond its historial value, its actually quite a nice little spot in its own right, sort of like Berri with mosques. However, it is probably not worth starting a war over. Sorry Berri, same goes for you.

The sites of Prizren are not actually open, due to the UN deciding all the old ruined castles make the most stylin' bases. Its been a few years since any shots were fired in anger, but the German troops we saw everywhere always had their fingers ready on some fairly serious machine guns, and the thick layer of barbed wire around their digs was slightly incongruous given that they are nobody's target here.

Walking up to a great old ruin on the main hill overlooking Prizren, there remains the startling sight of a totally burned out neighbourhood. Literally hundreds of shells of houses sit with black walls and a charred roof beam, delicately tucked in with a uniform foot of snow atop them. The Orthodox churches all remain closed. Vengeance from the Kosovars at attempts to drive them out seems to have been clinical and brutal. (We had wondered why a seemingly undamaged church in Prishtina was surrounded by barbed wire with a 50m perimeter: we slow learners gradually figured this out.)

The UN presence in both Prishtina and Prizren is best describe as like being under the rule of Lord Flashheart from BlackAdder - its stompy, showy, and decadently vacuous. They are hard to miss: seeming to bring 2.4 enormous white Toyota LandCruisrers for every man woman and child they are sworn to protect. At first we figured they might be needed to get around the snowed in landscape - then it dawns that these are towns where donkeys and carts frequently meld in with the traffic, and a Lada seems like an SUV. The presence of a VW Golf is fairly imposing, to give some sense of scale.

For beleagured residents of Australia wondering about the quality of your governments (and I hope you all are), just be happy that you don't live anywhere run by the UN. It was 1999 that NATO airstrikes started the ball rolling toward independence, and the UN voted itself the task of running the place as a protectorate. In eight years, there have been a couple of flare ups, but its not Baghdad. So, you would think electricity would work (four or more blackouts every day, each longer than an hour), the water would flow (may just be winter, but every tap was erratic) and garbage would get picked up (numerous feral cat habitats abound). Good luck. It started to seem that the solution to every problem was to buy a new Toyota Landcruiser, put a lot of heartfelt stickers on it, then park it next to the problem at hand. No signs of any actual reconstruction, but they had project sign boards and cars aplenty.

For any frustrated US citizens struggling with a hard reception across Europe, Kosovo welcomes you. Every other flag is the stars and stripes. There is a 10m Statue of Liberty atop Hotel Victory, there are American icons on every taxi and US flags swinging from the rear view mirror of pretty much every car. What the predominantly German, Norwegian and Turkish soldiers make of all this is hard to guess, as its been a long time since any US boots were on the ground. Certainly something to ponder as you wander up Bill Clinton Boulevard.

We won't be here to see them become the Nation of Kosovo. As we bought our bus tickets out before dawn the yawning bus station dropped into total darkness: another blackout. No wonder they'e so keen to get independence.

* * *

The more I travel around the Balkan region, the more I realise just how hated the Serbian population is amongst its immediate neighbours.  Understandably so I suppose given their very recent history of repeated ethnic cleansing attempts.

This phenomenon was first noted in Bosnian Sarajevo where the mere mention of the fact that you were heading to Belgrade attracted shudders, uncomfortable glances and whispers of dismay.  This time in Kosovo I made the stupid mistake of mentioning that we had just arrived from Belgrade to our taxi driver who responded with "Bad! Serbia Bad!".  This quickly motivated me to sanitise our journey when future locals asked after our recent whereabouts.

Technically Kosovo resides at the base of Serbia and was part of the country up until 1999 when the NATO bombing of Belgrade encouraged the withdrawal of Serbian forces who were busy cleansing the ethnic Albanians  It is now under UN administration and is populated by an overwhelming majority of Albanians seeking independence and global recognition that Kosovo is a separate country.

I should add here that under UN administration seems to mean that there are a million oversized white 4x4 UN plated vehicles clogging up the narrow cobbled streets; accomodation rates are relatively high and there is an abundance of satellite dishes protruding from every rooftop.

Here in Kosovo the people are very different, the language is different even the currency across this border is different from that in Serbia.  In Kosovo everyone and everything is incredibly nationalistic.  We wondered whether if we crossed into Albania the people would be anywhere near as patriotic as the Albanians are here in Kosovo.  However, we concluded that they probably wouldn't be as they are not as downtrodden so wouldn't need to justify their Albanian-ness.

One of the best things about Prishtina was the incredibly steep hill we had to climb daily to return to the Professer's Pension.  Every evening as we puffed and panted through the snow making the arduous ascent we would discuss the merits of plunging into the knee deep snow - surely it had to be as fitness deriving as soft-sand running aong a beach.  We are quite clearly in training for Machu Picchu and this usually involves us eating ourselves silly and then post-rationalising that the long walk home (or steep ascent home) is doing wonders for our fitness.  Shyeah right.

Prishtina was a quiet little place, once again, encased in snow and suffering from early darkness syndrome.  It was dark from about 4pm and even during daylight hours it was never brighter than grey.  This aspect was further exacerbated by the constant blackouts (each lasting about an hour) which hit the city.  Usually the major power outage fell between 6pm and 8pm: the aftermath a patchwork city of black sectors.  Usually this was when you had just arrived home and you were hungry, cold and tired.  It remained dark, freezing cold (with the heaters unavailable) and we stayed hungry as cooking was an impossibility.  Even a therapeutic cup of tea was out of the question. You can just imagine how unforgivable this was to Iain.

I think we were both glad to eventually depart the place and get back to modern well-lit civilisation.
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