In a Pretend Country? Two Days in Kosovo

Of all the potential aggressors I imagined while reflecting on my upcoming visit to Kosovo, I hadn’t envisioned a Serbian Orthodox nun. But more about her later.

The experience of Kosovo is inextricably linked for me with the logistical peculiarities of navigating Europe’s newest nation. After a few weeks in the southern Balkans, including some R&R on the “Albanian Riviera,” our small group was poised to visit the scene of so much recent tragic history and of so much lingering tension between its Kosovar (Albanian Muslim) and Orthodox Serbian communities. Just how much tension, in case we hadn’t been paying attention, was re-enforced regularly by our rabidly partisan guide, whom I’ll call Radmila. She was on a mission to make sure we experienced the country through the eyes of the aggrieved Serbian minority, calling Kosovo a “pretend country” with no native currency, no real government, and, most damningly, no electricity. Our all too brief trip was thus a whirlwind of contradictory impressions, and a daily exercise in maintaining objectivity.

We set out from the Macedonian capital of Skopje in a vehicle with Macedonian plates. This detail was critical, Radmila informed us. Neutrality is everything in a country where the official license plates pointedly omit the city of registration to spare its occupants potential aggression in unfriendly parts of the country. A BBC crew, we were told, had foolishly rented a Serbian van in Belgrade, and been stoned in the largely Muslim south. We experienced no difficulties;  our American passports were stamped at the Kosovo border with uncommon speed and, given our unwavering support for the country’s independence, unusual enthusiasm.

First up was the overwhelmingly Kosovar city of Prizren. It’s one of those places that throbs with unexpected energy, like Sofia or Tbilisi. Throngs of people for whom independence is clearly a palpable presence filled the streets and overflowed the outdoor cafes, oblivious to the ever-present KFOR soldiers and to the armored vehicles patrolling their roadways. Ties are strong here to neighboring Albania and, more unexpectedly, to Turkey. Road signs in Kosovo indicate destinations by both their Albanian and Serbian names, and are routinely defaced by one or the other community as a result. However, in the area of Prizren they include the Turkish variant as well, in a gesture of solidarity with the wider Muslim world.

The scene in Prizren

As if to underscore this point, we were treated to a procession of young people in Turkish costume from the local Kosovar-Turkish friendship society as it made its way down the main boulevard where we were lunching. Radmila seized the opportunity for a teachable Serbian moment. She saw the strengthening of ties as indicative of a disturbing trend toward  the adoption of more conservative and overt forms of Islam, with corollaries such as an emphasis on increasing the birth rate of Kosavar women.

Prizren was also our introduction to the extraordinary effort expended by the European Union to protect each community’s cultural treasures. The damaged and empty church of Saint George sat surrounded by razor wire and guarded by European Union soldiers, a phenomenon we would come to know well during our brief stay. Then, as time was growing short, we rushed past the mosque of Mehmet Pasha and a former home of Mother Teresa before finding ourselves back on the road to the capital, Pristina.

Arriving just after sunset we found the city largely engulfed in darkness, with only sporadic and what seemed like random patches of electrification. The venerable Grand Hotel was missing a few of its neon letters. Vindicated in her claim that the country was unable to properly illuminate its citizenry, Radmila perversely proceeded to provide us with the scheduled city tour. Thus began a surreal journey in which points of interest were hinted at, but were always tantalizingly out of reach. “That is the National Library, but unfortunately you cannot see it.” “There is the City Park, but alas it is dark now.” This exercise quickly gave way to the need for food which we satisfied at a pizzeria, its proprietor thrilled to welcome a group of exhausted Americans.

Sated, we then faced a two hour drive back to Skopje. Radmila justified the decision to return to Macedonia by explaining that hotels in the capital were substandard, though I suspect it was motivated less by concern for our comfort than by a reluctance to spend Serbian resources in the breakaway republic.

Defaced city sign

Our return to Kosovo on the second day requires a geopolitical aside. Visiting from Macedonia was straightforward – the country recognizes Kosovo’s independence, so treats entry and exit points as international borders. But our ultimate destination on this day was the Serbian city of Novi Pazar. As Serbia famously does not recognize Kosovo, the only way to exit into Serbia is to enter from it. This required a detour. We left Macedonia and crossed into the southeastern tip of Serbia, enjoyed approximately twenty minutes of Serbian vistas, exited the country, and re-entered Kosovo through what Serbia defines as an internal checkpoint. It was at the first of these stops that I acquired two of my coolest travel souvenirs – my Kosovo entry and exit stamps from the day before, cancelled with considerable flourish by the Serbian border authorities.

It was at Gracanica Monastery, a World Heritage site and jewel in the crown of Serbian orthodoxy, that my encounter with the aforementioned religieuse occurred. She appeared out of nowhere to forbid our entrance to the sanctuary, even though we had passed muster with the Swedish forces stationed at the exterior checkpoint and were clearly in compliance with the signage forbidding firearms. A tiny black clad figure, she argued vehemently with Radmila. Then, seizing on me as the most proximate figure, she dragged me outside with a strength belying her size and doubtless born of years of pent-up fury at the violence visited on her mother church. The situation was smoothed over by the arrival of a tall and strikingly handsome priest who reasoned with her, or, in the end, simply outranked her. He then welcomed us warmly and conducted us in flawless English through the interior with its priceless 14th century frescoes.

Radmila was uncharacteristically vague about the incident, leaving us to wonder whether the nun was just having a bad day, or whether our nationality had played a role.

Gracanica Monastery

With food once again on our agenda we stopped for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Radmila found a soul mate in the proprietor, who joined her in affirming that Kosovo will always be part of Serbia while serving up a truly memorable trout. Fresh from the nearby lake, flaky and perfectly grilled, it was accompanied by an oil and red pepper sauce so delicious it would have merited bottling and attempting to sneak past customs. But as much as we would have liked to linger in the warm late summer sun, we still had two more Orthodox holy sites to visit and our time in Kosovo was coming to a close.

Wending our way west and north to Serbia we learned the final lessons Radmila had to teach us. Approaching the city of Pec we began to see large, new-looking Kosovar cemeteries, each grave decorated with the portrait of a young man staring mutely out at history. “Do you know why they are dead?” Radmila asked, rhetorically as it turned out. “Because they murdered Serb civilians.” As we skirted the divided city of Mitrovice she pointed out each burned shell of a former Serbian home, though the destruction would have been impossible to miss. Where Serbs had formerly lived and prayed Kosovar families were now building what she represented as compounds, series of adjacent and identical homes occupied by brothers and their fruitful wives, constituting a bulwark against the minority population. Finally, after repeating the morning’s border formalities in reverse, we found ourselves in Serbia.

Would I return to Kosovo? Most assuredly. I would wander the back streets of Prizren and the darkened avenues of Pristina. I would pay my respects to those rows and rows of young Kosovar men in their roadside cemeteries, and to the ghosts of those ruined and abandoned Serbian enclaves.  And I would stop in Gracanica for some of the best trout in the Balkans.

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