Back in 2007 I had planned to make the trip from Skopje into Pristina to see what was about to become the youngest country in the world. A deadly bomb blast on Bill Clinton Ave in late September however wisely encouraged me to alter my journey instead to Albania, which perhaps provided an excellent prequel and understand of the history & culture of the current inhabitants of today’s Kosovo.
Arriving by bus to Prizren, Kosovo, one drives through the outskirts of the town on the way to the center, and one of the first things that comes into view is an enormous NATO KFOR base. This is really a preview of what’s to come – Kosovo has not only become it’s own country in the eyes of 56% of the countries of the UN – it has also become a sort of amalgamation of international aid & stabilization forces. While this has undoubtedly helped to develop the country and build an infrastructure, when the youth speak of extreme unemployment and lack of opportunity, one has to wonder the impact all of this “aid” has on the general populace. It seems, at least from speaking to some of the hostel staff, that the organizations don’t even employ locals, so other than the actual work of their projects, one wonders about their immediate term impact on the city.
Enough politics for the moment….Kosovo is truly a unique portion of the Balkans. Walking through the streets of Prizren, one could be convinced they are in Turkey, or certainly Albania, as the amount of mosques per square inch must be higher than most places on earth. This is somewhat at odds with the fact that few seem to be attending these mosques….in fact Islam here may be much more of a culture than a religion for many people. This certainly isn’t Oman, or Abu-Dhabi, where juice bars are the nightlife haunts of the local youths…here most seem to enjoy a Peja or two at night….which is an excellent local Pilsner.
After 3 nights in Prizren, we boarded a short 1.5 hour bus to Pristina, a bit further north in the country. Truly I wasn’t sure what to expect with Pristina, in fact from what I had read I sort of expected a boring town with little to do or see. This couldn’t have been further from the truth! The main boulevard in town, named for Mother Theresa is teeming with life, a wonderful pedestrian zone where the young and old alike enjoy sipping Machiattos and espressos all day long. One does begin to understand the unemployment that we heard every hostel employee speak of when you realize that it’s 2pm in the afternoon on a weekday and every cafe is filled with young people sipping & smoking. One certainly can’t say that Kosovars aren’t entrepreneurial…if you sit long enough in a chair outside someone will likely come up to you trying to sell peanuts, cigarettes, phone cards, flowers and anything else you can imagine.
The strange part of the international presence, however is only really revealed when you walk up the hills towards the KFOR base and US Embassy. There, behind gate after gate of security there are homes that wouldn’t be out of place in a suburb of Ohio, complete with childrens toys on the lawn and grills on the porch. I can’t help but wonder if this is creating two societies here – one a young highly educated population who can’t even get a basic retail job yet are invested in the success of their country and want nothing more than for it to succeed, and one a transient global workforce keen to build the countries infrastructure and rule of law, but also keen to use their expense accounts to enjoy life in a lovely but cheap city.
I often thought of the famous quote “One man’s terrorist is another mans freedom fighter” during my time in Kosovo. With this I don’t intend to pass judgement on the actions of the KLA during their struggle for independence so much as recognize that when you “win” in a conflict, your heroes are remembered differently than if you had lost. Republic Srpska & Kosovo are two complete contrasts today in terms of international presence — one nearly a pariah on the world stage, and the other a darling for aid projects. It’s not for me to judge a conflict which I was not a part of, but it’s hard not to wonder about the differing effects on the youth of all of this. Nearly every young boy that we saw on the streets of Kosovo said hello and asked us where we were from and responded excitedly at the answer of NYC… America! Here is a rare corner of the world where America is seen somewhat of a savior to the state of Kosovo – where else do you have an intersection between Boulevard Bill Clinton & George Bush Avenue? The amount of goodwill generated by our actions there to the locals likely will live for generations. I can’t help but wonder about the other side of that though…thinking of the life of a child growing up somewhere like Banja Luka, in a sort of a isolated corner of Europe, eventually surrounded by the entirety of the EU. More than anything else it’s my hope that the political forces move in such a way that the actions of the current generation are not controlled and judged by the actions of their fathers & grandfathers.