Sometimes I think people think, they survived the war,
so they don’t have to care about anything.
THOSE WERE ALMOST the first words I heard about Kosovo, at least from someone who’d actually been there. It was on a short night from Frankfurt to Prishtina in March. I was in the window seat. In the aisle next to me was a German soldier, big and blond, coming in for a four-day stint.
I had read about Kosovo for years. I was flying there to write about it, but I still knew little about the country itself, about the actual day-to-day lives of Kosovars.
The German had first been to Kosovo in 1999. He was there to look for mass graves. In the decade since, he’d been back for mission after mission, running convoys, guarding bases and searching for unexploded bombs.
“In 1999, I thought they were 99 percent criminals,” the German said. Since then, his opinion grown worse. Houses in Kosovo were perpetually unfinished, he told me, the better to avoid paying taxes on. After the war, he said, farm girls were sent to tend flocks in mine fields; losing a daughter, he believes, was not considered a big loss.
“It’s a nice place,” the German said, leaning into his chair, thinking about it, “except for all the crazy people.”
This is a story about Kosovo’s image, or it’s supposed to be anyway. Kosovars can be very sensitive about how the world sees them, probably because of guys like the German. But here’s the thing: Outside the small world of expats and soldiers who work there, I don’t think Kosovo has much of an image. It’s not that people think badly of the place — they just don’t think of it at all.
It wasn’t always like that. Twelve years ago, Kosovo seemed like the most important place in the world. After the genocide in Rwanda and the slaughters in other parts of the Balkans, Kosovo seemed like a do-over, a chance to re-live the rhetoric of never again, to actually act on an atrocity before it was over.
For a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kosovo held the world’s attention. After the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, Serbian forces largely abandoned the province. International troops moved in and secured the borders. Bodies were found in wells and horror stories were told, but hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians driven out by Serb forces were allowed to come home.
In the aftermath of the war, journalists and academics owed into the territory — sometimes ahead of and sometimes on the heels of thousands of diplomats and aid workers. During that time, scores of academic papers, magazine articles and books were penned on Kosovo. Michael Ignatie wrote one of the most famous. U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark wrote another. For a certain set, Kosovo was the state-ling of the moment: The prettiest girl at the international ball.
And then the towers fell and everything changed.
AFTER SEPT. 11, 2001, the people who thought about things like intervention and nation-building and human rights moved on to bigger crises: Afghanistan. Iraq. Anywhere with someone who might blow us up.
For the 10 years before 9/11, atrocity had meant Rwanda and Srebrenica. After, it became Guantanamo and Bagram. So the journalists moved east. And the academics followed. And stories about Kosovo stopped being told.
Today, for many in the West, Kosovo exists, if it exists at all, as a half-remembered lesson, an ex- ample of intervention gone right, the anti-Iraq. The truth is more complicated, stranger and more subtle. But in a media landscape shaped by economic crises and the War on Terror, it’s hard for anything complex to break through.
When stories about Kosovo do make the West- ern news, they’re usually grim. The Council of Europe Report, with its macabre allegations of organ theft and war crimes, earned some headlines. So did Arif Uka, the Kosovo-born German who shot two American soldiers in Frankfurt. But those stories appear in small blips. They pop up, prick memories and disappear.
Even among those who studied Kosovo, who watched out for the milestones after the war — intervention, independence, recognition — the country exists today less as a place in real time than as a collection of stories from the past.
I was in university in 1999. I studied the intervention and the aftermath. As a young man, I read thick stacks of watchdog reports and victims’ tales. But that’s as far as it went for me. Kosovo became a byword for horror. Like Dachau or Mai Lai, it was less a real place than a shorthand for tragedy.
THIS YEAR, I decided to find more, to explore life in Kosovo today.
I flew in on a cold night in March. I left Vancouver early on a Sunday and arrived in Prishtina late Monday night. The whole trip took more than 30 hours and left me bleary and disheveled and vulnerable in a kind of weird, exhausted way.
Having your mind pre-set to confused is never the best way to enjoy a new country. It probably helps explain why my early impressions of Kosovo were so especially strange.
Before leaving home, I booked a room at the Guest House Velania in Prishtina, an establishment not so much highly recommended as exclusively suitable to my needs — in a city used to the expense accounts of aid workers and diplomats, cheap hotels are nonexistent. The guest house was the only place I could a ord.
The taxi from the airport dropped me o near the top of a large hill in the Velania neighborhood, about a 20-minute walk from the city center. Inside the guest house, down a dim hallway, was the owner, a man known exclusively, as far as I could tell, as the Professor.
When I met him, the Professor was seated on a sort of backless couch in front of a desk near a sink, and a television showing the Albanian “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.”
The Professor’s hair was white and thinning and his body was stout, like a rounded cylinder. His face was pinched and wrinkled and he wore an old sweater over a shirt and tie.
I was tired and hungry. I wanted a bed and maybe some food. But The Professor, I learned, was a talker, and he was determined to talk.
As I stood in the doorway, the Professor started a long, one-sided debate over how much to charge me. He seemed convinced we had agreed upon a rate. He leafed through a stack of printed out emails, searching for mine. He couldn’t find it. From somewhere he spotted a figure: 16 euro per night.
“That would be fine,” I told him.
He moved on.
“We will give him 41B,” he said to a younger man across the table .
“Forty-one B is very quiet,” the Professor went on, turning to me. “Big bed.”
“That’s great,” I said. “What about 33B?” he countered.
“Big bed is for couples. They can stretch.”
“Thirty-three B has two beds,” he continued holding up two fingers. “If two people come, we move.”
He then argued with himself about who would take me upstairs.
My run-ins with the Professor were the kinds of events that always feel more significant in the moment than they actually are. The two of us had no common language and no shared norms. Neither of us knew what to expect from the other. We were bound to confuse.
When I would see the Professor, I would generally want something, but because of his poor English and my lack of Albanian, I could never quite tell him what that something was. It was one long of fish-out-of-water moment, the kind that litters travel writing but is never really indicative of a larger theme.
I had another such moment when I crossed my first major street in Prishtina. My rst full night in the city, I stood at a crosswalk for an uncomfortable period, waiting for the cars to slow down. I considered how long I could be there before people would notice. I thought about working my way around or just going back to the guest house. I even tried to look like I was waiting for someone or otherwise occupied in something other than staring at a street. I did this by putting my hands in my pockets and pacing. Once, I fiddled with a pen.
The point of this story, I guess, is that you cross the road differently in Kosovo. Back home you wait till the cars slow down, make eye contact and go. There you just go. Does this difference say anything about either culture? Probably not. But it’s the kind of thing that can make you feel aggravated and confused. It can make you think: God dammit, why can’t these bastards drive? Even if it’s abundantly clear they can drive, just not the way you’d like them to.
I tried to keep all that in mind — that disruptive sense that outsiders feel — as I went around Prishtina pumping my fellow foreigners for their views of the country. Because, to be honest, most of what they told me wasn’t great. A lot of times, it was new versions of the same story, the one the German started on the plane.
IN A PUB ONCE, an economic development officer from Ireland told me that Kosovo was “hope- less.” He had worked in developing economies in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War and never, he said, had he seen a situation as bad as it was here. Another time, an American professor I met described the education system as almost comically corrupt and petty. Research assistants at his university, he said, were usually just the prettiest female students. He was counting the days until he could leave Kosovo for a better job. An Israeli café manager, meanwhile, a man who had served in the occupied territories of the Middle East, called Kosovo, beyond a doubt, the strangest place he’d ever been.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. Many expats I met loved Kosovo and Kosovars, even if few were optimistic about the country’s future. And as rough as some of the stories foreigners told me about Kosovo were — tales corruption and trafficking, human and organ alike — they were rarely as bad as the ones Kosovars told me themselves.
I once asked an entire class of students at the American University in Kosovo about their country’s image. Kosovo gets a bad rap, they told me, before bashing it for 45 minutes. In more than three weeks of interviews in Prishtina, the nicest thing any local would say to me about the prime minister, Hashim Thaci, was that he probably didn’t sell kidneys.
Among those I interviewed with special knowledge, those tied into political life, like jour- nalists, activists and researchers, things were, if anything, worse.
I MET DRENUSHE XHEMAJLI outside the Grand Hotel my first week in town. A recent university graduate, she wore a red cardigan over a purple sweater and pink t-shirt. She had straight brown hair, brown eyes and wore a long silver chain with a locket in the shape of a heart and key.
An organizer for the insurgent nationalist Vetevendosje party, Xhemajli had an interest in spinning things a particular way. But even then, I was surprised by her dark views on political life.
Kosovar elites exist to enrich themselves, she told me. Elections are a sham of ballot-stuffing and vote buying, anything to prevent real change. As for Thaci, “He is corrupt,” she said. “You don’t even have to think about it.”
Xhemajli isn’t alone in her views, either. Surveys conducted by Transparency International, a European watchdog, have found Kosovars consistently rank their country the most corrupt in the area. In a poll released in December 2010, more than 70 per cent said corruption had become worse since 2007. As for the economy, well, if politics are bad, it’s worse, said Lavdim Hamidi, a business reporter with the daily newspaper Zeri. A tall man in dark jeans and a sport jacket, Hamidi had a look of re- signed desperation when I asked him about Kosovo’s finances. Big business is virtually non-existent he said, and the government run utilities are hopelessly corrupt.
Last year, Hamidi co-wrote an investigative series on management practices at the nationally owned Post and Telecom of Kosovo. The series unveiled serious allegations about director-general Shyqri Haxha’s leadership. But when the stories came out, rather than promise change, the government threatened to have Hamidi and his co-author prosecuted.
I asked Hamidi if he had been afraid. He just laughed. “No, not at all,” he said. It’s a bit of a paradox. Kosovo is a free country. Journalists are mostly unafraid to speak out. But at the same time, no one trusts the government, not even to follow through on its threats. It’s as if they’re not even competent to run a reasonable crackdown.
No one offered me a bleaker view of Kosovo’s future than a former government adviser I met in Prishtina. Five years ago, he told me, he had real hope for Kosovo. Today, that’s almost gone.
A former consultant with the UN Development Program and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, he now works as the head of a research NGO in Prishtina.
Kosovo, the man told me, has no real export economy, no agricultural policy and a stunted private sector. Most Kosovar businesses are small and family owned. The country has little heavy industry and unemployment is endemic — more than 40 per- cent in most official surveys. The school system is underfunded and poorly managed. The universities don’t offer the courses a developing economy needs. Foreign direct investment went down last year, and three years after independence, the country still re- lies heavily on foreign aid and remittances from the Diaspora. The people of Kosovo tend to be very optimistic, the man told me. “They shouldn’t be.”
DESPITE ALL THE practical problems, the one issue that still sucks up the most political space in Kosovo is the question of what to do about Serbia, the man said. He looked almost pained as he did, as if he couldn’t believe that in a country with no real economy and a comically awed political class, so much attention could be paid to something else.
Serbia still counts Kosovo as a prodigal province. Seventy-five countries, including the United States and most of the European Union, disagree on that point. But without some kind of agreement with Serbia, it will be hard for Kosovo to ever to join the community of normal nations. However, solution would likely mean compromise. And compromise, I found, is a dirty word in Kosovo. It sounds like forgetting, like moving on. And how can you tell people to move on from what happened in Kosovo?
Take Yllka Metaj. She was 10 years old when the police came in 1999. They knocked on her parents’ door one night, broke in and gave every- one three minutes to leave. They wore masks, Metaj told me. They beat her father and forced her family into exile.
Metaj was one of about 850,000 ethnic Albanians forced out of Kosovo by Serbian troops in 1999. If anything, she was one of the lucky ones. Her family survived intact. Many were not so fortunate. Thousands were murdered. Scores were raped.
Metaj is 23 now. She has a good government job. She comes o as posh and modern and reason- able in almost all things. But on the question of the Serb-dominated north, where the Prishtina government has virtually no authority, she hardens. Kosovo’s borders are inviolable, she tells me. There can be no “special status” there, no compromise with Serbia on that point. (She says this last, “special status,” not so much with venom as contempt.)
Metaj, whose Facebook page is littered with photos from fancy parties, told me she’d fight to keep her country intact. She’d go to war for the borders on Kosovo’s ag. They are part of her blood, part of her heart.
I got a similar answer from Visar Ymeri, a member of Kosovo’s parliament in the Vetevendosje party. The No. 1 issue for Kosovo is sovereignty, he told me. Until the world, and especially Serbia, recognizes Kosovo’s borders everything else can pretty much wait.
Ymeri wore a suit with no tie when I met him. He’s tall and balding and has a scar on his brow. As we spoke, he swayed in is chair and gestured with almost oversized hands.
I tried to push Ymeri on the development question. What about the economy? I asked. The jobs?
Without sovereignty, he replied, without knowing your borders, you can’t have economic development.
ON MY LAST NIGHT in Prishtina, I walked past a young man on a 4X4 on a city street. He was tooling around, spinning back and forth in the middle of the road. He’d accelerate in one direction, break hard and spin around to face back the same way. He did it over and over. It was midnight on a Wednesday.
If I left Kosovo with one image, it was that one: A country chugging hard in no direction at all, spinning around, back and forth, going no- where fast.
Kosovo is more than the sum of its horrible tales. But what it is beyond that, I’m not entirely sure. It’s still a half-country, a world stuck between two states, like ice beginning to melt.
If you drill down, if you get them to open up, hell, if you just ask them questions, many Kosovars will share an image of their country just as dark as any nightmare conjured from the outside.
They know, I think, that perception isn’t really the issue in Kosovo. Reality is. And if the rest of the world isn’t watching right now, well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Illustrations by Driton Selmani.