Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #44: Kosovo: Will there ever be a Balkans Nelson Mandela in the Land of Hatred? Part I – Kosovo

#43: Kosovo: Will there ever be a Balkans Nelson Mandela in the Land of Hatred? Part I

15 July 2002
I know this story is somewhat long, but the part of my journey it relates to was unusual. It tells the story of a people currently under siege and very difficult circumstances they face, plus the fact that reconciliation has become so difficult in this land. Some international profile needs to be given to the innocent victims of this conflict, and the more people know of their plight, the better it is for them.

1389: St Vitus Day, Kosovo Polije
Led by Prince Lazar of the Serbs, the princes of the Balkans – the Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians and Bulgarians – have gathered on this flat plain for the day of the reckoning.

The Turks under Sultan Murad have gathered the greatest invasion force ever on the Plains of the Black Birds, “Kosovo Polije” in the Serbian language. The trumpets roared and 60,000 men clashed in heavy armour.

At the end of the day, vultures encircled the plains of corpses and the river turned into lakes of blood. Both Prince Lazar and Sultan Murad were dead. So were thousands of their men. But the landscape of the Balkans was changed forever: The flower of the Serbian nobility was wiped out in battle. The Turks regrouped under a new sultan and soon overran the entire Balkans. The Serbian nation was gone, except in its ballads and folklore, to be passed down through generations, who learned about the glories of its great kings and princes, as well as the tragic battle of Kosovo.

1989: St Vitus Day, Kosovo Polije
The revitalised Serbian nation was more than 100 years old, and now part of a larger Yugoslav Federation. A crisis had broken out, and the new Serbian President, Milosevic, had called for a million citizens to gather on the plains of Kosovo on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo.

The coffin of Prince Lazar, holy saint of the Serbian Orthodox Church, was opened for the masses. The crowd roared in this fanatical display of religious piety, in a state which was only a few years before officially atheistic. “Never again Kosovo!” Milosevic vowed. “Serbia would never fall again!”

With that, the parliament of Serbia abolished the autonomy of Kosovo, thus setting off the wars of Yugoslav disintegration.

2002: “Fushe Kosovo” – the new Albanian name of this historic place.
Here I stood on its windswept emptiness, with multitudes of blackbirds encircling the site. The winds howled while I took refuge in the shadow of the huge monument under which Milosevic made his speech in 1989.

Rubbish littered this holy ground of the Serbs. The interior of the stone tower was utterly ransacked; I don’t know what used to be found inside, perhaps an exhibition of the historic events it was built to commemorate. Now only rubble is found within.

A heavily armed guardpost stood meters away, with sandbags and camouflage net. A bored British soldier was listening to his Discman, while looking out for potential Albanian arsonists. The United Nations took over Kosovo in 1999, after NATO – which postcards in Belgrade described as the “New Antichrist Terrorist Organisation” – had inflicted heavy defeat on what remained of the Yugoslav Federation. Since then, 1 million Albanian refugees, exiled by Milosevic’s oppression and genocidal attacks, have returned to this troubled land – officially described as a “province” but in reality heading for independence; while most of the 250,000 Serbs have left in haste, like many of their compatriots in what used to be Krajina in Croatia.

In his efforts to avert the events of 1389, Milosevic had instead prompted its recurrence – bringing history full circle.

I arrived in Kosovo after an overnight bus from Montenegro, through the high winding passes of Rugova, into the historic Kosovar city of Peje – used to be known by its old Serbian name of Pec. Now all the place and road names in Kosovo are being changed. Serbian names have been struck off by vandals, leaving only the Albanian ones. A millennium of Serbian existence in Kosova – the Albanian name for the province, or what the Albanians prefer to call it, the country – is being wiped off the books and the landscape.

During the hour-plus bus journey to Prishtina (older Serbian version: Pristina), I came across the ruins of houses, even whole ruined villages. The Serbians destroyed whole communities when NATO bombing began, leading to a mass exodus of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, in addition to those who had already fled abroad when the Serbs started their campaigns against the guerillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). After the UN’s entry into Kosovo, the UCK began their revenge attacks on the Serbs, and left many Serbian villages in destruction too, plus the many destroyed Serbian churches I saw on the road. More than 100 had been destroyed since the war ended, and the remaining ones are heavily guarded by KFOR troops (Kosovo Enforcement Force – a 34-nation contingent force), complete with barb wire, sandbag bastions and watch towers. One particularly large church still had the top of its bell tower intact, sitting on the rubble of its lower floors – a sad reminder of the ethnic hatred and cycle of vengeance that never seemed to end.

Prishtina used to be a drab town of 300,000-plus people. Since the end of the war, its population has more than doubled, due to the influx of villagers as a result of massive destruction in the countryside. The influx of more than 30,000 KFOR troops, plus perhaps an equal number of personnel from UNMIK (UN Mission in Kosovo, the UN ruling body), and the alphabet soup of international organisations and NGOs such as UNICEF, OSCE and EU, meant a boom in the number of fancy restaurants, bars, cybercafes and nightclubs. Like everywhere else in Kosovo, apart from a few token Serbian signboards on prominent UNMIK buildings, the whole place has been completely Albanianised, plus new statues of the Albanian national hero, Skanderbeg; Mother Theresa, the most famous Albanian worldwide; lots of Albanian national flags; and memorials to fallen UCK heroes – the latter seen all over Kosovo.

Kosovo is today a very safe place for foreigners, so long as you try to be as non-Serbian as possible. A Bulgarian UN staff was shot in broad day light when he spoke Serbian – he was mistaken as a Serb. I tried my best to forget the Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian/Macedonian that I learned the past few weeks, although the chances of my being mistaken as a Serb of some sort is negligible. Even then, I have been corrected a few times by locals when I used the more familiar Serbian place names. Even the menu of Grand Hotel, the best in town (which doesn’t mean a lot to these state-run enterprises now awkwardly taken over by the UNMIK) and base of journalists like Jim Simpson during the 1999 war, had the well-known Serbian dishes such as Serbian Salad and Fish Belgrade-Style crossed out by hand and renamed as Albanian Salad and Fish Prishtina-Style instead.

Everywhere I was asked who I work for. To most people, the notion of a tourist in Kosovo sounds as ridiculous as going for a skiing holiday in Papua New Guinea. I got tired of trying to explain, and ended up saying I was an economist with UNMIK.

Here you see a very cosmopolitan mix of foreigners, from Malaysian police to Swedish KFOR troops. Foreigners are treated very well here – you are regarded as liberators – I have never seen the flags of UN, NATO and the USA flown so widely, from fast food stalls to motels – and source of the local boom and spending power. I hardly see “alternative” economic activity. I wonder what will happen when UNMIK’s mandate ends. Perhaps smuggling will remain an important source of income. There were no passport checks whatsoever when I entered Kosovo from Montenegro. No wonder this has become a major centre for transit of illegal goods, drugs and human cargo.