Archive for October, 2010

Former Yugoslavia Part 2 – If Perth Were Kosovo

In Vojvodina, the Northern region of Serbia, in the city of Novi Sad, a Serbian Architecture student explains to me what it is like with Kosovo. “Imagine if Perth suddenly decided it wanted to split away from the rest of Australia,” he says. “This is what it is like with Kosovo.”

A few days later, Ewa and I climb off our night bus in Prizren, Southern Kosovo. It’s roughly 6am so we go find a cafe until it’s polite to call Oran, a Kosovo Albanian Caritas worker who we were put into contact with through a tenuous series of friendship and collegial connections. Above our table, Turkish-style music blares from the television. Men at other tables (and there are only men) regard us with too much interest.

At around 7:30am, Oran picks us up and buys us breakfast. Conversation with strangers in Kosovo goes from pleasantries to the war in roughly five minutes, and with Oran it is no different. Still sleepy from our night bus, we are only a couple sips into our coffee before he begins with the end of the conflict: the rush to build shelters before the winter, for all the returning refugees who had had their villages destroyed by the advancing Serbs. He gave us his version of events (many of the details of which I’m sure the Serbian student would vehemently disagree.)

Roughly summarised, Oran told us that Kosovo was part of Serbia before the war but the majority of its people were Albanian. During the Yugoslavia period, it was an autonomous province and was largely neglected, a practice that continued during the break-up of the region. Then, sometime during the late 90s, Serbia started encouraging Serbian immigration to the region as a step towards claiming it properly as Serbian territory. Not long after, the ethnic cleansing began.

Oran told us about the burnt and destroyed villages, the streams of refugees to Albania, Germany, other parts of Europe. After the conflict calmed down, those who had gone as far as America, Australia or Canada didn’t really return, but everyone else did. He claimed, and other locals we got to talking to agreed, that Kosovo was actually very lucky in terms of the timing of the conflict. No-one wanted to make the same mistake of delayed intervention that had been committed during the 90s war, so  foreign aid was plentiful. NATO arrived, the war was quelled quickly and effectively, and the rebuilding effort was extensive and well-supplied.

Now-a-days, Kosovo is developing quickly and well, but still has its share of serious problems. Electricity is rationed in the winter, with many people on a sort of roster system, which involves receiving 2 hours of electricity followed by 2 hours of none. Unemployment is up around half the population and the economy is seriously struggling. Then there are the other practical, young country concerns: where to put all the rubbish for example – Kosovo doesn’t have a waste processing plant.

On DFAT’s Smart Traveller website, Kosovo overall is listed as, “High degree of caution” while the North of the country, around the border with Serbia, is listed as “Reconsider your need to travel.”  War was this decade. On the Prizren hillside, just below the fortress, ruined Serbian houses sit ribboned in razor wire. The population is disconcertingly young; on the streets of the city people over 30 or so – especially men – are rare.

Yet I feel safer than I had in many Western European countries I had travelled through, including Spain and Germany. The people are friendly, open and generous, particularly to foreigners, who they equate with the aid workers who acted so quickly to rebuild the country. As both of us are very blonde and very white, Ewa and I do attract more attention than we strictly want to, but we do not feel threatened.

We stay four days, then take a night bus to Sarajevo. Crossing the border into Serbia, the bus is boarded twice – first by the Kosovan boarder guards, then by the Serbian border guard a little further down the road. The Serbian seems huge and threatening. He takes up the whole aisle and looks at everyone’s passports for a long time. Anyone who has entered the country from a different route and does not have a Serbian entry stamp in their passport is not allowed to enter Serbia from Kosovo – a couple of Turkish boys on our bus who had entered from Greece through Macedonia have to get off at Pristina so they can catch another bus, which will take them to Sarajevo through Montenegro instead. The guards are dressed in regular police uniforms rather than border police uniforms, because to the Serbians, this is not a border.

They say there are three Bosnian wars: the Bosnian version, the Croation version and the Serbian version. The war in Kosovo is no different. However, coming from Kosovo, speaking to Kosovans who have lived through the war, it is difficult to imagine the Serbian justification; and watching the border guard muscle up the aisle, I wish I had quizzed that Architecture student in Novi Sad further.