Published: May 20th 2012
May 2nd 2012
Only fun planes look this rickety right?
Well it's a lazy Sunday afternoon, and I'm safely back in my quiet little neck of western Suburbistan near Boston. As it's now a month overdue (I regret nothing), and my only other thing worth doing is a tax return, I think it's time I tidied up the story of our little trip through the Balkans. As a final sidenote, I think my backlog's at like...four entries left, including this one. How soon they're finished depends on a lot of things, mostly since I wrote the last ones under periods of great stress/sometimes drunk I'll probably wait until that happens again (read: after I'm employed). Right, so Kosovo. Welcome to Kosovo! Hope you weren't fond of those kidneys!
So I guess it's fair to say landing in Pristina's airport (via steep dive and prop plane) it was a little hard to know what to expect. Outside of the little crash course in history our professor had given us on the Odyssey
length bus ride earlier in the trip I knew next to nothing prior to NATO's cavalry over the hills intervention in the Kosovo war. Still, it was fair to say I didn't think an international terrorist would
I'll admit it, it's a manly beard.
have his portrait hanging Mao style over the airport entrance. Yet, there he was. The airport was actually named after Adem Jashari, who kind of looks like the brother of both Che Guevara and Santa Claus, and who had caused all kinds of mischief for the Serbs as one of the KLA leaders. They responded calmly, by which I mean they surrounded his house and killed something like thirty of his relatives, so today he's kind of a martyr...with unfortunate ties to several bus bombings pre war. Still, if there's one moment that set the tone, it was probably here. Post war, Kosovo has really gone about honoring the KLA's role in defending their little slice of turf from Milosevic, including a pirated version of the Vietnam War Memorial. This has meant a little airbrushing of course, and it's meant anyone with ties to the organization gets a bit of a buy in politics today.
In a related note, as many of the former KLA are seemingly involved, this might be the first country I've visited where the Prime Minister has been accused of organ theft (an oddly specific problem), alongside more general, less kidney related problems like heroin.
In something like an homage I guess, the KLA monument to all fallen freedom fighters/terrorists..
This last part in particular has caused nothing but headaches for the hapless folk who have to try and restore law and order to the area, a thankless task hilariously summed up by the EU mission's arrest of the minister of corruption for corruption (evidently he took the job too literally). In spite of this odd dysfunction there was something funny here... Wait, you like us here?
While all of that sounds rather horrid, and it is, the weird side to it all was this might be the first country(?) I ran into where Americans were universally liked. The surreal street signs for American parties, the occasional free shot of rakija from the locals, or perhaps the freaking statue to Bill Clinton were something of a giveaway to that. All told it made the experience much more bizarre than I'd have thought. Still, local friendliness notwithstanding... Beauty would be in the eye of the beholder, but there's too much smog
I can't really call Pristina pretty. Aside from the odd church ringed by razor wire and currently housing stray dog packs (seriously), a lot of the city gave off a kind of grimey sameness
Yeah, I don't think it's just the clouds, it's just not very, er, pretty. Berlin spoiled me alright?
to it. It was only after we left the city in a tour bus that things brightened a bit. Aside from snaring a power line in our bus ceiling (twice), the trip showed that a lot of the country could be quite pretty. The exception was a Serb monastery in the mountains. Also guarded by KFOR soldiers, it’s periodically something the locals have fired at with RPG’s and the like. It’s a crying shame because the place really is beautiful on the inside. The interior, as with a lot of Eastern Orthodox churches is covered in gorgeous frescoes top to bottom (including one “historians” think shows aliens), and the monks make their own alcohol on site, so there’s that as well. On the other hand though, half of the country's power is drawn from brown coal, basically the fuel of Captain Planet villains, and the occasional smog cloud does a lot to draw you out of any sense of wonder. Sadly also, the monastery I mentioned was a symptom of a much larger problem... Yo dawg, I heard you liked divided countries...
If that probably bizarre reference didn't tip you off, Kosovo actually has its own mini
Rubble piles are a little intimidating at points...
version of Kosovo. Enter Mitrovica. Like a slightly more Balkan version of Romeo and Juliet, it’s a town divided, in this case there’s a literal river bisecting the town. In fairness to the Kosovo government, it seemed like they had tried to make the remaining Serbs feel represented in their neck of the woods. This worked pretty well in the southern (relatively speaking, it's a small place) part of the country, where everyone was dealing with problems like stray dogs together, but Mitrovica is just a little too close to Serbia for that. The northern third of the town is Serbian, and they would very much like to part of Serbia officially. This is something that Kosovo, given that their geography is literally plastered on their flag, isn't really keen on (if our tour guide was any indicator, they weren't keen on the Serbs in general to be honest). By the time we visited, things had ratcheted up a bit, by which I mean the only bridge’s one end was guarded by Italian KFOR soldiers, and the other was the site of the Berlin Mound. Since apparently making concrete walls are just a bit overt, the Serbs elected to
"What's that you're burning?"
"Oh! You know, Lignite coal".
"You mean the stuff that causes acid rain?"
"Yup, it's everywhere around here!
put up a rubble pile at the end of the road, to helpfully mark where foreigners and Albanians could start expecting a brick to the face. That last part’s important, because me being me (read: stupid) I got a little too close for the Italians’ comfort and our group was marched back.
All told the experience isn't one I'm likely to forget anytime soon though. After all, here I am a month on, and I'm still not sure what to make of the whole experience. Ah well, if I see any of you dear readers, well then buy me a drink and I'll pass on a story or two. Til next time.
There are more photos below