It does make a difference. It is known internationally as Kosovo, but this is also the term Serbia uses. And it is Kosova in Albanian, how the ethnically Albanian 90% plus of the population would like the country to be known. It is a bit like Northern Ireland: Derry for Catholics and Londonderry for Protestants. Of course, we can make a comparison between Kosovo and Northern Ireland. The division between the ethnically Albanian Muslim Kosovars and the Slav Orthodox Serbs. Between the economically dominant Protestants and the subaltern Catholics. But the violence in the Northern Ireland troubles was a very different kettle of fish. In Kosovo there were 10,000 dead and 860,000 were driven from their homes by the Serb forces in 1999. In Northern Ireland 3,523 people were killed between 1969 and 2001. Now the Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are working together on the Northern Ireland Executive. It is still impossible to imagine anything similar happening in Kosovo.
After the Dayton Agreement in 1995, which, in Bosnia, established separate areas for Muslim Bosniaks and Croats, on one hand, and the Serbs, on the other, and which I commented on in an earlier blog, Slobodan Milosevic stepped up pressure on Kosovo, the poorest province in the old Yugoslavia, and which had voted to become independent in 1990. Differently to Slovenia and Croatia, there was no organized Kosovar armed force to back up the vote for separatism. And the Serbs, a minority of some 10%, controlled the police and had most of the government jobs. Many Kosovars had emigrated, mostly to Switzerland and Germany, where they sent regular remittances back home, and which ssupported many faamilies.
Though only a minority of the population in Kosovo was Serbian, it had a special place in Serb history, a kind of spiritual home, as it was at the Battle of Kosovo on the Field of Blackbirds in 1389 that, although the Serb army lost to the Ottomans, who eventually reached and took Belgrade, a sense of Serb nationhood was forged. As Milosevic said on the 600th anniversary of the battle: “The Kosovo heroism has been inspiring our creativity for six centuries, and has fed our pride. It does not allow us to forget that at one time we were a great, brave and proud army, one of the few that remained undefeated when it was losing” (in Kosova Express, James Pettifer. London: Hurst, 2005, p.21). It is also the home of important Serbian Orthodox churches. In Belgrade Cathedral I purchased a calendar of Orthodox churches in Serbia “Kosovo – The Heart of Serbia”. States the Introduction: “A country where it is most difficult to defend Christianity in Europe. This area is not only a part of Serbia, but it is also its stone sacrament built in the the foundation and without which it is impossible to survive the horrors of this world. Kosovo is the basis of Serbian soul, country, ethics, religion, culture. If you do not understand this, you do not understand a thing about Serbia”. In fact its Patriarchate is in Peje or Pec, in Kosovo. So, following this logic, what are the Albanian Kosovars, with their different habits and customs, their Islam, doing there, in this purely Serb place? Surely it would be better for the ethnic Albanians to go back to Albania and for Kosovo to become 100% Serb? This would be the basis of what would become known as “ethnic cleansing”.
But after the Serb defeat in 1389, Kosovo was abandoned to the Albanians, descendants of the Illyrians, who were the original inhabitants of the area. Serbia regained control after the Ottomans were defeated in 1913, and Serbs were brought in to develop the land. It was occupied by Italy in World War II, and then liberated by Albanian partisans and incorporated into Tito’s Yugoslavia. An autonomous province within Yugoslavia was created in 1974, but after Tito’s death in 1980 Kosovo demanded more autonomy. Unrest and strikes and riots in 1981 produced reprisals, and 300 Kosovars were killed. In 1989 the troubles reignited, and in 1990 Kosovo’s autonomy was cancelled, and broadcasting in Albanian stopped. In the mid-1990s the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was formed, mainly supported by money from expats in Switzlerland and Germany, and began to attack Serb police and army. In March 1999 Serbia rejected a US plan to return Kosovo’s autonomy, and Serb attacks on the KLA increased, as the Serbian military attempted to rid Kosovo of its non-Serb population by violent methods. Nearly 850,000 Kosovars fled to Albania or Macedonia. On 24 March NATO began to bomb key Serb positions, both in Serbia and Kosovo, including a cruise missile fired from the Adriatic that destroyed the Serb nerve centre, the police station, in Prishtina, capital of Kosovo. On 2 June Milosevic finally agreed to a setttlement. Kosovo then became the first country to be run by the United Nations. It had no infrastructure, no money, no industry, no security force, as all the police had been Serbs.
Just one account will give an idea of the horrors of the war. It comes from The Hemmingway Book Club of Kosovo (Tarcher/Penguin 2004), written by an American teacher of English, Paula Huntley, who was in Kosovo from August 2000 to June 2001. A student tells her the stories of her friends: In the morning of that terrible day when the Serbs came to their village [...] the mother, the son, and the daughters knelt in a circle to pray that God would stop the terrible things that were happening. The father had left for the mountains to join the fighters. They were still on the ground in the circle when the soldiers crashed in. The soldiers grabbed the son and took him outside. The family continued to pray until they heard a shot. They were shocked and remained still [...] The soldiers came back into the house, grabbed the mother and, in front of he daughters, raped her. Each soldier raped the mother as the daughters cried and screamed. When they were finished, the soldiers told them all to leave their house, to leave the country. [...] They walked for days without talking, finally joining other people who had just lived through their own hells and were moving toward the border camps (pp.178-179).
And then the situation was reversed, as Kosovars, now protected by the UN force, undertook to settle old scores and rid Kosovo of the remaining Serbs, committing “reverse ethnic cleansing” hounding the remaining Serbs from their homes, in some cases killing them. By March 2001 there were only some 700 Serbs living in Pristina out of the 20,000 that had been living there in June 1999. Indeed, the KFOR force now is more concerned with protecting these remaining Serbs and the Roma gypsies, ofteen seen by the Kosovo Albanians as being collaborators of the Serbs.
And the UN still controls all the Kosovo infrastructure. Much reconstruction, financed by the UN members and expatriate Kosovars, has been carried out. The Kosovo police force has now been trained and is out on the beat. The UN brings money, and its employees spend their fat wages, and shops, cafes, bars and restaurants have sprung up. Real estate agents carpetbagging cheap land and property. Smart primary schools and hospitals, and the brand new hotel, or motel, I stay at, spring up in a middle of a scruffy Communist-period housing estate. The KFOR (UN Kosovo Force) are admired. A street mural expresses this gratitude. And like nowhere else in the world, except Albania, as I mentioned, is the US held in such awe, reverence and love. While Europe dilly-dallied and supported a strong Serbia under Milosevic until 1999, the US took a firmer pro-Kosovo stance. The Albanian flag is entwined with the Stars and Stripes, calendars portraying Bill and Hillary are popular, and roads in Prishtina have been renamed Route 66, Robert Doll (Dole) and Bill Clinton (formerly Bil Klinton). After 9/11 thousands of Kosovars tried to donate blood for the victims.
But on the map Kosovo is still part of Serbia. But any day now a declaration of independence is expected from the the Kosovo government, to which administration is slowly being returned. Any kind of reuniting with Serbia is totally unthinkable. Joining Albania would be a wish for many, but an independent Kosovo still with UN administration is on the cards any time now.
The first impression of Prishtina was one of mud. The snows of late December had half melted, and the rest was a grey slush. The few pavements were covered in mud, then the pavement would become mud, and you have to cross muddy pools to get to the other side of the road. And even mud along Bill Clinton St., which looks somewhat Turkish, with its kebab and burek pastry shops, hamburger joints, patisseries, and street vendors, a number selling US and Albanian flags, or pictures of Bill and Hillary embracing. It seems most things, legally or illegally, are getting to Kosovo now. The UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) is omnipresent, still administering most aspects of public life: justice, taxation, forestry, environment.
But there is an air of normality to life. Air Kosovo is operating; urban buses are working; schoolchildren crowd out of school at 5 p.m.. But litter is strewn everywhere, just like Albania, and on both the nights I spent in Prishtina there was a 2-3 hour power cut.
I take a bus to Peje (Albanian) or Pec (Serbian). Along the road I see the shells of the gutted houses once occupied by the Kosovo Albanian villagers and destroyed by the Serbs. Often at their side there are bright new houses. Many have returned. In Peje I wander into an Ottoman mosque. The young men, students by the look of it, ask me if I want to pray. Just look. What do you think of Muslims, they ask, laughing. They tell me a little about the troubles. No family remained unaffected. “The Serbs killed us, but we want kill them”. His friend corrects him: We won’t kill the Serbs”.
I walk a couple of kilometres past the Catholic Church to the UN border patrol, which is manned by Itaalians, and get a pass to visit the Peje Patriarchiate, which is just inside No Man’s Land, andwhich, as mentioned, is one of the holiest places in “Serbia”. An orthodox service is taking place. In the chill dark interior there are about a dozen worshippers, most of whom would have been bussed in from the few remaining Serb areas in Kosovo. One by one they kiss the icon of Christ then kiss the priest’s hand and light a candle.