Like lambs on the hillsides clouds frolic on high
As a longing for the unobtainable permeates my being:
How I long to join in the dance of the crimson clouds
And soar to the dazzling heights…
Let me go
The extremities of my suffering and the haunts of my anguish.
– Esad Mekuli, Longing for the Unobtainable
Kosovo, where is it?
You can be forgiven for not knowing exactly where the second youngest country (after Sudan) in the world is. Bordering Serbia to the North, Montenegro to the West, and Albania and North Macedonia to the South, Kosovo is a small landlocked country in Southeast Europe with a population of 1.8 million (92% Albanian and 6% Serbian). Under Ottoman rule for over four centuries from 1455 to 1912 and then Serb control as a part of Yugoslavia after WWI, it went through a tumultuous 20th century marked by political instability, economic crisis, war, and displacement before finally becoming independent in 2008.
From Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I take a rickety old bus bound for Kotor, Montenegro before crossing into Albania. A short bus ride to Shkoder and a scenic lake crossing later, I arrive in the gorgeous Valbona National Park before hitching a ride to Kosovo (faleminderit, Fani!). Having little idea what to expect, I find a gem of a country hidden in the depth of the Balkans with such rich history and culture. With old bazaars and heritage mosques, Roman ruins and jaw-dropping monasteries, trendy cafes and hip contemporary art, Kosovo might be small in size but is certainly large in character. Everyone is so welcoming that you find it hard to leave. Ah, legendary Kosovar hospitality!
Along the Silk Road: Gjakova
Listen to the ancient flute
An eerie beast is sniffing about
Many a song is sung
But only one song never ends
The song of freedom.
Only twelve kilometres from the Albanian border, Gjakova was once a major trading post between Shkoder and Constantinople in Ottoman times. The quiet town is famous for its 17th century Grand Bazaar, Çarshia e Madhe, the oldest in the country that stretches over a kilometre with 500 small shops of artisanal craft. Completely destroyed during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, it has since been restored to its former glory. Nearby stand the famous 15th century Hadum Mosque, a unique stone Clock Tower (built in 1597!), and many beautiful traditional Albanian houses known as kullas. An early morning stroll through old Gjakova transports one back several centuries until aromatic coffee in new town cafes cajoles one out of nostalgic revelry…
Peja at Five in the Morning
The city is asleep
the people and the night are asleep
the silence rests...
I also slept
I even dreamed
I saw my father leaving…
He left behind
a free homeland.
– Jeton Kelmendi, Peja At Five in the Morning.
A short bus ride away to the west, one reaches Peja, one of the prettiest cities in Kosovo. Set at the mouth of the gorgeous Rugova Canyon at the entrance of the newly formed Accursed Mountains National Park, the lovely city offers a perfect mix of culture and nature for every visitor. From the beautiful Skanderbeg Square, lined with classy old hotels and bustling cafes, I walk towards the Long Bazaar, Carshia e Gjate, without doubt the most beautiful in Kosovo. The 15th cenutry Bajrakli Mosque is located right in the middle of the bustling Ottoman market while historic buildings like the Haxhi Beu Hamam and Kulla e Zenel Beut, a traditional fortified stone house, are all just a short walk away…
From the city centre, it is an easy stroll to reach the exquisite UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Patriarchate of Peć (13th century) at the outskirt of town and the entrance of the Rugova Canyon. I visit the spectacular gorge twice, first in autumn colours and then in deep snow. Only a month earlier, I was on the other side in Valbona National Park in the Albanian Alps. The Accursed Mountains are the famous setting in Ismael Kadare’s classic novel, Broken April, about the age-old Northern Albanian traditional of blood feuds. He simply meant to follow the custom. Around him patches of snow were still there, scattered witnesses...
I am the bee that bites the most painfully in hive
I am the cure, the sweetest milk in the spring
I am every torn dress, every sting, every slap that cracks
I buzz, I keep this city alive.
– Arber Selmani
I always fall for capital cities. Cultural heritage and museums, cosmopolitan bookstores and hip cafes, national theatres and libraries, festivals and political art, old bakeries and culinary treats. The newest capital in Europe, Pristina is bustling with an infectious newborn energy. For a month, I settle comfortably in my new home in GOT Hostel in Old Town and begin my day by visiting Safed, Islam, and Shaban – who speak to me in Albanian and German, eins, zwei, drei? faleminderit! – in the oldest bakery in Pristina. Oh, the joy of fresh bread that always brings back such warm memories!
Pristina Old Town is relatively compact, with a 19th century Clock Tower on one side and the Carshi/King’s Mosque and the Great Hammam on the other. The Ethnographic Museum, housed in a 18th century traditional Ottoman home, is a real gem. Once a core trading centre of Old Pristina since the 15th century, the nearby Old Bazaar was unfortunately destroyed in the 1960s to pave way for modernization. Today, local residents make their rounds for fresh produce and the latest conspiracy theory on war crime trials of their political leaders in The Hague… Who’s behind this farce? Who’s next?
The city centre is marked by the Newborn Monument and Mother Teresa Boulevard where one finds the National Theatre, the Grand Hotel from the Tito era, sidewalk book boutiques, plenty of cafes, art house cinemas, and marvellous contemporary and graffiti art…
An unfinished Orthodox Church – interrupted by the war – stands close to the Cathedral not far from an old mosque, a perfect symbol of Kosovo. But none surpasses the reputation of the National Library, dubbed “the ugliest building in the world.” The domes and the cubes are meant to represent a style blending Islamic and Byzantine architectural forms, but Serb nationalists saw the domes as a symbol of the national Albanian hat and turned the building into its army headquarters during the war. Thankfully, today light once again shines through the 73 domes! Perhaps few places showcase the rebirth of Kosovo better than Termokiss, the first community-run art centre. “We want visitors to see that there is no corruption, but there are creative young people, who with a good will and community work, use recycled materials to create marvellous places like Termokiss,” one of the volunteers said. Hope is priceless in a country still reeling from the legacy of war twenty-three years later.
Historical Capital: Prizren
The moon severs its golden beams, cowers behind the frayed edges of a cloud, does not wish to witness the crime, does not deign to be tainted by the red drops welling from the raven’s spoil. A shadow, like the shroud of death, spreads over the scene.
– Anton Pashku, 1957. The Screech.
Capital of the Serbian Empire in the 14th century, Prizren is one of the most historical cities in Kosovo dominated by a grandiose medieval fortress. Called a museum city, it has many old mosques, churches, and buildings in the well-preserved Ottoman quarter. The view of the city with snow-capped mountains from atop the fortress is unparalleled. Prizren is also the gateway to the ski resorts in Brezovica and Prevalla, and is known for the annual Dokufest International Film Festival (come back in August!).
Heart of the Battle: The Drenica Valley
From Pristina, I venture to the Drenica Valley in the centre and to Mitrovica up North for a geopolitical history lesson. Inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Albanians, the Drenica region has a long tradition of resistance, against Ottoman rule and then Serb domination. It is the birthplace of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, and saw some of the most atrocious war crimes during the Kosovo War. Mitrovica, on the other hand, is known for Serb nationalism. Divided by the Ibar River into the northern (Serb) and southern (Albanian) sides, the city is a political lightning rod of Kosovo.
It’s rakia season! Malsor, the young Albanian hostel owner, takes us to his ancestral village of Gllanasell in the Drenica Valley. The family has taken time off for the annual ritual of preparing the distilled plum brandy. The jolly atmosphere in the fun outing belies a painful history in the surrounding hills. It was here where the Kosovo War began in 1998. Surrounded by the Yugoslav Army and Serb police and paramilitary, the valley suffered some of the worst massacres of villagers including Malsor’s family members. How can I leave Kosovo? he says. My family sacrificed so that we live. I decide to stay…
Mitrovica: A Divided City
An hour north of the Drenica Valley lies the divided city of Mitrovica with an ethnic Serb majority in the Northern side and an Albanian majority in the South. Crossing the bridge over the Ibar river feels like entering Serbia proper – with Serbian flags, language, and dinar – even though one remains in Kosovo. During my visit, the ethnic tension between Albanians and Serbs once again threatens to boil over due to, guess what, licence plates!
A new licence plate, introduced in 2010, two years after independence, bearing the letters RKS (Republic of Kosovo) and the coat of arms, has been refused by some 50,000 ethnic Serb living in Northern Kosovo who continue to use those issued by the Serbian government. To avoid trouble with the authorities, most Kosovo Serbs just use a tape to mask the letters SRB and the Serbia flag. In August 2022, when the rule finally came into effect, ethnic Serbs in the north barricaded roads and fired shots in protest. Three months later, Serb policemen and members of parliament resigned en masse on the day when fines began to apply. A few days after my visit, Kosovo police advised foreigners to stay away from the Serb side of Mitrovica for fear of unrest. If licence plates can ignite such deep seated distrust, what is next? Serbia – with Russia behind – has never forgotten NATO’s 1999 intervention that ended the Kosovo War. Unfortunately, Kosovo’s tragedy lies in its being used as a small pawn by the big powers…
Time Does Not Heal, Only Answers Do
Kosovo, what a compelling country! It has been a deep dive into Kosovo history and moral geography. Aside from routine military presence – NATO peacekeepers, KFOR, can be seen in most towns – political slogans, war graffiti, and memorials on both sides mark the landscape. The fate of over 1,600 disappeared as well as redress for victims of sexual violence during the war remain unaccounted for. Nine of the most senior Serb and Yugoslav officials including Slobodan Milosevic have been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) while eight former Kosovo Liberation Army members have so far been indicted by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague for war crimes during the 1998-9 Kosovo War.
War continues to cast a long shadow in this region. What gives me hope is the vibrant civil society scene in Kosovo. Advocacy by the Kosova Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims led to the first conviction of wartime sex crime of a Serb ex-policeman, Zoran Vukotic, in November 2022! Over the past decade, the Humanitarian Law Center Kosovo has tirelessly worked on the implementation of a victim-centred transitional justice framework. Oral History Kosovo is a treasure trove of interviews and stories of the past while Kosovo 2.0 showcases some of the best independent journalism in the region. Headed by Andin Hoti, the son of disappeared Professor Ukshin Hoti, the Kosovo’s Missing Persons Commission continues the painstaking political and forensic process of finding the remains of loved ones in mass graves in Serbia. Time does not heal, only answers do…
For a month, I roam from one old bazaar to another, explore marble caves and steep canyons, marvel at UNESCO monasteries and Roman ruins, and enjoy macchiatto with rakia, watching autumn leaves turn to first snow. Never have I enjoyed a tastier blend of Turkish, Albanian, and Balkan cuisines and stuffed myself with more generous portions of flija – the thickest pancake in the world – piping hot bureks, smoky kebabs, spicy stuffed peppers, heartwarming gjyveq/goulash, and highly edible baklava and trileqe/Albanian three-milk cake, all washed down with endless rounds of ultra-sweet çaj rusi/Russian tea. What an enriching theine- and caffeine-filled and calorie-ful adventure!
As always, it’s the people you remember. Kosovars seem to inhabit the spirit of Mother Teresa with their boundless compassion even if they have suffered indescribable war trauma. They are some of the kindest and most generous people I have ever met in my long travels. Faleminderit!
For hundreds and thousands of years
A bright thought
Has anybody ever been able to appraise you
My god given homeland that conferred me my name
– Jeton Kelmendi
Spring has come early to Kosovo, the former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, said after the Racak massacre in January 1999 in which 45 villagers were killed, strengthening the resolve of NATO allies to intervene. Now winter has fallen fast in this Balkan heartland where I started meeting with locals on a photo project on war and memory called Fragments of War. It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember, Nobel Laureate, Svetlana Alexeivich, writes.
What do I remember about the war? Xheva, my 61-year-old neighbour reminisces. Everything…
It is hard to imagine that Kosovo remains unrecognized by almost 70 countries fourteen years post-independence. Only four countries allow Kosovo citizens to enter without visas. Malsor, the hostel owner, couldn’t stroll across the border Greek town with his Albanian girlfriend for a cup of coffee, and waits for the next nine months for an appointment with the US Embassy for a visa application. During the World Cup, the Serbian soccer team hung a a political banner with a map of Serbia that included the territory of independent Kosovo and the slogan “No Surrender.” Plus ca change…
I will not write Finis, for the tale of the Balkan tangle does not end here.
– Edith Durham, 1920. Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle.
This is part of a series on my three-month journey revisiting the Balkans in 2022.