Christian May and Harry Cole report on their recent trip to Kosovo.
There has been much talk of late about whether the UK could either afford or handle “another Kosovo". Given that Tony Blair was prepared to commit 50,000 UK soldiers to a ground invasion, it’s clear that we couldn’t think along the same lines were we faced with a similar situation today. In light of the deteriorating situation in Libya, commentators began referring to the Kosovan experience either to advocate or criticise any idea of military intervention.
It was at this time, less than ten days ago, that Dan Hamilton, Director of Big Brother Watch and intrepid traveller, led a group of us for a four day trip to Kosovo, taking in the capital city, Pristina, the deeply troubled city of North Mitrovica and even neighbouring Macedonia, for Sunday lunch.
Kosovo and Serbia are set to hold their first formal talks since the former declared independence three years ago. Under the guidance and watchful eye of the European Union (the other flag that flies a lot in Kosovo – though it will never be as popular as the Albanian, US or British flag) the two sides will begin talking about “normalising” lives for their respective people. At present, the conflict between Albanians and Serbs makes life extremely difficult for all Kosovans; preventing them from joining various economic bodies or even having their own country dialling code.
Thanks to Dan’s planning, we had an excellent itinerary and we were fortunate to meet a broad range of Kosovan-Albanians, Serbians and diplomatic figures. On our first afternoon we met Qamile Morina of the Democratic League of Dardania – a leading opposition figure who fears desperately for the future of Kosovo’s young people, in a country where (as she put it) there “is no rule of law.” She wasn’t talking about street-level crime, but rather the corruption of the institutions and the judicial system that makes life so hard for businesses and civil society. Why would an international investor risk their millions when, due to a back log of hundreds of thousands of court cases, there is no guarantee they would be able to get their money back out?
We journeyed out to Prekaz where the Albanian flag flies over the graves of KLA hero Adem Jashari and his extended family. This is sacred ground for Kosovans, and represents the sacrifices that ultimately led to their independence. Jashari was notorious for his guerrilla operations against the Yugoslav police, and would routinely launch sniper attacks on their patrols. In March, 1998, the Serbian patience grew thin and several hundred members of the Yugoslavian military police surrounded the Jashari compound and launched a gun-fire and mortar attack that Amnesty International later said was clearly designed to “eliminate all witnesses.”
Jashari, and 52 members of his family, held out for three days before being overwhelmed by fire power. They were all killed, some just toddlers. Today, former KLA soldiers stand guard over their ornate graves. The lack of any such gold or marble elsewhere in the country adds to the poignancy. Jashari, the man they knew as Uncle, became a legend. When the Yugoslav Army were driven out posters of his face were erected all across the land, with the slogan Bac, U Kry! – “Uncle, it is done.”
Now, over a decade later, economic problems blight the country just as much as ethnic divisions.
We travelled North, to the city of Mitrovica. This shabby, nondescript city lives on as a permanent reminder of the conflict. Separated by a murky river and small bridge, the South side is home to Albanians, and the North to Serbs. Our Albanian driver refused to cross the bridge, so we walked steadily past the UN and KFOR troops that stand guard over it, into what many believe to be Serbia. Technically part of Kosovo, the North side of town is almost entirely populated by Serbs and is determined to remain part of Serbia. Our contact was waiting to meet us on the other side of the short bridge, and he led us to a government building where he introduced us to some fellow young professionals who work at the University. (The university considers itself to the University of Pristina in exile in North Mitrovica. Its students are Serbs and despite the fact that the Republic of Kosovo refuses to accredit their degrees, applications continue to outnumber places).
“I am not Milosevic,” our guide said to us. “My daughter is not Milosevic. We handed him over to The Hague.” He draw a parallel with Nazi Germany, insisting that if Germans can be forgiven then modern-day Serbians should be, too. Amidst all the different views, the justifications, the controversies, the violent flare-ups and the fragile hope of a better future, it is easy to forget that what happened in this part of the world is not ancient history and that thousands of people’s lives – Albanian and Serb – remain scarred by the bloody conflict.
Reminders are everywhere; from the bullet holes in the former house of Jashari, to the burned out churches and mosques. Our Kosovan guide, who chose to be known as Tony, told us of his family’s flight over the snow-covered mountains when the Yugoslav Army approached his village, and our Serbian contact told us of his fears for his young daughter in the city of Mitrovica – where violence on the bridge last erupted in November after pro-Albanian Turkey defeated Serbia in a basketball match.
On our final day we met the Charge d’affaires at the British Embassy, the de facto Ambassador, Anna Jackson. Having spent the previous days talking to taxi drivers, market traders, political activists and members of the diplomatic community, this was an excellent chance to put our new found appreciation for the situation into a political context. Is there cause for optimism? What about the new Prime Minister?
It wouldn’t be cricket to provide details of Ms Jackson’s briefing to us, but what was clear was just how much this fledgling country still depends upon international support and, crucially, finance. On the wall in our embassy is a letter from Prime Minister Gordon Brown, formally acknowledging British support for Kosovan independence.
Three years on, and there are signs of progress. These tentative steps will now be tested as Kosovo and Serbia sit down to talk.
It’s hard to find another place as pro-American, pro-British and pro-freedom as Kosovo. The Department for International Development has just stopped the UK’s aid contribution. Let us hope that there will be no withdrawal of political support for the people of Kosovo – people who are proud of their country and the progress it has made.
“Bac, U Kry!” was the chant when the Yugoslav Army left. Perhaps young Kosovans will be able to say it again in a few years time when we leave.