Now independent, Kosovo used to be a part of the former Yugoslavia.
On the 17th of February 2017, The Republic of Kosovo will be celebrating the 9th anniversary of its independence.
On the 17th of February 2017, The Republic of Kosovo will be celebrating the 9th anniversary of its independence.
Prior to gaining independence, Kosovo was part of Serbia, then a constituent part of the former Yugoslavia. It was as part of Yugoslavia that I made my two visits to the area. The first I made on my own in 1975. The second I made in the company of a Serbian friend from Belgrade in 1990. Soon after making the second trip, Yugoslavia began its bloody disintegration. Kosovo’s independence followed some years later after its citizens had been deeply involved in a prolonged struggle, which resulted in much tragedy and many fatalities.
My trip in 1975 began in Platamon, a beach resort in northern Greece. I said goodbye to my English friends there, and took an overnight train to Skopje in (then Yugoslav) Macedonia.
This extract from my book “Albania on My Mind” describes my trip to Kosovo in 1975:
“I was the only foreigner boarding a long-distance bus at Skopje. It was bound for Prizren. My fellow passengers stared at me, and I looked at them, surprised by their generally unhealthy appearances. Most of them looked thin and their complexions were mostly pasty. After a four hour journey we arrived at our destination. It was in the heart of what was then called the ‘Autonomous Province of Kosovo & Methohija’, a troubled region, historically of great importance to the Serbs, where the majority of the inhabitants were ethnically Albanian.
When I disembarked at the bus station with my rucksack on my back, I was immediately surrounded by people, mostly young men. Everyone wanted to know my name, rather than my nationality or where I had come from. When I said it was ‘Adam’, they then asked me whether I was a Moslem. The answer did not seem to matter to them; they were just pleased to meet a stranger. When they had worked out that I needed somewhere to stay, they led me to a campsite, where I was able to rent a most reasonably priced holiday chalet - I had no tent. These people were all as Albanian as those who would many years later wave to me cautiously in Gjirokastër (in Albania), but as their lives were not dominated by the Sigurimi (the Albanian secret police), they were able to be open and friendly to a stranger like me.
Apart from the presence of Albanians, the beautiful old Orthodox churches, the mosques and the generally pleasant feel of the wellwatered place, there was yet another thing that attracted me to Prizren. All of the street name signs were trilingual: Serbian, Albanian, and Turkish. Some of the town’s population were Turkish, no doubt left behind when the Ottoman Empire dissolved. I noticed at the bus-station that there was even a regular bus service between Prizren and Istanbul.
After spending a couple of days in Prizren, I took a bus to Peć (‘Pejë’ in Albanian), where I had hoped to visit the celebrated ancient Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate in its outskirts. I was unable to do this because a bout of diarrhoea kept me confined to within easy walking distance of my hotel room, which had its own decent enough toilet. Whilst exploring the town, I walked past a hospital. It was surrounded by people, who were loading baskets, which were then hauled on ropes to its upper storeys by patients who were leaning out of open windows. I never discovered what these baskets contained, but it was most likely to have been food.
The next day, my innards having recovered, I left Peć and Kosovo.
I travelled from Peć to Titograd by bus. I chose to take the route that went via the wild and difficult Ĉakor Pass that traverses the mountain range shared by northern Albania and Montenegro, where I was heading. We reached the highest point on the pass after driving around a seemingly endless series of tight hairpin bends, and stopped there to give the driver a break. Whilst I was wandering around the treeless, grassy summit, admiring the views into the valley into which we would be descending, a grubby little boy approached me. He said something to me in a language, which I did not recognise as being Serbo-Croat. It was probably Albanian. Somehow, he made it clear to me that he wanted foreign coins. I thought that he was either a beggar, or more likely, just a curious youngster pleased to have chanced upon a foreigner. I gave him a few British coins, and then he rummaged around in his pocket. After a moment, he handed me a few Yugoslav Dinar coins, and left. He was no beggar, after all, but simply a young fellow with a well-developed sense of fairness. After leaving the Ĉakor, we wound through the mountains to Andrijevica, a small Montenegrin town, which was enshrouded in rain and mist. Then, we descended gradually via a series of deep wooded canyons towards Titograd. All I saw of the town on that occasion was its bus station. Little did I realise then that a few years later I would be spending a night there at the beginning of a great adventure.”
Titograd is now called ‘Podgorica’, it name prior to the Communist regime set up by Marshal Tito, and, I believe, that there is no longer a regular bus service across the treacherous Ĉakor Pass.
In May 1990, I made an extensive car journey around Serbia with my friend Raša, who is now sadly no more. His birthday was a day after mine (8th of May). On the 8th of May 1990, we were staying in the beautiful Prohor Pčinjski Monastery, which lies east of Kosovo near where Serbia and Macedonia meet. My birthday treat was to make a visit to Kosovo. I have described this trip in my book “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, of which this is an extract:
“My birthday treat was to make a visit to Kosovo. Odd as this might seem as a choice for a birthday celebration, it was not without danger, especially for Raša. Many Serbs had left their homes in the area recently. In the early months of 1990, a number of Serb civilians had been killed by Albanians in the streets of towns in Kosovo (and many Albanians had been killed by Serbs), notably in Gnjilane. I would not have blamed Raša for not wanting to go to Kosovo that day, but his curiosity was as great as mine. We had both last visited the Autonomous Region in the 1970s, but separately.
He was happy to make this second potentially hazardous trip providing that two conditions were fulfilled. The first was that our hired car was registered with Slovenian rather than Serbian registration plates. This is why he had advised me to hire a Kompas-Hertz car; their vehicles carried Ljubljana (i.e. Slovenian) plates. The second was that we would only speak in English; his English was near perfect. He felt that so long as we both spoke only in my mother tongue, we would both be considered to be English by any Albanians whom we encountered in Kosovo. Despite having fulfilled these conditions, I believe that it was extremely brave of him to make the excursion. If anyone had asked to see his identification papers, it would have been clear at once that he was a Serbian, and therefore a potential target for abuse.
We drove along a winding mountain pass between Medveđa and Priština (Prishtinë in Albanian). Whilst the road ran through Serbia, the countryside was almost empty; we saw few buildings and hardly any people. When we reached the summit of the pass, the frontier between Serbia and the Autonomous Region of Kosovo, everything changed dramatically. As we began driving down the winding road leading to Priština, it was as if we had left Europe and entered another continent.
The countryside was filled with new buildings, many looking unfinished with their un-plastered brickwork. They were everywhere as far as the eye could see. The roadside was lined with people sitting and chatting, apparently just passing the time of day. We passed young lads, many of whom smiled at us and gave us the two-fingered victory
sign. All of the road signs were bilingual, written both in Albanian and Serbian. Neither Raša nor I remembered Kosovo as having been so built-up and overcrowded. The narrow road that wound through the outskirts of Priština was clogged with pedestrians, animals, wagons, busses, trucks, and cars. We drove at snail’s pace through the mass of humanity that swarmed all over the roadway. The middle of the road was more crowded than the pavements of London’s Oxford Street in rush-hour. Raša told me that I should not even think of sounding the horn. The last thing that we wanted to do was to upset anyone in the crowd of people, which flowed around the car like the sea around a rock, almost pressing against it. He believed, maybe wrongly, that if this crowd were to become upset by us, there was little that they might not think of doing to us.
This was the first time that I had ever driven in conditions like this, but not the last. Four years later, I drove in Bangalore in India. One day, when my in-laws had to collect large amounts of flowers and tiny puris for our forthcoming wedding celebrations, I volunteered to drive them into the heart of City Market. The crowded narrow streets in this old part of the city were no less difficult to drive through than those in Priština. However, everyone hooted constantly; but no one took any notice of the noise.
We parked the car on some raised, uneven surfaced wasteland near the centre of Priština. Then, we began walking along a busy, crowded central shopping street. I was keen to buy some Albanian folk music from Kosovo, but we did not see any shops selling records or cassettes.
We entered a bank, hoping to ask someone where I could buy this music. A woman standing close by overheard me, and answered in English. She was the wife of a retired diplomat. With her help, we managed to find some pre-recorded cassettes in a department store and also in a small cigarette kiosk outside it. After I had bought his entire stock of music recordings, the kiosk owner realised that I was going to have difficulty carrying my purchases. He ripped open a carton of 200 cigarettes, and replaced the 20 boxes, which it had contained, with my cassettes.
After eating luncheon in the glass-fronted ground floor restaurant of a large hotel, we drove to Gračanica, just south of Priština. We visited its monastery, admired its architecture and the old (14th century) Serbian frescos contained within it. The ancient Serbian Orthodox monastery at Gračanica was, like those at Dečani and Peć and also the nearby site of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, one of a number of historical Serbian rocks that were becoming gradually engulfed in an ever strengthening tide of Albanian influence. Soon after we visited Kosovo, a terrible conflict between the Serbs and the Albanians began in the region. Both protagonists believed strongly that Kosovo was their own, their home and historical birth right, and were prepared to use force to back up their convictions.
After viewing the monastery at Gračanica, we drove south-eastwards to Gnjilane. This small town, which was also bustling with people, contained a number of old buildings. It was home to a significant sized Turkish minority. As in Prizren, which I had visited many years earlier, street signs in this town were trilingual: Albanian, Serbian, and Turkish. After drinking an excellent coffee in a Serbian owned café, I spotted a kebab shop above whose façade there was a hand painted imitation of the world famous McDonalds golden arches ‘M’ trademark.
We drove across the eastern edge of the dry, dusty plain of Kosovo, and passed many recently built rust-red brick buildings, each surrounded by its own ugly high grey breezeblock walls. After about 16 Km, we crossed some hills, and left the Autonomous Region behind us. The first Serbian place that we drove through was the small town of Bujanovac. We saw many gypsies (Roma) in its streets and also many shop signs written in Albanian. Next, we headed southwards into a mountainous area, and, after following a winding pass that brought us up to a high spot only 2 Km from Serbia’s border with Macedonia, reached our destination.
Our accommodation for that night was in a luxurious room in the recently restored konak, which forms part of the Prohor Pčinjski Monastery.”
A few days later, we headed back towards Belgrade, passing once more through Kosovo. Again, from my book “Scrabble with Slivovitz”:
“Eventually, we reached Prizren, a town, which we had both visited independently many years before, and had liked. We encountered more foreign visitors in this attractive town than anywhere else we had been on our trip. As was the case on my previous visit, the trilingual (Albanian, Serbian, and Turkish) street name signs were still in use. After eating some delicious freshly grilled ćevapčići wrapped in superb warm bread that had just come out of the oven, we took a look at an attractive, well-preserved old building. It was the house in which the League of Prizren was founded in 1878. This organisation, which had lobbied against the annexation of Ottoman territory by Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria, was also responsible for the awakening of Albanian nationalism that resulted in the formation of an independent Albanian state in 1912. Ironically, this monument to an organisation, which had fought to prevent the Kingdom of Serbia from annexing the Turkish (Ottoman) Vilayet of Kosovo, still stood within the borders of Serbia.
We left Prizren and spent the afternoon driving slowly (out of necessity) past Đakovica to the walled monastery of Visoki Dečani, which we visited in order to view its architecture and frescos. Then, after passing Peć, we began ascending a sinuous mountain pass. It took us well above the snow line, and then into Montenegro.”
These extracts from my books, written a few years ago, give some personal impressions of a country which is now independent, something that I would never have imagined back in 1975 and even in 1990. Now, I look forward to visiting independent Kosovo to see how things have changed over the years.