Into Kosovo, from North Macedonia, on my group tour of Old Yugoslavia.
Kosovo - in a Nutshell
A Very Brief History of Kosovo
- Kosovo is another name associated unequivocally with conflict and suffering in my head. Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, one of the youngest nations in the world, but is still disputed territory and is only partially recognised as a sovereign state (by 100 member states of the United Nations). This is mainly because Serbia still objects. Serbia believes that much of Kosovo is historically, and importantly, linked to Serbia. It’s also strategically important, as a South European link. There are ongoing tensions between Kosovo's Albanian and Serb populations.
- In antiquity, this area was part of the Kingdom of Dardania, annexed by the Roman Empire as part of the province of Moesia.
- In the Middle Ages, the region became, in turn, part of the Bulgarian Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Serbian Empire. Whilst Kosovo was Serbian the most prominent churches in Kosovo, known in Kosovo today, the Patriarchate of Peć at Peja, the church at Gračanica and the monastery at Visoki Dečani near Deçan, were all founded. Serbia, including the Kosovo area, succumbed to the Ottoman Empire. In 1877, the name Kosovo was used, for the first time.
- When the Ottoman Empire disintegrated this Kosovo Vilayet was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbia, and, in 1918, into Yugoslavia.
- President Tito gave Kosovo regional autonomy, in 1963. But when Yugoslavia disintegrated, in the 1990s, it was subsumed into Serbia. Tensions between Kosovans and Albanian Kosovans grew. The latter claimed neglect and discrimination by Belgrade. Strikes, then conflict followed, with the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević adamant that he would beat the Kosovans into submission. Milošević launched an 'ethnic cleansing campaign' against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. Violence A mass emigration of Albanians followed. NATO, then the UN stepped in and took control. Milošević was put on trial for war crimes. Finally, on 17 February 2008, Kosovo unilaterally independence.
Facts and Factoids
- Most of the centre of this landlocked country is dominated by vast plains and fields, and economically important vineyards, whilst the borders are mainly mountainous.
- The UK gave support to Kosovo under Prime Minister Tony Blair, resulting in numerous Kosovan Albanian boys named 'Tonibler'.
- Kovsovo means 'Field of the Blackbirds' in Serbian. The Kosovans call their country, 'Land of Freedom'.
- Kosovo’s national anthem is called 'Europe'. Kosovo adopted a wordless national anthem to avoid showing loyalty to any particular ethnic group.
The capital city of Kosovo, Pristina, doesn’t look too pristine. There are the ubiquitous roadworks and much of the city is a huge building site. Since the war, in 1999, the city has changed dramatically. Many older buildings have been cleared to provide open spaces, gardens and squares. The predominantly young (70% under 35) Albanian-speaking population faces further challenges. Poverty is prevalent. It's reported that there are severe water shortages and the supply is limited at times. We don’t stop, and sightseeing consists of squinting out of the bus window.
Friends, Andrea and Andy, go even further. 'Pristina is an even bigger dump than Luton Airport'. What could be more damning? They continue:
' Pristina is a city of statues; Skanderbeg, a medieval Albanian hero, Mother Theresa (she was local enough to get a statue, cathedral, highway and square), Bill Clinton (Clinton and Tony Blair are heroes in Kosovo because of the intervention in the Kosovan War – Bill got a statue, Tony got a who load of boys named after him with Tonibler being a quite popular first name in the early 2000s) and a slightly odd “Newborn” statue which changes each year. Add to that, what is probably the world’s ugliest building, in the public library, and that is Pristina.'
The surrounding mountains and waterfalls are more rewarding. Prizren is prettily located with a mountain backdrop, on the border of Albania and Kosovo. It is the best-preserved old town in Kosovo, so earning its alternative name, ‘The Museum under the Open Sky’. It is divided by the Lumbardhi River, criss-crossed by numerous elegant bridges. On one side of the valley are the Sharr Mountains, on the other, the ruins of a hilltop citadel.
This is a very culturally diverse town, with mosques sitting next to Orthodox churches and monasteries. Though Albanian flags proliferate - it's clear where most loyalties lie. It's an interesting wander through the old town and alongside the water. There are stalls piled high, and modern shops blending with small craft boutiques, delis, barbecues, bakeries and sweet shops. The old domed hammam has been closed, and is covered in scaffolding
After passing tantalisingly close to Albania (they won’t let me pop over the border), we pass by a wiggly Ottoman bridge at Gjakova. We visit a Serbian Orthodox monastery at Decani, described by UNESCO as "an irreplaceable treasure, a place where traditions of Romanesque architecture meet artistic patterns of the Byzantine world." We overnight in the city of Peć, surrounded by more dramatic mountains. In medieval times the city, was the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Patriarchal Monastery of Peć is another UNESCO World Heritage Site - part of the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo. Black robed nuns and monks play good cop, bad cop. The nuns are really helpful and informative, the monks eye us watchfully to make sure we meet the expected standards of behaviour and attire.
Next stop Montenegro.