Thursday, June 16, 2016

Through blurred eyes: clear visions of a united city

By Thomas Litan

Time flies when you spend your days hearing inspiring, touching and conflicting stories. It seems only yesterday that we, still recovering from a week of a seemingly never-ending intake of information on Balkan history and the different groups and communities that inhabit the area, embarked on this journey and boarded the plane to Kosovo.

My first week here has been characterised by a number of common household items: toilet paper, water bottles, tissues and hay fever pills. Yes, unfortunately the pollen of Kosovo decided to rise up against a foreign visitor and set out on a mission to destroy his vision. And indeed, I have spent all this time observing the wonders and delights of Kosovo through red, watery eyes and a nose in need of constant emptying as a useful distraction. They were aided by their close allies, namely the weather and the programme, which meant we were outside most of the time.
Thankfully, the rain in the last two days has cleared away this obstacle, allowing me to once again seek out what I came to do here, namely to observe, listen and understand (key word of the week).

Sunday's trip took us to the southern city of Prizren, which serves as an example of the ideal future of Kosovo: several religious communities living together peacefully. A city where the river serves as a place for an ideal get-together for lunch instead of the main border between two communities who fear, and sometimes even hate, each other; where the bridges have names and stories (some related to love) instead of a function as a closed and walled physical barrier between two worlds; where Serbian Orthodox churches and Islamic mosques are only a one-minute walk away from each other. A stark contrast to Mitrovica, where the divisions are still clearly visible in both rhetoric and reality. Quite different, too, from Pristina, where the cosmopolitanism seems to leave little time to reflect on such occurrences.

When one bothers to take the steep climb to the Kalaja (the fortress overlooking the city), taking care to make a stop at the Church of St. Saviour halfway, one is able to observe the city and see exactly that: just one city. The myriad of houses, the 30 or so minarets that tower above them and the gentle river flowing through its centre. The winding streets full of shops and the tourists which frequent them. The traffic making its way through the city, going in different directions. There are no divisions, no striking tensions. As the tour guide explained, Prizren hosts very different people, but they all manage to live in peace, side by side, as neighbours.

Maybe this is an overly optimistic rendering of the situation, but it still seems as if this city could serve as an example of how those who believe in one Kosovar nation see their ideal society: Kosovo Albanians, Kosovo Serbs, Catholics, Serbian Orthodox and Muslims living next to each other, sharing the space. Throughout the week, I've heard many people discuss the tensions in Kosovo society, the sad remnants of a war that is still all too fresh in the memory of the people. Some do not easily forgive and forget, meaning their future is still pre-determined by events which took place nearly 20 years ago. They talk about 'the other' as if they have forgotten that they share a common bond with Kosovo.
Despite the sometimes unenviable conditions these people live in, what I found striking is that many have no plans to leave the country (regardless of the introduction of visa-free travel as a result of the visa liberalisation process). Instead, many wish to use their pride of Kosovo to help improve and build Kosovo society, mostly through aligning themselves with several projects. Minorities wish to raise awareness and augment respect for their rights, community leaders wish to unite the people and emphasise similarities rather than differences, governments are passionate about the European project, believing earnestly that it will benefit their people. In short, many people wish to make a true difference, in big or small ways.

Wouldn't it be perfect if the rest of Kosovo could use this format as an example? While every community may have its own language, religious and cultural customs and its own norms and values, a shared pride of Kosovo and a desire to make life better in the region binds all of them. If everyone were to cross the bridge instead of blocking it and decide to live together, side by side, as neighbours, how much could these young and energetic people accomplish? Making a change begins in small ways, but a lot of people making such small changes can one day lead to a grand, ground-breaking change.

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