Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Home Again: what has changed?

By Clara Bikoumou

Two years ago, the first group came to Kosovo and I had the pleasure of being part of this amazing experience. Of all places, Kosovo and particularly Pristina do feel like home. I cannot stop but compare how it was then, how it is now, and why is that. So far it is with so much joy that I see that things have changed for the better. The last time I was in the vibrant capital I simply had to adjust. It was also my first time visiting a developing country. To be perfectly honest, so many factors make up for some of these inconveniences, so much that I had forgotten most of them. You have to imagine a city with infrastructure and utilities that are not always up and running. Water shortage is one of them. This time however, we enjoy the water from early in the morning (around 6am) and pretty late at night (23pm and more sometimes). 
The first time, I was particularly alarmed by the amount of child beggars on the streets. As far as my perception goes their number has decreased. Near Pristina, there is a camp where Roma-Ashkali-Egyptian communities live as the most marginalized people in Kosovo. Two years ago, it was like stepping in a village from another world and time. We were truly shocked by the conditions in which people had to live. It was the first time I was confronted with substantial economic poverty and even after going to Uganda a year afterwards, my perception still has not changed. This time, however, it just looked and felt better. The local NGO working on the ground is growing, leaders of the communities are creating change and it is truly amazing to see what is happening for these communities. 
In general, I have the feeling that the city looks better: a lot has been repainted, fixed and a sense of novelty can be perceived in the streets. After all, Kosovo is the youngest state in Europe, which promises this kind of development,  but I am just so pleased it can be noticed in two years.
Apart from Pristina, we have the chance to travel to other parts of Kosovo, notably to the Northern city of Mitrovica. It is mostly inhabited by Kosovar Serbs in the North of the town, and by Kosovar Albanians in the South. A main bridge separates them and it has become the epicenter of violence in the country. The first time I just could not believe what I was looking at. A barricade was elevated, mostly made from the road that was destroyed for this purpose. On the Southern side the police was present at all times. Pedestrians could still cross the bridge but the passage was not inviting. 
The bridge is still closed, a fence was built by the European Union. It surrounds a peace garden that was created in the meantime. Pedestrians can still cross the bridge and this time in a more convenient way. Although the physical barrier still exists, the mental obstacle is the most lasting one. However, I could notice that within an hour only, many individuals, from all ages, crossed the bridge. While crossing it, friends and I encountered a group of young men, Kosovar Albanians, that interestingly told Iris, Lisa, Jasmin and I that they had just come back from the Serbian side “for fun” in order to “see Serbs”. When asked about how they felt about it, what they had seen, whether anything had struck them, they did not have much to say. We all laugh about the fact that what seemed to be an exciting adventure at first turned out to be one of the most ordinary experience. This story is important to tell as some people did not cross the bridge since the war yet, still afraid of what could happen if they do. Things are changing, slowly but surely.

More than what I am seeing around me, the stories that I am now hearing are different, more nuanced. Still in Mitrovica, the students and faculty members of the University we had visited last time were particularly radical. I was so frustrated by the fact that it was difficult to communicate with them. At the time we had only met people that were ready to move on from this conflict, recognise the responsibilities of both sides, and work toward creating a state for all communities. The students in Mitrovica did not share this perspective at all and they were resistant to any kind of solution to move away from this situation. Nevertheless, this time, I felt more willingness to talk about Kosovo as a state, and what would be the place of Kosovar Serbians in it. Quite significantly, we were not told “Welcome in our country Serbia.” Moreover, we could connect on other levels with the students and discuss about what we have in common, our student life. We also had the opportunity to stay overnight and meet other Serbian Kosovars that happened to be much more nuanced. Their attitude suggested that Kosovo is going to be recognised sooner or later, so they might as well start to learn how to live with it.
Things are changing in Kosovo, and, although the situation is often portrayed as being a conflict between Albanians and Serbs, it is more complex than that. On the ground, people are more concerned about finding a job, wondering whether the water will finally run the entire day, if they will have electricity in winter, and so on. Regardless of their ethnic background, people gave the impression that they were “fed up”, even though they did not always explicitly say it. Most importantly, a common future has surfaced: Kosovo could be recognized as a state and access the EU. This perspective is a driver for positive change and more than ever there is a motivation for people to move away from the shadow of the war.

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