Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Crossing borders or crossing boundaries?

By Tom Vrolijk

Today is Tuesday, the 8th day of our trip, which means the trip is almost over. Even though I am sad to leave, I can say this trip has been successful. Not only did we enjoy ourselves, we also met amazing new people, learned about new cultures and had some eye-opening experiences.

One of the amazing people we met was Igo, she is the leader of the woman’s network and has done an incredible job in promoting woman’s rights in Kosovo, before, during and after the war. Yesterday (Monday) started out as usual, the sound of alarms going of on 4 phones at the same time, multiple people wanting to shower at the same time, Enver telling us to hurry up and making sure we get to the meeting with Igo on time (sort of). She gave one of the most inspiring talks we had during this trip, and she is one of the persons that actually made change happen.

After meeting with Igo, we went to Kosovo 2.0, a magazine that strives to bring professional and neutral journalism to Kosovo. They publish about topics such as corruption, sex, and general history of Kosovo in a neutral way. They have much less funding than mainstream media in Kosovo, yet they are able to write about important topics without bias, and make sure the public engages in these topics as well. They have an online platform, as well as a printed magazine which is released every few months in English, Serbian and Albanian. The whole day was filled with positive meetings for once!

Nonetheless, there are still many problems Kosovo is dealing with, one of these issues is recognition. Kosovo is not internationally recognized by many countries and organizations, including the EU and the UN. And then there is Serbia, who claim Kosovo is part of Serbia, and should not be an independent country. Not being recognized brings a whole bunch of major and minor problems. One of these issues is crossing borders, or visa liberalization. This means that people in Kosovo have trouble crossing borders, especially with Serbia. This problem is best explained through our attempt to cross from Kosovo into Serbia on foot last Thursday.

(Serbian Flags on the Kosovar side of the border show how the people in the north of Kosovo think of recognition.)

At the start of the week we visited a lake near the Serbian border. After having refreshed ourselves and after having some beers, we decided we wanted to try to cross the borer, just to be able to say that we have been in Serbia. On we went, walking in a general direction towards Serbia.

 ‘The hard part about walking from Kosovo to Serbia is that you cannot ask directions, since Serbs will tell you you are in Serbia already’ Ilen Madhavji.

(Abandoned gas station near the Serbian border/boundary)

Luckily we managed to find the border without directions. However, once at the border control, or as Serbs call it, boundary control, we engaged in a conversation with the border/boundary police. Anne had already told us we could not cross into Serbia with our passports, only with our IDs. Yet, at the border this grey area of politics became even more dark grey. The border control told us that we could cross into Serbia, but could not come back to Kosovo with our passports. Once we told him that we had ID cards, the guard said we could cross the border, and most importantly, come back. It all seemed fine, until he asked us if we also had our passports.

(Border sign saying welcome to a particular area of Serbia, not the country itself)

 As we thought it was normal question at a border we gave him our passports, this is where the whole business became shady. At this point he was holding my passport and ID card, as well as Ilen’s passport and ID card. With a suspicious laugh he told us we could go. Both Ilen and I realized he still had our passports and IDs, and we were never going to leave either in the possession of the shadiest border police I have ever seen. Wisely, we asked for our passports and IDs back, and decided our journey into Serbia ended there.

As we were walking back to the restaurant at the lake, some random guy in a tiny restaurant next to the road which was heading towards the border asked us a ‘simple’ question. ‘In which country are you now?’ This is probably the most loaded question one could ask in the Northern part of Kosovo where there is a majority Serbian population, and where most people agree Kosovo should be part of Serbia. We told him that we would leave that up to him to decide, and walked onwards. Even though our mission to cross into Serbia failed, we did get hands-on experience with the crooked politics behind the issue of recognition ourselves, and now we have a good story to tell when we get back.

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