By Andy Daab
Our digital roosters woke us noticeably early this Wednesday. A variety of buzzing and ringing sounds got us each rolling from our beds into the bathroom, ensuring we would be at Prishtina’s/Priština’s prominent Newborn sculpture at 7.30am. Proudly but evidently fatigued we arrived to Anne’s unbreakable smile and were soon sold on our new vehicle. Chiara, the empress royal of organisation, arranged a sleek UN bus for us fit for Senhor Gueterres himself. Once seated – and more importantly hydrated with water from the Kiosk – we embarked on our journey to the Field of Blackbirds.
We were Northbound to a region notorious for the most vivid reality of the tensions in post-Serbia Kosovo. With most Serbian enclaves and settlements being concerned in and around Mitrovicë/Kosovska Mitrovica, there was a felt mixture of excitement and uncertainty in the air. There is a distinctly biased narrative in the West wherein Serbia is commonly drawn as the aggressor in the death of Yugoslavia. And while there undoubtedly exists measurable evidence of scale that supports such a claim, one would be naïve to assume that war permits for distinct borders of guilt. In Europe’s most bloody conflicts since WWII fractions would switch continuously across the lands. And as inherent to war, in the end there are no winners. Serbians too had lost family, homes, and identity in the break of what once was a singular home for the many people of the Western Balkans. We were about to discover these stories, as well as the sentiments that have been forged around them.
Descendent to a Serbian grandfather myself, with significant family and personal ties in Balkans, this part of the trip was of particular value to me. I entered Kosovo with an open mind and a heap of excitement, but from Ilok to Somobor, to Sarajevo and Mostar there were subtle undertones ringing in the back of my mind that subconsciously had created an image of Albanians I knew to be untrue and I had always been deeply ashamed of. It was a relief, if not an overwhelming feeling of joy, when finally I got the opportunity to eradicate that dark cloud in my suppressed Balkan identity once and for all. Having been left in awe by the sheer beauty of Prishtina/Priština, and more so the beauty within the kind people that inhabit it, I already had broken that narrative and was hoping that our trip up North would do the same to my temporary Kosovo family about Serbians. As my newfound sister in spirit Bardha said later that day during our visit to the UNDP, “We are all just the same. We all have dreams and want a good life. And why not share our homes and just live in peace.”
The Field of Blackbirds was a surreal place. An ominous veil lay over the lonely tower on top of the hill. The rusty fence and the outdated little hut for the guards did not help the scurrility of it. The unimpressive scene that was charged with so much history of fabricated hatred left a little lump in our throat as we headed for Mitrovicë/Kosovska Mitrovica.
At this point I would just like to point out the extraordinary value of Bardha and Enver, our hosts and, to me at least, invaluable friends (the Balkans tend to quickly bring kindness to flourish when it finds one another). Throughout our trip up to what would inevitably involve heavy occasions, they were not just a source of calm and steadiness, but a true inspiration that allowed our group to be as engaged as we were. Let this paragraph be an earnest expression of gratitude and affection. Our little Kosovo family is incredibly lucky to have them and looking forward to spending one more week in their bright warmth.
Our first stop was the UNDP and UNICEF. While an ideal start to our trip, there are a few more pivotal moments I would like to dedicate the limited words I am granted to. Besides, the kind global servants we met have contributed greatly to many of our projects and will reoccur in the final products thereof. We moved on in our little Ban-Ki-Mobile (the man is still my fave, sry Antonio) to International Business College of Metrovica after a short refill of Serbian delicacies at the mall. As my project focuses on the perspective of Serbian youths in Kosovo, this was my first chance to get in direct contact with the voices I was so eager to hear. The official presentation of this slick, outward-looking business school was expectedly polished. So it was a pleasure to bond with the students in direct dialogue right after. Unsurprisingly their minds were not too far from our own. A master’s abroad, an impactful job, and a future that could improve lives were popular hopes we could all relate to. But as our visit drew to an end it became apparent that not all that shines is gold. Anecdotes of uncomfortable even physical incidents on the way between the Northern (Serbian) and Southern (Albanian) campus, gave us an idea of what to expect at the university.
Chiara explained that recent visits experienced the height of tensions at what ironically fittingly is called the University of Priština (temporarily located). The name alone was telling of the mind-set we were to expect in the stuffy wooden room, where part of the administration and the student council awaited us with sceptical faces. Playing the Serb card early on, I hoped to relax our hosts and hopefully open them up to tell us about their hopes and dreams. After an at times delicate open Q&A session, I got to talk to Dragi or Gisha, as he told me his friends called him. Sporty dressed and with a noticeable charge of emotion, he seemed happy that his “Serbian brother” approached him first. Admittedly uncomfortable to play along, I quickly adopted to his vocabulary, which opened a world of identity and self-understanding that would have otherwise been hard to access. Much of his ideas I would like to reserve for my report, not only due to their inadequate nature but also because the idea was to break a narrative and show that the, to us, twisted identity is rooted in a deep pain. A pain that has been exploited by “the big fish”, as they are called here, to fabricate a hatred, which is holding back the young nation to this day. Yet the most powerful and often repeated phrase of our conversation was, “I want to go home.” Gisha was born in Peć, a now predominant Albanian town. He became a refugee at the age of four but decided to return from Belgrade to ‘reclaim’ what he believes to be rightfully his. This loss mixed in with the poisonous nationalism in the region, had created a young man who has forged an identity around his victimhood. After directing me to some of his friends and a friendly handshake, I left the room internally drawn. His pain was so understandable and genuine but what it became so infuriating and upsetting that I needed to catch some air. And as if sent by the heavens Bardha, Enver, and Chiara were sitting in a Café opposite the street, gently pulling me be back into reality and restoring my spirit after this tough interaction. (The day after I would come to conclude that the Serbians I met up North had very little in common with the Serbian from Serbia proper I know and loved.)
We were all glad when we got back on the bus and headed for a cosy family restaurant near the Balkan’s largest artificial lake. A stunning scene comparable maybe to Canada’s endless landscapes, welcomed us as we headed into the valley between the mountain range. After a dip into the turquoise waters, we convened on the terrace to enjoy some pivo and share some stories before breaking bread with endless mountains of Serbian meats and vegetables. It was a wonderful end to a day that could have not been contrasted. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the laughter grew louder (for obvious reason #Šljivovica) we finished one more stage of our still long Kosovo adventures. With excitement we look forward to the days to come.
*Special note: Our internet providers kept on switching between countries up there more often than Serbia has elections until finally abandoning us entirely by the lake. Consequently this post comes with a one-day delay and my apologies.