Wednesday, July 11, 2018

An unexpected gift

By Mercedes Mercedes-Mercedes
Going to Kosovo I had a pretty grim picture in mind. This was because of the intense first week in class on the history of the Balkans and especially Kosovo. Additionally, we had a lot of presentations and most of them were focused on Kosovo's history and current institutions. Hence, we talked a lot about the 1998-1999 Kosovo war and the current government, in which some of the ministers and the current president are former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). 
During the war the KLA was one of the main actors fighting for the independence of Kosovo, with violence, from Serbia/Former Yugoslavia. Therefore, one of the pictures I went to Kosovo with was that perpetrators of violence during war are now responsible and representative of a country, that claimed its independence 10 years ago. This peace is maintained through international organisations, in part due to tensions between the minority Serbs and majority Albanians. Additionally, we were confronted with pictures and stories of the Kosovars being dissatisfied with some of the international/European organisations operating in Kosovo and continuing tensions between the two groups and the government and its citizens. We were also informed that it is an extremely patriarchal society and that although most of the population are secular Muslims we should still not wear clothes above the knees and no tank tops.
However, once getting out of the airport, that grim picture already started to fade as you are hit with the fact that people are friendly. Be it your taxi driver, the waiter, officials, the store keeper, police officer and so on. We stayed in Prishtina, which is a very typical capital city, with loads of shops, monuments, parks and restaurants, but they did have a very prevalent café restaurant culture. 
Almost every street has multiple cafés and most of them were filled with groups of men. We later learned that there are so many men hanging out at the cafés because of Kosovo’s high unemployment rate. However, apparently the coffee in Kosovo is amazing but I don’t drink coffee so yeah. Also, the food there was really good. I was also really surprised to see woman in tight short dresses, crop tops and shorts and I felt like I stressed about my wardrobe for nothing. I mean it makes senses to not wear really flashy/noticeable clothes as people were hyper aware of us and stared at us a lot, but I never felt unsafe or disrespected for the way I dressed or any other person for that matter. 
On the second day we visited Mitrovica, which is divided by a river with Kosovo Serbs living north and Kosovo Albanians south and the two communities hardly mix. It’s quite astonishing to be in a city in which in one half you pay with Euro and in the other with Dinar (Serbian currency). Furthermore, the Serb government covers most of the costs of north Kosovo, including salaries and infrastructure. And this went on day by day, finding out more and noticing how complex peacebuilding is. 
This is also due to the reoccurring topic of corruption, unemployment, visa limitations and failing education. We were confronted with these topics everyday as we were meeting several organisations, NGOs or politicians with our class but also just by speaking with locals. However, most of the organisations we met also were very positive about Kosovo’s future, because they all admitted that things are not perfect, but things are progressing, and that people need to understand that they are a young country that only slowly started governing itself 10 years ago. I think after meeting so many inspiring people, especially women, who are actively working on improving Kosovo, I did see a more positive image than the wartorn country I was picturing before I arrived in Kosovo.
Do some tensions between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs still exist? Of course, it has a long and deep history that is passed on from generation to generation but there are some programs in place to improve communication between the communities. Additionally, many Kosovo Albanians I have spoken to mentioned that they have some Serb friends and that they don’t necessarily have a problem with Serbs but the Serbian government and hence avoid speaking about politics with them. However, even the people who said that they don’t have a problem with Serbs made one or two statements that in some shape or form hinted towards them having some prejudice towards Serbs. Unfortunately, we did not talk to a lot of Kosovar Serbs, which of course makes the experience in Kosovo a bit more one-sided.
To conclude, I unexpectedly enjoyed Kosovo as I imagined that I will leave the country with the same grim picture I went there with. However, the hospitality and the inspiring, hard-working people, many of whom were around my age, left me with a great impression. Visiting various organisations, NGOs and politicians gave me a great insight into peace making/building/keeping. Seeing different cities and landscapes of Kosovo provided me further with interesting and joyful moments. Also, getting to stay with a lovely host family who welcomes me so friendly made me appreciate the trip even more. However, Kosovo still has a way to go but there is progress and change, especially coming from the younger generations. Hence, one of my favourite quotes during the trip was made by Petrit Selimi, the former Foreign Minister, saying of Kosovo’s situation “It is not that bad.”            

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