”Welcome to Kosovo! Go over there first to buy vehicle insurance.” The policeman at the checkpoint said to me after looking at my passport and driving license.
4 years ago, Kosovo was the 6th country I visited in Europe on a self-drive round the world trip. The vast majority of countries in Europe have joined an agreement called the “Green Card”. As long as there is an insurance policy, they can travel freely between member states by car, without the need to purchase vehicle insurance for each country separately. Kosovo was the first exception encountered on the road, which seemed to remind me: this is indeed a “different” place!
Perhaps like you, my understanding of the word “Kosovo” at that time all came from the “NATO bombing of Yugoslavia” in 1999. However, more than 20 years have passed, and even Belgrade, which was devastated back then, has become a must-see destination for Chinese people. So what would Kosovo, the fuse of the war that year, look like?
Kosovo – from “newborn” to “10 years”
Driving into Kosovo, there is no trace of the imagined war at all. On the contrary, the bumpy old road in the previous country suddenly turned into a rare highway in the Balkans! The aid sign with the EU logo on the side of the road answered my questions about the source of funds.
Along this short highway, I soon came to my first destination – Pristina in Kosovo.
The current situation in Kosovo today originated from the long-standing conflict between the local Serbian (Serbian) and Albanian (Albanian) communities. To put it simply, the Albanians, as a minority in Serbia, have lived in Kosovo with the local Serbs for a long time. However, some of these radical nationalists hoped to return to Albania with their people and land, even at the expense of the local people
. It has been pursuing a policy of moving Serbs into Kosovo and Albanians elsewhere, even banning the teaching of Albanian in Kosovar schools at one point. Finally, in 1999, NATO, led by the United States, bypassed the United Nations and carried out air strikes on the then Yugoslavia for more than two months on the grounds that the Yugoslav government violated the human rights of the Kosovo Albanians.
The war ultimately ended with the submission of the Yugoslav Serbs, who were forced to withdraw all troops deployed in Kosovo and replace them with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). In law, Kosovo is still part of Serbia, but the Serbian government has lost almost all control over the local area. Until February 17, 2008, the Kosovo Parliament unilaterally adopted the “Declaration of Statehood”.
They declared themselves “the youngest country in Europe”, and erected a giant sculpture with “NEWBORN” (new life) in the center of the capital, which became a local landmark. In 2018, when I visited, Kosovo had just celebrated the 10th anniversary of “independence”, and the “NEWBORN” sculpture was changed to a similar “NEW’10’RN” to commemorate this important day.
10 years is enough to erase too many marks of time. On the streets of Pristina, it is difficult for tourists to feel any traces of war. And the Serbian-language signboards that used to fill the streets in the old photos have long been replaced with Albanian. Simply put, from a tourist’s point of view, everything here is no different from other Balkan cities.
Libraries – Convergence or Fragmentation?
In one of the few Chinese travel notes in Kosovo, the “library” is a must-see attraction. Completed in 1982, it is a typical representative of the Yugoslav concrete utopia architecture of that era. The weird appearance not only attracted tourists to stop, but also caused a lot of controversy. The British “Guardian” even listed it as “the third ugliest building in the world” in a selection in 2012.
Yugoslavia in 1982 is continuing its last glory before its disintegration. Serbia (including Kosovo), Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia that we know today, and even Croatia and Slovenia, which are now part of the European Union, a total of 6 (7) countries and regions were once part of it. Catholicism, Orthodox Church, Islam, three religions, and more than a dozen different ethnic groups, under the common communist ideal, once ushered in a short period of peaceful communion.
Local people walked by the “NEW10RN” sculpture.
Eastern European people are as welcoming as ever. While taking pictures, someone came and offered to be the “landscape” in my camera.
This concept of communion is also reflected in this building: the weird and futuristic appearance represents the communist ideal that was popular in Europe at that time; 99 domes of various sizes are inspired by Byzantine (Orthodox) and Islamic architecture. Fusion; but its designer, but a Croatian architect from the Catholic region. However, less than 10 years after its completion, the ensuing large-scale inter-ethnic civil war once made it a shelter for displaced Bosnian and Croatian refugees. In the Kosovo war in 1999, it became the command post of the Serb army against the Kosovo Albanians. It is said that 100,000 volumes of books here were destroyed in successive wars, including countless precious Albanian ancient books.
Today, the ill-fated library has finally been restored to its original purpose. With the assistance of the United Nations and the European Union, the newly renovated interior space makes it hard to imagine the trauma of the war.
Museums – Oppression, Hate and Identity
Kosovo never existed as a “state” until it declared “independence” in 2008. In this vicissitudes-ridden land, how did those in power quickly build the people’s identification with the “country”? With this question in mind, I went to the museum in Kosovo.
In the museum, except for a little exhibition area introducing customs and history, most of the content, as expected, is focused on Kosovo’s struggle for independence. There is a special exhibition area here, whose name is cleverly borrowed from a chapter of the Bible – Exodus.
There aren’t many tourists here, so I have “exclusive” service from a volunteer interpreter who says she’s from a nearby university. Thanks to her, otherwise I must not understand what these pictures are talking about.
On the eve of the outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1999, the Serb authorities suddenly forced the Albanian residents of Kosovo to leave their homes and move to other parts of the country in order to weaken the Kosovo independent forces. This forced relocation triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. In a very short period of time, tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian residents were forced to leave their hometowns. When all public transportation was crowded, many people had to embark on the painful migration road with both feet. It was this forced relocation that caused an uproar in Europe and opened the prelude to NATO’s armed intervention in Yugoslavia.
Prizren, a city in the southeastern part of Kosovo, is at the northern foot of Mount Shar and on the banks of the Bistretsa River.
A statue of a war hero stands in front of the store.
When talking about this period of history, the young explaining volunteers actually burst into tears. As a college student, the great migration that happened more than 20 years ago, and even the subsequent war, obviously could not leave her with any real memories. However, there is no doubt that this kind of oppressed imagination and hatred of the oppressors have completely constructed her thoughts, so that she can’t help explaining them.
”The flags of all the countries that recognize Kosovo are displayed here. Now, more than 100 countries have recognized us!” Speaking of this, she changed her sad expression just now and showed an uncontrollable smile on her face.
”Which country are you from?” she asked me. Obviously trying to help me find my flag.
”China.” We still call it the “Kosovo region” at present, and I smiled a little embarrassedly. How will she resolve this embarrassment?
What surprised me was that she gave a professional and decent response: “China has not recognized us yet. But we have always had a very good relationship with the Chinese people!”
I must say, she said nothing That’s right. Although Kosovo has never been officially recognized by China, China has still established an economic and trade office in Kosovo to promote non-governmental exchanges between the two places. And Kosovo has always pursued the “one China” policy – even the Taiwan authorities, when Kosovo just declared “independence”, hastily announced its recognition. But Kosovo has never “reciprocated”: neither recognized the legitimacy of the Taiwan authorities, nor let their flag appear in this hall.
Prizren – the future of Kosovo?
I would never have imagined Prizen if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
If all you see in Pristina is Kosovo’s past, then in Prizren, maybe everyone can get a glimpse of Kosovo’s tomorrow.
This is a dream town hidden in the mountains and rivers. When you are lingering in the red and white pure Ottoman-style buildings under the blue sky, when you look back, you see the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The level of development and operation here is not only far superior to that of Albania next door, but also not inferior to the top tourism brand in Southeast Europe: Turkey. Even the low prices are comparable to Turkey! Because of this, it attracts a large number of European tourists. It looks like a crowd of people, almost not like Europe, but like a Chinese Internet celebrity town. I never would have thought that this was the war-torn area on TV 20 years ago! The only thing that reminds me that I am still in Kosovo is the statue of the war hero standing between the shops.
In fact, when the war just ended, Kosovo was far from the beauty it is today. A large number of buildings were destroyed and countless civilians were left homeless. Today, in the old cities with a sense of the times all over Kosovo, you can find many modern buildings with avant-garde shapes-they are built on the ruins of the past wars.
At the same time, Kosovo’s economy was destroyed by the war. Kosovo used to be a part of Yugoslavia for a long time and did not have an independent economic system. With the economic collapse of Yugoslavia in the later period, the baptism of repeated wars, and the large-scale flight of local residents, Kosovo’s already fragile economy was even worse. In 2001, just after the war, the unemployment rate once reached a staggering 57%.
After decades of economic pain, and relying on a lot of aid from Europe and the United States, today’s Kosovo, relying on tourism such as Prizren, has finally taken a small step. Although the current unemployment rate of 25.9% is still the highest among European countries, it also means that Kosovo’s economic recovery still has a long way to go.
Serbs in Kosovo – a minority of minorities
Historically, Serbs, Albanians and other nationalities (such as Roma) have long been mixed in the land of Kosovo. However, the disputes in recent decades have drastically affected the population composition here.
After the fighting subsided, most of the deported Albanians were able to return home. But other groups, especially the Serbs, have long been unable to return to Kosovo, where they have lived for generations, because of fear. This has also led to the Serbs currently living in Kosovo, accounting for less than 5% of the total population of the region.
Albanians in Kosovo were once regarded as a “minority” in Serbia. However, the Serbs living in Kosovo today have become a veritable “minority of minorities”. They are scattered in more than a dozen settlements, large and small, and most of them accept the jurisdiction of Kosovo while retaining their ethnic identity.
Kosovo stipulates that all races and religions are equal. This seemingly beautiful clause has encountered numerous obstacles in its implementation. Serbian, like Albanian, is an official language in Kosovo. However, when traveling in Kosovo, you can see the Serbian signs on the road signs everywhere with black paint. This kind of hatred of “hate and words” makes people shudder.
Next door to the Pristina Library is the most famous “unfinished building” in Kosovo – the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Before the war broke out in 1999, it was almost finished, except for the interior decoration. Today, more than 20 years later, it still maintains the state of shutdown. Although Kosovo’s courts have ruled that it is the legal property of the Serb Orthodox Church, the University of Pristina, which owns all the land around the church, has blocked any construction on the site.
Statue of Grand Duke Lazar.
A closed cathedral.
Signs in Serbian were painted over with black paint on street signs.
Orthodox church in the western city of Pécs.
And those Serb churches that have been completed and survived the war are actually not much better. Such as the Orthodox Church in the western city of Pej?. There are ancient and gorgeous buildings here, even selected as a world cultural heritage.
But at the gate of the church, there is a heavily guarded Kosovo sentry box. Even tourists must register their passports before entering. The outings of church personnel are strictly restricted. Even if it is just shopping, they must be accompanied by Kosovo soldiers.
Why are the Serbs in Kosovo so attached to the land of Kosovo? Or even continue to run their church despite the restrictions? In addition to the emotion of “not losing an inch of land”, the more important point is that Kosovo is an important birthplace of Serbia’s national spirit.
In the 14th century, there was a Grand Duke Lazar (Prince Lazar), whose status in the hearts of the Serbs was comparable to that of China’s Emperor Qin and Han Wu. He defeated the invading Ottoman armies of Turkey, reunited the crumbling Serbian Empire, and forged it into the greatest power in history. Therefore, he is also honored as the “Tsar” (Tsar) by the Serbs. The statue of him “pointing the country” now stands in the city center of Mitrovica, the largest Serb settlement in Kosovo.
He was born in Kosovo, just outside Pristina, which is now one of the most important spiritual places for Serbs. Also nearby is the most important church of Kosovo Serbs: Gracanica Monastery, also listed on the World Heritage List.
Under the seemingly ordinary appearance, it has a history of nearly 700 years. It was built in 1321, exactly the same age as the national hero Lazar. And its architectural shape has also provided a source of inspiration for countless churches throughout Serbia, including even the most familiar Serbian landmark: St. Sava Church in Belgrade.
In Chicago, the local Serbs even specially built a “New Gracanica Monastery” with exactly the same appearance.
Grand Duke Lazar also died in Kosovo, in 1389 in a bloody war with the Ottomans. His enemy: Murad I, the first sultan of the Ottoman Empire, also died in this battle. In Kosovo today, Serbs and Albanians still continue to have the same disputes as they did more than 600 years ago.
In Mitrovica, a pedestrian bridge separates the Albanian quarter on the south bank from the Serb quarter on the north bank.
Young people sitting on the railing outside a Serbian church.
One of the most famous socialist monuments in former Yugoslavia.
Serbian flags hang from the streets of the North Bank.
Mitrovica – A Protest Firsthand
Today, there is only half of the Kosovo city that belongs to the Serbs, and it is “Mitrovica” where the statue of Lazar is located. A pedestrian bridge separates the Albanian district on the south bank from the Serb district on the north bank, splitting the town into two distinct halves.
Residents and tourists on both sides of the strait can walk freely on the current pedestrian bridge, thanks to the 2013 Brussels Agreement. For more than a decade before that, North Mitrovica had been known as “Kosovo in Kosovo”: the Serbian government maintained control of the Serb city in Kosovo, although it left most of Kosovo alone , It also makes the traffic connecting other parts of Kosovo here almost interrupted.
The 2013 agreement saw Serbia formally recognize Kosovo’s jurisdiction over all Serb areas while withdrawing its own law enforcement officers, while Kosovo also agreed to a degree of autonomy for Serb residents. But the result is that this place has become a veritable “three-way zone”: under the resistance of the local Serb residents, the local government cannot enter, the Serbian government cannot manage, and the entire city is almost in a state of anarchy. Before arriving here, my friends in Kosovo advised me not to go, at least not to drive the car to the other side. After listening to the second half of his sentence, I parked the car on the safe south bank and walked across the bridge.
On the north bank, you can no longer see any images related to Kosovo, replaced by the Serbian flag, as well as Serbian characters, banks, license plates, and even currency, as if this place is still under the jurisdiction of Serbia.
On the top of the mountain in the distance, there is one of the most famous socialist monuments in Yugoslavia. Next to it was a Serbian church. A young man sitting on the railing greeted me with a smile and opened his Instagram for my attention.
So far, everything I have seen is so peaceful that I almost doubt the warnings of my Albanian friends. However, on the way back, I ran into a group of angry students protesting along the street. They were waving black flags and chanting incomprehensible slogans, and the turbulent momentum seemed to tear the entire street apart. I asked the people around me, and quickly searched the Internet to find out what they were protesting.
Just two days ago, a senior Serbian official came here to participate in a seminar held by local Serbs called “A Peaceful Future for Serbia and Kosovo”. The meeting was in progress when a team of heavily armed Kosovo police stormed in, arrested the Serbian official, took him to Pristina, and deported him. The reason given afterwards was that this person promoted hate speech and affected the security of Kosovo.
The response of the Mitrovica Serbs to this was: they used mounds of earth and stones to build a roadblock at the head of the bridge to prevent all Kosovo law enforcement vehicles from the south from entering the city, which also made the confrontation here tense and explosive . And the end point of the student parade was this crude roadblock. On the other hand, a large number of Kosovo police on standby are watching their every move.
I had to wait for a long time until the crowd of protesters dispersed and the police gradually lifted their guard before I dared to cross the barricade carefully and return to the other side of the bridge. The life of the people on the south side was as peaceful as ever, and was not affected by the tension on the north side at all. The family of three I met in the parking lot greeted me with a smile, and we even happily chatted about the journey along the way.