It was bridging the 40 degree mark as we hitch-hiked along the Albania-Kosovo highway. Albania is hot in September, nearing the unbearable. At the end of the highway we get dropped off in the northern Albanian town of Kukes. The town lies amid beautiful mountains, literally miles from the border with Kosovo. Known for housing nearly half a million refugees forcibly expelled by the Serbs in the Kosovo war of 1999, it is now a quiet town of just 16,000 people. Harold and myself wander around its small square trying to coordinate ourselves. Averting stares as best we can, our backpacks stand out and so do we; we take shelter in a café on the edge of the square. There isn’t much in the way of foreign traffic like us passing through these days. A lot of men either sit outside or stroll around the streets waiting… They have nothing to do. Work is scarce and unemployment is high. It is getting dark and we need to get to the Kosovo border fast to make it on to Prizren; one of the first major towns inside Kosovo from Albania.
‘Just call me Jimmy’…. Jimmy is from Kukes. We sit in his dusty saloon as he speeds out of town towards the border. We agreed a fee for him to leave us at the border. “Life in Albania? Life here is just shit man.” He drives aggressively up the hard shoulder overtaking a two mile tailback, beeping pedestrians out of the way as he goes. I roll up my backseat window to avoid angered shouts. Harold holds onto his passenger seat and declines Albanian-Dutch international trade offers of an illicit kind. “I have a wife in the UK, I was there for a few years but got sent back here. I’ve applied for a visa again but I don’t think it will work well for me. There is nothing here. No possibilities. No work.”
Prizren is held up as the heritage capital of Kosovo, the cultural gem in the South East of the country. Its Ottoman architecture exudes old-time charm but, like most of Kosovo, its inhabitants are young. Kosovo is a young country in more ways than one, with over 50% of its population under the age of 25 years old. Prizren is now predominately Kosovar-Albanian. Some Serb enclaves exist in the area, pockets of isolation and tension. The war of the late 90s resulted in huge demographic shifts. Whole communities and ways of life were uprooted and displaced in the violence. Sectarian animosity between the remaining Serbs and Kosovar-Albanians exist throughout Kosovo. But it’s most prominent in Northern Kosovo bordering Serbia, where Mitrovica and its divided city status draws the majority of the headlines. Mitrovica, like the Belfast of Kosovo, is torn by consequence; two different peoples sharing the same pain and living in the same area.
Reaching Pristina was a milestone for me. It broke down stigmas; those walls erected by fear of the unknown and hearsay. In the past upon hearing the words ‘Kosovo’ or ‘Pristina’ I was immediately taken to ideas of war, curfews, street shootings, brutality and extra judicial killings. But we found a modern and normal city. The sun was shining. Speeding traffic spurted out pollutants and people walked with their children. The surprise of normality.
Although a Muslim country, the youth are very much on a European mind frame, where clubbing and lots of drinks are a part of the night. We meet the boys of Djakova, a town halfway between Prizren and Pristina. In a Pristina club late in the night we drink and discuss Kosovo today. “We love PRISTINA!” Arjan is a student, as are the other boys. Ice cubes tinkle in his glass as the music gets the club dancing. He shouts in my ear “Why don’t any foreign people from your country come here!? This is a great country, the people are friendly, the people of Djakova are friendliest of all!” We laugh and shake hands. I have no answer for him. Harold has no answer. Although we both know, people in Europe are afraid to come, afraid of the past and blind to the current Kosovo in peacetime. “Yes its hard here, we can’t really leave Kosovo because of visa regimes. What can we do?!” Arjan shares the same view as many in Kosovo; that feeling of dead-end isolation.
Unemployment levels are all over the place. 30% registered unemployment but 60% of the population are economically inactive. Of course the black market thrives in these conditions. People can’t afford the basics. Chinese copies of everything you can imagine flood Pristina’s central market. Power cuts are common. Equality and social services leave a lot to be desired. Yet people still stand proud and welcoming.
The cigarette sellers of Pristina, another signifier of the black market in full bloom, go shop to shop, bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant. With such unemployment and a lot of time on your hands, it’s no surprise that nearly everyone smokes. No wonder the first President of Kosovo Ibrahim Rugova died of lung cancer.
Elections in Kosovo take place on Sunday November the 3rd. They are crucial to how Europe perceives the little country that’s barely 6 years old. Meetings with EU representatives as well as attempts to ‘normalise’ Kosovo’s disputed northern territory with Serbia, are all steps to try and break the isolation. These are attempts young people like Arjan hope will open doors, for people to experience life outside of Kosovo, as well as for other people to come and experience Kosovo’s hospitality within.