My trip to Kosovo: They’re still thanking America. A lot.

by: MF Rendiero

Earlier this month I was off to yet another country to teach workshops on journalism and video reporting for young journalists. This time the destination was Kosovo, a name that doesn’t often make headlines anymore, unless it’s a story about corruption or a border dispute. I was curious about both the good and the bad, to see how things work in this infamous place that in the late 90’s was such a major issue for American (and European) foreign policy, when NATO attacked in order to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo (among other things).
If you arrive via land as I first did, entering from the south on a bus from Macedonia, one thing you’ll notice is how often you see an American Flag. Never mind if the building is just a car dealership or a construction company, the typical Kosovar business along the road flies three unmistakable flags. One is to be expected though not as recognizable, the the official sky blue flag with the 6 yellow stars and outline of the country. The second has to do with the dominant ethnic group represented by the Albanian red flag with the double headed black eagle. The third is the most interesting one to me, the American flag. It doesn’t mean there’s an American working in this building, or that the business or owned by American company, there is no official tie-in to the US needed – it is just a way to show what country people feel an affinity towards. Plus, indeed, most everyone seems to have a cousin or a brother who works or studies in the US.

As you make your way around Prishtina, especially at night, people in bars and public places are extremely friendly and you’ll surely get to talking with a stranger. In my case sometimes in the most unexpected moments, a friendly stranger would tell me how much he or she likes the United States, and how much “my” country helped them. It is an odd feeling, as I was only 18 at the time (1998), never been in the military, and no president has ever consulted me on military decisions. But it’s also a very interesting feeling, I’m being complimented for my nationality; not something I really look for or expect, especially with such a recognizable nationality, American.

On my way through airport security leaving Kosovo, it is a slow day and I’m the only one in line. The guy handling carry-on items and the security scan looks at my passport and gives me a big smile. “How are you? Its nice to see you here! You know America supported us, and you’re very welcome here. Where are you from?”  What followed was the longest and most pleasant conversation I’ve ever had with any airport security person ever. The guy hardly bothered looking at my stuff or the computer monitor, he was mostly busy being very complimentary and reminding me to come back to see more of his country.

Policy hawks and cynics will say, “of course they’re thankful, we spent money, troops and resources on helping their country get started.” Fair enough. But a few days before, as I sat in a taxi on a corner of Bill Clinton Boulevard in Prishtina, snapping a photo of the funny looking Bill Clinton statue, I noticed the whole place represented a rarity in today’s world. I’ve worked in Afghanistan and I’ve felt neither loved nor hated based on my nationality – which is really all anyone could want. I’ve travelled throughout Asia and Europe and again, and never encountered a place where my nationality would actually earn me (undeserved) compliments. But even today, well over ten years since the Clinton Administration made Kosovo a foreign policy priority, when much of the world has forgotten to pay attention, Kosovars still have a lot of love for Americans.  Even if you’re not a Clinton.