This was my second time visiting one of probably the last off-the-beaten-paths destinations in Europe, the newest country in Europe with youngest population on the continent — Republic of Kosovo. I have written about my first visit here.
It might be wise to read it before proceeding with this piece, I will go on from where I left off, so take your time, don’t rush 😉
Since the goal of my 1st trip was not explicit in the Part 1, I briefly explain it now.
Back in 2016 I was in Kosovo for an environmental investigative reporting project on lignite power plants I did together with my colleagues — documentary photographer Lukas Rapp & data journalist Adrian Blanco.
We put our souls & hearts there, so I dearly encourage you to have a look at the work we produced — The Dust Layer.
The National Library of Kosovo
Since the moment I saw it last year, I knew I desperately needed to get inside. To me, this is the bravest architectural decision I ever saw.
Again, I wrote about this building in the previous piece, now just a glance at the interior.
Kosovo by far and large
Kosovar hospitality is humongous. E punto. Their hospitality would top any possible how-people-are-in-different-countries lists I make up in my mind.
Their faces are open, they look in the eyes, they readily engage in small talks everywhere and the ease of approach is unprecedented.
There hasn’t been a time I walked into café or hopped on municipal transport or walked along curved streets and no one talked to me or just wished a good day.
Young people in the majority are very educated. No doubt — with scarce resources people can go far and even further than one can imagine.
Less is more
When you are constantly in the position to prove you actually exist, you are a human and you are worth, eventually, you learn to be better than those who are meant to assess and judge you.
English, German, French are just a few foreign languages you can hear them juggling hand over fist.
I once met a guy by the mosque in Mitrovica, who didn’t look like a high-end member of society, to put it mildly, but who desperately wanted to tell me the entrance to the mosque for women is from the other side.
He did that in Albanian, German and French, until the last resonated with me. After all, we had a nice conversation about his life in Lyon, France and perturbations he went through to live in Kosovo again.
Stories we pretend to ignore
17 years ago, Kosovo seemed like the most important place in the world. After the genocide in Rwanda (watch this, if you still haven’t) & the slaughters in other parts of the Balkans, Kosovo seemed like a do-over, a chance to re-live the rhetoric of never again, to act on an atrocity before it was over.
For a period of the late 1990s nad early 2000s, Kosovo held the world’s attention. After the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, Serbian forces largely abandoned the province. For the next ten years before 9/11 atrocity had meant Rwanda and Srebrenica. After, it became Guantanamo & Bargam. Now Syria has also joined “the party”.
And stories about Kosovo stopped being told. Kosovo became a byword for war and terror, somehow transitioned from ‘victim’ to ‘criminal’.
A nation of refugees (~850 000 ethnic Albanians forced out of Kosovo in 1999), with families scattered all over Europe (mainly, Germany, Austria, Switzerland & the UK) and beyond, Kosovo has moved past the horrors of war, but is still struggling to find a new identity.
People are very sensitive about how the world sees them and they play hard to remove the stigma of bad image, to move past the image of war.
The image you still have in your mind, don’t you?
When I say ‘play hard’ I actually mean it. Did you know about James Berisha, the flying ambassador/lobbyist of Kosovo?
James is flying to every country on the globe in an old, single-engine aircraft, small and fragile like his new country Kosovo, trying to persuade the whole world to recognize his homeland. His message is simple — ‘give us a chance’, his tool is a 44-year-old, single-engine, 145-horsepower Cessna 172.
Now you know! You can follow his successful, inspiring and empowering story here.
So when you wrap your mind around it and finally go to visit Kosovo, make sure you look a little bit further and try to see the soul behind somewhat unpresentable façade.
There’s life over there — with a vibrant society and giant potential.
My second trip
Back in 2016, when talking to the guys from “Keep It Green” NGO, we had an idea to organize an event on environmental sustainability.
Fast forward 17 months, this idea came to its realization; I came and taught a 3-days workshop in front of 22 young people.
DocuFest in Prizren
My Part 1 ends with hope that next trip would be devoted to DocuFEST.
“Docu” in Albanian means “See you”, and I was seriously considering and overexcited to get there [one day]. By a lucky coincidence, I’ve literally started my new journey exactly where I left my previous piece off.
My gang met me at the airport and suggested we go directly to Prizren, drop there for a while andwatch a movie from the competition program straight away.
I was stunned, not to say more.
How did that happen? Am I really going to the film festival that has been on my radar for years or am I day-dreaming? Is it happening to me?
In Kosovo, dreams come true before you open your mouth to shape the words into sentences.
And so we jumped in a car, 1h30 en route and we are there!
Vibrant ancient city, old historical mosques and the castle on top of the hill, paved streets filled with rivers of happy people who surf between screening locations, stages, workshops, concerts and exhibitions all evening and night long. Music and lights everywhere, smiles, songs and dancing moves from every corner.
Any written description wouldn’t be even inch-close to that atmosphere, the only way to feel it is to live it. DocuFEST is more than worth of undivert attention of any movie-, art-, festival-, crowd-, fun-, party- lover.
DokuFest, International Documentary and Short Film Festival, is the largest film festival in Kosovo founded in 2002 by a group of friends.
Each year the festival fills the cinemas and improvised screening venues around historic city center of Prizren with a selection of more than 200 hand-picked films from around the world.
Documentary photo exhibitions, debates, master classes and lively music events are also part of the 9 days of the festival.
This year’s DokuFEST screened a total of 253 films under the slogans “Future is my love” and “Future is not dead”.
Volunteers were wearing these fancy “I am so future” t-shirts, I immediately fell madly in love with.
The sign “Future my love” made up of yellow light bulbs like, you know, those around large mirrors in the artists’ dressing rooms was drawing all my attention. It was on the ancient castle towered up above the city.
Obviously, the castle was where we headed. Inside, under the moonlight & under 7 winds we watched the ‘Future Perfect’ movie. How shall I describe the spirit of that night?
Authentic occasion? Fairytale bliss? Divine romance?
I guess all of the above & even more — I will remember it for long.
An evening trip to Mitrovica left me bleary and disheveled and vulnerable in a kind of weird, exhausted way.
I knew the thrilling story of this long-suffering place only briefly, thus I was in urgent need to fill the gap in my knowledge.
One city, two different currencies (dinar and euro), 2 alphabets (Latin and Cyrillic), 2 different peoples, different faces, different stories they tell their kids — how are they living side by side, how do they get along? Why is there an invisible physical wall, and such a solid emotional and historical one?
My Kosovar-Albanian friends — I felt how tense they were — didn’t want to go there at all.
Taxi driver who took us to the bus station asked why would we want to go to Mitrovica. ‘She wants to cross the bridge’, they said shrugging shoulders.
The bridge over Ibar river, it was called ‘the Bridge of Friendship’ once it was build in 2005, but the name didn’t live long. To this day serves as a factual border between Serbia and Kosovo, on top of that it bears its heavy spiritual and symbolic meaning.
Bridge — the symbol of enmity and separation..
It has shaken me to my core when I crossed it and to this day I still keep that mysterious, incredibly heavy feeling inside of myself.
No doubt no one of them really wanted to live this experience with me. I was coming with light heart, the tragedy of past days was not mine. Later it turned out, it was.
Mitrovica is compactly squeezed into the northern part of Kosovo. In the Middle Age it used to be the center of Serbian kingdom, during Osman empire times it was part of Kosovo velayat (region).
At the Berlin Congress in 1878 when Serbia and Montenegro were recognized as independent states, Mitrovica ‘shifted’ to Serbia.
By the way, the correct name of the city from the Serbian point of view is — Kosovska Mitrovica, from Kosovar perspective it should be called just Mitrovica.
Kosovar part of the city seems quite clean and lively, cafes are full of people in the evenings, musicians improvise on the streets (the city once used to be a musical capital), kids run around.
The Serbian one is visibly more neglected and, judging by the street art (which I think speaks about local life louder and sounder than morning newspapers), also more aggressive. The buildings clearly need some renovation, the faces would be nicer without tension…
One of the most popular graffitis in the Serbian part says ‘Kosovska Mitrovica, thus there is no way back’
Ominous phrase, the blood gets cold of, means this is a place where the land of Serbia ends. Two hundred meters on and up until where Italian carabiners patrol the end of the bridge, there’s another country.
I was quite negatively touched by the street art I saw on the opposite wall.
There must be a whole different discussion about “Case K: Kosovo vs Krim (Crimea)” I won’t engage in right now, I’d just say it unacceptable to compare.
This was the moment I gave up, I realized how hurt, fragile and vulnerable everybody is, how much courage and strength my friends have to come back here to or visit Mitrovica for the first time, how — through invisible threads — we are all connected in our wounds.
Mitrovica’s industrial past
The city used to be an industrial heart of the region, the center of mining and non-ferrous metallurgy — extraction of lead-zinc ore, lignite, lead and zinc smelting.
It was in 1927 when English factory, called Trepca Mines Limited, appeared here. Right after the end of World War II when Mitrovica became a part of socialistic Yugoslavia, the factory was nationalized.
Its full name was “Trepcha Mining and Metallurgical Chemical Plant of Lead and Zinc”, about 20 000 workers were employed. Trepcha produced 70% of mineral raw materials of Yugoslavia.
International sanctions during the last war, NATO bombings, conflict in Kosovo — all lead to the decline and decay of this giant.
Today, Trepcha is divided into southern and northern factories, the production has stopped since one part has resources, the other one — facilities, and they don’t find a common ground to work together anymore.
Only the monument to the miners — the giant wagonette — reminds of former glorious past of this place.
Instead of afterword
For about a year and half Balkans and Kosovo in particular have been on my mind. I consumed books, movies, historical summaries about the region as crazy, as if my life directly depended on this data.
Still, to this day, when I am asked ‘What’s so special in there for you?’, I don’t have any short and sharp answer. I want to reveal and discover more than I know, Kosovo lets me explore the nature of perception, question isolation, cherish and celebrate my own blessings.
Kosovo is hard and complex, but durable and resilient as well. This is what makes you leave and come back again. It gives you dosed answers but leaves with even more questions. It is stubborn, as it learnt to let go. Kosovo willingly shows its wounds and talks about its miseries, but rejects compassion and goes on resistance.
When the night has come and the land is dark, when no one wants to hear about their miseries, I want — because it helps me understand those of my own, helps me deal with my personal drama.
Seemingly, my trips to Kosovo prepare me for my most important journey — a journey to a place that once was my home.