Crashed on a couch in a Serbian enclave outside of Pristina in the middle of a blackout and water shut-off after hours of political discussion and many rounds of homemade slivovitsa, I am pretty sure I am political science fieldwork heaven. It is now early morning on Sunday. I will do my best to fill in the details since our drive down to Kosovo-Metohija yesterday afternoon before we head out to cover the festivities of Vidov Dan at Gracanica and Gazimestan.
The drive from Belgrade to Kosovska-Mitrovica takes about 5 hours despite being only about 300 kilometers. While initially a fairly straight shot out of the capitol, as the rolling hills quickly shift into mountains, the road winds and shrinks to one lane for each direction of traffic. Traveling with four people from our first stop at Kragujevac in a tiny two-door Fiat where the last member of the team joined us, we were packed in like sardines.
They all work for a local NGO called Srspsko Slovo (Serbian Letter) and produce a television program and print magazine both called Glas Juga (Voice of the South). To quickly rehash, they report on issues of Serbian culture and identity particularly as it relates to Kosovo. Based out of the Serbian enclave of Caglavica outside of Pristina, they also run a local radio station, KIM Radio. While working on their own projects, they also freelance for media companies all over the world. As one of the few teams in Serbia that works both inside and outside of Kosovo, their work is a hot commodity for both Serbian and international media. This also means they are used to acting as tour guides for western journalists and academics in Kosovo. I was particularly lucky to have my friend Rabbi Asiel who knew to ask all the right people to hook me up with their outfit.
Our second stop along the way was a monastery called Žiča outside of Kraljevo in central Serbia. The church is home to many impressive but heavily weather and time worn frescos and is where St. Sava, the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, founded the first Patriarchate and served as the coronation site for many of the early Serbian kings. From here we drove southward stopping next at my new friends’ favorite cafana. Something between a coffee house and a diner, you rarely go to the cafana to drink coffee. Rather most enjoy locally made rakija and discuss politics, work, and life. It is hard to capture the atmosphere precisely but, needless to say, it is well worth it to experience these places with locals. I don’t think you can get the ethos of the place surrounded by other foreigners.
From the cafana we drove straight on to Kosovo. Although Serbia does not recognize the province’s independence, because it has agreed to international administration by KFOR and EULEX, it does maintain something of a border crossing checkpoint. This basically consisted of a 30 second stop at the side of the road where a Serbian officer opened the trunk of the car and shut it again. A bit farther down the road we came to a more “official” crossing that is manned by Kosovo Police and EULEX. Before Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, the police were under direct international control and both Serbs and Albanians served in the force. Upon claiming independence, Serbs demanded that the force continue to be under international supervision instead of being administered from Pristina. This was agreed to in the north but rejected in the south outside of the main concentration of Serbian villages. Serbs in the south resigned en masse from police service and tensions run high between that community and law enforcement while Serbs are the only police in the north. Long story short, it was Kosovo Serbian police who manned the checkpoint. The check here consisted of a nod, maybe 5 seconds.
Once in Kosovo, it is a short drive to the famous divided city of Kosovska-Mitrovica. The Serbian population in the south was completely expelled during the 1999 war but several 100 Albanians still live in in the northern portion of the city although tensions with their Serbian neighbors persist. My hosts showed me around town particularly the famous bridge over the Ibar river that divides north and south over which many battles have been fought and riots raged. It is now controlled by KFOR peacekeepers and people tend to pass without incident from one end to the other. As a matter of political expediency, when traveling from north to south, drivers will stop to remove their Serbian plates and replace them with Kosovan ones. This practice has become so normalized over the last 10 years that the license plate holders have been designed so that plates can be easily slid in and out without a screwdriver. In the space of 10 minutes, I saw several of these switches on a street which has become the unofficial stopping point for this activity.
While most international media and academic work have depicted this city as a constant center of conflict, with the exception of the KFOR soldiers patrolling the streets, the city seems reasonably calm and, dare I say, normal. Signs of displacement and poverty are obvious with many refugees setting up improvised kiosks up and down the sidewalks of the main street. With no government engaged in urban planning, there is no regulation for this kind of commerce. A new market is beginning to be constructed along the bank of the river to clear up these eyesores, but in a city where work is already scarce and poverty is readily evident, everyone needs to make money by whatever means possible.
After having lunch in Kosovska-Mitrovica in the north, we drove across the river on our way to Gracanica, one of the oldest Serbian Orthodox churches in Kosovo. The first thing you notice when crossing the river is that poverty and dilapidated housing seem to melt away. International aid has flowed quite generously to Kosovo allowing Albanians there to both rebuild and expand their homes, local economies, and cities. While I doubt that all Kosovo Albanians are wealthy, it seems that upper-middle class is the norm, whereas Kosovo Serbs are certainly comparably worse off.
On our drive, we passed through Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Although it was dark, I could tell that modern high-rises (or maybe mid-rises) dominate the skyline. Unlike Belgrade, there are very few older buildings at least in the city center. The other thing that is quite clear is how overtly pro-American the city is. On the northern outskirts, one quickly comes across the Bill Clinton Concrete Company and in the daylight you can see Bill Clinton Boulevard, the city’s main drag with a large billboard of the former president from the highway. American flags hang equally or sometimes more prominently than Kosovo and Albania flags and are sometimes joined by EU flags. Also quite a site is a small scale replica of the Statue of Liberty on top of Pristina’s Victory Hotel.
Eventually we reached Gracanica which is the name both of the Serbian enclave/village that surrounds the monastery and the monastery itself. A large ceremony was held in which famous national poets read their work aloud. The audience of several hundred people was also addressed by Goran Bogdanovic, the Minister for Kosovo and Metohija, and the important bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The church of Gracanica is itself quite impressive. Adorning the walls are many incredibly details frescoes depicting scenes from the Christian bible as well as many of the important royal figures in Serbian history. The chief icon of the church is Lazar who led the fight against the invading Ottoman Turks in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo. On Sunday, we went to Gazimestan itself where a large monument was erected in the 1800s after the end of Ottoman rule to commemorate the battle. Details about the formal Vidov Dan festivities will come in the next post.
After the ceremonies concluded, we went to my hosts’ home base in Caglavica… No need to repeat the story again here. It is 10:40 pm on Sunday night and I have not yet even recounted the events of today. With no internet access here, these posts will all come all at once anyhow. Running on little sleep and a busy schedule, I’m going to call it a night.
Serbian phrase of the day: Laku noć = good night