Yesterday I spent most of the day sitting at the internet terminal at KIM in Čaglavica catching up on e-mail and updating and finishing posts from previous days on my laptop. In many ways this was a welcome break from the last few days that have been so productive but so completely full. Once the late afternoon rolled around, however, it was time to visit Priština.
One of the staff that I had met previously but with whom I had not yet traveled took me to see Kosovo’s capitol. Although he has lived all of his life in Kosovo Polje, many of his relatives lived in the city in better days. Like most of the Serbs of Kosovo, he has a surprisingly cheerful disposition despite all he has gone through. Even when he was showing me his relatives’ old apartment buildings and businesses, he did not convey even the slightest sense of resentment.
Our first stop was to the old Christian and Jewish cemetery which is situated across the highway from an old Serbian military base. Because of its close proximity, several of NATO’s smart bombs from 1999 landed instead inside the cemetery so there is considerable damage from this period. The cemetery also, however suffers from a great deal of wanton neglect with most of the headstones overgrown with weeds and trees that have sprouted over the last 10 years. More disturbing is to clear evidence that many of the graves have been looted by local thieves. Aside from pushing over headstones and tearing out fencing, lettering from monuments have been ripped off and, in a few gross instances, capstones of graves have been opened revealing rotting coffins below.
The Jewish section of the cemetery is located in the far corner nearest to the highway. At first glance it appears that this portion of the cemetery, while crumbling and neglected, is an isolated island of tranquil tall grass outside of the jungle that is growing in the main cemetery. The problem with this first image is that of the 30 or so graves which remain, easily quadruple that number have been entirely obliterated. The remaining graves have also been defaced and capstones have been crushed. While the destruction here is nothing like the overtly hateful desecrations I saw when visiting Poland 10 years ago, it is clear that the municipality of Priština would rather see this site built over and forgotten than respectfully maintained.
But enough gore. Our next stop was downtown where my host took me around the most important parts of the city. First stop was an enormous sports complex built in the 1980s that is the most recognizable symbol of the city. Hanging over its entrance is an enormous banner of Adem Jashari, one of the KLA’s chief commanders during the war. He is the same man featured on the “Bac, U Kry!” billboards all over Kosovo. Other sites of interest included a monument to Gjergj Skanderbeg, a famous medieval Albanian rebel against Ottoman rule (who some believe to of Serbian decent), the enormous Kosovo National Library, Priština University, the offices of the Government of Kosovo, the city’s central heating plant, the hospital, and the city sports stadium, all built during the communist era. For the most part, even the large buildings that house various international organizations including UNHCR, the EULEX police, and formerly UNMIK all date back to Yugoslavia. What new construction has occurred since 1999 appears to be confined to the wealthy suburbs on the hills above downtown including most international embassies.
To me, this reality was quite remarkable. One of the most often repeated themes found in western scholarly works on Kosovo is that the province suffered from extreme neglect by Belgrade, lagging behind the rest of the country in terms of investment, economic development, and social welfare. Yet, from my admittedly brief travels around Serbia, it seems to me that Priština is no less dingy a city than any of the other major cities in the country that sprung up after the Second World War. While the city’s stark communist era architecture is not very pretty, it seems to be a testament to massive infrastructural investment Belgrade poured into at least the capitol during Yugoslavia’s rule of this area. I think it is time to reopen the file on Yugoslav era Kosovo as I have a very hard time believing that what I have read in this regard is true.
Before leaving, we took some time to see the obligatory sites honoring the United States including Bill Clinton Boulevard and the Victory Hotel. The boulevard, like much of the rest of the city, is lined on both ends with communist era apartment buildings, shops, and bars. One building has a large poster of the former US president smiling and it bears the words “Welcome to Bill Clinton Boulevard” in English and Albanian. The Victory Hotel, which I have mentioned in earlier posts, is one of the newer buildings in Priština and has a small replica of the Statue of Liberty on the roof. From here we returned to Čaglavica and called it a day.
Today I will most likely be heading back to Belgrade. Hopefully I can catch a ride to Kosovska-Mitrovica and then take the bus back north. My plans for when I get back include figuring out where I will be staying for the next few days, getting in touch with a few journalists, and contacting Serbia’s major political parties to see if I can get a few more interviews. With still almost a month left to go in my trip, it has already been incredibly productive. I hope I can keep up the momentum.