Paddy and I both remember the Kosovan war from news bulletins; a conflict which was part of the wider Yugoslav wars and ended with UN airstricke intervention and the withdrawing of Yugoslav troops – but at the cost of thousands of lives and nearly a million people ending up displaced. It was only in 2008 the country declared independence.
The conflict harks back to cultural and religious divisions between the ethnic Albanian (Muslim) and Serbian (Orthodox) communities. Although I think it’s fair to say the rivalry goes far deeper than religion. Serbia gained control of Kosovo after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire while Albania declared independence in the same year and this created the divisions. Nothing was done to try and neutralise hostilities during the Yugoslav/Tito-era period and integration between communities in the form of marriages, schools remains rare to this day.
Serbian still does not accept Kosovo as an independent state. A big sticking point for Serbia is that Kosovo retains a huge slice of ancient Serbian orthodox heritage. Some of the most important Serbian churches and monasteries sit in what is now dominated Muslim Kosovo. In fact, Religious sites were easy targets on both sides during the conflict and many ancient mosques and churches were destroyed. As a result we still see signs for camera surveillance around religious sites and a number of important Serbian churches are still heavily guarded by UN troops.
We have already seen Polish, German and Swiss guards on duty during our short time here. Skirmishes still happen although the country is now on the whole very safe. It is however, vulnerable to organised crime and money laundering; as is the case in neighbouring Albania. In fact, ethnic Albanians are said to supply up to 20% of western Europe’s heroin.
This introduction all sounds a bit bleak but little Kosovo is far from it – we were both excited about visiting here and were keen not to let any preconceived ideas cloud our experience. What did little Kosovo have to offer despite its turbulent recent history? Well, we found a country full of some of the friendliest, pragmatic people we have met so far, picturesque little towns and villages and a lively outdoor tourism sector. Apart from the military presence there really isn’t much evidence that a war took place at all. Kosovo is prospering – it’s GDP was one of the few countries which continued to grow during the crash.
They have the Euro here but prices are low and there seems to be two economies: urban and rural. All the towns and villages are filled with big modern houses, the roads are well maintained and community parks, and buildings nicely looked after.
Although it would take years to fully understand the situation in Kosovo now – and we only have four days! – there does seem to still be a significant amount of segregation between the two rival communities – one town we pass through will have mosques and be flying the Albanian double eagled flag but the next village will have a church and versions of the Serbian flag will be flying. War tribute monuments are also common.