Across the Balkans: Into Kosovo

An account of a journey from Croatia to Kosovo, by way of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia, and with a detour into Montenegro. This is part IX, and last installment, of a series.

Street art in the divided town of North Kosovska Mitrovica, where Serb meets Albanian. The inscription, below the picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin, reads: “…BECAUSE FROM HERE THERE IS NO RETURN.” Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

At 6:10 a.m. I found a taxi across the street from my hotel, and he took me to the Novi Pazar bus station. I have to assume he was waiting for some clubbers; he seemed a little disappointed that I wasn’t going farther.

The bus to Raška left at 6:30 p.m. and just before 6:50 a.m. I was off the bus and footloose in downtown Raška, where nothing resembling a morning café was serving breakfast.

I checked at the railroad station (which was closed), walked up the hill into the town, and back down to the bus depot, but nowhere could I find a meal, until a gas station opened around 8:00 a.m. and I could buy coffee from a vending machine. So much for all those online articles promising Turkish delights in the Sandžak.

The train arrived late in Raška, which meant that I had to pass yet more time on the platform shivering in the cold. At least the sun was crawling over the mountains, and it was a clear, if frosty morning.

The reason I was intent on taking this particular train is that it defines so much that is at the heart of the conflict in Kosovo between Serbs and local Albanians.

The train is the only one that begins in Serbia and ends in Kosovo, and I had been told (incorrectly as it turns out) that at one particular station all the Serbs would get off the train and that at the next station only Albanians would board—making it sound like a metro crossing from West to East Berlin during the Cold War.

In another piece of misinformation, I had been told that the train ran all the way from Kraljevo to Pristina, Kosovo’s principal city and capital, and that it crossed Ibar river, which is the emotional dividing line in Kosovo between the Serb and Albanian communities.

I assumed that somewhere near the bridge is where the ethnic composition would change, and in newspaper dispatches about the train I had read of violence when one group or the other tried to make the through journey.

It turned out that the train was shunted onto a siding before it got to the Ibar river, and the station called Kosovska Mitrovica Sever is the end of the line.

* * *

The journey to the Albanian frontier took about two hours, and as it was a Sunday morning, the other passengers on the train had a relaxed air, as if maybe they were heading south to meet friends or family.

I read my book, studied my maps (rail maps of Kosovo are hard to come by, but I had one), and looked out the window, especially after we left Lešak, as I had read that the village was another dividing point between Serbs and Albanians.

At one point I had to show my passport to some Serb policemen (not very cheerful) but they merely glanced at it. Graffiti at another intermediate station read: “Down with Soros.” Maybe the Infowars shock jock Alex Jones was lurking on the line?

When the train ended its journey in North Kosovska Mitrovica, I followed the crowd into the station parking lot and asked directions to the main street of the town, which I found after a short cab drive. What I saw along the way convinced me that when war next comes to Europe, it will begin here.

A Serb enclave in an Albanian land, North Kosovska Mitrovica is the Belfast of the Balkans, an ethnically divided flashpoint between hostile worlds. Many of the buildings that I went past were abandoned, and the sidewalks on which I walked were crumbling.

At one point in my walk I turned a corner and came across a number of angry murals and placards, some of which had Russian flags and pictures of Vladimir Putin, as if he was the only world politician who might come to the rescue of Kosovo’s Serbs.

Another mural showed Serbia’s double-headed eagles—in an angry mood—with a crowd of rioters silhouetted against the birds. An inscription on the mural reads ominously: “BECAUSE FROM HERE THERE IS NO RETURN, and next to the angry crowd was the stern portrait of a Serb general, perhaps one preparing for the Armageddon (more likely another battle of Kosovo).

In no particular order the Serbs in Mitrovica hate the U.S., Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Albania, Kosovars, Kosova, the Serb government, Belgrade, Washington, the EU, NATO, Germany, Tony Blair, the Treaty of Berlin, and, I am sure, the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Not sure how next to proceed on the desolate main street, I found a table at an outdoor café from which I could see a roadblock in front of the bridge across the Ibar river. Maybe this would be the end of my road?

I was nervous about the bridge because of a passage in Ambassador William Montgomery’s memoirs that reads:

An organization called “Bridge Watchers” was set up to guard the bridge separating north Mitrovica from the southern part occupied by ethnic Albanians. If any Albanians (or at times even United Nations Mission in Kosovo officials) tried to cross the bridge, they were immediately met by a mob of Serbs armed with at least rocks ready to fight.

The waiter at my café wanted to know where I was headed, and when I explained that I wanted to walk across the bridge into Kosova, he shrugged: “We can’t go there. Maybe you can?” He said that for the moment things were quiet around the bridge and pointed where I should walk.

* * *

To get on the “peace bridge”—which, thanks to the French, got an expensive facelift a few years ago—I had to wedge myself through concrete barriers, which felt like Londonderry barricades.

After that I was alone on the bridge walkway, and even managed to take pictures of the Ibar when I was above midstream. Nothing said I could not.

Kosova police carefully watched me walk across the bridge, but no one approached me or asked to see my passport. Nor should they, as technically the boundary between Serbia and Kosovo is between Raška and Leposavić. If Kosovo is ever partitioned, the dividing line would be the Ibar river.

Off the bridge I was surprised to see a modern European town, with bright lights, glass-and-steel buildings, new cars, and none of the fear that is stalking the north bank of the river. It felt more like a Dusseldorf suburb that what I remembered of Kosovo, which I first saw in summer 1976, when there were more horse-drawn carts on the roads than late-model cars.

From a pedestrian in town I got directions to the bus stop where vans load up for the twenty-five mile drive into Pristina, which took about an hour once we got underway.

There was traffic on the road, and the driver made some stops. On either side of the busy boulevard were malls, shops, and new construction, as you might find in the outskirts of Istanbul.

Compared to the impoverished, sullen, have-nothing Serbs in North Kosovka-Mitrovica, the Kosovars looked like they work full time in Zurich and come down on the weekends to shop or drive around in SUVs.

* * *

The mini-van dropped me off near the center of Pristina, and for more than an hour I tried to find my hotel. (The GPS on my phone wasn’t working.) When it was clear that I was walking in circles not far from Tony Blair Boulevard (spelled Toni Bleri), I hailed a passing taxi, and he brought me to the front door in less than five minutes—happy to collect a few euros for easy work. That’s another change in Kosovo; the euro is the circulating currency.

I had picked my hotel because it was near the railroad station (it turned out that Tito put the main station out of town, in Kosovo Polje, now called Fushë Kosova), but was pleased to find the hotel was brand new and spanking clean, as if maybe I was in Dubai.

I dropped my bag in the room, checked email, and wandered in the direction of the Bill Clinton Memorial, which is on a main street in Pristina, as befits a liberator. All Hillary got was her name on a dress shop.

From the Clinton memorial—he’s shown wearing a suit and has his arm extended, a bit like Borat high-fiving—I walked to the university and the iconic national library.

I wanted to see the university as I remembered it well from my visit in summer 1976, when I came to Pristina and got entangled in a tense street demonstration at which students were protesting that so few classes were being taught in Albanian. The demonstrators were dressed in black, carried farm tools, and gave the impression that they were all business.

The exterior of the sprawling national library looked as though it had been wrapped in chain-link fencing. As with so much else in Pristina, I assumed that Turkey had a hand in its renovation, but when I went in search of a plaque it turned out the money had come from UNESCO and the Council of Europe.

Because it was Independence Day, downtown Pristina was hopping. The main pedestrian thoroughfare was jammed with strollers and families out on the festival Sunday.

Just to navigate the crowds, I had to walk on side streets to get to the Jashar Pasha Mosque and to the Kosovo Museum, which turned out to be a few cabinets with American flags and cowboy hats (worn by American flyers), some AK-47s, and a Kosovo Liberation Army commander’s motorcycle.

Agitation propaganda was also on display. For example, one of the museum’s websites reads: “The museum used to have a rich collection of prehistoric objects uncovered in Kosovo – these were all spirited off to Belgrade just before the troubles started in 1998, and hundreds of archeological finds and ethnographic items yet have to be returned.”

The museum also exists to make the political point that Kosovars are Illyrians (a Balkan tribe dating to Greek and Roman times) rather than Slavs (which would imply kinship with Serbs and Russians).

* * *

Down the street, around what was once the Pristina bazaar, I went searching for several old houses that are part of the Emil Gjiku ethnographic museum, but everything was closed, either for the national holiday or renovation, a popular pastime in new Pristina.

One of the buildings in the museum “complex” is an old blacksmith’s shop that was once part of the Jewish community, although the town never had the Jewish presence that existed in Sarajevo. Its religions have always fluctuated according to the faith of the ruling powers.

Early in the last century the imperial mosque, for example, was a Catholic church, and the last synagogue in Pristina was razed in 1963, during Yugoslavia’s agnostic reign.

On my walk back to the central square, I passed along Independence Park and near to the national assembly, a modern structure that might well house an insurance company.

The parliament has 120 representatives, of whom 10 are Serbs. The rest are divided among three important Kosovar parties, in roughly equal proportion. Of the 193 countries at the United Nations, 112 have recognized Kosovo’s independence (declared in 2008), although Serbia isn’t one of them.

One of the sticking points in Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence is the fate of several Serbian monasteries—similar to Rača and Sopoćani—in the province that speak to Serbia’s emergence as a nation. Serbs fear that if they were to renounce their claim to Kosovo the churches would burn or disintegrate.

Already dozens of Serbian churches and monasteries across Kosovo have been damaged since 1999, although two of the most sacred, Pec and Gračanica, both USESCO sites, have so far been spared the arson’s torch.

Because Gračanica is in a suburb of Pristina and is the center of a small Serbian community that is hanging on in Kosovo, I thought would visit it, especially as I had been there in 1976 and 2008.

A taxi drove me out to it in about twenty minutes, and the driver agreed to wait for me while I went inside. Otherwise, he said, I would have trouble getting back to my hotel.

On my last visit, when relations were still raw around Pristina, an Orthodox nun on the grounds had spit on my shoes when she learned I was American—this while she was delivering a harangue about the NATO bombing of Serbia and the abandonment of the Christians in Kosovo.

In those years Gračanica was also under the military protection of KFOR (Kosovo Force), and I remember that as I entered the monastery I had to pass next to a pillbox that Swedish soldiers had erected with sandbags.

* * *

Some ten years later, the ring of Swedish soldiers is gone, and few in the surrounding Albanian neighborhoods seemed to care about the small Serbian community or the grounds of its monastery.

I sensed that what has changed in local relations is that Kosovars (unlike the Serbs in Kosovo) now have money to spend (many families have remittances from relatives working in Europe), and they are busy buying houses, apartments, SUVs, flat screen TVs, and appliances. Wealthier Kosovo did not seem bothered by the presence, behind a stone wall, of an old Serbian church.

Because it was a Sunday, there was a handful of visitors on the grounds of Gračanica, and they were inspecting frescoes (the walls are lined with them) or lighting candles under icons.

While I was taking a picture of the exterior (which would be on any list of medieval European splendors), a nun approached me and asked where I was from. She was nicer than the one ten years ago who had spit on my shoes, and I explained that I was American and that I had been traveling down the spine of the Balkans, wondering whether war or peace was on the horizon for the many new countries in former Yugoslavia.

She said that Serbs in the neighborhood still felt persecuted but that the physical threat to the monastery, for now, was diminished. She feared that one day Serbia would renounce its claim to these church lands and then she had no idea what might happen. She said: “You know what happened to the Greeks and the Armenians in Turkey. The same could happen to us.”

Rebecca West writes extensively in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon about Gračanica and what she calls Old Serbia (Kosovo), but the language of her book, almost a hundred years later, lacks immediacy.

Instead I found some of the best writing about Kosovo in Brian Hall’s The Impossible Country, his account of travels around Yugoslavia during its last days in 1991-92. Of the lands around Pristina he writes:

The Battle of Kosovo [in 1389] was the Serbs’ fall of Troy. They themselves say Kosovo is their Jerusalem. They were scattered northward from the holy precinct, leaving behind some of their most superb monasteries, buildings revered throughout the world as architectural and artistic masterpieces – among them, their patriarchate. They brought with them their songs, so that Kosovo would never be lost to memory.

He makes the further point that, within the Yugoslav federation, the problems of Kosovo’s status were left entirely in the hands of the Serbs (rather than have it be a federal Yugoslav issue).

Kosovo was assigned as an autonomous province within Serbia, and, more critically, it was given a veto over Serbian legislation, which ensured logjams even on questions that had nothing to do with the administration of Kosovo. He writes:

In 1968, demonstrations broke out in Priština, in which the Albanians demanded their own republic. They did not get it, but Tito gave the province a university, language rights, its own court system, its own police force and an independent vote in the Federal Presidency. Throughout the 80s Serbia discovered that its own Jerusalem could be counted on to vote against it on almost every issue. Serbs knew that the Slovenes and the Croats liked the situation. They could almost hear the Slovenes and the Croats laughing at them. Stupid Serbs. Worse, Serbs were leaving Kosovo in a steady stream. They told stories of intimidation by the Albanians, and of the impossibility of redress in the Albanian-run courts. Albanians countered that the Serbs were leaving because Kosovo was poor and anyone would leave who could. We would leave, they said, except we have nowhere to go.

By the early 1990s, when Yugoslavia was headed toward liquidation, Kosovo had a population of almost 2 million, of which about 200,000 were of Serbian descent or followed the Orthodox religion. The rest thought of themselves as Albanians and wanted little to do with overlords in Belgrade, especially if the rest of the federation was going separate ways.

Slobodan Milošević fanned the flames of nationalism (he is quoted in Hall as saying: “You must stay here. Your land is here. Here are your houses, your fields and gardens, your memories…”), but that did not change the numbers on the ground, which decreed that majority rule in Kosovo would someday make it a Muslim state and that, before long, the great powers would return Serbia to its 1878 Treaty of Berlin borders.

In her book Diana Johnstone writes: “Kosovo was a burden for the republic of Serbia, which the others did not want to share. But merely to acknowledge that Kosovo was a problem for Serbs was to break the taboo and entail the accusation of ‘Serbian nationalism’, an accusation which could then be used to justify other nationalisms.”

Such allegations could also be used later to justify the use of American bombers in Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo between 1995-99, which put paid to the last whispers of a federal Yugoslavia.

Diana Johnstone ends her book writing: “The Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s were used to assert both U.S. dominance over the European Union through NATO, and NATO’s dominance over the United Nations….The NATO war against Yugoslavia might be studied by ethnologists as a contemporary example of the familiar role of blood rituals in sealing the unity of groups.”

* * *

On my last night in Pristina I ate dinner in a restaurant that was, in some general way, a replica of an alpine chalet, which was fitting, as so many Kosovars have emigrated to Switzerland.

That afternoon I had gone to a bookstore, Libraria Dukagjini, where I bought a new road map for Albania and browsed in the history section, hoping to find another book on the politics of the Novibazar Railway.

I was impressed with the collection at the shop, although most of the opinions on sale took the standard Clinton-NATO view of history, which is that all the problems in the Balkans can be laid on the doorstep of Greater Serbia and the Serbs: they were responsible for Yugoslavia’s failings (even though Tito himself was a Croat who had lived many years in Russia and fought with the Austrian army), Bosnia’s war, and finally the war in Kosovo, which resulted in the province’s later declaration of independence.

I certainly don’t hold the Serbs blameless for many missteps, even atrocities, in the breakup of Yugoslavia, but that evening, as I sat over my dinner in an empty restaurant, I did think a lot about the consequences of the Yugoslav dissolution and what it had meant for the United States, Europe, and the West.

Breaking up Yugoslavia, which included sending NATO bombers to the skies over Serbia, cost the United States and Europe its improved relations with Russia, after which the likes of Vladimir Putin and his government no longer sought accommodation with the West and pursued a Tsarist foreign policy in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, and beyond.

To Russia the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the creation of independent states in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo, represented NATO revanchism of Austro-Hungarian designs in the Balkans, which aimed to enlarge Germanic influence in Southeast Europe at the expense of Russia.

In time—Russia feared—Germany would come to dominate Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, and Serbia (cut off from the sea, as if by a revived Novibazar Railway) would be too weak to challenge the Habsburg resurgimiento to the banks of the Drina river. What narrow-gauge railways failed to achieve, NATO bombers would realize for the West.

* * *

Over my dinner, I thought as well about how Bosnia and Kosovo had been the NATO and American dress rehearsals for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya.

As both “arsonists and firemen,” the Western parties in Yugoslavia had worked hard to destroy Yugoslavia and then, when not everyone on the ground believed their good intentions, they deployed air power and other forms of diplomacy to make sure the region would bend before American hegemony, which was the template that drove the Middle East invasions.

Without the air war that broke Serbia in 1999, I doubt that there would have been a 2003 attack on Iraq or the conviction that American troops and air supremacy could reconstruct the political imperfections of the Middle East, which after all is the Balkans of the modern era.

The many new states in Southeast Europe emboldened the likes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama to believe that it was American destiny to pacify tribes on a distant horizon, just the way the Austrian minister Count Aehrenthal believed he could save the wobbly Austro-Hungarian empire by extending the rail line to Salonica or by making war on the Serbs.

Crushing Yugoslavia was a needless exercise in power politics, especially when at the same time the European Union had the option of rolling the tottering socialist federation into the larger tent, in much the same manner that West Germany was able to incorporate East Germany, peacefully, into its federal structures.

Even more discouraging is the fact thatflash, after breaking up Yugoslavia, NATO and the West left Europe with a patchwork of new nations that are as likely to fall apart as those left behind by the Treaties of Versailles, Saint-Germain, Sèrvres, Neuilly, Trianon, and Lausanne (collectively the 1919 Peace of Paris). As William Bullitt said: “That’s not a peace treaty….I can see eleven wars in it.”

What’s on my list of possible points of conflict in the Balkans? Here are eleven possible flash points:

+ The secession of the Republika Srpska, for whatever reasons, would bring down the artificial construct that is Bosnia-Hercegovina.

+ Renewed tensions or fighting around Mitrovica and the Ibar river would provide the likes of Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania with the chance to engage in a larger conflict.

+ Serbia’s continued isolation from the European Community (it’s neither in NATO nor the EU) increases the risk that it will continue to embrace right-wing, nationalist governments for whom military solutions will always be an option. As I heard often in my travels, “Serbia is not a forgive-or-forget kind of place.”

+ If the West loses interest in propping up Bosnia-Hercegovina, its constituent parts in the Republika Srpska and the Federation will look to stronger neighbors for protection.

+ North Macedonia, the new name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, is a yet another Versailles-like creation, perpetually engaged in border disputes with its neighbors in Greece, Albania, Kosovo, and Bulgaria—all of which fill bookstores in their home countries with tracts that explain why Macedonia belongs to them.

+ The possible absorption of Kosovo into Albania (not now contemplated, but an idea that goes back to the League of Prizren in the nineteenth century) would trigger a backlash from Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece.

+ Even the tranquil waters of the Bay of Kotor are at risk for international conflict, as a reading of local maps shows how Croatia and Montenegro both would like to control the entrance to the bay.

+ The presence within the bay of all those Russian yachts, and the oligarchs’ second homes surrounding it, while good for the local construction businesses, has the potential to involve Moscow in wanting to use the bay’s warm waters to increase its access to the Adriatic.

+ The lovely coastline of Dalmatia, never historically part of Croatia, may someday do to Croatia as Croatia did to Yugoslavia, and cite historical reasons for wanting to be its own country. These concerns may seem far-fetched at the moment, but a timeline of the last three hundred years shows Dalmatia under the jurisdiction or sway of Ragusa, Venice, Napoleonic France, Austro-Hungary, the Kingdom of Hungary, Italy, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, Yugoslavia, and, only lately, Croatia. And its tourist revenue is enough to bail out the coffers of any failing autocracy with territorial designs.

+ I also take note of Turkey’s Ottoman restoration, in wanting to spread its (now autocratic) Turkish empire from Kurdistan to Kosovo and Bosnia-Hercegovina. As much as Serbia resents being evicted from Kosovo, the Turks nurse a grudge against various Balkan states (notably Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia) for evicting the Ottoman empire from Europe in 1912-13. And they would love nothing more than to outflank the (German-dominated) European Union (Turkey was refused membership) in places such as Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Hercegovina, where Turkey is already an important economic and political patron.

Finally, because my mind runs on historical tracks, I will add to the end of this list of possible points of conflict in the Balkans the various rail lines that run, in one direction or another, between Vienna and Istanbul, including the Raška to Kosovska-Mitrovica line that I rode in search of the Novibazar Railway.

Granted the world no longer cares about narrow-gauge railways through the Sandžak of Novi Pazar, or whether the Russians have an influence in the rail traffic between the Danube and the Adriatic. But many of the rails remain in place, if only as the vestiges of empires that have fallen on hard times.

And if you are interested in learning more about the rivalries in the Balkans, you could do worse than to take some of the slow trains from Ljubljana to Pristina and perhaps, for reading material, to carry along the books of Stevan K. Pavlowitch, Ivo Andrić, or Tim Butcher.

You might not come away with a clearer understanding of Bosnia’s fractured alliances or Serbia’s correct geographic footprint (“Serbias have come and gone, and they have moved about…”), but you might find, as I have in the last forty-nine years of south slav travels, that a historical search through the Balkans by rail is an engaging way to understand the fault lines that have divided Europe for generations.

This is the last part of the series. Read the earlier installments here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.