Tuesday, 6 May 2014

I finally got to Kosovo


I decided to get to Kosovo after many years of thinking about it. I took a plane from Bucharest to Belgrade as the night train has been discontinued for a couple of years. Then a bus to Novi Pazar, which I had wanted to visit for over twenty years, since reading about the Sanjak of Novi Pazar in Barbara Jellavic's History of the Balkans.

Enchanting Serbian countryside seen from the window of the crowded bus. It is good to leave the European Union and to be in a nice unglobalised country. The scenery and the monasteries are what Serbia offers - the towns are unremarkable. The same is true of all the Balkans except the towns that the Germans and Hungarians built in the Hapsburg lands.

The Hotel Vrbak, Novi Pazar, once considered an architectural gem. The reception was eerily empty when I went in to ask directions. Nothing is more dead than a future that has failed.

Novi Pazar was a rather typical Yugoslav town, albeit a Muslim one, with some headscarved and some veiled women. It was a public holiday - 1 May - and the town was closed and it drizzled. Yugoslav towns always abound in cafes, terraces that stay open very late, 1970s architecture and - in Belgrade at least - a kind of 1970s sexiness, like a film version dubbed into Serbo-Croat of a Jackie Collins novel.

I took a cab for EUR 35 to Mitrovica which is divided between the Serbian north and the Albanian south and put up in the North City Hotel. I enjoyed a typical Kosovar dish, prizrenska tava, in my hotel in the divided town of Mitrovica. It is made of minced veal, cheese and eggs. Rather good. Belgrade just offers grilled meat, but very good grilled meat. In Northern Mitrovica the main streets full of wooden shacks and kiosks from which goods are sold. Unlike in Novi Pazar where the town was dead because of the public holiday North Mitrovica at sunset was buzzing with activity and a sense of improvisation. It felt poor.

To my surprise the next morning I walked across the bridge that divided the Serbian north of the city from the main city which is purely Albanian and was not asked for my passport by the KFOR soldier who stood there. Checkpoint Charlie it is not. Serbs and Albanians can go freely from one part of the town to the other but they do not.

The bridge that divides Serbian, Christian Northern Mitrovica from the Albanian, Muslim side of the town. The KFOR man did not look at me when I crossed.
Jonathan Swift said, 'We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.'

We in the West are now busy creating an ethnic and religious mosaic like the one that used to exist in Eastern Europe before ethnic cleansing gave things a terrible simplicity.

In the 1990s I was certain Milosevic and Serbia 
were in the wrong in all the Yugoslav wars and wanted Western intervention. Since then Western intervention has almost always been disastrous. Were Messrs Blair and Clinton right about Kosovo? The atrocities committed by the Serbs were extremely exaggerated, we now know, and the Kosovo Liberation Army did terrible things. I suspect that this war too was a mistake, but I need to find out much more

The next day a driver recommended by a friend who lives in Pristina took me to the lovely old town of Prizren. The town was once the capital of Old Serbia but what can be seen today is Turkish. It reminds me of the wonderful Albanian towns of Berat and Gjirokastra but both of them were when i went there several years ago absolutely untouched by tourism, uncommercial, a place where old men sipped tea and smoked cheap cigarettes on stools outside cheap shops. Prizren too is innocent of tourism but is a buzzy warren of bars, restaurants, shops and life.

Castle half a mile outside Prizren

The interior of the beautiful old church was destroyed by Muslims in 2004 , five years after the Serbs were forced out, as, the keeper told me, were one thousand other churches in Kosovo. I am opposed to capital punishment but would happily see the perpetrators hanged in public.

Pristina proved an interesting place. It has two or three noble mosques (the mosques are noble inside, though from outside they are less so) but its interest is in its present-day political situation. I was shown around, unfortunately after dark, by a very intelligent American who loves there and who believes Kosovo was the 'last just war'. 

Two weeks later the Guardian published this article about Pristina's new mayor. It confirmed my intuition that the Kosovo war was not just, was unwise meddling. I was interested to read recently Andrew Rawnsley say that it was Tony Blair who persuaded bill Clinton into this adventure.

Prizren, Kosovo, the Sinan Pasha mosque: unusual non-geometrical frescoes.


  1. A minor point: the churches in Prizren were vandalized and destroyed by Albanians, absolutely. But not by "Muslims", as such. Prizren is the ancient center of Catholicism in Kosovo -- there's a small Catholic cathedral there, with a bishop and everything -- and about 15%-20% of the population is Catholic. The Serbs oppressed Albanian Catholics and Albanian Muslims pretty much alike, and the mobs that sacked those churches were probably a remarkable mosaic of religious diversity -- Muslims, Catholics, and atheists all working together as one.

    Because Serbia is nominally Orthodox and most Albanians are Muslim, it's tempting to see the Kosovo conflict as a clash of religions. But it really isn't; it's a clash of nationalisms. Serbs who never go to church and Albanians who have converted to become Seventh Day Adventists are just as vehement as their Orthodox and Muslim brethren.


    Doug M.

    Doug M.

    1. Correct, Albanians destroyed churches not the "Muslims".