I was only nine years old when NATO bombed Belgrade to stop the war in Kosovo. I was too young to follow the news and too young to know what was going on, although I absolutely remember hearing the terms “Milosevic” and “Yugoslavia” enough. I knew very little about it except that it was a scary place full of war and conflict. For the next 14 years I heard absolutely nothing about the region. It was an informational vacuum to me.
Fast forward to 2013, and I’m now here in Kosovo, one of youngest countries in the world, second only to South Sudan. It has only just declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is still working quickly to organize itself into a fully-functional autonomous state. In fact, because Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country, you cannot enter Serbia from Kosovo unless you have already entered Serbia from a different country already. From a political perspective, this is undoubtedly the most interesting place I’ve ever been. So what’s it like here?
Let’s start in the rest of the Balkans, since that’s where I first began to learn about this young state. The owner of my first hostel in Croatia was an incredibly friendly, young, and educated guy. While talking about my planned route through the Balkans, he stopped me upon my mentioning Kosovo and warned me not to go. It’s dangerous. Barbaric. Full of drugs and organized crime, he said. He was correct that it is full of drugs and organized crime. Some unknown but large percentage of the marijuana supplied to Europe is grown here in the countryside of Kosovo and the police have no power to enforce otherwise: they would be greeted with machine guns were they to try and stop it. Not to mention, the economy in Kosovo is still in the process of developing, so it seems the government would be nearly foolish to squash such a large industry so early in the country’s development.
But the part about Kosovo being dangerous and not to be visited is wrong. It’s actually relatively safe here, the violence of the war is over and most Serbian-Albanian political tensions are concentrated near the northern border. While there is crime here, it’s probably not much worse than anywhere else in the Balkans.
Foreigners are mostly loved - especially Americans. The university has an American Corner with books from the US. Some American professors teach at the university. There is a statue of Bill Clinton, a Bill Clinton Boulevard (“Boulevar Bila Kilntona”), and a George Bush Boulevard - all renamed after the war and all thanks to the Clinton and Bush administration’s involvement with Kosovo’s independence via NATO. On the bus from Belgrade to Priština a man in the seat behind me asked me if I was American. I said yes, and he wanted to know more. He asked where we were staying and insisted on researching the route to the hostel for us; in fact, he offered to walk us all the way there from the bus station. While he most certainly had only good intentions, we were not ready for this kind of hospitality. Then, at a store just across the Serbia-Kosovo border, I stopped to buy some oranges. A kid about 10 years old was working the cash register and wanted to know if I was American. He was thrilled when I told him I was. They truly do love Americans here - quite a strange feeling in contrast to most other places I’ve been that are a bit prejudiced against Americans. In fact, it’s overwhelming. To be fair, however, there is at least one major group opposing the foreign aid situation who believe that Kosovo is not better off with the UN and other organizations meddling in their affairs - and their political graffiti from them is apparent all over Priština.
Prišhtina has a fascinating feel to it as well: it’s an odd mix of modern glass and concrete high rises, beautifully designed pedestrian malls, and old districts littered with abandoned buildings that are just shy of being awarded the status of “ghetto”. There is both a feeling of extreme chaos and incredible optimism and pride; all of the feelings that you’d expect from such a young country. People drive like maniacs and the sidewalks are littered with parked cars. Walking around is an adventure as I find myself walking in the middle of the street just as often as walking on the side walk in order to get around cars parked just in front of the doors of shops. In the city center there are university students, politicians, foreign aid workers, and every sort of person you could imagine in between. The center feels modern and familiar. But walk even just a block outside of the central area and there are few foreigners. I find myself being stared at by nearly everyone I walk past. Although I suspect it’s mostly out of curiosity, I have to admit, there’s been a few moments where I’ve felt a bit uneasy… perhaps even unsafe.
Staying in the hostels here (this is my second one) has been interesting too. Unlike the rest of the balkans, I have met more temporary residents than I have travelers. The majority of hostel goers here are not here for fun but rather to somehow participate in the birth of a new nation: a Dutch guy who is working for an NGO, an American photojournalist here working on a story for Reuters, and a Swedish girl interviewing locals’ stories about the war to bring back to Sweden. The foreigners here are adventurous, courageous, and ambitious; they’re not here on holiday and they’re not here to party.
If you stop to take a look at the Museum of Kosovo, you’ll find huge plans for Priština: the city is to be boosted into an economy of knowledge and service. There is already a coworking space, the Innovations Lab Kosovo. This weekend it’s hosting a Startup Weekend event - a weekend-long hackathon. There is a large influence from the US and western Europe here and you can feel this deeply: they aim to make Priština into a hub of innovation, startups, and entrepreneurship. The university is large and much of the plans for central Priština focus around this. The future here really is all about the youth, which, after all, make up the majority of the population. Half the the population is under 30 and the average age here is just 23.
I find Priština to be a very unique but intimidating place. It is changing quickly - even on a daily basis. It is growing and rushing to find it’s bearings economically and politically. It still has a lot of real problems with corruption, organized crime, lawlessness, and lacks some very fundamental resources, yet, it’s growing up quickly under the support and guidance of the UN and rest of the developed world. It resonates with incredible optimism that the future will be bright.
I find myself fascinated and curious to come back in another ten years to see how it has matured and changed by then.