Kosovo is one of those places that conjures up thoughts of conflict and strife. Synominous with the Yugoslav Conflict in the same way as Sarajevo, Mostar and Srebdenica. The Islamic enclave and particularly its embattled capital Pristina certainly bore a heavy price due to the ethnic cleansing that the Serb forces carried out in those horrid days of the ’90s.
Kosovo retains an uncertain future, despite its self-determined independence. 90% of its population are ethnic Albanians and there are understandably very close ties to Albania as borne out by the multi-million dollar highway constructed linking Tirana with Pristina.
Many nations have recognised Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia refuses to cede what they consider to be their region. This has meant that Kosovo is not yet an official member of the United Nations, despite being self-proclaimed as a new nation in 2008 with significant support from the most powerful NATO countries.
Serbia retains a watching brief and with moderate leadership with EU aspirations this is likely to continue. However should the regime change to a more hardline leadership, this could all alter and the powder keg lit once more.
There have been recent flash points. In January this year the Kosovan government agreed for the return after well over a decade of a rail link between Belgrade and Mitrovica, a city in the country’s north with a large Serbian population.
This turned out to be a publicity stunt by the Serbian PM who was seeking election as the country’s president. The carriages carried a bold livery stating that Kosovo was Serbia. The Kosovan authorities were tipped off and sent a military force to their border to stop the train’s progress and send it packing from whence it had come.
The PM won the election with his popularity rating boosted considerably by the train incident. The Kosovan government fared rather well in the popularity stakes too due to their actions and perhaps only the Mitrovicans were losers in the deal.
The second recent contretemps came about when UEFA in their wisdom drew Albania to play Serbia in qualifying for the 2016 European Nations Football Cup.
During the first tie in Belgrade in October 2014, a drone was expertly flown into the stadium in Belgrade draped in a ‘Greater Albania’ flag that had depicted Kosovo & Albania as a single nation. This act inflamed an already highly charged atmosphere and when a Serbia player managed to drag the flag from the airborne device and proceed to try and rip it, a mass brawl soon ensued involving the players, reserves and officials from both sides, as well as Serbian fans (away fans had at least thankfully been banned).
Only Serbian defender Aleksander Kolarov, who used to play in England for Manchester City, tried to act as peace-maker, an effort doomed to failure.
The match was abandoned and with the Serbs deemed as the aggressors, they forfeited the match 3-0, thus helping Albania qualify for their first ever major football finals.
We took the bus from Tirana to Prizren, a three hour ride on the Albania-Kosovo Highway, a wonderful piece of engineering that has halved the nine hour journey time from the Albanian capital to the Kosovan one.
The road cut a swathe through pine forests and mountains, with us at one point traversing through a three kilometre long tunnel. It was also a picturesque journey past the odd Albania bunker, through villages, past farms with fields of curly kale & cabbage and alongside & over a snaking river.
Despite the ticket inspector alarmingly losing my passport for a few worrying minutes, we were soon in Kosovo, my latest new country (66 not out!).
Our bus was bound for Pristina and we stopped just outside Prizren to transfer to a minibus for the short ride into town.
We had an unusual check-in with the reception desk on the edge of a building site as the hotel was under renovation. The staff could not apologise enough. The rooms were absolutely fine though, if on the spartan side.
Kosovo’s second city straddles the River Bistrica and is easily small enough to explore by foot. We had a quick look before nightfall and witnessed the atmospheric call to prayer. We stood by the main mosque which started the cacophony, before it was joined by up to forty others around the city in making an eerie, almost unworldly, noise as you can hear HERE.
It started to rain that night and was destined not to stop until we left Kosovo. The damp conditions had no effect on our spirits though as we yomped up to the castle for some splendid views, visited the simple but impressive mosque and just meandered around the laid back centre with its plethora of cafes & bars.
Despite the constant drizzle we enjoyed our visit, but were also very happy to catch the early morning bus to bustling Pristina after two nights of peace & quiet.
We stood by the bridge as instructed and sure enough after a seven-minute wait the bus arrived and stopped as we requested. A new capital city beckoned……..