Friday, 1 January 2010

Kosovo and some reflections on my journey so far....

And so, as the year draws to a close, I take my leave of Kosovo; the last book of 2009 on my ongoing 'round the world' trip...

Before I discuss my Kosovan sojourn, this seems like a good time to reflect upon my journey so far, which started way back in May of this year. The concept of travelling around the world through literature was one which I had been toying with for some time, and a six-month period of unemployment (now gladly resolved) gave me that opportunity... I was also fortunate that I was able to use the Internet to plan, plot and share my thoughts on my visits - and indeed without the use of the Internet as a resource to identify key works, I would not have been able to get close of my aim of visiting all official (and several unofficial) states in the world.

I had originally only planned to identify my trips three or four countries ahead, but tracking down representative works of each country has been such a fascinating exercise that I have only another 15 or so countries on my itinerary to track books down for! Of course, I am aware that this journey may take some years and that more relevant books may appear for certain countries, so I shall be constantly reviewing my choices... and any suggestions are more than welcome! The help and assistance that I have had from authors, academics and readers from across the globe has been overwhelming, and I am truly grateful for all those who have taken the time to contact me, respond to my emails and - in some cases - even sent me books...

In reviewing my book choices I am also acutely aware of the importance of identifying native authors where possible; and I am pleased that I have only had to resort to four non-native authors on my journey so far. That said, the next leg of my journey "The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo" is written by an American, Paula Huntley, who journeyed to Kosovo in 2000 as part of a UN-led restructuring programme. However, given the sensitive and polarised nature of the recent conflict in Serbia and Kosovo, it could be argued that an outsiders' view is perhaps beneficial here in providing a less subjective perspective on the situation in Kosovo....

The premise then, of this book, is that it is culled from a series of journal extracts and emails written by Paula during her year-long stay in Kosovo where she travelled with her husband, teaching English at the University in Pristina. Indeed Paula herself calls this "an accidental book", and whilst the diary format has no doubt undergone a degree of rewriting prior to publication, the format does give an immediacy and honesty to the narrative: Paula questions her own innermost motivations in journeying to Kosovo:- as well as making interesting parallels of the prejudice she sees around her with her own previous racial intolerance whilst growing up in 1960s America.

However, this is not an introspective work, and indeed one of the most effective elements of this book are her vivid descriptions of a war-torn Kosovo desparately trying to get back to normal within the artificial confines of UN administration. The physical descriptions are particularly telling:

"Prishtina is a city of fragments. There are few whole things here - few intact surfaces, few complete buildings, few functional systems. Concrete sidewalks are split and buckled, stuccoed walls are crazed and stained, roads are gullied and pocked with holes big enough to swallow a small car, steps are crumbling, ragged-edged. Turbid, smelly gray-water seeps from every crack and pit. And everywhere, everywhere, garbage."

Defying these grim conditions are the key characters: the Kosovan students who attend her English lessons and the titular Book Club. These students provide fascinating insights into the psyche of this region, and their optimisim and fortitude is universally humbling given that they are effectively suffering a double tragedy - a scarred past of death and displacement at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries; and an uncertain future in a country still devastated by war and reliant upon the fickle Western powers for support. All see themselves as 'lucky' (they are, after all, still alive) and see the learning of English as a ticket to a better future. Whilst some achieve their dreams of escaping their situations, to varying degrees, Paula is acutely aware that she may well be raising unrealistic expectations among her students; a heartbreaking prospect for both writer and reader.

Paula herself proves to be an insightful guide into Kosovo here - she is always aware that her views of the country are tempered by a Western/US perspective and she shows a rare sensitivity in her actions - for instance, whilst attempting to encourage her Kosovo Albanian students to acknowledge that not all Serbians are murderers and aggressors, she wisely retreats in the face of obvious confusion and even anger. These individuals' wounds are simply too recent and too deep, although by the end of the book there are signs of hope here Paula says in a recent interview "Kosovo will be judged by how well the Albanian majority of some 90 per cent protects the Serbs, Roma and other minority groups. Are they up to this? I hope so. Everything depends upon it".

Ultimately, this is a story of a country and a people scarred and traumatised by recent war, who desperately require an autonomy and stake in their own future which they are unlikely to attain whilst they remain under international governance - a situation which remains nearly a decade after this book was written. As of 2010, the status of Kosovo remains unclear - of the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council the US, UK and France acknowledged a declaration of Kosovan independence in 2008, yet this has not been formalised due to the resistance of China and Russia.

On a personal note, I must admit to being shamefully unaware of the details of the Kosovan crisis and the Balkan conflict of the 1990s... as a twentysomething living in the UK at the time, I was aware of the conflict from the nightly news reports of NATO bombings and I recall being appalled at the UN's failure to prevent the Srebenica massacre in 1995, but the details never really struck home. To me, this was a conflict happening elsewhere, to other people, and I never really engaged with it. As a final thought, I have to say I would welcome an update from Paula Huntley on how these various individuals are doing, almost a decade on from her book's events.

In any case, I am grateful that my journey round the world - whilst inevitably limited - is at least giving myself, and hopefully followers of this Blog, a glimpse into the terrible real-life situations that so many of our fellow global citizens find themselves in.

With this in mind, I am setting out from Pristina, Kosovo, to its controversial neighbour, Serbia (Serbia itself still claims Kosovo as one of its own territories). The general populace of Serbia were not untouched by the wars of the 90s/early 00s themselves (or ignorant of the plight of the people of Kosovo) and my next account takes me to the industrial town of Pančevo, which was heavily bombed by NATO forces at the turn of the Millenium as a result of Serbian aggression in Kosovo.

The book in question is "Regards From Serbia" by Aleksandar Zograf, a resident of Pančevo (about 15km from Belgrade) during the conflicts. This is a mix of graphic novel (Zograf is a cartoonist) and email diary to his friends outside of Serbia during the bombing campaign. I will write more of this work when I have finished reading it, but suffice to say, as an ordinary individual, he expresses the same horror, bewilderment and frustration as his Kosovan counterparts during this terrible conflict.

To this day, direct travel is still not permitted from Kosovo to Serbia if the journey has not started in Serbia itself (there is talk of this ban being lifted soon for international citizens but not for Kosovan passport holders. The embargo will remain in place "primarily because of the [Kosovo] Albanian population’s crime links in Western Europe” according to Serbia's interior minister).

Thus I have no option but to make my way to the recently renovated Pristina International Airport and get a cheap flight from Pristina back to Tirana in Albania.

From there I get a 12.20pm connecting 'Alitalia' flight to Rome, leaving Rome at 2.30pm and finally arriving at Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport at 4.30pm (convoluted but - relatively! - cheap at $380).

From here I get a (surprisingly cheap) taxi - making sure it has the blue city taxi sign on the roof as well as the offical logo of the taxi company - travelling about 12km east of the airport into Belgrade proper where I catch the reasonably efficient commuter rail from 'Beograd Centar' direct to 'Pančevo Vojlovica'.

And so I arrive at my destination in Serbia - Pančevo - eager to see the other side of the conflict referred to in my Kosovan stopover, and also aware that this represents a significant gateway on my travels into the other former Yugoslavian states of Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia etc. I hope to find out more about this tragic conflict through this leg of my journey. However - above all - I hope to get a sense of the everyday lives of our fellow European citizens in this ravaged region; almost a decade after the conflict which has defined their lives for so long...

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