Thursday, 12 September 2013

Kosova, a very young Republic

Prizren, Kosova

In early 1999 NATO planes flew over Kosova, then still part of Serbia, dropping bombs on significant targets, to stop the Serbian military and paramilitaries from their destructive and intimidating assault on unarmed civilians, who had begun to leave their homes in huge numbers, refugees crossing borders into Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, the countries neighbouring Kosova. By June that year, Serbian troops and tanks had retreated, NATO troops entered Pristina, and Kosovar refugees began to return to their homes, if they were still standing, or were rebuilding them if they were not.

In early 2000, when I was living in Albania, NATO’S KFOR troops still had a strong presence on both sides of the Sharr mountains which separate Kosova from Albania. The border was virtually closed, except for the military and senior UN personnel. Kosova was like a mythical land on the other side of the mountains. Not far away in terms of distance, but virtually inaccessible.

Several years later – 2013. Far from ideas of trying to smuggle myself across a border that's patrolled by the military, I arrive in Pristina by plane. I am even invited! I'm to read at the Drini Poetik Festival in the old town of Prizren. My flight was booked from Edinburgh via Istanbul, where I would stay overnight although 'night' was a little optimistic as I had to be up at 3 am. It was a somewhat circuitous route, true, but I had my invitation, my itinerary, and my tickets. But my memory of Kosovo as a near impenetrable, heavily guarded place had set in my mind, and throughout the journey I could not feel sure that I would ever really get there. And there were some delays, but when I finally stepped out of the plane onto the tarmac of Pristina's airport, it was into warm sunshine.

From the moment I arrived I was reminded of times spent in Albania, for although it is a different country, a very young country, this Republic of Kosova, these are Albanian people, share the same language of course, but also the characteristic Albanian energy, enthusiasm, hospitality, respect and truly remarkable generosity of spirit.

My hosts were Professors Shyqri Galica and Abdyl Kadolli, President and Vice-President of the Writers League, who met me at the airport. We drove through the green and lush countryside of Kosova, (there had been a lot of rain I was told) and the houses set in this green and undulating land all looked trim and neat, flowering gardens, green fields, orchards and vineyards, so I began to wonder if this was some part of Switzerland I'd arrived in. We drove along the recently built highway which links Pristina to Tirana in Albania. The road was impeccably smooth, and almost deserted. Prizren itself is surrounded by the Sharr mountains which separate Kosovo from Albania.

The Festival opened with an art exhibition, followed by various speeches which I cannot say I fully understood, my Albanian being extremely basic, but I got the gist of the fulsome welcome extended to everyone. Riza Lahi, a writer from Tirana, who speaks good English, was assigned to me as interpreter, a lively and friendly man, who was a former military pilot and interpreter.

Traditional folk dancing, Prizren

After the speeches and talks on the theme of ‘The Author and Literary Publications’ we go to the outside café, and there I meet various other writers, including Arben, a young man who lost a leg while fighting for the Kosova Liberation Army. I ask him if he is happy now that Kosova is independent. Pa djeter (of course) he smiles. Arben tells me later that he never wanted to be a soldier, he was a writer, but during the war, when people were being killed, their homes shelled and burned, he felt he had to do something for his country, so he joined the KLA/UÇK and for 3 years lived and fought in the mountains around Prizren.

We are then driven outside the town to a restaurant surrounded by the green and forested Sharr mountains, by the side of the river Lum Bardhe. This wonderful meal went on for hours, before we were ferried back to Prizren for the evening readings, with musical interludes, fiddle and flute playing. I read in English while Shyqri read the Albanian translation, kindly provided by Agim Morina.

Outside in the warm night, there was a final coffee by the riverside, before I prevailed on my hosts that I had to sleep, and we headed back to the hotel. While I stumbled into bed, the Albanians stayed up talking and drinking for hours...

And that was just the first day. Of my first visit to Kosova. 

Morelle Smith 

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