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August 23, 2002

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From Montenegro we move to Kosovo. The political future stays in doubt. Ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo (the province's majority) demand independence from Yugoslavia (now called Serbia and Montenegro, a name which doesn't even mention Kosovo). The United Nations administers the province even though it technically remains apart of Yugoslavia. Some countries, including the US, do not want Kosovo to secede as this sets an unhealthy precedent for Balkan separatism based on ethnicity. In 1990 the Serbian parliament canceled Kosovo's autonomy. Throughout the decade the Yugoslavian army clashed with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). These conflicts culminated in the late 90's when Milosevic and the Serbian army campaigned to rid Kosovo of its Albanian population. In response, NATO bombed Serbia from March to June, 1999 and forced the Serbs to withdraw. Since then, the UN has kept ground forces, KFOR (Kosovo Force), in Kosovo to keep the peace. We board a public bus that carries us over a tight road through the mountain passes, from Montenegro to a laid back UN checkpoint manned by Italians. They let us enter without a hassle. We ride the Balkan mountains down to Kosovo's interior plains. The area seems to be under total reconstruction. We pass half built towns on rough roads that can be hazardous. An overturned bus smokes from a recent accident. Numerous armored vehicles of KFOR vie for space with horse drawn carts. The drive is long (all day) and at the end we stop in a place we've never heard of, Gjakove, not our intended destination. Without much infrastructure, the only hotel here is obscenely expensive; we ask our bus driver, Buyar, if we can stay with him. 'No problem' Buyar says, and takes us to his home. His extended Albanian family sits on the overgrown front lawn and drinks tea. Buyar lives next to his brother and he seems to be related to everyone on the street. The family welcomes us, shows around town, and serves a late night dinner of pasta, salsa, and cheese. He acts as our guide in Gjakove, showing us the total destruction wrought by the Serbs during the war. Gjakove's old quarter is completely gone and in the process of being re-built. Over a beer (he's Muslim yet he drinks beer occasionally), he tells us about his experiences. He says that a Serbian friend who he had known for thirty years suddenly wanted to kill him over the National Question - Kosovo for Serbs not ethnic Albanians. He says, "Never trust a Serb. He may say he's your friend, there's no problem, but I won't believe." He took his family to Tirana and they lived as refugees during NATO's bombing campaign. He says everyone in town lost someone in the war. We ask if he thinks Kosovo will become independent. "I don't know," he says, "we can't go back to the Serbs."
Mountains have kept Kosovo isolated throughout its history and provide the most scenic views in Eastern Europe.
Hotel accommodation anywhere in Kosovo is too expensive. The few that exist here cater to United Nations personnel with expense account budgets. One good alternative is to ask your bus driver if you can stay with him for a few euro; he'll probably accept and invite you to stay for free (you should leave some Euro anyway). And, of course, mobile phones work even if the electricity doesn't for most of the day.
The little girl didn't want to leave and let us sleep. Maybe because we were using her bed.