Kosovo: What’s Next?

While Closing the Door on the Past, Dark Memories Come Flooding Back With the Beginning of Independance

A joyous moment as two man congratulate each other outside of the Grand Hotel in Pristina | Photo: Stephan Apfl

An old man stands quivering on the side of the road crying. Around him, people are dancing in the cold. They are raising their hands in the air, and singing. A stranger comes by and pats the old man on the shoulder. They hug each other smiling, or crying, or both. Wherever you look, flags are blowing in the wind, and moving scenes are taking place on all sides under the colorful, bright light of the fireworks.

It’s Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008 in Pristina. A few hours ago, the Kosovar parliament declared its independence from Serbia.

Three kilometers from the center of the city, eight people are gathered in an apartment.

From outside, the piercing cacophony of happiness penetrates the apartment. They are celebrating too, but in silence. It’s been nine years since war had bonded them in such a special way that they were forced to hide in a dark apartment for three months together.

One of them in Blerim Gjoci. He has black curly hair and is dressed all in black clothes. The iPhone, which lies on the table and rings constantly, belongs to him, as well as the BMW parked in front of the house. In Kosovo, this yuppie, and somehow Western appearance gives him a Mafiosi touch. Gjoici is Apple’s representative in Kosovo, and founder of the film studio Pristina Films. He is a director as well as an actor, an action man. With Kosovo’s independence, a whole nation’s history of suffering has ended, and if was a film script of all this, Blerim Gjoci says he would have been able to play the role of his life.

These are heroic words, just the way Gjoci likes them. He tells stories in a low voice with an American accent, that seems as if it would work for more than one movie role. In the recent history of his country, this son of a long-haul truck driver and a house wife has done well for himself.

35-year old Gjoci grew up in a small city called Istog, about 90 minutes from Pristina. It is said that every Kosovar, wherever he lives, longs for Pristina.

“But if you weren’t born here,” says Gjoci, “you’re a nobody.” When he arrived at Pristina’s bus terminal at 15- year old – in the biting cold, “alone and with money for ten days” – he was such a nobody. But even worse, he was, as an Albanian, a foreigner in his own country. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic took away the Albanian province’s independence and installed an apartheid regime. Stories about the Kosovars daily life in the 90s are untold to this day; songs, poems, anecdotes, and articles only give a vague impression.

Albanians moved underground, and a whole generation was raised and educated behind closed doors of a haunted city. While the successor states “negotiated” their borders by military means, a “Generation Don’t” grew up in Kosovo that was taught to live in fear. At18, he hid at relatives’ home for two months because he didn’t want to fight in the Yugoslav army against Croatian independence. But the fear of Serbia was also motivation. He and his friends hid out in abandoned theaters, and every day and night, they acted out other characters because their own were too hard to play.

When war broke out in Kosovo in the late 90s, Gjoci visited the massacre sites to document the crimes on camera for the OECD. These horrors leave him speechless.

When the news about Srebrenica surfaced, the United States intervened, for which Bill Clinton is criticized even today. But nobody wanted to let another genocide happen in the Balkans.

On Mar. 24, Pristina was bombarded, and many evacuated to Macedonia. Married with a daughter, and decided not to join the refugees. He hid in relatives’ 3-rooms apartment for 96 days with the people he’s celebrating with today.

After NATO had entered the city in 1999, Gjoci left the apartment, ‘determined to live and breathe freely.” With the will of a person who has seen everything and has nothing to lose, he looked for the opportunities he had never known, and found them. As the owner of Prishtina Films, he gives young, talented people those opportunities: under his aegis, they can produce their film scripts, work on the set, or on a Mac. Moreover, Gjoci designs campaigns for the OEC or distributes iPods to people who’ve never been to McDonald’s.

So Feb. 17 was a day to draw a line under the past, but also to celebrate the future.  Gjoci is saying goodbye to people who know him better than anyone else. He’s putting the past behind him once more, even though he knows that he will never be able to.

As he leaves, it’s already dark in Pristina. The new capital is hard to get used to. At night, there is no running water, and oftentimes no electricity during the day. There are holes the size of potato sacks in the pavement. Packs of dogs stray through the streets after dawn in search for food. Bombed houses and heavy white UN trucks signal a sense of crisis. But the residents have gotten used to it by now.

Those who have visited Pristina and felt the desperation that had filled the waiting room into the future, won’t recognize it now. For a long time, the big question had been when independence would come. In the last few days the question was: Will it be declared on Sunday?

Independence became reality today. Every eye contact ends with a smile.

The myth of independence is the core of Kosovars’ identity, which unites beyond classes and borders. Kosovars, 90% of them Muslim, believe more in their own ethnicity than in Allah. Their own country has thus always been a key.  In a country where everyone has written essays about an independent Kosovo in grade school, the collective longing is reflected as a personal wish: “I’ve been dreaming of this day all my life.” Even though reporters compare the cheering to a victory at the Soccer World Cup, it’s those sentences that express the uniqueness, inconceivability of the event.

Kosovo is the seventh, and probably last country that will, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, declare its independence and end the historic process of secession on the Balkan.

The European Union has played an important role. However, Kosovo is not really independent. The EU is taking over the supervising role from the United Nations, which has administered Kosovo since 1999, against the will of Moscow and Belgrade, who argue that the independence is illegal under international law and warn of the growth of worldwide independence movements.

In the next few days, numerous states plan to recognize Kosovo: the U.S. but also Afghanistan and Austria. The riots don’t really come as a surprise to anyone. But hardly anyone wants to recognize that Belgrade will play a major role in Kosovo’s future. Gjoci, who speaks Serbian fluently, has not been to Serbia’s capital since 1997 because he believes that he’d be a target there.

“Then why should I go there?” he asks. It’s not that hard to find an answer to that: Belgrade is the pulsing core of the Balkans, and historic reconciliation is a precondition for peaceful coexistence. But to give this answer to someone who had to spend his youth in the shadow world of Belgrade’s dictatorship is worth a try, but not more.

But if not someone like Gjoci, then who?

Between those clear fronts, Europe, with which Gjoci hasn’t yet come to terms, is trying to arbitrate. “Europe abandoned us,” he says, and doesn’t only refer to its passivity in the 90s, but also Brussels’ strict visa regime, by which it keeps Kosovars from entering the EU. Gjoci knows the much-cited boundaries of the fortress Europe.

He loves the United States. In Kosovo, many people do.

“If we had the chance to join either the EU or the US,” Gjoci says. “Many people would vote for the US.” For many years, a big billboard with Bill Clinton’s picture has been gracing the main street to Pristina. Apart from the Albanian flag — a black eagle with two heads on a red background – the American one is the most waved today.

The concert of the Pristina Philharmonic Orchestra swelled in a performance of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, and the audience rose to its feet in a standing ovation.

This moment will go down into history. But what comes next? What happens to the power that has been accumulated to achieve this dream? The later it gets, the closer the next morning comes, about which Kosovars keep conspicuously quiet. Half of the population lives on less than 1,50 Euro per day.

This day is going to last for only one more hour. At a temperature far below zero, thousands of people have gathered in Prishtina’s pedestrian zones. They dance and sing, and some even yell, “Fuck you Serbia.” Hashim Thaci, Kosovo’s prime minister, will speak to the masses in a few minutes. Deafening noise will great him.

“ It will be awful when people look into the mirror once everything is over, “ says Gjorci. “But today it doesn’t matter.”

Stefan Apfl is Central European Correspondent for the Vienna weekly, the Falter, where this article appeared in the 20/ 02/08 edition. 

Translated from the original German by Marlies Dachler and Dardis McNamee.

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