Kosovo: Coming Home by Adrienne Davich
An American who grew up listening to stories about the Serbian province of Kosovo struggles with her discoveries.
PRISTINA, Kosovo So this is Kosovo. Down Pristina’s Bill Clinton Boulevard we go, an Albanian taxi driver handling the controls on his car stereo, and me riding stiff in the passenger seat, watching out the window as we draw closer to a mural of Bill Clinton waving hello.
Albanian folk music, with a beat-box techno pulse, plays on the tape deck, and the heater blows on high because the snow outside is falling in big, wet flakes. In front of us stand smoke- and dirt-stained tenement buildings, many painted a drab mint green or peach; tarnished satellite dishes hang off them. Another 200 meters, another white SUV marked “UN” patrols the street.
There are mini-groceries, CD stores, English language schools, and Western banks. Most conspicuous to me, though, are the craggy concrete walls stretching from one block to another: once marred by graffiti, they’re now plastered with red, white, and blue posters that say THANK YOU USA and I LOVE THE AMERICAN FLAG. All of it is deceptively straightforward propaganda, of course. Coveting much the same wall space is JO NEGOCIATA VETEVENDOSJE, Albanian for “no negotiation, self-determination,” a clarion call for the United Nations – and the rest of the international community, for that matter – to give the ethnic Albanians living there the statehood they’ve long fought and waited for.
A voice comes at me sideways: the cab driver wants to know if I like Bill Clinton.
My neck and shoulders tighten as I shove my hands between the car seat and my thighs. Forget Bill Clinton. Forget patriotism. I’m American, and this cab driver loves Americans, but I wonder: how would he react to the other side of this equation? Would he care if he knew that for the past few weeks I’d been visiting Serbian relatives in Belgrade?
“You like Bill Clinton?” he comes again.
“Do you?” I say.
Not unkindly, but with the look of disbelief, he turns toward me. “No Bill Clinton …,” he says, “no Albani Kosovo.”
Meaning no Kosovo independent of Serbia, freed from its long grind under Belgrade’s heel. In a land seeking to sever its hyphenated identities, to sort out its ethnic confusions behind red-white-and-blue munitions, this cab driver’s fare is nothing if not hyphenated – not to mention, at the moment, confused. I’m American of Serbian descent.
THE SERB VIEWPOINT
My attention shifts between the view from the car window and another remembered scene, with another set of litmus-paper questions. My friend Marko, a student at the University of Belgrade, is watching television with me in a Belgrade apartment, the flat of a family friend. Serbia’s prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, declares through the screen something or other about how we won’t lose Kosovo to Albanian terrorists. Kosovo belongs in Serbia, he says. Independence for the province is unacceptable. Marko nods his head in agreement. Then, with two fingers, he pulls on the lid of his Cleveland Indians baseball cap and raises one eyebrow at me. What do I think of Kostunica’s speech?
In the same way the Kosovar Albanian cab driver will a few days later, he has me. I know that since U.S.-led NATO forces drove the Serbian military out of Kosovo in 1999, the 90-percent Albanian majority there has enjoyed a new autonomy. I know that the province has remained nominally a part of Serbia but that “final status” talks are underway that could establish Kosovo as an independent state. UN, American, and European officials are drafting proposals and talking ad infinitum, with the aim of building democratic institutions in Kosovo and helping Kosovar Albanians toward their goal of self-governance.
And along with all of that, I know the Serb question: can you amputate a heart?
Serbs often say that Kosovo is like the Serbian Jerusalem. If you really want to know something about who Serbs are, they say, learn about Kosovo, the birthplace of the Serbian Orthodox Church, home of the most sacred monasteries and of Kosovo Polje, where Serbs fought their most famous battles, won some and lost others, though it really doesn’t matter because they’re all to Serbia’s honor. The idea of losing Kosovo disturbs Marko, as though the soil of Kosovo has been implanted in his 24-year-old soul. As for me, I’m wary of Serb nationalism and territorial claims, but at the same time wanting my family and friends in Belgrade to say “she’s come from America, but she’s one of ours.”
“Kostunica’s no good,” I tell Marko. “I’m sorry.”
In Belgrade, “We Won’t Give Up Kosovo” is spray-painted on the bathrooms at Kalemegdan Park, spray-painted in the gardens along Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra, spray-painted on upscale store fronts on Knez Mihailova, on streets along the Danube and Sava rivers, at the University of Belgrade, all over tenement buildings across the city, on fountains, museums, theaters, and bus stops, and it’s scribbled in permanent marker on elevators and stairwells. The message, in its different incarnations, is everywhere – on television and radio, in dailies, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, and on and on. Don’t talk about an “Albani Kosovo” in Belgrade. Believe me, feelings will get hurt. Friendships could be ruined.
“What do you think of Tony Blair?” the cab driver now demands to know.
I’m scanning the streets of Pristina for any trace of history, for any sign that Serbs once lived all over Kosovo. But to expect such a trace would be naïve at best. Albanian flags – blood red with a black two-headed eagle – wave outside the radio station, the library, the theater. Street signs are Albanian. Serbs are out of sight in enclaves.
“Tony Blair is nice,” I blurt, reflexively.
THE WAR "OVER THERE"
It’s Christmas, maybe 1996, and I am 10 or 11 years old. Father sits at the foot of my bed, a beer-and-tomato-juice in one hand, the other hand motioning in the air. He’s sharing stories. He tells how the Serbian Orthodox church began in Kosovo, and then about the Ottoman Empire, first World War, Tito and socialism. I am curled up in the sheets, studying his face and the way his black eyebrows move when one emotion gives way to another, conviction to hopelessness, irritation to resignation.
American foreign policy, whether it’s championed by Republicans or Democrats – Father stands in opposition to it. He reads Noam Chomsky, likes alternative media. He wants America out of the Balkans, out of other people’s wars.
“For over a thousand years Serbs have lived in Kosovo,” he says, heavy-tongued. We’ve come to this discussion because Baba (my grandmother) and Tetka Seka (my great aunt) were in the kitchen talking about the war “over there” – about violence in Kosovo, and conflict rampaging through Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia – and I, the child, overheard it. We have cousins “over there,” both in Serbia and in Serb villages in Croatia. Father speaks, and I strain to understand his accounting of things.
“The problem in Kosovo,” he says, half-smiling, “is that the Serbs are using birth control.” Even to me, this is funny. Birth control, I think, is supposed to be a good thing, not a problem. “The Albanians – goddamn,” tomato juice jumps in his glass, “they’ll have four, five, six, 10 kids …” We laugh. And then I think to myself about these Albanians, “What do they look like, any way, these people? They must be some kind of mountain people, tribal types, who fight and have sex with alarming regularity.”
In the newspapers, on the televisions, Serbs are charged with ethnic cleansing, with “crimes against humanity.” Repeat it until you know it by heart, until the images will never leave you: Bosnian Serbs bombard villages and cities throughout Bosnia, they massacre civilians at Srebrenica – thousands are dead – Muslim women and children, too, bloodied, and deposited in mass graves. The imagery, rising out of the papers and into Western minds, is powerful: journalists say Europe hasn’t seen such barbarism since World War II, when Nazis ran concentration camps and organized mass killings of Jews.
In Kosovo, a tiny Serb minority governs 2 million ethnic Albanians ruthlessly and inhumanely. Western governments say that under the leadership of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Kosovo has become an apartheid province, where public institutions are “Serb-only” and Albanians are routinely beaten into submission. A slew of commentators are on TV, as well, remarking upon “Serb nationalism,” the root of these atrocities, the Milosevic regime, and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
In our house, in this time, simplicity seeks asylum in complexity, patriotism in caveat: the situation is complicated. As far as I am concerned, Milosevic can’t be that bad. I mean, come on, he’s a Serb. And when “Slobo” Milosevic speaks, his pronouncements don’t sound so vindictive, so unreasonable, so cruel. Not screaming or scowling, he preaches Serbian pride, hardly a new thing for him.
On 28 June 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje (the famous battle in which the Turks defeated the Serbs), Milosevic stood on the Kosovo Polje battlefield and cheerfully declared before thousands of witnesses and television cameras that “through the play of history and life, it seems as if Serbia has, precisely in this year, in 1989, regained its state and its dignity and thus has celebrated an event of the distant past which has a great historical and symbolic significance for its future.”
No one could have foreseen Tuesday morning, 3 July 2001, in The Hague, Netherlands: Accused of crimes against humanity in Kosovo, violations of the Geneva Conventions in Croatia and Bosnia, and genocide, namely at Srebrenica, Milosevic sits in a court that will never, to his mind, accord due process. He swears, “This trial’s aim is to produce false justification for the war crimes of NATO committed in Yugoslavia.”
Kosovo’s Grand Hotel Pristina isn’t grand, but it’s the grandest hotel in Pristina and tonight I’ve taken a room here, Room 413. It’s later, now, and I am lying in bed staring at a postcard – a cheap souvenir I picked up in Mitrovica, Kosovo’s largest Serb enclave.
The card is inspired by Asterix and Obelix, the cartoon duo from a fictional village celebrated as the only part of ancient Gaul that repulsed Roman occupation, staved off Julius Caesar and his legions. The fable my postcard tells is of more recent vintage. It shows Asterix and Obelix superimposed on a map of Europe; a gold dagger, decorated with an eagle, the American flag, and the word NATO, stabs and cracks Serbia open like a machete-riven coconut. The text avows, in English:
“The year is 1999 A.C. Europe is entirely occupied by the Americans. Well, not entirely … One small country of indomitable Serbs still holds out against the invaders …
“At the end of the 20th century the American troops were controlling most of the Europe, and they finaly got close to Rusia, the last step on their road to imposing New Antichrist Terrorist Organisation.
“Although the people of Old Continent were against this godless deed, most of European statesmen became greedy for the American Dollar, thus ready to sell out their culture and morals that had been built for many centuries.
“This is a story about Yugoslavia, and the Serbs, a small but proud warrior people, willing to defend the honour of Europe. Although previously known as discordant and hot-tempered, their longing for freedom united them against much more powerful enemy. Their most fierce weapon were truth and concord …”
In bed, in the Grand Hotel, I want to do a little editing to bring the narrative up to date. The year is 2007. In this one small country of indomitable Serbs more than 25 percent of the working population is unemployed. In Kosovo, the jobless rate tops 40 percent.
At the end of the 20th century Serbia has the largest population of internally displaced people in Europe. Many live in camps, they’re not integrated with the rest of the population, they have no citizenship, and their children aren’t educated.
Although the people of Old Continent were against this, the government is dysfunctional, impaired by corruption. I think of Zoran Djindjic, the liberal politician who played a prominent role in sending Milosevic to The Hague. In 2001, he became Serbia’s prime minister, and in 2003, he was shot in the chest (by another Serb) while in the stairway of Belgrade’s main government building.
This is a story about Yugoslavia, and the Serbs, a people who’ve lived under economic sanctions and travel restrictions for most of the past two decades. Their most fierce weapon was ….
If only Serbs had a better reputation, Marko is saying, one night in Belgrade. If only they hadn’t been the “bad guys” in the war or suffered sanctions – “then I’d study abroad in the Czech Republic,” he insists. How stupid he was, he says, to have chosen the Czech language as his major at the University of Belgrade. How do you master the Czech language when you can’t afford to leave Serbia?
“I don’t know,” I say, “I guess you have to be resourceful. Not that you aren’t.”
THE AURA OF IDEAS
A dream I have begins with an incident that really happened: The bishop and head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo is with me on JAT Airways Flight 211 from London to Belgrade.
Father Artemije, in his starched, immaculately clean white robes, is seven or eight rows ahead. His white hair is partially covered beneath a white head wrap, and he’s hunched over, small and frail, his bones shrunken with old age. At his side is an exceptionally tall, lean monk named Simeon, whose robes and head wrap are jet black. Simeon is in his forties, maybe, with a blackish gray beard seven or eight inches long.
I should introduce myself, I think. I could visit them in Pec. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I can say hello and that a few weeks from now I’m going to be in their part of Serbia.
So I’m prepared. When our plane reaches the gate in Belgrade, Simeon is the first in his row to stand up. Father Artemije is weak, or so his sagging posture suggests, so Simeon is one step behind him, almost holding him up as they go down the aisle and on out of the plane. I know this is daft, but through the terminal – through customs, and down escalators to the baggage carousels – I’m two meters away from them planning what I’ll say.
“How was your trip?” No, no, that won’t work. I don’t even know where they were.
“So how was your flight?” No, that’s stupider still.
“Hello, Father Artemije …” Throat parched, I start, though I will never actually make it to his monastery in Pec. This is where memory morphs into dream: I’ve returned to America and told Baba and Tetka Seka that I met Father Artemije and his faithful companion Simeon.
Oh how wonderful they think that is! Tetka Seka cooks a huge Serbian dinner at her house to celebrate. Baba prepares cabbage rolls, my favorite. Father is there with wine and champagne. And Tetka Seka is talking about how great it would be if I could soon return to Serbia and find “a nice Serbian husband.” She has been saying this for years. “How about a nice Serbian husband, Adrienne?” And now she says that if I’m resourceful enough to meet Father Artemije in the baggage claim, then certainly I can find a nice Serbian man to marry. There are plenty of good men in the Old Country.
At the idea of this, Baba is laughing. Father is laughing. I’m laughing, kind of. We’re sitting at the kitchen table devouring cabbage rolls with sausage and bread, but Tetka Seka is standing, in her apron still, arms up in astonishment. “What?” she demands, a bit edgy. “Why are you all laughing?
Father answers for all of us, like he does: “Tetka Seka, sit down, relax, eat.”
With the taste of cabbage and champagne mixing in my mouth, I try to remember what Kosovo looks like in the remote space of my childhood dreams. I see rolling green hills dotted with stone monasteries of the gothic, Serbo-Byzantine variety. Erected in the Middle Ages, they’ve magnificent domes, lots of gold paint, and walls inside overlaid by paintings.
In the same dream is Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, where the Turks defeated the Serbs in 1389, where the Serbs defeated the Turks in 1912, and where, in 1989, Milosevic called for Serbian unity, an ingredient he believed had been lacking in 1389 and was to blame for more than 500 years of Turkish domination.
RHETORIC AND REALITY
Through the expanse of snow, along a two-lane asphalt road, I travel past crumbling houses, burned during the war, and still-standing, tile-roofed cottages. This is the road from Pristina to the Serb enclave Plementina, barren and neglected.
Beyond the gray and white hills surrounding Plementina, charred trees with dried, bare branches protrude like stalks left in the ground after a crop is cut. The sun is full and bright, unlike any other morning I’ve spent in Kosovo. In the distance, an antiquated coal-burning power plant – one of the largest in Kosovo, a 70-meter-high cylindrical tower emitting around 2.5 tons of dust per hour – belches red and yellow smoke. The further we drive, and the closer we come to the center of Plementina, the more the houses appear crowded together, the more the road is buried in mud, and the more the Serb and Gypsy children can be seen, walking through the streets to God knows where.
I stay in this rusty blue van with the women, a half dozen of them Serb, a half dozen Albanian, from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). They’re all chatting in Serbian, the language everyone knows and has spoken, off and on, since childhood. Plementina’s only market looms in front of us. And, too, a brick house with cast-iron bars over its front windows stands nearby, two doors down from a schoolhouse. Through the barred windows, I see two middle-aged women sitting together and talking. On the wall behind them hangs a mammoth Serbian flag, as strident, as awkward as the American flags I saw newly unfurled in California living rooms after 9/11.
A blue and gold sign on the roadside, in English, identifies a reconstruction project paid for by the European Union. That’s something, I’ll tell people back in Belgrade, better than no signs of reconstruction at all. Though the Serbs and Roma live here in isolation – impoverished, and beneath the copper-colored clouds blown over by wind from the power plant – the international community is at least suggesting that improvements are imminent. What else can I say?
We head to a two-room schoolhouse. Once inside, we’re overwhelmed by the smells of cabbage, sausage, and burning wood from the stove. Here is Serbian Kosovo, I think, and slouch down in a metal chair. A space heater flickers in one corner, and three narrow windows throw bands of light into the room. Twelve or so Serb women – women who live here in Plementina – listen as the UNIFEM ladies, who are dressed in suit jackets and finely pressed slacks and skirts, explain that they and other NGOs regularly visit Serbian enclaves, like this one, to discuss Kosovo’s future.
International officials like to gather Serb women, not men, because too many men have explosive tempers, fractious in their longing for a Kosovo governed by Serbia. I suppose that all the Serbian wives can go home and tell their husbands what we talk about. “Kosovo will be a place for all ethnicities.” That’s the message UNIFEM women spill out. It’s oozing with noble interests, and genuine; these women believe what they say. “This will not be a state of Albanians or a state of Serbs or a state of any other single ethnic community.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt wooed America in the 1930s with a “New Deal.” Comrade Stalin gazed proudly at Mother Russia while his followers cried, “Glory to the great Stalin, the architect of Communism.” The Communist Party of China emerged in the 1960s proclaiming: "Smash the old world, establish a new world." Bill Clinton promised in his 1996 presidential campaign that he was “building a bridge to the 21st century.” This is the rhetoric of forward-thinking. It rejects stasis and despair.
In Serbia, though, hopes for the future are usually eclipsed by a focus on the past – by the Serbs’ exaggerated ideas about what Serbia used to be, or disappointment over old, broken political promises, so stasis and despair are not rejected at all.
Two Serb women – close to my age, in their mid-twenties, or slightly older – sit frozen in place, their eyes and lips still, as if anesthetized. Sometimes they lean forward, holding the side of their face in one hand, and then you just know that they’ve heard all this – “Kosovo will be a place for all ethnicities” – many times before, so many times that this moment has taken on that painful kind of tension between their desire for it all to be true and their certainty that it’s all just talk.
The UN’s representative in Kosovo recommends granting de facto nationhood to the Kosovar Albanians; built into the proposal will be protections for the Serbs living in enclaves. For many Albanians, though, this won’t be enough, and they’ll take to the streets rallying for a fully independent Kosovo governed by and for Albanians.
Serbian politicians, by contrast, have denounced the UN proposal and reaffirm Serbian claims to Kosovo’s territory. The ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party – the most steadfast defender of a “Serbian Kosovo” – is the largest party in the Serbian parliament, even though its leading luminary, Vojislav Seselj, remains locked up at The Hague on charges of war crimes committed under Milosevic. Like all Serb nationalists, Seselj points to Kosovo Polje as the origin and symbol of Serbia’s national identity, and in so doing, I find him no different than Milosevic, who proclaimed in his 1989 speech at Kosovo Polje:
“Six centuries ago, Serbia heroically defended itself in the field of Kosovo, but it also defended Europe. Serbia was at that time the bastion that defended European culture, religion, and European society in general. … In this spirit we now endeavor to build a society, rich and democratic, and thus contribute to the prosperity of this beautiful country, but also to contribute to the efforts of all the progressive people of our age that they make for a better and happier world. Let the memory of Kosovo heroism live forever!”
The smell of pan-fried sausage and its residual oil carries over from the schoolhouse kitchen. Most of the Serb women smoke cigarettes in the hallway, and talk. The UNIFEM ladies, too, are smoking and talking, their conversations with the Serb women all about the need for basic things: jobs, the ability to leave the enclave safely, and so forth.
One woman’s face, like a melting candle, carries that excruciating look of exhausted grief. She must be over 70, which is to say wrinkled and too old for this. A black headscarf, tied beneath her round chin, covers her gray hair, a black blazer hangs over her wide shoulders, and then there are her black pants and shoes, well-worn but clean. She moves into the kitchen, and in this moment, I suspect that the United Nations and NGOs can talk about multiethnic societies and draft all kinds of proposals, but in the end hopeful declarations about integration and cooperation may be brutally unsatisfying because most Serbs (and certainly most Kosovar Albanians) don’t believe that peaceful coexistence is possible.
The old woman comes out of the kitchen, her arms weighted down by bowls of cabbage salad, sausage, and fresh white bread. She lays it all out, dish by dish, on vinyl-clothed tables and invites us to eat.
Back in Belgrade. We are cramped against the windows in the middle section. We breathe in this humid, fungal smell that builds up in the bus when it rains. The Belgrade air is dank with fog and smog. Marko has one hand on a rail, to keep balance, and the other hand in the pocket of his Adidas warm-up jacket. His Cleveland Indians baseball cap throws a shadow on his forehead, and taken with the Nike shoes he’s wearing – shoes I brought him from the United States – he looks more American than I do.
“Japan gave us this bus after the NATO bombings,” he says, wagging his head. That’s his way of saying look around. “What do you think?”
“It’s nice,” I say.
The bus looks too modern and white to be one of Belgrade’s own. And that it looks foreign grows more apparent as we move deep into Banovo Brdo, a Belgrade neighborhood where hulking, concrete apartment buildings set the mood.
The sun is low and unseen behind the dim cloud cover. The air matches the ashy façades on the gray towers. And this is where we get off the bus. There’s an empty lot, an abandoned Roma camp, and then Marko’s building. We walk past the shattered beer bottles, translucent brown glass, and scraps of cardboard that the Gypsies supposedly left behind. How did things get this way? A light rain is starting. Paper garbage grows soggy and sticks fast to the ground. Then I see it: a message bubbling out of the junk heap. On a concrete slab, “We Won’t Give Up Kosovo” is spray-painted in red.
“There’s a view from me and my brother’s room,” Marko says. “You can see this lake that we go to in the summers.”
Oh good, a lake, I think. It will be nice to see something like that.
But what we see – once we rise up the elevator, push through the front door of his family’s flat, and stand before the window in his ninth-floor bedroom – is fog and smog so thick that it eclipses the lake. Even the view to the ground is obscured by the haze, so my eyes fix on the balconies of neighboring flats, to satellite dishes and clotheslines overlaid by sheets and towels. The still air, when it drifts through the window, smells like cabbage and gasoline.
I ask Marko what he thinks of all the graffiti in this neighborhood. “We Won’t Give Up Kosovo,” I remind him. “Do you agree with that?”
This isn’t a question to think over, and he doesn’t. He says, “Have you ever noticed how Serbs have been the victims throughout history?”
“I don’t know,” my voice creaks, “Of whom are Serbs the victims?”
Because when I think of Serbian “victimhood,” the story that most comes to mind involves Slobodan Milosevic’s predecessor, Ivan Stambolic, who became the president of Serbia in 1986. Perhaps more than anyone else, Stambolic helped Milosevic become a political superstar. He threw his support behind Milosevic’s campaign to be the new leader of Serbia’s Communist Party.
When violence erupted between Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians in the spring of 1987, Stambolic sent Milosevic to Kosovo to negotiate with Albanian politicians. But Milosevic used the trip to Kosovo, instead, to make an impromptu, vehement speech, before a full auditorium and a television crew, about the sacred rights of Serbs in the province.
Soon after that, he blasted Stambolic in the Serbian parliament for ignoring Kosovo’s Serb population, a move that gained him so much popularity that in 1989 he replaced Stambolic as the president of Serbia. To speak of betrayal, this would be enough, but the story goes on. In 2000, as Stambolic was making a political comeback, his body was found in a ditch. Eight Serbian secret police officers were later convicted of murdering him.
“Well, I’m just saying,” Marko says matter-of-factly, in answer to this question of national victimhood, “I can’t even travel to Hungary without a visa. I’m not a criminal.”
He nods his head back, waiting for me to saying something.
Reluctantly, I open up: “You’re right.” Rarely does anyone talk about the war’s impact on young Serbian men, their lack of economic prospects, first and foremost, and besides that, their inability to move. It’s easy to denounce “nationalism” in The Hague, or at a meeting of the United Nations, but no doubt it’s more difficult if you’re desperate, when you’ve no general idea how to make a life for yourself and your family, how to move forward in a dysfunctional state you’ve no chance of leaving.
THE END OF THE BATTLEFIELD
I remember my last morning in Pristina: I depart the Grand Hotel by taxi and tell the driver, “Take me to Kosovo Polje.” I want to see the storied Field of the Blackbirds where the Serb armies fell to the Turks and in so doing established, as far back as the 14th century, the mother church and shrine of Serbian pride in Serb defeat. The road to Kosovo Polje, Rebecca West wrote in admiration, “took us towards grey hills patterned with shadows blue as English bluebells by a valley that had the worn look, the ageing air that comes on the southern landscape as soon as the fruit blossom has passed.”
From the cab, I see the same gray hills as West did, but they’re snow-covered and patterned with burned-out brick houses. The blackened brick structures are now where snow stacks up and blackbirds nest. It almost sounds sentimental – the rolling hills, the snow, the blackbirds. Until your eyes fix on the monuments: shrines to dead Kosovo Liberation Army heroes adorned with photographs and wreathes, not far from old Serbian Orthodox monasteries and gravesites enclosed by barbed wire.
“Where do I take you in Fushe Kosove?” The cab driver’s gristly voice grates my ears. He calls the place by its Albanian name and then I feel so stupid for having not said “Take me to Fushe Kosove” when I got in the car that I can’t bring myself to admit what it is I wish to see: the Serbian monument, three stories high, yellow stone bricks, erected to commemorate the 1389 battle.
“I really don’t know where I want to go,” I say. “Maybe you can drop me at a restaurant?”
Kosovo Polje is just a suburb of Pristina. The snow, melted almost entirely, has left the dirt roadside and the road itself soaked in puddles of brown muddy water. As in downtown Pristina, concrete apartment buildings (many of the same old drab colors, peach and green) stand along the street. The cafes, groceries, shops – every sign and advertisement, down to the last trifling detail – bear Albanian words in Latin script. Somewhere around here, presumably, the monument’s in some wide-open field, but I’ve no idea where the buildings end and this meadow is supposed to begin.
“Who are you? Where do you visit from?” It’s the driver. His cab reeks – a sickening sweet clove smell as though incense from India were burning. Plastic beads dangle from the rear-view mirror, as a rosary might, but they’ve no religious significance that I can discern.
“I’m a graduate student from the States.”
Judging by his silence, the answer is satisfactory. A moment slips, and then his words come out again, wooden and terse: “This is Fushe Kosove.”
We’ve merely arrived at the end of this sad street overrun by concrete tenements, decaying buildings, and garbage heaps. I don’t know what to tell the driver, nor can I parse the words, or summon the resolve, to ask where the monument is. He prods me with questions to draw out what exactly it is I had hoped to see here, but I simply say that I’ve made a big mistake. “Take me back to the Grand Hotel,” I submit.
Because Serbian identity can no longer be bound to this territory – and perhaps the greatest tragedy is that it ever was. A lot of people are suffering while clinging to the idea of a “Serbian Kosovo,” and the reality is that a Kosovar Albanian nation is forming with all the international support it needs. As for me, I’ve come to see a battlefield that I won’t actually find; like a naïve tourist, I’ve looked for some Serbian history at Kosovo Polje, but I’ve simply found a Kosovar-Albanian community and UN vehicles on the streets.
So we turn around and head back. The driver shrugs. That’s that. The clouds are all nasty, ash-colored, runny. But I’ve never seen so many blackbirds. Thousands of them circle overhead, their pitch-dark figures striking across the stagnant sky so vigorously and overwhelmingly that they change the mood of everything, even on the ground. Beneath their gyrations, the hills look grayer, and the city, without fresh snow, without a warm breeze or ray of unblocked sunlight, appears less promising, more vulnerable still.
“They nest in the garbage,” the driver tells me, observing my fascination with the reeling birds.
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