Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kosovo trip dispels common stereotypes

PRISTINA, Kosovo — When well-wishing family and friends learned my husband and I planned to stay in Kosovo for a week during our recent European travels, they expressed understandable concern: “Where in the world is Kosovo?” and “Isn’t it dangerous there?”

But not until we spent a week living in Pristina, the vibrant capital of this developing country, could I say with confidence that Kosovo is a safe, beautiful, and exciting place to visit.

My son, Michael Sweikar (1999 Schlarman High School graduate) had already done work in this Balkan country on three different occasions, and he was completing another 2-month assignment there when we decided to visit him. Michael works for the international division of the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), a non-profit organization based in Arlington, Va., specializing in international legal development.

Based on my son’s sound judgment and experience, I had reason to believe that visiting this newest nation in the world would be a worthwhile and fulfilling experience.

Kosovars love Americans, and they are abundantly thankful for U.S. assistance during and after their war for independence from Serbian rule in 1999. These are people who proudly fly the American flag, display a statue of President Bill Clinton on a major thoroughfare and celebrate the U.S. Fourth of July.

In recent years most visitors to Kosovo have been people who went there as part of the U.S. government’s mission, including diplomats, soldiers or development consultants. In the past, few Americans thought of Kosovo as a tourist destination, but that is changing.

Squeezed into a relatively small area, Kosovo offers a pleasing mixture of modern culture and tradition, as well as beautiful landscapes to admire — breathtaking mountain peaks, densely forested hills, spectacular waterfalls and abundant roses and wildflowers.

Visitors will discover fascinating cultural treasures — Ottoman-era buildings, stone houses, churches, mosques, medieval fresco paintings and many statues of political leaders and war heroes. There also is a statue of Mother Teresa and a boulevard in the capital city that is named after this saintly Albanian woman, who is revered worldwide.

It’s true that Pristina lacks some of the amenities that most of us have come to expect. For example, the water supply is shut off in parts of the city at 11 p.m. and returns with a loud “swish” at 6 a.m. the next morning. There are unannounced power interruptions, and passing several vehicles at a time on winding mountain roads is the norm.

The food in the restaurants we visited was well-prepared, though, and was served elegantly by the wait staff. We found fruit and vegetable stands everywhere, and small meat shops displayed whole lambs and legs of beef and pork in their windows. Crusty breads, delicious pastries, and morning coffee (macchiato) were served in cafes and restaurants. When compared to American prices, the cost of food, clothing, and personal items in Kosovo is relatively low, even though dollars were worth less than euros at the time.

The average age in Pristina is only 25. The young women dress in clinging jeans or short skirts, and 4-inch shoes or boots. For the most part, they tend to dress more formally than Americans do, and they all wear dark suits for official business meetings. Stylishly dressed male and female mannequins are lined up like soldiers outside the tiny clothing stores, even during a heavy rain.

Story of Kosovo

The Republic of Kosovo is a landlocked, mostly mountainous country about the size of Connecticut, with a little more than 2 million people. The region was ruled by many different ethnic groups throughout history, including the Slavs, Bulgarians, Serbs and Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Empire ruled Kosovo for centuries, until Serbia resumed control over the region in 1913. In 1918, Kosovo became part of the Yugoslav Federation.

In 1998, the Yugoslav army and Serbian police began fighting against the Kosovo Liberation Army, but their brutal tactics were concentrated on the ethnic Albanian civilians who made up more than 90 per cent of the country. Kosovo’s Albanian leaders attempted to break away from Serbia using non-violent methods, but Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic cracked down brutally to stifle their efforts for independence.

After the NATO intervention to stop the inhumane treatment of the Kosovo Albanians, Serbia finally agreed to a peace accord. More than 900 Kosovars were killed in the 11 weeks of fighting, and nearly a million people were forced to flee their homes without adequate food and shelter.

Although other sections of Yugoslavia prospered, the wars of the 20th Century left the province of Kosovo poor and underdeveloped. Nevertheless, on Feb. 17, 2008, the Republic of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia.

All this rich history makes Kosovo a unique and diverse country to visit. There are building and road signs lettered in three languages: Albanian, Serbian and Turkish. Muslim mosques and Orthodox monasteries co-exist, and elderly Albanian men wear the distinguishing white, fitted cap called a plise. Turkish women wearing their traditional costumes mingle with the young Albanians who are stylishly dressed in American fashions.

In Kosovo you can hear a wide range of recorded music in the trendy shops and cafes — from traditional pipe songs, to Albanian rap, to Michael Jackson and American musical hits of the 1980s.

Most people associate Kosovo only with the highly publicized war between the Albanians and the Serbs more than a decade ago, but one local Kosovar told me that “Conditions here are a thousand times better than they were 10 years ago, during the war. I was still a student back then, when my family fled the country and stayed with friends in Albania. I’m proud to return to Kosovo and work for an organization that is helping our beautiful country to rebuild.”

U.S. helps

Thanks to the United States and European nation agencies and volunteers, millions of dollars and invaluable human resources have been poured into helping Kosovo get back on its feet.

The National Center for State Courts is a non-profit organization that continues to do good work in Kosovo. Under a USAID-funded project (www.drejtesia-ks.org/?cid2,1) NCSC is helping to establish a modern, functional judicial system that can better serve the citizens of Kosovo. During our time there, we were privileged to attend the inauguration of the recently renovated court in Prizren (about two hours from Pristina).

On that same day, we especially enjoyed participating in the Children’s Day events at a grade school in Prizren. NCSC has provided the second graders in schools throughout Kosovo with “Let’s Learn About Law” coloring books, along with boxes of crayons that were donated by people back in the United States. The students waved both American and Albanian flags, and some were dressed in their traditional costumes.

There are opportunities to assist the effort in Kosovo through the National Center for State Courts. Donations to buy Crayola crayons can be sent to benefit the school children in Kosovo (http://www.ncscinternational.org/Projects/Kosovo_coloring_book_series.asp).

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