It was 2007 when I paid a visit to the land of the Blackbird, way before President Hashim Thaci declared independence. I was about to fly to a land which didn’t quite know where it stood – not exactly a usual holiday destination. As the plane took off weighed down by souvenirs and presents for loved ones back home, I buried my head in my hands and held my breath. Take – offs are when planes and passengers were at their most vulnerable and as a lone traveler I tried to gather every shred of courage within. A woman in her forties next to me noticed my obvious distress and her arm sought to link with mine. This stranger comforted me for the entire duration of the flight. As we swooped into land she pointed out the terracotta topped villages splattered on lush fields below. Faced with a chaotic arrivals lounge, it seemed as if a welcoming party of at least ten people to every one passenger had turned out in force. Impatient mothers clucked about, feathers ruffled by their excitable children. Elderly men with traditional hats on, battered and worn, milled about with their hands patiently clasped behind their backs. I had to wade through counterfeit cigarette wielding boys before I reached my friend Fjolla, who waited beyond the disarray. It was a almost dusk by now.
‘Welcome to Kosovo, honey!’
‘I can’t believe I’m actually here?!’ I fell into Fjolla’s arms with a mix of excitement and vulnerability.
Fjolla’s family lived in a village half an hours drive from Pristina airport with hardly any running water and electricity you couldn’t depend on. A welcoming party of my own appeared when we arrived at the house. Fjolla eagerly lead me through the property’s heavy iron gate by hand. Her father Muhamet, the eldest male of the generation was the head of the house as was customary to culture, and lovingly doted on by Fjolla’s mother, Shyrete. Her grandfather, recently widowed, uncle Agron, aunt Besa and sisters Alba and Aida also lived in the same house all of whom were unmarried. A tour of the property immediately ensued and I ws shown a near-finished house at the foot of their garden which saw Agron work any spare moment he had. Next to this was another house where Grandfather’s brother and his family lived. They had all turned out to welcome me with plenty of handshakes, smiles and ‘Mashallah’s. Luckily Fjolla’s father and sisters spoke Italian and English so I was able to communicate. Naturally shy at times, the turnout was slightly overwhelming but I was instantly put at ease. I had attempted to learn some Albanian Kosovan in the weeks leading up to my visit, yet perhaps didn’t manage to learn as much as I should have. We sat around a table in the garden, under a canopy of vines. In the summer months this was the family’s living room where they ate, conversed, argued and laughed. With greetings over, the women and men dispersed to separate rooms. As the women asked question upon question to their guest, my shyness ceased. Alba and Aida wore headscarves, yet Fjolla had opted out and prefered to wear flesh revealing clothes to combat the summer heat. Fjolla and her family were Muslim, some of them strict and others liberal, a reflection of the Albanian Kosovans themselves. As the gaggle of women laughed and did their utmost to accommodate me, I was comforted by their incredible hospitality.
Kosovo is a strange and beautiful land. We visited Pristina a few times in my first week, then various sites such as the grave of Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo’s late and very much cherished president and Germia national park where we treated Fjolla’s parents to a hearty meal of meat and wine al fresco style. Everyone I was introduced to welcomed me to Kosovo with plenty of smiles and curiosities.
There were still remnants of the war everywhere, even in the family’s land; the foundations of their first home lay at the bottom of their garden. Their house had been burnt to the ground during the bout of ethnic cleansing which devastated the Balkans.
During many of the girly heart to hearts, Alba recounted the time the family were ordered to leave the village while Fjolla and Aida gazed over, reliving the moments themselves. Alba described how Milosevic’s soldiers demanded all residents leave. The family knew it was a matter of time as news from neighbouring villages circulated. Any resistance had been met with force. Aida remembered the Commander’s bird like face, with eyes so cold and inhuman. There was no time to gather belongings, away they went looking back longingly as the skies above their village streaked with plumes of smoke. Their homes were burnt to ashes. I too was transported back to that time, counting my blessings that I’d had it so easy. My thoughts were interrupted by an irregular popping noise. Gunshots!! I leapt off the sofa and peered through the lace curtains.
‘Dasma’ Alba giggled; the gunshots were from wedding celebrations on the other side of the village.
The countryside was dabbed with memorials and plaques dedicated to fallen fighters or civilians. Poppies grew in flecks of blood red around them, adding vibrancy to the watery fields. Mountains of hay appeared to move on four legs on the roads. Weathered faced farmers sat on top of their stacks, proud of their harvest. The train tracks which sliced across the roads were mostly overgrown with shrubbery and disappeared into the earth. Only once did I see a train in motion, carry large lumps of coal from a vast mine somewhere near Obiliq. Even then, locals stopped and gawped as if this was a rare occurrence. Many buildings had pocked walls and bullet chewed bricks.
‘We Will Miss Them’ read a banner clinging to Parliament building railings in down town Pristina. Countless pictures of missing fathers, uncles and sons reminded passersby of the absence inflicted on so many lives.
We visited nature spots, national parks and other towns with Agron and Fjolla’s cousins. Agron took us to visit Skenderaj and the house of local hero Adem Jashari where he and his family stood their ground in the face of expulsion. Needless to say they perished in the siege. Their house remains exactly as it stood, pocked and scarred by bullets and mortar shells. Blinking back tears, we walked around the building peering through gaping holes at abandoned everyday objects. A doorless kitchen unit exposed bare cupboards, in the corner a plastic chair stood statuesque. An outdoor bread oven seemed to be the only part of the house to escape unscathed, probably because it was too small to hide people inside. Already overwhelmed since my arrival in Kosovo, it was this scene of devastation which finally broken me. The lump lodged in my throat throbbed and rendered me speechless and I blinked back a barrage of tears. By the chocked look on Fjolla’s face, I guess she shared the feeling. Hard to believe in the idyllic rural setting there had been such scenes of devastation and not so long ago either; the war had happened just a handful of years before.
Despite the recent past, Kosovo was on the cusp of something brilliant. There was new construction everywhere, money pouring in from migrant workers in the West, and with the presence of the UN, the Italian Carabinieri, Nato and other security forces I felt more than safe. I was impressed by the youth’s willingness to move on with positivity and the love they had for their land. Antiquities mixed with modern eccentricity, Kosovo was above all fascinating.
Fjolla’s friends believed in a positive change for Kosovo and for ALL Kosovo’s people. In her social group, there was a security guard, some students, a political journalist who testified at Milosevic’s trial in the Hague and a handful of Pro Kosovo activists who worked for the nation’s most prestigious television channel. Among the group, if we put it into more demographical terms there were Albanian Kosovans, mostly of Muslim background, two Christians Serbs and an Albanian Christian. They didn’t care about each other’s ethnicities, they simply shared a common love of their homeland.
We ventured into Pristina’s centre on nights out and drank Peja beer. The tree-lined streets buzzed with youth day and night. I have never seen so many beautiful people: The girls were tall and statuesque, their skin tanned and polished. I had packed a suitcase load of conservative clothing taking into consideration Kosovo was an Islamic territory. How wrong I had been! Kosovo was modern. I never once felt unsafe, apart from the time I was followed by a gaggle of gypsy kids fascinated with my light eyes and dark skin. Perhaps they thought I was one of them! Fjolla simply shooed them away. We stopped in simple eaterys for qebapa and pite, (meat paties and cheese or vegetable pie) whose delicious wafts invited us in time and time again.
We escaped the land locked heat by bathing in Batllave, a man-made reservoir not far from Peja where embarrassingly after just ten minutes in the sun my skin turned bright red.
‘You English you’re all the same!’ I heard jokingly from some middle aged diplomat type with a flabby gut not far from us. I cringed slightly while trying to cover up, and ended up bucking on the uneven rocks. On the banks of Batllave you can eat freshly caught trout under the welcome shade of pine trees. You can hire a pedalo, or drive a short distance to the village of Orllan to buy Flija, one of Kosovo’s national dishes for an impromptu picnic.
On one outing to Peja, Fjolla had invited some friends to join us and eventually we had formed a caravan four cars long. One of the party stopped to buy a large flag, and off we went again with the leader of the caravan waving the red & black eagle flag out of the window. Folk singer Afrim Muqiqi blared out of the stereo, inviting patriotic pedestrians to clap and sing along. ‘Rep-ubl-ika e Kos-ov-es, Rep-ubl-ika e Kos-ov-es’ one chanted while punching the air with his fist. I never quite knew what to call this place! Kosovo, Kosova, Kosoves? Each name had a different connotation supporting either Albanian or Serbia, and I didn’t want to say anything taboo in the light of such a sensitive subject so I settled for Kosov. Fjolla leant over and changed the tune:
‘Tallava? Even worse!’ Aida huffed. Turbo charged folk music wasn’t exactly to everyone’s taste (but secretly was to mine!)
Near Peja were the beautiful waterfalls of Drini Bardh. You can have your photo taken by the site’s official photographer (a shabbily suited yet charming elderly man), then risk your life walking along side the waterfall on a collapsing path with a sheer drop into the seemingly infinite water. We did both.
We took the back road to the village passing abandoned train carriages inhabited by families of gypsies. Lines of washing concealed their modesty and piles of scrap meta scattered closeby were ready to be sold. The road turned into a dirt track hidden by tall sheaths of bowing corn, begging to be harvested. This desolate strip of Balkan territory was like a scene from one of Emir Kusturica’s film. The engine cut out and the car rolled to a halt. As the dust settled we sat helplessly stranded in a no-man’s-land. Jackdaws swooped by, cawing and stabbing at each other. Tiny piles of litter smoldered in clearings, an attempt perhaps to get rid of household rubbish. This was Kosovo at it’s more raw.
Without a car Fjolla and I were village bound and the last of my time in Kosovo was spent at home with the family. The only indication of hours passing was by the Muezzin’s call to prayer which drifted through the garden from the village Mosque. Most mornings Coffee, sizzling beef sausage, fried eggs and buttery peppers perfumed the air and awoke me from my heat induced slumber before I could even open my eyes. Empty water drums clanged excitedly waiting in turn to be filled by a temperamental tap. Strays barked from dusty dirt roads in the near distance and the family Cockerell ended his doolde-doo on a bizarre flat note as if the heat had exhausted him too. Eating in the open air under the shade of vines, we picked from a spread which took up the entire length of the table. Red and white checks poked out from small gaps between sun dappled plates. The elderly bumbled to and from the table as they pleased and kids unable to sit for long were soon distracted by the rural landscape’s hidey holes. The garden was abundant with grapes, plums, quince, peppers both sweet and hot, tomatoes and other produce, some of which I’d never seen before. Fjolla planted apricot stones which Aida plucked the ripest fruits. I watched and learnt how to make Pite and Mantija. Fjolla’s mother milked the family cow and made Gjize (like cottage cheese) which we ate with peppers.
At the peak of summer there was no water coming from the taps. None. We bathed in plastic basins in the shower using each drop of water sparingly. I wasn’t precious about it; if there was no water, there was simply no water. We prepared meals under shady vines, the silent cut by caws of Jackdaws gathering on the terracotta roof tiles. They’d observe with mocking ‘kyow’s while I cut tomatoes precariously slicing chunks into a bowl with a blunt knife. The heat was unbearable by midday: I wiped sweat from my brow with my forearm and rested my eyelids for minutes at a time. I became accustomed to the family’s etiquette, which wasn’t much different what I’d grow up with. I made sure I wasn’t seen as lazy or rude and helped out despite protests from Fjolla’s mother and aunt. I perched on sofa edges and jumped up to clear away when a mess was made. There was a constant flurry of neighbours popping round for tea, eager to learn what this English girl was doing in Kosovo. Visits were obligatory, on one occasion the family were invited to visit a cousin who lived with her husband, and her husband’s family. The house stood small but proud at the foot of a hill, picture perfect with a picket fence surrounding a bountiful garden. Chickens scratched at the dirt and clucked with contentedness.
In the last days, something shattered the illusion of safety and calm I’d become used to. Washing was gathered from the garden and small snips were found on some of the clothing. Talk soon turned to superstition. Someone wanted bad against the family, they had put syri i keq - the Evil Eye on us apparently. Mishaps, misfortunes and illnesses were blamed on the Evil Eye – this was a discussion I’d had with Fjolla in the past. Perhaps stirrings of negativity had been initiated by my arrival. Such things could only be inflicted by someone consumed with jealousy or hate. Talismans promptly appeared in every nook and cranny of the home and garden. Fjolla’s mother places little folded notes containing verses from the Qur’an in pockets as the family braced themselves for something bad to happen. Superstition was very much alive in Kosovo.
The last of my evenings under a vine canopy were tinged with fear. Stories of partisans and freedom fighters were exchanged amongst the older family members, their majestic faces illuminated by the light of lanterns. Electricity had ceased all together (also blamed on the Evil Eye!). My ears pricked with every unfamiliar sound, and I shuddered remembering that there could be an intruder watching from the periphery of the pitch black garden surrounding us.
As always, limited by time and transport my time in Kosovo was cut short, I hadn’t travelled as much as I had wished but I lived a genuine Kosovan experience only if for a few weeks. Kosovo was a secret land in the heart of Europe strong ties to tradition and a thirst for life. Undeterred by the country’s turbulent past and by general misconceptions of the Balkans, I discovered a land where people’s hospitality was second to none. I can only imagine how much it has changed since the declaration of independence in 2008.