A Field of Blackbirds: Dark Tourism in Kosovo’s Former Conflict Zones

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It was war that attracted me to Kosovo. I don’t like writing that, but it’s the truth. These days I could list a hundred other reasons for going back: the people, the energy, the Albanian cuisine and the jaw-dropping landscape of mountains and river canyons; and quince raki, the finest spirit I ever tried in the Balkans.

Back then though, all I knew about the place was the Kosovo War. I remember a year when it seemed to be all that was ever on the news; when I was growing up, Yugoslavia was never far from the headlines and by the time I was old enough to start paying attention, suddenly it wasn’t there any more.

Watching a country disappear from maps like that changed my understanding of the world. Borders weren’t static, just because they were printed in books. I realised history was still alive, and later, in 2008, Kosovo was the first time I followed the birth of a new nation.

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The intersection of ‘George Bush Street’ and ‘Bill Clinton Boulevard’ in Pristina.

When I found myself next door, visiting bizarre monuments in Macedonia, I knew I had to see Kosovo for myself; and visit all those places – battlefields, flashpoints, monuments, cemeteries – that had filled the British news between February 1998 and June 1999.

I may be no stranger to ‘dark tourism,’ but somehow this felt more provocative than any place I’d been before; it wasn’t like Auschwitz or Chernobyl, with their guided tours and guest books. There was no tourist trail connecting the Kosovo massacre sites, no English signposts to the places where bloody war had raged only 15 years before. Exploring Kosovo, it felt like the dust had barely had time to settle and at times, I would find myself wondering How soon is too soon?

 

Pristina

I arrived in Pristina, the Kosovar capital, in the middle of a local election.

I’ve already written about that – about exploring Pristina, and taking an intense crash course in local politics to be ready for the raki-soaked party that followed. I published another post too, featuring its unfinished Serbian cathedral which stands hollow today like some kind of concrete trophy.

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Instead of reintroducing the city here then, I’ll just recap a few of the more salient points:

★ Pristina was noisy, colourful, and largely under construction.
★ Everything cost exactly €5 – from a haircut, to taxis, to lunch.
★ The vast majority of the population were of Albanian ethnicity, and these people were always quick to express their love for Britain and the US; Clinton, Bush and Tony Blair were spoken of like saints.

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Blackbirds 5 Pristina 1But more than that, Pristina felt like a place where history was very much alive, and present, and accessible. The politics of the nation were deeply personal to all the Kosovars I spoke with. Everyone had an opinion on everything, and there seemed to be a sense that if you wanted to see something done, then you simply had to step up and do it.

I spent the nights on the run-up to the local election with members of the Vetëvendosje party. I drank with them, too, following their second-place result; for a party that was young, liberal, and on the rise, they drank like they’d just come first. Someone high up in Vetëvendosje was at the table with us, talking about his own role in the Kosovo War. He had been on radio duties, he told us, passing on enemy movements to the men in the field; the soldiers had called him their ‘Guardian Angel.’

That night the streets were hectic. Cars and tractors, flags and horns; even the losers were celebrating. It felt to me like the election results were almost incidental. People drank not to the new mayor, but to democracy and independence. The very fact that they were having a vote was cause for celebration and later that night, I watched the fireworks from a rooftop in the city centre.

 

Kosovo Polje

Before the wars Yugoslavia was formed from a merger of six socialist republics, and two socialist autonomous provinces. Both of those autonomous regions lay within the borders of Serbia: Vojvodina in the north, and Kosovo in the south.

Blackbirds 2 Kosova Polie 1The Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, despite falling under broader Serbian jurisdiction, was overwhelmingly Albanian in ethnicity. That shouldn’t have mattered in theory – Yugoslavia was supposed to be governed according to principles of socialist internationalism, as a greater political union that was blind to colour and race. Albania itself was not a member of that union though, and so displaced Albanians living in Kosovo often felt as though they had no agency, no real representation in Yugoslav matters.

By the 1980s, these Albanians accounted for more than 90% of the population of the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo. They wanted rights and recognition, equal with the other Yugoslav republics – and every time the Serbian police broke up a demonstration, another seed was sown in a growing tide of repressed Albanian nationalism.

The Kosovo Serb minority began to feel uncomfortable. There were reports of tension in the region, discrimination and harassment by Albanian nationalists. In 1987, the Serbian President Ivan Stambolić sent his deputy to Kosovo, to assess the problems… and to reassert the message of Brotherhood and Unity that had for so long glued together the component parts of Yugoslavia.

But the Serbian deputy president, Slobodan Milošević, had his own agenda. On 24th April, Milošević gave a speech in the town of Kosovo Polje – but following that official engagement he met with local Serb nationalists, listening to their accounts (of varying authenticity) of Albanians murdering Serbs, raping Serbian women and setting fire to their ancient monasteries. The meeting ended in riots, with conflict between Serb nationalists and Kosovo police outside; and Milošević, in pledging his support to the Kosovo Serbs, made his first steps towards the dangerous nationalist movement to follow.

I took a taxi to Kosovo Polje, 8 km southwest from the capital. It was a busy little town, now almost entirely Albanian. Most of it was coffee shops, markets, parks and mosques… but I was headed towards the poorest neighbourhoods, which looked much like another world. After the war, a refugee camp was established here for Serbs and Roma fleeing their homes; some of those Serbs were later killed by local Albanian nationalists, others left, but many of the Roma families remain.

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Those camps have since grown and evolved, to form a kind of shantytown that spreads along the side of the railway tracks. That’s where my taxi dropped me off, and the driver gave me a long look before he left; as if to say, Are you sure?

But it was pleasant for all its chaos, and I saw no hint of the violence that had taken place here: the riots in 1987, the execution of a local Serb leader in 1998, the various murders, street fights and house-burnings in the years that followed. Children played in the dirt road, an old Yugoslav war memorial rose – seemingly forgotten – beside the train station; and on the tracks, a labyrinth was formed from the rusting shells of freight carriages long-since abandoned.

 

Gazimestan

There’s a reason why Kosovo Polje proved such a volatile flashpoint in the run-up to the war. Its name is Serbian for ‘Field of Blackbirds,’ and it was borrowed from the nearby site of a legendary 14th century battle. Even long after the event, that battlefield – the original Kosovo Polje – would remain a focus of intense Serbian pride.

Above the field today stands the Gazimestan Monument: a stone tower rising like a fossilized finger from the plains. Located 5km northwest of Pristina, it was named for ‘ghazi,’ Arabic for ‘hero,’ and the Serbian word ‘mesto,’ meaning ‘place.’

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Arriving at the gates by taxi, a lone guard came out to meet me. It felt very much as though I were crossing a border; showing my passport before being ushered through a security gate into the political limbo beyond. I was alone at the monument that day. Alone, that is, save for the scattering of CCTV cameras that watched my every step on the windy hillside.

Here in 1389, the Serbian and Ottoman armies clashed in the Battle of Kosovo. Rallying the country against its invaders, Serbia’s Prince Lazar famously proclaimed a curse on any Serb who did not join the fight:

Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth,
And of Serb blood and heritage,
And comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,
May he never have the progeny his heart desires!

The battle was brutal. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, and it claimed the lives of both Prince Lazar and Ottoman Sultan Murad I. The Serbs were left with too few soldiers to defend their homes however, while the surviving Ottomans were already through the gates; it was only a matter of years before the rest of Serbia was effectively absorbed into the Ottoman Empire.

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Blackbirds 1 Gazimestan 3Six centuries later, by the time these fields had been rebranded as the heartlands of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, a monument was raised. Built in 1953, it was a symbol of Serbian independence – the place where Serbs had sacrificed everything in their efforts to hold back the Islamic invaders. Now, according to most of the world, the monument belongs to another country; and a predominantly Islamic one at that. Meanwhile, the words of Prince Lazar are displayed on the front of the tower, a curse against all Serbs who wouldn’t fight for their country.

It isn’t hard to see why the Gazimestan Monument remains a point of contention for Serbian nationalists today.

The door was open, so I wandered inside the tower. There was little to suggest it had been built as late as the 20th century; steep, stone steps wound tightly up, lit by simple windows. Antique Serbian script was engraved around the walls.

Reaching the very top, I emerged onto a panoramic platform. The valley floor was massive – beneath me it spread out for miles, green fields broken only by the occasional smoking factory cast as a distant silhouette; beyond that, the wall of the mountains rose up out of the misty horizon.

Accurate historical reports of the battle are scarce, though estimates suggest that as many as 70,000 soldiers clashed on these fields in the 14th century; and most of them never left. I pictured the valley thick with the black wings of carrion birds.

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In June 1989, Slobodan Milošević further aligned himself with the Serbian nationalist movement when he chose Kosovo Polje as the backdrop for his notorious Gazimestan speech. By now Milošević had replaced Stambolić as President of Serbia; and on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo he drew parallels between the 14th century Serbs fighting against Ottoman invaders, and the plight of the modern day Serbs fighting for their “state, national, and spiritual integrity.”

Towards the end of that speech, Milošević’s words even foreshadowed something of the violence to come: “Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet.”

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The nearby Tomb of Sultan Murad I.

 

Prekaz

The next decade would bring madness. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia was dissolved and as one nation after another broke away from the republic, the Yugoslav National Army was deployed to secure the position of local Serb minorities. A series of bitter and bloody wars erupted, as ethnic groups in each country were pitted against one another. In the midst of it all Milošević was re-elected as President of Serbia, and during his second term, Serb nationalists began a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

By 1996, after much bloodshed, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina had achieved their independence. Now Milošević’s attention turned back to the Kosovo province of Serbia. The Kosovar Albanians wanted independence, too… they wanted to break away from Serbia, and they wanted to take a chunk of historic Serbian land with them.

The Kosovo War is generally considered to have started with the Attack on Prekaz.

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The targets of that attack were Adem and Hamëz Jashari: two brothers who were founding members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an Albanian group fighting for Kosovo’s independence. In February 1998 they were involved in a firefight between Serb police and Albanian militants: four Serbs were killed, and in response the Serbian police struck out at nearby Albanian settlements. They killed 13 in the village of Likošane, and 26 Albanians in Ćirez.

On 5th March the KLA launched another attack on Serbian patrols; and when the police began a forceful retaliation, the militants retreated to Adem Jashari’s house in Prekaz.

Blackbirds 3 Prekaz 13The Serbian Special Anti-Terrorism Unit entered the small town, and laid siege to the Jashari family home. They surrounded the building and gave the militants two hours to surrender – and though several dozen civilians were cleared from the area, Adem Jashari and his family remained.

According to Serbian reports, the KLA fired first: launching mortars and grenades at the surrounding police, and killing two Serbs in the process. What ensued was nothing short of a massacre though, as the police closed in on the building and killed more than 60 people who’d been hiding inside.

The Serbs called Jashari a terrorist, claiming he’d taken the women and children as hostages. In the eyes of the Albanian separatists, however, Adem Jashari became a martyr; the news of his death launched demonstrations, riots, and the ranks of the KLA swelled with new recruits. Pretty soon all-out war was inevitable.

I travelled from Pristina to Skenderaj: the main town of the region, with the village of Prekaz floating as a little satellite just beyond its eastern boundary. An hour and a half aboard an antique public bus, with musty seats and a corrugated metal floor – everything on the bus rattled against everything else, so that by the time I stepped down into the main street of Skenderaj I felt as though I were climbing out from a washing machine.

Blackbirds 3 Prekaz 1After 90 minutes lost in my own thoughts I was suddenly bombarded once again by all the colour and commotion of Albanian street culture. Noisy taxi drivers, market stalls, bad traffic and shouted conversations… it was dusty, chaotic, closer to how you might picture the Middle East, than anywhere in Europe.

Skenderaj was overwhelming at first, and I was nowhere near ready to think about massacre yet. So instead I decided to walk, strolling around a few town blocks, past the mosque, through a park, and stopping at a memorial to Adem Jashari; before coming back to find a taxi out to Prekaz.

Not that I had to find them, exactly. Half a dozen taxi drivers had already found me, and so it was rather a case of picking a favourite from the crowd.

I told my driver “Prekaz,” and we set off. He was keen to talk along the way, though language soon proved to be a problem; he didn’t speak a word of English. I didn’t speak a word of Albanian. This taxi driver did know some German though, and I remembered perhaps a couple of dozen words from school… so that between bad German, a bit a sign language and a lot of persistence, we managed to communicate.

His first question was standard: Where are you from? I’d had this conversation a dozen times already in Kosovo, and it followed the regular pattern. (“Britain ist sehr gut! Tony Blair ist sehr gut!”)

The second question though, was the one that I was dreading. Why are you here?

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UÇK (Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës) is the Albanian name for the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Tourism was the obvious answer, though I didn’t see any other foreigners out here for a day trip. I’d researched the massacre site on my own; it wasn’t signposted in English, wasn’t listed in the travel guides. It didn’t seem to be a place that non-locals generally went to.

But that was the truth of it, and so I took a deep breath and told him: “Ich bin ein Tourist.”

The driver gave me an odd look, then asked if I was visiting friends in Prekaz. No. Was my father Albanian? No. Was my mother Albanian? No.

“Ich bin ein… Tourist?” I tried again, this time showing him my camera.

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Blackbirds 3 Prekaz 4I told him, as best as I could manage, that I had read about the massacre in Prekaz; that I wanted to understand the history of Kosovo, and to do that I wanted to see the places where history had happened. I told him that I wanted to take photographs, and write about it, so that other people could understand the history as well.

Suddenly he seemed to understand. The driver became excited, and his demeanour changed to that of an eager tour guide: he began pointing out the window to landmarks as we passed, nudging me and nodding at my camera. People need to know this, he explained to me in German.

We arrived in Prekaz. I reached for my wallet, but he gestured me to put it away; instead getting out of the taxi, and leading the way up towards a cemetery on the hillside. Above an immaculate garden, coffin-sized slabs of white marble were arranged to form a clean, minimalist memorial to those who died in the attack. At the far end, two soldiers stood on guard around the final tomb.

The driver beckoned me over: ‘Adem Jashari’ it said in gold script, and above the slab an Albanian flag ripped and rustled in the wind.

Across the road from here, we could see the Jashari house: now preserved as a memorial inside a cage of scaffold. Left of that, the driver pointed me to the water tower that rose from a nearby factory. He mimed a sniper, taking careful aim and firing. Serbs, he said, and spat at the ground.

The house itself was a sombre sight. The scaffold frame around the building permitted visitors to view it from every angle; climbing stairs to peer in through upper windows, on rooms lit by mortar holes punched through the walls. In one bedroom, a wooden chair lay on its side. Old, faded graffiti marked the plaster. Everywhere I looked the building was peppered with holes – some barely a finger’s width, but others large enough to drive a car through.

I glanced back towards the cemetery: the hillside where, 15 years earlier, the Serbian forces had amassed their tanks and mortars and heavy artillery to annihilate this building and the 60-or-so men, women and children hiding inside; snipers positioned around the area, to pick off those who escaped.

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A portrait of Adem Jashari hangs from the front of his former home.

When I caught up with my driver, he looked as though he had been crying. I guess 15 years didn’t seem so long ago, to him. He showed me, with gratuitous pantomime, how his friend’s throat had been slashed by Serbian soldiers. Or perhaps it wasn’t ‘friend’; perhaps it was ‘brother.’ Or even ‘wife.’ All I really understood was that this man had witnessed the violent murder of someone very dear to him.

We drove back to Skenderaj in silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts. Stopping by the buses, I tried to pay the man for what had now been a couple of hours of his time. No, he insisted, and wouldn’t take it – explaining again that People need to know this.

 

Peja

Peja is an ancient settlement. It was Roman, and Byzantine, before the Serbs took it almost a thousand years ago; they named it Peć, and later established it as the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In the mid-15th century, Peć became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks remodelled the town with mosques and narrow streets, a hamam and bazaar.

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Blackbirds 4 Peja 1Since its liberation during the First Balkan War, the town has been controlled by Montenegro, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Albania and Yugoslavia. By the 1990s the population was over 60,000 – 75% Albanian compared to 6% Serbs – and when the Kosovo War erupted, it became a major seat of unrest.

Peja, as the Albanians call it, sits at the mouth of the Rugova Gorge. I got out there by bus one day, travelling with a writer I’d met at my Pristina hostel.

The Rugova Gorge was incredibly scenic. Or at least, I’m sure it would have been in summer. Visiting the place in November those high walls of rock felt rather like a cage; sheer, grey and lifeless. Sunlight played around the crests high above us, but not a glimmer of it entered the canyon. We didn’t stay long, before turning back and heading to the monastery at the foot of the ridge.

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Since the 13th century the Patriarchate of Peć had been a symbolic home of the Serbian Orthodox Church; so that losing Peć to the Albanians, as they saw it, was considered sacrilegious by many Serb nationalists. Tensions reached boiling point during the Kosovo War. There were mass killings here, and widespread destruction; 80% of the houses in Peja were either damaged or destroyed.

The monastery, recognised as a World Heritage Site, falls now under the protection of NATO’s Kosovo Force. At the gate we had to turn over our passports, the heavily armed guards looking us up and down suspiciously before they permitted us inside.

Down beside the river though, beneath the yawning gulf of the canyon, the monastery was an oasis of calm. Its four churches, library and treasury lay scattered around a peaceful garden. Men and women in cassocks and shawls occasionally shuffled past us; pushing wheelbarrows, watering plants, or seemingly lost in thought. A stream gurgled between the lawns, rushing under little wooden footbridges.

We looked inside one of the older buildings – a dark grotto thick with incense, the walls decorated in archaic script. The characters were so elaborately embellished, I couldn’t always tell if I was looking at Latin or Cyrillic. We stayed a while, then headed into Peja itself.

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The main pedestrianised boulevard of Peja.

Peja felt young and full of life, a student city famed for its good beer and nearby ski slopes. Walking the streets it was hard to picture this place as anything but welcoming. The city today is chiefly Albanian – over 90% of the population. Serbs account for 0.4% of the Peja municipality, and many of those that remain are associated with the monastery one way or another.

We passed by a mosque as evening prayers were starting, and watched as the neighbourhood converged on the small stone building. A few blocks away there stood a Catholic church – Albanian Catholic, that is – and when the bells began to ring the sound mixed with the call to prayer, voices and chimes rising up together in a warbling hymn beneath the mountains.

 

Gračanica

Gračanica, just 10 km east of Pristina, could not have been more different. Of around 11,000 inhabitants, this village is just over 85% Serbian – while Albanians account for less than 4% of the population. It is an enclave, a little pocket of Serbia within the borders of Kosovo, and many of its residents have found their way here after deserting the increasingly Albanian city of Pristina.

Following the war in Kosovo this Serbian village grew significantly, and became a key administrative base for the Kosovo Serb communities. Several neighbouring villages were joined, to create an enclave municipality inside a 10km radius. It’s generally considered the largest and safest such enclave for Serbs living in Kosovo – though security is never absolute.

With increased attention comes increased threat, and in June 2000 three Serbs were killed at a Gračanica bus stop by an Albanian-thrown grenade. In 2004, a local Serb teenager was shot dead in a drive-by incident.

Curious to see how the other side lived, I took a bus out to Gračanica one afternoon. It was immediately different to all of the towns I’d visited in Kosovo so far; it was quieter, slower, and with Orthodox crosses in place of minarets.

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While I was in Pristina, I’d spent a lot of time talking to foreigners involved in NGOs, political or charity work in Kosovo. For them, Albanian culture seemed to have become the norm, the baseline for their interactions with this part of the world. They talked about these Serb enclaves as different, or alien, describing them solely in relation to the environment they had grown used to.

For me, it was quite the reverse effect. As much as I liked Pristina, I can’t deny that it felt positively foreign to me; exotic, even. I had already spent so much time in Orthodox, Slavic countries though, that Gračanica felt reassuringly familiar.

At the heart of the town stands its monastery: a beautiful, Byzantine building that dates from the early 14th century, shortly before the arrival of the Turks. A high wall rose around it though, topped with coils of razor wire… and a signpost announced a round-the-clock security system.

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Blackbirds 6 Gracanica 1I stopped for food at a little café-restaurant, tucked back along a green lane from the main thoroughfare. The woman inside eyed me cautiously at first, when I sat down and proceeded to order a lunch. I had managed to pick up one or two words of Serbian, and what I didn’t know I replaced with Bulgarian; it can’t have sounded very good, but my food arrived just as I’d hoped and so it seemed to have done the job.

While I ate, I watched a Serbian soap opera showing on a television in the corner. I finished, thanked the woman, and left a tip. She gave a warm smile in reply – perplexed, perhaps, but she no longer seemed wary of my presence.

Back on the main street of Gračanica, election fever was in full swing. As recently as 2009, Belgrade instructed Kosovo Serbs not to take part in the local elections; not to acknowledge the Kosovo government by placing their vote. Following the 2013 Brussels Agreement however, Serbia had officially recognised Kosovo’s governance over enclaves like this… and now the citizens of Gračanica were preparing for the local elections just like everyone else.

Flags fluttered from shop fronts and passing cars; street signs and gateposts were pinned with badges for the local Serbian candidate. He represented the Serb List party: an outsider party perhaps, but one now operating within the legal framework of a self-reliant Republic of Kosovo.

 

Mitrovica

Of all the places I saw in Kosovo, it was Mitrovica that felt the closest to a state of conflict. I had been hearing its name since I arrived: in the run-up to the election an Albanian local council candidate in Mitrovica was assassinated [*]. A Serbian candidate was also attacked. On the day itself, several polling stations were stormed by nationalists who smashed up ballot boxes and released tear gas canisters.

[* Although, alarming as that sounds, I later heard that the candidate had been sleeping with his killer’s wife. “Politics doesn’t need to come into it,” my Albanian friend would tell me.]

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Blackbirds 7 Mitrovica 14Right up until the day of my visit, I was listening to local news for updates on the situation in Mitrovica. Several people warned me against going at all; but in the end, the day after the election, two of us – a French backpacker and myself – decided to stop by for a short visit.

Mitrovica is a historic mining town that sits on the Ibar River, towards the north of Kosovo. On the north bank of the river lives a community of some 17,000 Kosovo Serbs; the southern portion of the city, meanwhile, is home to roughly 50,000 Albanians. During the Kosovo War, Mitrovica was a melting pot of rival nationalist groups, and UN police were sent in to watch the bridges that crossed the river.

There have been various outbursts since then. In 2004, clashes between Serbs and Albanians left at least 19 dead and some 300 people injured. When Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, many Serbs in Mitrovica protested; a grenade was thrown at UN police, who subsequently withdrew from North Mitrovica altogether.

Many of the Serbs in Mitrovica had decided to boycott this latest election; but they were on their own, as only that year Belgrade had signed the Brussels Agreement effectively handing Mitrovica over to Pristina’s government. Feelings of abandonment and betrayal had in many cases served to further enrage the Serb nationalists in the north.

The south of Mitrovica, where the bus dropped us off, felt much like the other Albanian-majority cities I’d seen. A towering mosque, Albanian flags and monuments to KLA heroes; in the backstreets, old men sat drinking tea around chess sets. We soaked it in, and wandered the streets for a while… before plucking up our courage and heading to the bridge.

Following recent conflicts the bridge across the Ibar River had been blocked off with a mountain of dirt. Pedestrians could get around easily enough – should they want to – but the makeshift barricade obstructed private and police vehicles alike.

Security personnel stood near the bridge, EU police beside an armoured van. They watched us pass but said nothing.

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Blackbirds 7 Mitrovica 13Walking over the bridge felt like stepping across continents. Markets, minarets and tea were immediately replaced with beer bars and orthodox churches. ‘EULEX Must Go Home’ was written across one shop front, referring to the EU police force.

Along a nearby footpath someone had painted the slogan, ‘Fuck Serbia.’ I guessed it was some daredevil Albanian kid, venturing onto the wrong side of the river. Later that day I’d find its equally eloquent reply scribbled on a wall in the Albanian half: ‘Fuck Albania.’

Above the road meanwhile, election banners had been printed with a one-word message: ‘Bojkot!’

We decided to take it slowly here – finding a comfortable street café where we could sit quietly, discretely, and get a feel for our surroundings. The barman was indifferent to us, neither welcoming nor scowling. He spoke to us only in Serbian and when a little while after we called for the bill, the price was listed in Serbian dinar.

All we had was euros, the currency that Kosovo Albanians use; but we didn’t want to risk the potential faux pas of offering those. Instead, I waited at the table while my friend quickly visited the nearest ATM, to return with a handful of Serbian money.

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Above the town, we climbed the hill. The track ran between brick houses, winding up past gardens where washing hung on lines and the occasional goat bleated at us in surprise. Higher up, the paths gave way to brambles and the shells of abandoned houses. We fought our way on up, until we reached the plateau where the Serbian Orthodox Church of Saint Demetrius overlooks the town.

We only rested there for a moment, before climbing again: on and up, ever higher, until we were looking down onto the roofs of apartment blocks. At the highest point of the hill there stood a monument. A Yugoslav tribute to the miners of Mitrovica; a vast concrete cart, supported on two pillars.

The wind up there was fierce, howling around and between the legs of the towering monument. Despite the cold though, despite the moisture, I sat down on the grass beside one pillar and looked out over Mitrovica; from here no North and South, no river or divide, just one homogenous cityscape against the distant shadow of mountains.

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The ‘Miners’ Monument’, by Bogdan Bogdanović, 1973.

 

Dark Tourism in Kosovo

Ultimately, this collection of seven vignettes tells only part of the story. This humble blog post is not intended to serve as a comprehensive account of the Kosovo War; but rather, to introduce just those locations I managed to visit in the course of one week in the country.

You may notice too, that my interest lay more in understanding the motivations for war than in charting a blow-by-blow narrative of the conflict. I’ve typically picked ideological monuments and religious locations over battlefields and massacre sites. The news media at the time did a thorough job of covering the latter – but what was missing, I found, was the history, the deep significance of some of these places where conflict erupted. So that’s what I’ve tried to share here.

Even then I worried, initially, how my interest would be received by the locals; whether they would find it ghoulish, in bad taste, or simply too soon. But rather, I found that people were glad to talk… and that they wanted their history – even the difficult parts – to be understood by the world. The response I got, time and time again, was like that taxi driver in Prekaz told me:

People need to know this.

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  1. I really enjoyed the post. I actually just arrived in Pristina yesterday, so this is perfect. I’ll be exploring more of Kosovo for the next week or so.

    • Excellent. Enjoy Kosovo – it’s a really fascinating place, and while the history is sometimes difficult I found it much more colourful and lively than this article might imply.

  2. I really found this post very informative. I commend you on travelling through this part of the world and sharing the story that must be told. I am also really enjoying this blog! Only stumbled upon it tonight!

    • Thanks a lot, Leesa. This is exactly why I do it – I strongly believe these stories need to be told, and so I’m really glad that you found this interesting.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this, it was very informative and interesting!

  4. I stumbled across your blog completely by chance and loved reading this. I married a Kosovar and live in Gjakovë. I’ve visited many of the places you’ve photographed and feel that you’ve really captured what this country is really like. The Albanian culture is very welcoming (I can’t comment on the Serb culture) and I laughed at your experience with the taxi driver in Prekaz because it’s so typical of people here. If you ever get a chance, visit Gjakova. Happy travels.

    • Hi Helen, thanks for stopping by. I was a little nervous writing this article – it’s such a sensitive subject, and after one week in Kosovo I’d hardly call myself an expert – so I am very relieved to know that some of these accounts ring true for you as well. I can completely understand why you’d move there. There are few places I’ve been to that feel so overwhelmingly welcoming! I’m sure I’ll be back in Kosovo sometime, so I’ll be sure to check out Gjakovë. Thank you!

  5. Love the photography… having the “Fuck Albania” pic next to the “Fuck Serbia” pic would be a cool side-by-side view… love the Miners’ monument photo…

    • Thanks Ken. Yeah – I would have liked to feature it, for the sake of balance at least. As I passed it though, I was in a crowd of people and felt like I was getting some strange looks already… so I erred on the side of caution, and tried not to make myself look any more like a tourist than I already did.

  6. This is an informative and honest description of a fascinating area. I have visited some places in Bosnia and Republika Srpska associated with that war, and Kosovo is on my my list for a future visit. Thanks for setting the scene. By the way, do you know if there are any problems entering Serbia with a Kosovan stamp in your passport?

    • Glad you found it interesting, Kathryn. I really wanted to examine not just the history of these sites, but also what it’s like to visit, how it feels, and how it’s received. I think you’ll find Kosovo very rewarding when you manage to get there for yourself.

      As for passport stamps – I didn’t get one from Kosovo. As far as I know you can visit both countries without a problem, in either order. Travelling between the two is fine as well, and as far as the Serbs are concerned, you won’t have exited Serbia at all. The only potential problem I’m aware of is travelling from Kosovo to Serbia, then trying to leave Serbia another way. You won’t have the ‘proper’ Serbian entry stamp as a result, and according to reports the border staff will give you a really hard time for it.

See all 12 comments on “A Field of Blackbirds: Dark Tourism in Kosovo’s Former Conflict Zones”

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