eyewitness Pristina, February 2008

One year ago, on February 17, 2008. . .

How often does a person witness a country’s leaders declaring independence? I missed the American version by a couple hundred years.

The news reports had been hinting at a possible declaration of independence by Kosovo, and after following the reports for a couple of weeks, it became Europe’s worst-kept secret that the weekend of February 16-18 would be the date. So out of curiosity and general fascination with the Balkans since my first visit to the region in 2002, I snagged a last-minute biz class ticket on my Star Alliance miles and headed for Pristina. And then I booked a room in one of the last hotels to have any space available, the Hotel Begolli, and I was set to go.

Friday night, I flew to Vienna after work, which was a short hop on Austrian Airlines, followed by a train that pretty much took me to within 100 m of my hotel. Not much to say for Vienna, except that it isn’t my favorite European city, and that I’ve been there a few times and not really liked it so much.

 

biz class!

biz class!

Saturday, I did a bit of sightseeing in the morning, mostly around the old town and Stephansdom, and then headed for the airport again. As expected, it was rather chaotic near the departure gate for Pristina, with plenty of news crews, a lot of soldiers, probably some Kosovans, and a few regular folks like me. The gate agent was asking for volunteers to fly the next day, which was met mostly with chuckles from the crowd. They were certainly aware that it would be a historic weekend in Pristina.

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I sat next to a fellow named David Phillips, who was working at Columbia University and serving as a Clinton campaign advisor for foreign policy. He was going to miss the actual declaration, which he surmised would be on Sunday, but said that he was headed to Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s place for drinks in the evening.

A celebratory mood greeted me when I arrived at the Pristina Airport. Now I should first mention that the plane’s routing from Vienna was unusual, skirting all of Serbia and flying in a semicircle, first over Bratislava and Budapest, before turning towards Sofia, and finally arriving into Pristina from the south, passing over Skopje. I’m not sure if this is air traffic, or on purpose to stay over (mostly) EU airspace.

I stood outside the airport for a while, listening to an impromptu musical performance, punctuated by car horns, and plenty of Albanian flags waving around. I hooked up with a chain-smoking Dutch reporter, and we split the taxi fare into town. The road in was a surreal sight, a mere two hours from the hypermodernity and order of Frankfurt and Vienna was this corner of Europe, where a clash of cultures in this hotly contested piece of real estate, in this pregnant corner of the world, had caused a lot of misery. The most recent wars had been broadcast on CNN and the Internet, and so I had to see for myself what this place, mythical to many, a name synonymous with conflict, was like.

 

Approaching town, " Independence, we are ready!"

Approaching town, " Independence, we are ready!"

I made it to my hotel, located on the perimeter of the central city, on a battered street that was clearly still under construction. The driver manipulated his way between the piles of bricks and then stopped partially on the sidewalk. And so my trip officially began. It was already growing dark, and so I wandered around to try to get my bearings straight, unsuccessfully, before eating a simple meal in a nearby restaurant and then retiring to my hotel room. There were already celebrations going on, but I was exhausted and still jet-lagged from a previous business trip to California, and it was pretty darn cold out there.

I was up early the next day, which started with a prayer call from the mosque 50 meters down the street, and it turned out to be a sunny, although still very cold day. It began just like any other day, pretty sluggish in the morning, but with a steady stream of people walking around, and a huge gathering of reporters and news vehicles at the Grand Hotel Pristina downtown. 

View from my hotel room, February 17, 2008

View from my hotel room, February 17, 2008

Along Mother Theresa Boulevard

Along Mother Teresa Boulevard

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Dr. Ibrahim Rugova, first president of Kosovo

Dr. Ibrahim Rugova, first president of Kosovo

The crowd grew into a compress of people by mid-afternoon, with a celebratory air. There was no public announcement made, only a rough idea of the hour that independence would be declared. Amidst this massive crowd of people, I found myself pressed up against a couple in their 40’s who had lived for years in Vienna before returning, and we ended up chatting for a while in German as I waited for the crowds to lessen a bit. 

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The partying went on clear into the night. I had some dinner at the local fancy restaurant and spoke with some Finnish reporters who were clearly jaded on the whole affair, while they were slamming down liquor shots. It was at least for the time being, Europe’s biggest party, with folks from everywhere descending on the Kosovan capital.

The scene the next day returned quickly to normal in most of Pristina, except for the media circus at the Grand Hotel. The new Kosovan flag was raised next to the hotel, and I headed to the new sculpture unveiled the night before, reading NEWBORN in yellow. It had been signed wth thousands of names of people who were there the night before. And indeed, it was a fitting word for this part of the world, which saw the split of Yugoslavia into separate countries in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Newborn!

Newborn!

The scenic landscape of Pristina

The scenic landscape of Pristina

There’s plenty of very kooky stuff in Pristina. Buses with their destination signs in German. A Route 66 diner across from UN headquarters, where I had a hamburger, fries, and a Coke. A car with New York license plates. Bill Clinton Boulevard. And in a time when George Bush was one of the most reviled people in the world, tons of American flags adorning the buildings in town. Add to that a wacky, socialist-era library, an unfinished Serbian Orthodox church next to it, and a smattering of Ottoman-style mosques. And on February 17, 2008, it was the center of the world, where I could watch CNN coverage of events taking place a few hundred meters down the road.

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Bill Clinton Boulevard

Back to regularly scheduled bus service. . .

Back to regularly scheduled bus service. . .

The library, beautiful or ugly, or just socialist?

The library, beautiful or ugly, or just socialist?

. . . and next door, the unfinished Serbian church

. . . and next door, the unfinished Serbian church

Understandable in any language.

Understandable in any language.

It’s hard to say how things will turn out in Kosovo, the road ahead remains unclear and uncertain, with a massive number of problems to be resolved. But at least on that weekend, there was plenty of optimism mixed in with a collective sobering memory of the conflicts of the 1990’s.

And perhaps the future?

And perhaps the future?

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