“Hey man, you got a cigarette? We need to roll a spliff.”
I looked up at Munter and flicked him Serbian Drina 100. “Thanks,” he muttered, without looking at me. “We’re going to smoke this and then graffiti pink hearts onto the war memorial. Activist art,” he grinned with his eyes and mouth, still looking down at the table, concentrating on picking seeds out of his slightly-too-dry marijuana. He paused and looked up. “Some people say it’s disrespectful. I grew up with the war. I was eight years old. Now I’m 22. My friends and I just want to move on. So we paint.”
Munter is a student at Prishtina University, which is located near the crossroads of George Bush Boulevard and Bill Clinton Boulevard in the capital city of Kosovo, the world’s second youngest country after South Sudan. While I grew up playing pickup soccer and writing comic books, Munter was sheltering from the Slobodan Milosevic’s attempted genocide of the ethnic Albanian population of southern Serbia at the end of the Balkan Wars. Bill Clinton sent American airpower to bomb Belgrade and Serbian forces around Kosovo. NATO still has troops in the country. In one city in northern Kosovo, gangs of pro-Serbian skinheads ensure that no ethnic Albanian crosses the bridge separating Serbian Mitrovica and Kosovar Mitrovica. A berm stands at the Northern side of the bridge. NATO soldiers with land cruisers stand in the middle.
I met Munter at one of the few hostels in Prishtina, a city unlike the rest of Europe, but still different from Asia or the Middle East. The youngest city in Europe plays host to a largely secular population of well-educated Muslim twenty-somethings with a penchant for enjoying life; a side effect, perhaps, of collective memory of a short and brutal modern conflict. Everywhere you go are young confident people drinking espresso and beer. At night, the Albanian techno turns up and, yes, the people do too. As Munter put it, “After the war, people really just wanted to have a lot of sex. So there are a lot of kids around.”
Munter’s friends came in and he opened the window. He lighted his spliff and offered me some. I politely declined, but his friends had a different surprise for me. Out came the Rakia, a plum brandy of varying “proof” popular throughout the Balkan region. By the time I arrived in Kosovo, I had already been traveling around the region for a week, so I was well acquainted with this sort of “surprise.” Each place I went welcomed me with Rakia, and the residents of each place, from Budapest to Bosnia, seemed to think their iteration was the best. In my view, it is impossible for something that tastes so foul to have a superlative form, but when in Rome it is impossible to refuse. I took a shot. And then we all took a few more.
Munter and his cohorts eventually disappeared into the night, perhaps going through with their plans to graffiti the monument. My friend Nick and I found a very nice restaurant and splashed out six euros on delicious steak feasts and local beers. The prices in the Balkans allowed a complete lifestyle-turnaround for Nick and me; what we spent on our nicest meals wouldn’t even buy us a Big Mac meal in London, where we were both studying abroad. We carried on to a local bar and people-watched for a while. We meandered to a five-star hotel and saw overweight men in designer suits getting out of Mercedes. We walked past gypsies wiping down car windshields and catcalling at some pretty university students. We saw a couple sitting on a bench eating popcorn. A child aimed a toy gun at us, and we dived for cover.
Kosovo – the entire country – is a construction site. Driving through the countryside on one of the new, NATO-sponsored highways (which, fortunately for us, had very lax speed enforcement), it is hard to tell what the Serbian army knocked down fifteen years ago and what was demolished three weeks before. The end result of each type of destruction is the same – rejuvenation and re-construction. More houses for more people, hopeful for a brighter future for themselves and their children. The scars of the war burn deep into the character of Kosovars and the physical countryside of Kosovo, but the young are forgetting already – or at least, they seek to forget. Munter, a self-professed communist, accepts the obligation of forging a peaceful nation as a crucial part of his identity. He is far from alone in this regard. An entire population was traumatized in the 1990s, but rather than expressing cynicism, every young person I spoke to expressed optimism that the future of Kosovo is bright.
Had NATO not intervened to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the situation would be entirely different. Likely, Kosovo would not exist in any form, and the population of the area that is now Kosovo would have scattered throughout Europe as a disenfranchised, stateless minority. Perhaps in a century there would not be a single person who self-identifies as Kosovar. In Munter lies a healthy patriotism – more pride in what he and his people have overcome than kneejerk jingoism. Now, Munter and his peers plan their futures within the borders of tiny Kosovo, as their personal development merges with the development of their country.
~Daniel Taub '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler