My first Balkan adventure

My first Balkan adventure
by Allan Leonard for Forum for Cities in Transition
24 March 2010

For work, I headed out to Mitrovica, Kosovo, to meet our conference coordinator, Mia, her staff, our Forum for Cities in Transition participants, and to inspect progress on some of the technical aspects for our forthcoming conference in May.

This was the first time I have been anywhere in the Balkans (though for southeastern Europe, I have been to Bulgaria). I flew to Prishtina via Podgorica on Montenegro Airlines. Saved a few pounds, but don’t know if I’ll do that again, as Podgorica is a very small airport (one large lobby waiting area, one electrical outlet). I wasn’t quick enough to take a photo of the farm tractor pulling the aircraft closer to the gate!

It was great to have Mia collect me at the airport in Prishtina, and to give me the essential details about the situation at hand. I knew this would be an intense week of learning and working.

I have to say, reading Tim Judas’ book, Kosovo, was a good idea. Although it’s likely too superficial for anyone in the know about Kosovo politics, I do recommend it as a primer.

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KFOR posters were ubiquitous throughout Mitrovica. This one roughly translates as “the winter will be better working together (with tolerance)”. The irony is that the two men are both Albanian, the one dressed as a Serbian relatively well known. Mitrovica, Kosovo.

An immediate observation was the plethora of KFOR advertisements. They were everywhere, displaying positive public awareness of their duties. A notable one is of two older men, one dressed as a national Serbian and the other as Albanian, with the slogan (sic!), “the winter will pass by easier with tolerance”. What is notable is that both actors are Albanian, the one dressed as Serbian relatively well known in the community!

One of my first tasks was to inspect the desired venue for the conference, the Culture Centre, which lies on the south bank of the Ibar River, at the foot of the Mitrovica Bridge that connects (divides) Mitrovica South (mainly populated by Albanians) and Mitrovica North (mainly populated by Serbians, but with particular Albanian neighbourhoods).

Glad I did an inspection. While the building appears structurally sound, there is much renovation work to do inside. We compiled a list of items to follow up with the mayor, whom we met that afternoon.

Next I met a pair of Mia’s key staffers, Milos and Ardiana, which was a pleasure. Very impressed with their obvious commitment to this project, and with the work they showed me.

And then there were meetings with local participants of our Forum. Many meetings, all useful and constructive.

But back to my discovery process.

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Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) building, Mitrovica, Kosovo.

I quickly sensed a love-hate relationship between the local population (both Serbian and Albanian sections) and “the internationals”, i.e. EU, UN, external NGOs. A sense of sincere appreciation for stability that has been delivered, but at an increasing risk of a semi-dependency culture.

Put another way, towards the end of my stay a local young man asked me what I thought of the people I have met. I replied that it’s been all great, I’ve gotten along well with everyone. But then I added, “Except some of the internationals. They make me pause and think.” Standing next to him, the man’s friend said, “Sounds like a smart person.”

I came to appreciate the local pride in the the Trepca (TREP-cha) mining company, which once employed many thousands of people. My understanding is that with the onset of the wars in the 1990s, the main Trepca industrial complex stopped functioning, and it hasn’t been replaced by any other major economic activity. When you walk the streets of Mitrovica, you’ll find rows of small kiosks and stands of individuals selling basic wares.

But the pride remains. It could be debased into a melancoly nostalgia, but my impression was that it serves as a motivator to make Mitrovica a great city again. The challenge is to identify the right types of business development and investment (which is one of the objectives of our forthcoming conference).

I demonstrated by pride by finding a Trepca football scarf. Best souvenir possible, me thinks.

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Dilapadated structure for Trepca mining operation, in Stan Terg, outside Mitrovica, Kosovo.

One day, Milos and Ardiana were in charge of an entourage of us, and showed us to what they deemed the more notable parts of the city, north and south. Driving up the hills, past more Trepca mining sites, evoked my drives across the lost industrial centres of Pennsylvania. The Soviet-era plaques from the 1960s speak of another era.

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Church of unknown origin, in Stan Terg, outside Mitrovica, Kosovo. Locals say that it was used by Church of England, but architecture and evidence of frescos (original) indicate longer history.

But we learned that the history goes much further back, with a church ruin that easily dates back several hundred years (1600s?), with Welsh and English-built residences nearby. The mineral resources of this section of the Balkans have been obviously exploited for centuries.

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Monument at Miners’ Hill, Mitrovica North. Mitrovica, Kosovo.

A prominent landmark is a Tito-commissioned monument on Miners’ Hill. No one could give any detailed explanation of what the structure represented, beyond something to do with mining. Only after my departure did Mia learn that the two vertical posts represent forearms, holding the large horizontal, semi-tubular cart reminiscent of those that ferried coal from the mines to the processing plants. You can see this monument for miles.

My week in Mitrovica was a busy one. Although my work was evenly paced, I was exhausted by the end of it. I knew it would be intense. But what I was underprepared for (novice travellers take note) was that everyone smokes, all the time, and you’ll need to keep up with all of the macchiatos consumed during any given day (apparently the Albanian ones are better than the Serbian ones, but I couldn’t really tell the difference).

So, having survived this new experience, I’ll be back for more, even before our conference.

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Milos Golubovic, Mia Marzouk, Allan Leonard, and Ardiana Osmani at monument at Miners’ Hill, Mitrovica North. Mitrovica, Kosovo.

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