The Book: A Serb Man and an Albanian Woman…a night out in Pristina…February 2008…
He is Nikola. And he is Serb. She is Drita. And she is Albanian. And they have been married for thirty-five years.
They met in Prishtina when they were teenagers and their families allowed them to be friends, but not boyfriend and girlfriend. Traditionally, Albanian men are allowed to marry Serb women. The woman changed her name and if the man was religious converted to Islam. Even before the war, for an Albanian woman to marry a Serb man was unheard of. Overtime however, their families agreed to it. Drita became the only Albanian women married to a Serb man in Prishtina.
“My father and my family were eventually open to it,” Drita says. “My uncle warned of troubles if we had children.”
Nikola and Drita now have three daughters who are in their twenties and early thirties. The family speaks Serbian when they are all at home together. Nikola does not speak Albanian. During the war Drita and their daughters went to Vojvodina in Serbia and stayed with Nikola’s mother. They thought that they would only have to stay for a few days, a month at the most. They ended up having to stay for three months. Nikola stayed in Kosovo to protect their house.
Nikola is bearded, with grey hair and massive hands that jut and cut as he speaks. Drita is small, with bracelets around her wrists and a constant, faint smile on her face. They look at each other when they speak. They met thirty-five years ago. They are still in love.
“There are only about sixty Serbs still living in Prishtina,” Nikola says. “Before there was forty thousand. It does not matter. I am Serb. Everyone in town knows that. For me, my country was Yugoslavia. Not Serbia. Not Kosovo. I married my love.”
He points to Drita.
“This is my home.”
“Life is something to live,” Drita says. “Every moment I have optimism.”
The evening call to prayer goes out softly across Pristhina. Albanians are Muslims, though few are a very religious. As one Dutch photographer jokes to me, “The only religion of the Albanians is Albanianism.”
D and I are walking outside the office of the United Nation Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). We have just eaten a large pizza and salad dinner. The owner of the restaurant proudly shown us the twisted casing of a faulty missile that had been fired by an American plan into a Serb police station during the war. The missile hadn’t exploded correctly and stands in the restaurant. Albanians have written notes on it. “Thank you” has been inscribed several times.
We go to the Phoenix bar, the primary hangout for the internationals working in Kosovo. Directly next to the UNMIK compound, there are begger chldren pleading for coins outside. Inside, the bar is full of forty-something year old Americans, Brits, Germans, Italians, Dutch, and Swiss.
The international workers are getting drunk and dancing to twenty year old hits played by a live band. The bass player has a wireless bass and while playing he dances across the tops of tables. At one point, he even runs outside to play through the window. His antics are cheered and he comes back inside grinning.
The main objective for the night seems to be finding someone to go home with. Large middle aged woman are stuffed into tiny dresses. Men pull dances moves from the seventies. I look over at D.
Blankly, he is sipping his beer.
I pour my drink into someone else’s glass and we leave.
At StripDepo, a cafe/bar that is not in any way a strip club, two Albanian businessmen call us over. They want to explain the difficulties in importing fruit from Greece into Kosovo. “You are always having to pay off the police here,” they say.
Kosovo needs a strong hand to function well, they say. But things are getting improving. For example government employees no longer have unlimited cell phone plans.
D and I agree that canceling unlimited cell phone usage for government employees is a good idea.
One of the businessmen had been in London during the war. He gave money to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) every month and had volunteered to fight, but was been told all the KLA needed was money.
There was no shortage of fighters.
The other businessman had been in Prishtina during the war. He had tried to escape to Macedonia, but his car was stopped by Serbian paramilitaries. They put an AK-47 to his head and took everything.
“They knew who I was,” he says. “They had a list of all the wealthy people they wanted to steal from.”
With nothing left, he had returned to his house in Prishtina and stayed there, only going outside to take walks in his garden.
That was March 1999. Until the NATO bombing began in April all he heard was shooting and the detonations of cars that the Yugoslav National Army and Serbian paramilitaries filled with explosives and rolled down the street to terrify people.
I ask what they think of Serbs.
In response they tell a story of an Albanian family living in a Prishtina apartment next to a Serb family, unable to leave for fear of being killed on the street. Serb paramilitaries were living in the neighboring apartment building and would go out searching for Albanians. Every day the Serb family would intercept them and convince the paramilitaries to leave their Albanians neighbors alone.
I ask the businessmen that had stayed in Prishtina during the war how he felt when NATO began to bomb.
“Extra,” he says.
“He was extra happy,” his friend says.