Justin Vela

The Book: Kosovo declares independence…February 2008

leave a comment »

Kosovo Albanians declare independence from Serbia. Pristina, Kosovo. February 2008.

In Belgrade there is a small demonstration against Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

He is compared to Milosevic.

I realize that Kostunica did not publicly support either Tadic or Nikolic in the second round of the election. Why not? Parliamentary elections will be held this May in Serbia. Kostunica appears to be setting his party up to to take the most seats by appealing to the discontent over the loss of Kosovo, something he is betting will turn Serbs against the EU.

In an email Igor writes, “… As for Kostunica… no he isn’t going down…Big words are being said, and none of those about going european way… the european story is fading away slowly. All they are saying is that if Kosovo declares indipendence Serbia will do this.. do that… blah blah… But what about us, i ask? But no, somehow, we young people are being put to side, while our smart politicians are solving “important things…” It appears that we and our future are going to be collateral damage of Kosovo indipendence… So… it would be a really interesting week for us (and a weekend, and next week, and the week after, and so on… you get the idea) maybe you will not need to go as far as Cuba, same thing is about to happen here, without lovely cars and beaches of course 🙂 those come in time… we are just starting our own “isolated country – tourism attraction” thing….”

The following Saturday, suddenly, the Albanian flag, red with a massive black eagle, is everywhere.

Cars and people parade around a block of downtown Pristina.

Independence will be declared the next day.

The center point of the parade is outside the Grand Hotel Pristina where most of the approximately 2,000 journalists covering the independence declaration are staying. The sidewalks are packed and passing Albanians sit or stand on the tops of the cars and wave out the windows. They dance and cheer. “Thank you! Thank you!” they yell in different languages. US, British, German, Italian, and EU flags are waved alongside the Albanian flags.

A few people wear black t-shirts that has a raised middle finger on the back with the words, “Bye, bye Serbia.”

Kosovo declares independence…

Gezuar Pavaresia.

Happy independence.

Banners with this phrase are everywhere. Is is Sunday, the 17th of February 2008. There is snow across the streets of Pristina. A sharp wind blows through the city and the sky is a light blue. It is early, about six-thirty in the morning and there is no one on the streets.

D and I meet our translator, an Albanian man named L, and drive to Mitrovica. The highway exit is guarded by several KFOR soldiers and two armored vehicles. We eat a breakfast of burek and yogurt at a small restaurant and then walk across the bridge into Serbian north Mitrovica.

“Where are you from?” demand a group of middle aged Serb men in leather jackets.

They are standing by the bridge looking across the Ibar stonily.

D answers.

“We don’t speak to British,” the Serb men say.

D persists.

One man agrees to speak.

North Mitrovica, which was so friendly a month before, is now menacing. More men, in their late teens to late fifties, arrive to stand by the bridge and look across at the unmoving Albanian part of the city. They scowl and have their arms crossed in front of them. They do not know what to do.

As D interviews the Serb man, L and I stand quietly off to the side. Albanians and Americans are the people these men most blame for the impending independence declaration. We do not want to provoke anything with our presence, but both of us want to be in north Mitrovica. “Especially on this day,” L says.

When D finishes his interview, we walk around the loop that composes most of central north Mitrovica. There is a truck of American KFOR soldiers parked along the side of the road. A few restaurants and stores are open, but most people have decided to stay inside their homes.

“Where are you from?”

We hear the man yelling in English across the street. “Where are you from?” he yells again.

He is clearly aggressive, but instead of giving a wave and walking off or pretending not to understand D says, “Britain.”

The man advances, spitting on the ground as he comes.

“You know what you’ve done to us…You know what you’ve done to my country…Fuck off…” he yells. “Fuck off…”

L and I start walking away. D stays looking at the man for a moment longer, then turns and follows us back to the bridge.

The crowd of men has grown. One man talks about the Serbian presidential election. “Nikolic is a real Serb. I don’t now where Tadic comes from,” he says.

A car speeds up to the edge of the bridge and the driver screams out the window.


“This may seem impossible,” Valdesa Idiri says. “But I have never felt like giving up. I like people. I get strength from people. Some people say that all peace work is equal to zero. I don’t believe that.”

Idiri is the director of the Motesole (CBM), an organization that works to promote reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians. We are talking in her office next to the bridge in south Mitrovica as cars speed around and honk their horns outside. The independence declaration is expected to be made within a few hours.

“The beginning was the most difficult,” Idiri says. “We had different provocations from both sides. The most radical people did not want to support inter-ethnic discussion. We have talked with them and are open with them even if they do not support us.”

She says that as an ethnically divided city Mitrovica will “have a special place within an independant Kosovo.” The city will continue to be divided for a long time, but she sees it eventually turning into two municipalities with a joint board. Long term supervision from the internationals will be needed.

“Coming to terms with the past is the most important thing,” she says. “You cannot build a sustainable future without talking about the past.”

One of Montesole’s core programs is bringing young Serbs and young Albanians together to talk about the past. They listen to each other’s experience and talk about what growing up in Kosovo has been like. They tell each other what it was like in the city where they were born, about what statements they heard from their elders while growing up, and what they had seen happen in Kosovo during and after the war.

“People talk about culture and music in Kosovo,” Idiri says. “But they don’t talk about the war. The past is something that you have to touch. We want to have Serbs and Albanians exchange experiences and stop the legends and desires that are born out of loss.”

“How do you feel about the international forces in Kosovo?”

“For now their presence is for the best,” Idiri says. “We have to be very calm for independence. It is good to have the internationals here right now. My dream though is for the time when they go.”

Serbian government representatives, including Kosovo minister Goran Bogdanović, approached Serbs along in the Ibar River in north Mitrovica, Kosovo hours before Kosovo Albanians declared independence. February 2008.


At 2 PM a group of representatives from the Serbian government come up to the men crowding in front of the bridge in north Mitrovica.

Goran Bogdanovic, the Kosovo minister, says that the Serbian government is standing with them. He says that UN resolution 1244, which was adopted to allow the international presence in Kosovo, is being violated. According to the resolution the internationals cannot support the independence declaration, he says.

While technically true, Bogdanovic’s words are an attempt to rally supporters for politicians whose only goals are control. I cannot photograph this moment. I see a group of confused and angry men, hoping for support from politicians who care about them only as part of Kosovo, the symbol that has allowed the Serbian population to be moved, so often in dangerous ways.

“Kosovo in the future will face many challenges, but no challenge will stop us from constructing our countries economy, health, and EU integration. Our faith has never been greater. Our dreams are unlimited.”

L translates the words of Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. He is speaking live on a TV in south Mitrovica, a few hundred few from the bridge.

Thaci switches to Serbian to say, “We will do all we can to give rights to all communities in Kosovo. Especially the Serb community.”

In Albanian he says, “Independence is the will of the people.”

The Albanians assembled in the cafe cheer. They make D and I sign a guest-book. “We honor those who honor us,” they say.

A list of countries that have already agreed to recognize Kosovo run across the bottom of the screen.

Dominic takes out his passport. “In a few minutes we’ll be in a different country. Good thing I have this.”

Cell phones cameras are pointed at the TV screen.

Thaci reads the independence declaration.

As he reads…the people in the cafe…they sing. They hold up their children so they can see the TV screen. They look around at each other and clutch their drinks. The smiles on their faces grow.

When Thaci is done reading the declaration the members of parliament raise their hands and without a dissenting vote approve the declaration.

Kosovo is a country.

Everyone in the cafe is clapping. They clap and look around at each other, but do not move.

They are frozen.

Kosovo is independent. But they do not know what to do. How do you express the happiness of your land becoming independant for the first time?

A man runs in from outside. He grabs the owner of the cafe and they embrace.

Seeing this, the people in the cafe, they begin to move. They shake hands and hug. They start singing again.

Across the bottom of the screen runs the headline:

Kosovo Declares Independence.

Out on the street, firecrackers go off. Albanians are coming out of their homes. Music fills the street. They form circles and dance with their arms up in the air and looks of great satisfaction upon their faces.

Later that night L and I stand with his family in Pristina waiting for fireworks. “You must think we’re pretty silly,” he says. “But we’ve never seen fireworks like this. We’ve seen them on TV only. From Sydney on New Years, but never with our own eyes. This is everything to us.”

The fireworks go off. For twenty minutes from different locations around Pristina they thunder above us. The fireworks are accompanied by some the celebratory AK-47 fire that the woman from the OSCE warned about. The Albanians know the sound of the weapons only too well.

This time, they cheer it.

L and I go drink Peja. A special independence bottle has been produced. Around the top the label has the American flag. All the clubs are full of drinking, dancing Albanians, heaving to national songs that are played with Ciftelias, long wooden string instruments.

Albanians are somber people. Tonight is probably as wild as they ever get. They are in a state of shock however. They know that this is the moment that they have been waiting for, the moment that they thought would perhaps never come. Yet now it has arrived and they are unsure how to react. They are happy from somewhere deep inside, but are completely unable, physically or verbally to display the entirety of what independence means to them.

“People are shocked,” I observe.

L nods. He takes out his UNMIK passport and shows it to me.

“UNMIK is not a country,” he says. “It is not my nationality. This is no good anymore.

He slams the passport onto the table.

“I am not a Serb,” he says. “I am not an Albanian from Albania. When I filled out forms I always had to mark ‘other’ or ‘unknown’ under nationality.

“I don’t know how to explain it. We are all full of really deep emotion. I think we Albanians are positive people. Really optimistic. Maybe we are so optimistic we are a little stupid. It is a party now and will be for days. It will be a long road though. Eventually people will notice things have not actually changed very much and they will become frustrated. And that is OK. That is good as long as they also take some kind of action. They will want change immediately, but that will not be possible. It is a process.”

Kosovo Albanians celebrate independence from Serbia in Pristina, Kosovo in February 2008.


Read previous chapter.

Learn more about this book.


Written by Justin Vela

December 12, 2010 at 11:28 am

Posted in Travels 2006-2009

Tagged with , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: