Exploring a Young Peace: Reflections on Kosovo

Written by George Foden, cover photo, ‘Peace’ in Prizren, by Eleonora Costa

Additional contributions by Martina Cabraja, Eleonora Costa, Christina Hasenhüttl, Soleil Westendorf.

Standing atop the Kaljaja Fortress, you are met with the beautiful panoramic view of the city of Prizren below and the majesty of Mount Pastrik on the horizon. As you catch your breath, you come to notice some of the signs of its violent history dotted between the ruins. Constructed, by some accounts, as early as 1019, the fortress remained an important defensive position throughout Byzantine and Ottoman rule; used for nearly 900 years until its capture by Serbia in the First Balkan War. It oversaw both the annexation of Prizren by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War and the invasion of the Italians in the Second. During the Kosovo War, it bore witness from the hilltop as many of the residents of Prizren were forced or intimidated into leaving the city. Today, it stands as a Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance above a city that is teeming with life, abuzz with tourists and excited activity from the cafes and restaurants that line the central square.

The history of Kosovo as a whole is similarly tumultuous. As we approach 19 years of peace following the Kosovo War, however, a national resilience and perhaps even optimism echoes that of the fortress that overlooks its second-largest city. Although there is much to be said for the efforts of the peace process thus far, this optimism must be tempered by the fact that there is a lot of work still to be done in Kosovo in order to mend the still-evident ethnic divisions and develop the economy that was severely affected by the conflict. We (the PCRC Fall 2017 intern group) traveled to Kosovo with the hope of gaining a better understanding of the transitional justice processes in the region, and to see how they compare to the experience of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our experience demonstrated the ways in which the local population is taking up this challenge, and left us with a sense of hope for the future of the young nation. In our short time, we were lucky enough to visit Prizren, Pristina and Mitrovica ―three very different cities with very different stories― and meet many interesting people working to improve the situation in their communities.

The conflict that rocked Kosovo was even more recent than the wars in its former Yugoslav neighbors, and the large presence of international organizations and peacebuilding NGOs suggests that the progress in the peace process is ongoing. In Pristina and Mitrovica the international community is particularly visible. EULEX, the EU rule of law mission to Kosovo, has its base in Pristina and there are a large number of civilian personnel working on strengthening local capacity in tackling legal issues such as corruption, organized crime and the investigation of war crimes. In the north of the country, the international presence is more immediately noticeable, with K-FOR and EULEX armed forces patrolling the ethnically divided city in an overtly militaristic peacekeeping capacity. These two elements of the international mission in Kosovo demonstrate where the young state is at in terms of its transitional process.

Grand Hotel Pristina, photo by Eleonora Costa

The divided city of Mitrovica, located near the Serbian border in the north, is an obvious example of this tension. During the Kosovo war, it was subject to some of the worst examples of ethnic cleansing in the country. It was the site of much Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla activity, reaching its height in 1999, and so the Serb minority in the city was the target of much violence, with many being displaced to the north of the river. Meanwhile, the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in other parts of the country led to many ethnic Albanians fleeing their hometowns to take refuge on the south bank, further enhancing the ethnic divide. Today, it is effectively split in two by the River Ibar that runs through the center of the city, with the northern bank dominated by Serb flags and monuments and the south by Albanian cultural landmarks. K-FOR jeeps and EULEX armed police officers guard the only bridge that crosses the river. The last incidence of violence occurred in 2013 when a Lithuanian EU police officer was killed in a burst of gunfire near to the bridge. As of September 2017, nobody has been charged with his murder. In that context, perhaps the armed presence does not seem excessive. There is a continued need for an international commitment to keeping the peace whilst these ethnic tensions remain. But, as is emphasized in a 2012 study funded by Freidrich Ebert Stiftung on the experiences of both Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is important to ensure that local actors feel empowered to own their own peace in order for the process to be sustainable in the long-term.

Two such local organizations we had the pleasure of meeting with during our time in Kosovo, the Mitrovica Rock School and Girls Coding Kosovo, demonstrate just two of the innovative ways that local people are taking their future into their own hands and challenging the legacy of the past. By focusing on nurturing skills and developing artistic interests in young people, these organizations and many like them are helping to create a new generation of Kosovars that are moving beyond the ethnicity-based identity politics of the past in order to ensure that Kosovo continues to flourish artistically, culturally and economically.

“Newborn,” Pristina, photo by Soleil Westendorf

Whilst initiatives such as these work largely under the radar in local communities to bridge gaps through artistic and cultural pursuits, it is perhaps economic development that is the most immediately visible element of the peace process. Although Kosovo remains the poorest economy in the former-Yugoslav region, the vast construction projects visible from the main roads around Pristina and the bars and restaurants aimed at the international community hint at a growth in the private sector. With more than 30% of the population currently living in poverty, there is a certain tension in seeing the bars, restaurants, and cafes in the capital that appear to be directed towards attracting the international community. With the use of the Euro making everyday items seem slightly more expensive than in BiH, one wonders how easy it is for the average Kosovar to get by living in a major city. Outside of the major population centers, much of Kosovo appears very rural, but the large ongoing construction projects, industrial zones and rapid growth of tourism in recent years hint at a future move away from this way of life. What that will mean for the average standard of living remains to be seen, but it is fair to say Kosovo will likely look very different in ten or twenty years’ time.

For the time being, however, Kosovo remains a troubled state. With beautiful landscapes and a huge array of potential cultural destinations for tourism but ongoing tension and a global perception of instability preventing many from visiting, there is much work still to be done in the peace process. There are and will continue to be many obstacles, but the local determination that we witnessed in our short trip suggests that there are many organizations and people willing to take up the challenge. The peace process in Kosovo is at a stage where local actors are beginning to take the lead in community initiatives, and making the steps required to own their own peace. Much like the fortress at Prizren, one can hope that Kosovo will be able to fully shed its violent past and become a symbol of hope for those areas of the world engaged in conflict.

*Views expressed in this story reflect those of the author and not an organizational stance by PCRC.*