It’s my first time to be back in Prishtina for nearly seven years, since March 2007. That was the year the car bomb went off outside the hotel where Dean LaGrange and her husband were staying, they exited with alacrity through the back door. There was a CIDA fellow staying there as well, but he had enjoyed a personal evening with a bottle of wine and only found out about the incident when he went down for breakfast the next day.
On this trip I immediately noticed the organization of the arrivals hall, neat lines funnelling us to the immigration police. An EasyJet flight had just landed, so the hall was full, but we were processed quickly and smoothly. My bag arrived, a miracle given the short transit time in Istanbul due to the previously mentioned delays, and I went outside in to the warm Balkan air. Warm and clear, no hint of the smoke that used to belch from the power station at Obiliq. In 2003 a Danish study had concluded that Obiliq emitted, in one year, the same amount of particulate pollution as …. Germany. All of it. It has been cleaned up now, and apparently there are not even regular power cuts in Prishtina. Ah, progress.
At the gates to the airport I noted the absence of Russian soldiers, one of whom once had demanded my business card at gun point. It was only after I passed one over that he smiled and said, “thank you, I collect these”. In some corner of a foreign land …
The barbed wire that used to protect the white Sikorski and dark green Blackhawk helicopters is gone now, as are they – some to Kabul, no doubt, and perhaps even one of those I had watched earlier that morning. In their place stands the new International Terminal, built by Chinese and Turkish investors, a temple to mammon replacing the machines of war.
The drive in to Prishtina took us along a new four lane highway, lit by pairs of bright halogen lights, the red-tile roofed houses flashing past. The Turkish checkpoint is no more, the raised sentry box now covered in climbing plants of some sort, and the old British Army store is a supermarket now. In town I see lots of new apartments, a bright pedestrian precinct, and signs everywhere extolling the virtue of candidates for the upcoming municipal and federal elections.
The next day we had coffee at a café on Mother Theresa Boulevard. We were under an awning, out of the sun, enjoying macciato – a specific Kosovar blend not found elsewhere. Some children set off three little paper fire-crackers, pop pop pop. Nobody else moved, I hunched down and checked the roof tops for snipers. I guess I should stick to chai sabz instead of coffee.
On Monday we drove to Prizren, along a brand new autobahn, the old 2 hour drive through Shtime and Suhareka now taking 45 minutes. It was still Kosovo, though, with cows wandering the hard shoulder.
In Prizren I drank from the fountain, an act which means you will always return, and then ate qofta (pronounced ‘chufta’) in a restaurant by the river. Ah, Prizren qofta, small rolls of minced meat (beef, I think) with peppers and onion, a pile of red pepper flakes and another of salt on the side of the plate, some bread, perhaps a small salad of tomatoes and sliced lettuce. Bliss! With the sound of the water running over the cobbles in the river, the Imam calling the faithful to prayer, the entrepreneurs selling freshly roasted chestnuts to the rest of us.
Back along the old road through Gjakova, still in a state of reconstruction after the para-militaries burned and looted their way through fourteen years ago. The old city is having its iconic wooden buildings reconstructed, and the cobble stones carefully relaid. A few shops have reopened, although I saw no (other) tourists, and we drank macchiato at a small café and joked about seeing Old Gjakova before it was finished.
In to Prishtina as dusk fell, to find a slew of e-mail messages from Istanbul. The internet connection at the Kosovo consulate is down, the visas are delayed, only 20 issued and eight will have to stay overnight and try again tomorrow. The next day flight is full, people coming to Kosovo for the official opening of the new terminal. 2 seats located, everyone else … can they fly business class? Not heard from you, so tickets purchased for tomorrow, 20 are on flight tonight. The rising tone of panic as messages were sent and no response received, I was in Prizren, eating qofta! Then the dealing with the problem, and a solution found, and implemented. I was in Gjakova, drinking macchiato! Then the final see you tomorrow. It’s good to know my role is critical!
Out to the airport, and the 20 arrive, with a story of their own to share. In Istanbul, abandoned at the gate by the ‘boss’ who was staying to sort out the Embassy, two young members of staff were given the responsibility of making sure everyone got to Kosovo. Being educators, they made a crocodile, with a guide at the front and a guard at the back, and 18 senior educators in between. They made their way through the terminal – and for many, having just completed their first ever flight, this was their first ever travel outside Afghanistan. But they were late, and in a rush, and not able to properly enjoy their surroundings.
They navigated the first moving sidewalk OK, and the second, but as they rode the third the guide realized that he had missed the gate. At the end of the walkway he stepped off, and started jogging back towards the gate. As he progressed up the side of the moving walkway, but in the other direction, the group all turned as one and started trying to go back, against the flow. Apparently there were bags and briefcases and elbows all akimbo, people bouncing of the sides and off each other, having to jog to stay in one place and run to actually go back to the start. It must have been a sight to be seen.
In relaying the story over their welcoming meal and chai, the Afghans were roaring with laughter, some wiping tears. One particularly large man was teased unmercifully. A lady said it was like Mr. Bean, which surprised me – and then I discovered that he is much loved in Afghanistan, and people vied to tell me their favourite episode. The Christmas turkey one came out high in the rankings, and we sat talking and laughing long in to the evening.
Twenty Afghans, three Canadians, and a Kosovar, in Prishtina, drinking chai and telling stories – there is hope.
Prishtina, Kosovo. October 2013