June 30, 2008

The Road to Kosovo, Part II

My friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere and I awoke at first light on the shores of Montenegro. We originally planned to catch a bus or a taxi up the mountains into Kosovo, but we still had a few hours before it was time to drop off the rental car. So we took a brief detour into nearby Albania, the country that, at least until recently, had the reputation for being the most politically, economically, and criminally dysfunctional in all of Europe.

Robert Young Pelton's Web site Come Back Alive still warns would-be travelers about the region where Sean and I were headed: “In just a few short years Albania has had the distinction of changing from a country with the most paranoid and overcontrolled communist state ever to a country without a state. It was tricky, but Albanians have risen to the challenge to become Europe's most lawless people at the turn of the century…Being a foreigner, unless you happen to know a couple of the local banditos, you stand an excellent chance of being fleeced. The minute you walk in the door and open your mouth, the $ sign will start ringing for just about everybody there - except you.”

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Mountains, Northern Albania

Whether that was still true of Northern Albania or not, I didn't know. Neither did Sean. And we were going in there with Belgrade plates on the car, which might not have been the brightest idea we came up with on our trip. The majority of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were displaced by Serb forces during Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic-cleansing campaign in 1999, so showing up in Albania with a Serbian car only made our detour more potentially dicey than it already was.

If you drive from Montenegro to Albania you will first pass through the beautiful and prosperous ethnically-Albanian region that straddles the border.

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The Albanian town of Ulcinj, Montenegro

The Albanians of Montenegro were lucky, I thought as we approached the customs agents, to live under Josip Broz Tito's relatively lenient communist system in Yugoslavia instead of suffering Enver Hoxha's full-bore Stalinist regime just a few miles away in Albania proper. Hoxha, who ranks among the most thoroughly oppressive tyrants in history, made Tito's dictatorship look libertarian.

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Rozafa Castle, Northern Albania

The most enduring physical legacies of Albanian communism are the remains of more than 700,000 military bunkers Hoxha’s regime installed all over the country as part of his mass mobilization campaign for the entire society. Everyday civilians were expected to hunker down in these things with machine guns and fight off an invasion from “bourgeois imperialists” or internal counter-revolutionaries. Rounded one-man concrete pill boxes still proliferate across the country in fields, in backyards, on the side of the roads, and even on beaches.

Post-communist Albania was an economic catastrophe, and what little progress had been made after the dismantlement of the regime came apart in the late 1990s when both the economy and the authority of the state unraveled. Albania – especially Northern Albania where Sean and I were headed – became by far the most lawless and chaotic place in Europe.

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Sheep, Northern Albania

The country now, though, is in a transitional period. The terrible extremes of both oppression and anarchic lawlessness are past.

“Bunkers!” Sean said.

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One of 700,000 bunkers built by Albania's communist tyrant Enver Hoxha

Sure enough, just up ahead, perhaps only a mile or so past the border, were a handful of Enver Hoxha's 700,000 bunkers.

I pulled over the car. We got out to take pictures. A large group of children and their schoolteacher excitedly ran up to and surrounded us.

“Hello! Hello!” the kids said. “Mister! Mister! What's your name?”

I felt like I was in Iraq – and I don't mean that in a bad way. I can't go anywhere in Iraq, especially not with my camera slung around my neck, without being mobbed by children. This never happened once in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Montenegro, but it happened instantly upon arrival in Albania.

“There is a very nice view on top of this hill,” the schoolteacher said to Sean. “Follow us up, I will show you.”

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Bunker and kids, Northern Albania

So we followed the lady with the kids in tow up the hill above Hoxha's bunkers. Kids grabbed my arm and excitedly asked my name as we climbed.

“My name is Michael,” I said to a young boy. “What's yours?”

“Mario,” he said.

“Mister, where are you from?” said a little girl.

“America,” I said.

“Yay!” The kids cheered.

Albania is fanatically pro-American, which is perhaps a bit counterintuitive to many Americans since it is at least nominally a Muslim-majority country. The conventional assumption that Muslims hate Americans everywhere isn't true.

“You should have seen President Bush’s face when he came to Albania,” an ethnic Albanian man later said to me in Kosovo. “All over Western Europe he was met by protests, but the entire country of Albania turned out to welcome him. He was so happy. You could see it on his face.”

Albanian pro-Americanism resembles that of both Poland and Iraqi Kurdistan. The unspeakably oppressive communist regime pushed Albanians strongly into the U.S.-led Western camp, and the humanitarian rescue of Albanians in Kosovo from Slobodan Milosevic's tyrannical despotism bolstered that sentiment even more.

More kids tugged at me and wanted their pictures taken. It was overwhelming, and more than a little bit startling.

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Kids, Northern Albania

Slavs in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro are friendly people for the most part, but they are not exuberantly so, at least not to strangers. They are a bit friendlier than Western Europeans, perhaps, but their temperament is still European. These Albanians, by contrast, at least these children, were as ecstatically friendly as Arabs and Kurds.

The view from the top of the hill was as expansive as Sean and I were going to see.

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Countryside, Northern Albania

We needed to get back in the car and head into the city of Shkodra for a brief coffee and breakfast before we ran out of time. Our rented car was due later that day in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and we still had no idea how we would travel to Kosovo without our car.

Shkodra, by European standards, is not doing well. It's ramshackle. Many communist-era housing blocks are still run down and drab.

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Housing blocks, Shkodra, Albania

Others, though, have been improved slightly with coats of paint.

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Painted housing blocks, Shkodra, Albania

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Pharmacy and apartment tower, Shkodra, Albania

Many of the traditional buildings that weren’t bulldozed for the sake of “progress” are still a bit rough around the edges.

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Shkodra, Albania

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Shkodra, Albania

“It looks like Mexico,” Sean said.

I would not have thought of that, but I can see why he said it. The traditional architecture is of the Mediterranean style, as are traditional (Spanish) buildings in Mexico. The styles aren't the same, but they are recognizably similar.

Traffic was crazy, in both good ways and bad. Balkan people are notoriously bad drivers, but after living in Lebanon I thought traffic everywhere in the former Yugoslavia was perfectly civilized. Albanians drive like Lebanese – which is to say, more aggressively than drivers I have seen anywhere else in the world. Just to underscore the point, I saw a No Honking road sign. The only other place I've ever seen these things – and it was an exact duplicate – was in Lebanon.

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No Honking sign, Albania

I'll admit to enjoying that kind of traffic, however. The truth is that people in these countries are not bad drivers. They just look like bad drivers to people from outside. What they are is aggressive, and their reflexes and awareness are much more sharply honed that those of people who routinely drive in tame and predictable traffic. It’s fun to join in if you know how and are used to it.

Sean and I had no time to find food in Shkodra, so we decided to just stop for coffee.

“Hello, hello!” two men said as I sat in a metal chair at the table next to them in front of a small brightly painted coffee shop on a main road. They saw my camera and gestured for me to take their picture. So I took their picture. As it turned out, it wasn't just the children of Albania who were outgoing and gregarious with visitors.

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Two men, Shkodra, Albania

My chair was right next to a generator. I have no idea what shape Albania’s electrical grid is in, but the one in Kosovo is hardly more advanced than Iraq’s. Power cuts are common, almost daily, occurrences. Seeing a plugged-in generator outside a café was not a good sign.

When it was time to pay our waiter for the coffee, I realized we had no Albanian leks, the national currency.

“Do you seen an ATM around anywhere?” I said to Sean.

“You're going to go to an ATM just to pay for coffee?” he said.

“Well,” I said, “I have some American money. Maybe they'll take that.” I seriously doubted the waiter had any interest in currency from Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Montenegro.

I pulled an American twenty dollar bill out of my backpack and waved it at the waiter. “Will you take American money?” I said.

“I don't know how much that is,” he said. “What's the exchange rate?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “We just got here.”

“The coffee is from house,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I said. “Here, just take the twenty.”

“No, no,” he said. “I can't take your money. The coffee is from house. Welcome to Albania.”

It’s too bad we couldn’t have stayed longer. From the car it appeared Shkodra has a number of high-end restaurants and cool places to hang out, in addition having the usual European consumer goods for sale alongside more basic shops that cater to people who still have little money. Shkodra is a city in transition, which is often the most rewarding kind of place to visit.

There are many statues of national heroes in town, and the one of Isa Boletini, who led battles for independence in Kosovo against both the Turkish Ottomans and the Serbs in the late 1800s, stood out for its brazen militancy.

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Isa Boletini

Sean and I drove north out of town to catch the road into Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital.

“There's a lot more money in the countryside,” Sean said, “than there is in the city. It looks like everyone with the money to build a new house would rather build it out here.”

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Mosque and house, Northern Albania

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Church and house, Northern Albania

That seemed right. Shkodra wasn't a slum-ridden city, but it still looked a bit rough. The countryside just to the north of city looked solidly middle class and above.

More of Enver Hoxha's crazy bunkers were in place near the Montenegrin border – a lot more.

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Bunkers facing Montenegro, Northern Albania

Montenegro is a tiny country. Only half a million people live there today. The capital has fewer than 150,000. Of course Montenegro was part of the much larger and more muscular Yugoslavia when the bunkers were built, but it still struck me as patently absurd that all these pill boxes were set up along the border of such a moderate and non-expansionist country.

When I stopped the car and stepped out to take pictures of bunkers, two young Albanian boys said hello and posed for a photograph.

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Two boys, Northern Albania

Sean and I waited in line behind two cars at the border post. A handful of men stood around smoking cigarettes while waiting to get their passports stamped out. One glanced down at our license plate and went bug-eyed. He reminded me that we rented our car in Belgrade when he pointed at the license plate. “You took a Serb car to Albania?” I'm pretty sure that’s what he said. He might have said “You're Serbs and you went to Albania?” I can’t translate precisely, but it was one or the other.

“We're Americans!” I said in a cheery voice. “We rented the car in Belgrade, but we're Americans.”

“Aha!” he said and laughed, as if that explained everything.

*

“The price is one Euro per kilometer,” the taxi driver said at the Podgorica airport where Sean and I had just dropped off the car.

“You're kidding,” I said.

“One Euro per kilometer,” he said again. “It is the standard rate.”

The drive from Podgorica to Prishtina, Kosovo's capital, is around 300 kilometers.

“That's way too much money,” I said. Sean and I would be paying the guy almost one hundred dollars an hour. It was not going to happen. It would be better to take a bus or buy a plane ticket than hire a taxi into Kosovo if that's how much it costs. “We're going to have to discuss this,” I said.

The Europcar employee who met us at the taxi stand to pick up the car overheard our conversation.

“I can call a friend of mine,” he said quietly and conspiratorially. “This guy is charging you too much money.

“Terrific,” I said. “Yes, please call your friend.”

“Just don’t tell this guy I’m calling someone for you,” he said. “Tell him you’ll take a bus or something.”

So we got ourselves a licensed taxi driver who agreed to take us to Prishtina for less than half the amount we were first quoted. He spoke almost no English at all. His vocabulary was hardly better than my extremely limited knowledge of his. Sean and I more of less gave up trying to engage him in conversation and just let him drive.

The road to Kosovo from Montenegro is breathtaking.

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Canyon, Montenegro

Few places in the world can boast of such dramatic mountainous scenery. Several Serbs I met in Belgrade said Montenegro is the most beautiful country in all the former Yugoslavia, and from what I've seen, they're right.

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Canyon wall, Montenegro

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Canyon, Montenegro

Much of inland Montenegro looks like the Mediterranean region must have looked before the massive deforestation that disfigures most of it now. So few people live in this country that even alongside the major highway into Kosovo is mostly still pristine wilderness. I have never seen such expansive Mediterranean forest anywhere else.

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Mediterranean forest, Montenegro

Sean tried to ask our driver Ratko a few questions using simple words and improvised sign language. He made fists with both hands and placed them together. “Montenegro and Serbia,” he said, then pulled his fists apart quickly to refer to Montenegro's declaration of independence from Serbia two years ago. “Good or bad?”

“Good!” Ratko said.

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Ratko in the restaurant at the Hotel Afa, Prishtina, Kosovo

Sean did the two-fisted maneuver again, only this time he said “Serbia and Kosovo.” He was trying to figure out what Ratko thought of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia.

“Good!” Ratko said again.

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Mountains, Montenegro

So far, everyone Sean and I spoke to in the former Yugoslavia thought Kosovo's newfound independence was a good thing – including the Serbs we had coffee with in Belgrade on two separate occasions. The Serbs we met, though – Filip David and Predrag Delibasic – are cosmopolitan writers and intellectuals who don't adhere to the Serbian Nationalist line.

“Montenegro and the European Union?” Sean said.

“No!” Ratko said. “European Union…big Yugoslavia.”

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Mountains, Montenegro

I have a hard time imaging how a tyrant and mass-murderer like Slobodan Milosevic would ever be in charge of the European Union, but Ratko’s skepticism still made some sense after his experience with an over-sized multinational federation and its violent disintegration.

Ratko took us to a Montenegrin restaurant in a cold valley far above sea level shortly before the sun went down.

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Mountain restaurant, Montenegro

After dinner I decided to take a nap in the car. I was tired and could no longer see the scenery anyway. Sean woke me an hour later just as we approached the Kosovo border.

“Mike,” he said and shook me awake. “I think if we keep taking this road we're going to end up in Mitrovica. Isn't Mitrovica that dangerous city in Kosovo that we’re supposed to avoid?”

“It's fine,” I said. “The road goes up to South Mitrovica, but doesn't cross into North Mitrovica. North Mitrovica is the place we need to stay out of.”

“Okaaaay,” Sean said. He sounded skeptical, but I knew South Mitrovica was fine. North Mitrovica was the place to avoid.

North Mitrovica is a bad place for Americans because it's the most politically radicalized of the Serb cities in Kosovo, and it's the most unstable and violent. Mitrovica used to be a relatively normal mixed Serb-Albanian city, but Albanians have since moved to the south side of the city, and Serbs live almost exclusively in the north across the bridge over the Ibar River that cuts the city in half.

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Ethnic map, Kosovo

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Mitrovica, Kosovo

Self-described Bridge Watchers – bands of political radicals, former paramilitary fighters, and garden variety troublemakers – have been standing watch on the Serb side of the bridge and harassing those who cross to the southern Albanian side. Sometimes those who attempt to cross are ganged up on by mobs and beaten up in the street.

Rioting exploded across the Serb side of the city in March when UN soldiers and police tried to clear out a courthouse occupied by Serbian Nationalists opposed to Kosovo's declaration of independence. Tanks were sent into the streets. More than 100 people were wounded in violent clashes. A Serb demonstrator was shot in the head. A police officer from Ukraine was killed by a hand grenade. Kosovo north of the Ibar isn't Iraq, but it's also not a place Sean and I had any business going without an escort, especially at night. Every single person I checked in with about traveling to North Mitrovica – including American soldiers and police officers stationed in Kosovo – warned me to stay out of there unless I was accompanied by soldiers from NATO.

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Tanks in North Mitrovica, copyright Getty Images

“I think we're almost to the border,” Sean said.

When we reached the last Montenegrin town before the border with Kosovo, Ratko found a civilian man on the sidewalk and pulled the car alongside him, presumably to get directions. The man on the street told Ratko which way to go and gestured left and right turns with his hands. Ratko then asked the man a question, and the man laughed and shrugged and appeared slightly nervous on our behalf. Sean and I assumed Ratko asked if it was safe for us to drive into Kosovo, and the man on the street figured it probably was, but he couldn't be sure.

After we left the last town in Montenegro, the road plunged rapidly from the Montenegrin mountains down toward the high rolling valley of Kosovo. We drove in absolute darkness. There were no street lights, no city lights, no front porch lights, and no oncoming headlights.

Towering Montenegro must make a spectacular backdrop to the west from Kosovo, I thought, and I anticipated looking back in our current direction in daylight from the country below.

We quickly cleared Montenegro's customs and got exit stamps in our passports. Then houses reappeared suddenly in the darkness before we reached the entry point on the other side.

“I guess we're in Kosovo now,” I said.

“Yes, Kosovo,” Ratko said.

I felt a small flush of excitement. Here was the country where Europe’s most recent conflict was waged. American soldiers are still stationed there to prevent another round of war and ethnic-cleansing. In that way, it’s the closest thing Europe has to Iraq. To paraphrase former Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel, Kosovo is not Norway, and it is not Denmark.

But where was Kosovo's entry point?

Ratko's headlights illuminated a sign welcoming us to the Republic of Serbia.

“That's strange,” I said to Sean. “Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, but they still haven't taken that sign down?”

“I'll bet that sign isn't long for this world,” Sean said.

We saw the entry point up ahead. A gigantic Serbian flag hung on a pole next to the customs house.

“Oh shit,” I said. “We went the wrong way. We aren't in Kosovo. We're in Serbia. This is the road from Montenegro to Belgrade, not to Kosovo.” Ratko thought he could take us to Prishtina by crossing the bridge from North Mitrovica – the one place in the country even American combat veterans from the Iraq war told us to stay out of. In all likelihood, it’s the most dangerous place on the continent for Americans.

A Serb policeman stepped out of the customs house. Ratko had been speeding down the mountain, and the officer held up his open hand for Ratko to stop and stared at him furiously for approaching the border post at such a high speed.

“This is what I tried to tell you when I woke you up an hour ago,” Sean said.

“Ah crap,” I said. “I was tired and didn't know what you meant. The road we were supposed to take goes to South Mitrovica, and that's what I thought you were talking about. That would have been fine.”

“We have to turn around and go back,” Sean said.

“It's too late now,” I said. “We're here. First we have to get away from the border post.”

Ratko stepped out of the car, spoke to the Serb police man, and handed over our passports. I heard him say “Prishtina.”

Great, I thought. Now the Serb police know we're trying to get to Prishtina. I hoped against hope that the border guard would tell Ratko about the Bridge Watchers and tell him we couldn’t pass. Ratko and I had no language in common, and I couldn't explain it. Serbia also bans entry to anyone with a Kosovo stamp in their passport. It was entirely possible that the border police would throw us out of the country before we could even get in.

The officer took Ratko inside the customs house.

“They're yelling at each other,” Sean said.

He was right. I could hear them. I sunk in my car seat and rubbed my eyes. This was not going well.

But Ratko came back a few minutes later with entry stamps in our passports. “Okay,” he said. Then he drove us toward Kosovo. I looked at my map and figured out where we were. Kosovo was only twenty or so miles away.

“We have to say something,” Sean said. “The police officer didn't warn him. He has no idea what he's doing.”

“I know it,” I said. I turned on the dome light, pointed at the map, and gestured for Ratko to pull over.

Ratko pulled over.

I didn't know how to tell him about the hazards of going through North Mitrovica. He hardly understood any English at all. So I traced the road on the map with my finger, and when my finger tip reached Mitrovica I made a slashing motion across my throat with my finger.

Ratko freaked out.

Of course I was exaggerating. No one would slit our throats in North Mitrovica. It isn’t that bad. But I didn't know how else to say “danger” in improvised sign language. Ratko and I shared at most two dozen words of vocabulary.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Ratko said.

“Yes, yes, yes,” I said.

I couldn't convince him, in part because he thought I was trying to convince him the situation was much more dire than it actually was.

Ratko pointed outside. “Kosovo,” he said.

“No,” I said. “We are not in Kosovo. We're in Serbia.” I pointed outside. “Serbia.”

He had no idea where we were.

I pointed behind us. “Serb police,” I said.

“International police,” he said.

“No!” I said.

“He wore a Serbian uniform,” Sean said. “The sign said Welcome to Serbia. They’re flying the Serbian flag. International soldiers wouldn’t do any of that.”

“If he were an international police officer,” I said to Sean, “he would have spoken English to us, not Serbian to Ratko.”

“Of course,” Sean said. “Doesn’t he get that?”

Ratko had an idea. He punched a number into his cell phone, spoke briefly to the person on the other end of the line, and handed the phone over to me. “Serbian friend,” he said. “English.”

Perfect.

I took the phone from Ratko.

“Hi,” I said to the Serb stranger on the other end of the line.

“Hello, Mister Michael,” the man said.

“Do you know what’s going on?” I said. “Ratko is trying to drive us to Prishtina from North Mitrovica. Do you know about the Bridge Watchers?”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

“Can you explain the situation to him for me please?” I said.

“Listen, Mister Michael,” he said. “I follow the news, I know what you are talking about. There was a problem with some extremists, yes, but the situation has been resolved.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I am sure. I follow the situation very closely from Belgrade.”

It was certainly possible. Reporters often let the world know when violence and mayhem break out and rarely bother to fill the rest of us in when trouble quiets down. If it bleeds, it leads. If there are no more riots, beatings, or body counts in North Mitrovica, word doesn’t get out. Serb reporters, though, are more likely to cover the situation than Western reporters because Serbs are directly involved. So I crossed my fingers and hoped Ratko's friend in Belgrade was right.

I handed the phone back to Ratko. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“What did he say?” Sean said.

“He said it’s resolved,” I said. “He’s sure of it. I don’t know, but somebody is about to be proven right or wrong by reality.”

We reached the entry point into Kosovo. It was manned by German army soldiers. Ratko rolled down the window.

“Hi!” I said to the soldier who spoke perfect English. “We're trying to get to Prishtina. Can we get through this way?”

“Yes, of course,” the soldier said. “You can pass.”

“There’s no more trouble on the bridge?” I said.

“Not today,” he said and handed back our passports. “The way is clear now. Enjoy your stay in Kosovo.”

Ratko slowly drove past a long line of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other NATO military vehicles.

“Montenegro good!” Ratko said loudly after we cleared what briefly looked like a war zone.

Sean and I laughed. There are no tanks in Montenegro.

I felt relieved after talking to the German soldier. If the road was safe up ahead, he should know. But we still hadn't cleared the Mitrovica bridge into the Albanian region of Kosovo, and I couldn’t fully relax until we did.

Serbian national flags were flown from houses even though were no longer in Serbia. Serbs on both sides of the border insist Kosovo is Serbia even though it is not. Kosovo’s Serbs even voted in Serbia’s most recent election. They now have their own representatives in a foreign country’s parliament, as well as their own parallel institutions inside the country they live in.

We drove past a mosque with the top of its minaret blown off. It looked like a gigantic pencil that had been snapped in two. For all the talk of Israel’s supposed war crimes against Palestinians and Lebanese, I never saw anything like this in the Middle East. On the contrary, I saw a mosque in Hezbollah-controlled South Lebanon surrounded by rubble. But the mosque itself was not even scratched. Even Hezbollah mosques are considered inviolable by the Israel Defense Forces.

KFOR (NATO's Kosovo Force) billboards showing two NATO soldiers and a helicopter had been erected in this Serb enclave of Kosovo. I thought it highly unlikely that Serbs in North Mitrovica appreciated seeing those every day.

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KFOR billboard, Prishtina, Kosovo

“You know we're banned from going to Serbia now, right?” I said to Sean.

“What?” he said.

“We just got entry stamps into Serbia,” I said, “but no corresponding exit stamps. If we leave through the Kosovo airport and don't go back out through Serbia, they will know we visited Kosovo. And they won't let us back in.”

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yep,” I said. “We'll have to do a stamp run to conceal our visit to Kosovo or we’ll be no more welcome in Serbia than we would be in Syria with Israeli stamps in our passports.”

Sean was disappointed.

“I wanted to show my wife Belgrade,” he said.

“Then you have to get a new passport.”

He needs a new one anyway. His current passport was stamped when he visited the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, so he's banned from visiting Greece. To my knowledge, Serbia and Greece are the only Balkan countries that act like Arab countries and ban even tourists with enemy stamps in their passports.

Ratko had no idea how to find the bridge in North Mitrovica to South Mitrovica, so he asked a random stranger, a young Serb man, in the middle of the night for directions. The young man told Ratko to follow him in his car, and we were taken to another bridge, a smaller one – not the infamous crossing guarded by the thuggish Bridge Watchers – and we crossed into the Albanian region of Kosovo.

“We made it,” I said when I saw a sign that said Kosova – the Albanian spelling.

A little more than an hour later, the brightly lit skyline of Prishtina loomed ahead just over a hill.

“At last,” I said. It was 2:00 in the morning.

Ratko didn't know how to find our hotel. I showed him my printed map, but it didn't help. None of us knew where we were. So he pulled into a gas station and asked the attendant for help. The attendant shrugged. A young Albanian man who looked like a soul-patched Seattle-area hipster stepped out of his car and came over.

“Hi,” I said. “We're trying to find the Hotel Afa. Do you know where it is?”

“Let me see,” he said and looked at the map. “Yes, I know where that is.”

Ratko spoke to the young man in Serbian.

“Um,” the Albanian man said. He understood Serbian, as do all Albanians in Kosovo who were schooled before the 1999 war. But they do not like to speak the language of their former oppressors. He looked at me with a pained expression on his face. “Does he speak...” he said. Then he sighed. “Never mind.” And then he spoke to Ratko in fluent Serbian.

“He's Montenegrin,” I tried to add helpfully, referring to Ratko.

“It's okay,” the man said, “it's okay.”

The young man got back in his car and escorted us all the way to our hotel.

“Thank you,” Sean and I said when we arrived. “Thank you so much.”

“Of course,” the man said and shook hands with all three of us. “Welcome to Kosova.”

*

Two days later, Sean and I met two American police officers in the charming Ottoman-era city of Prizren. He and I still hadn't figured out the real story in North Mitrovica, and figured these men might know. One was from Texas and spoke in a very slow drawl. The other was from Southern California.

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Prizren, Kosovo

“Was it dangerous for us in North Mitrovica?” Sean said.

“Yes,” the American police officer from California said. “There are some real extremists up there, and it only takes one to ruin your night.”

“The road is open now, though,” Sean said. “So the situation has been resolved?”

“No,” the officer said. “This is by no means resolved. Nothing in Kosovo has been resolved. We're at the very beginning of a new stage here.”

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Many thanks in advance.

All photos copyright Michael J. Totten and Sean LaFreniere

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 30, 2008 2:50 AM

Comments

Great article Michael. Thank you.

Incidentally, do you ever permit your images to be used? I so love that "No Honking" sign. I would dearly love to be able to use it on a post I have planned about the menace of Horn related noise pollution.

Posted by: Limbic Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 5:26 AM

Michael,

I would refer to the military equipment as "NATO vehicles." NATO doesn't have forces of its own, it has forces under it's control. This may sound like splitting hairs, but it matters. NATO, while doing a lot of good in Kosovo, is composed from the forces of many nations, the reputations of each being variable.

Of course, if you like getting NWO conspiracy theorists commenting on your blog, you can leave it as it stands, but...

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 9:03 AM

Well, I was thoroughly disappointed that Michael didn't mention the black helicopters nor all the compass and square symbols spray painted on the walls.

Posted by: Pat Patterson Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 11:47 AM

Limbic,

Yes, you can use the photo with attribution.

Patrick,

Ok, I made your hair-splitting edit.

Pat Patterson,

Too bad for you!

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 11:49 AM

I took the liberty of mapping out your actual trip (the northern path) and your intended trip (the southern path) on Yahoo! Maps. I hope I got it right; the satellite view seems to indicate that you'd skip North Mitrovica and head straight to South, even arriving from Serbia. Perhaps you can play with the map to show us your actual route if I got something wrong. (In any event, don't use Google for the Balkans. If it gives you a path at all, it'll give you one like this.)

Posted by: calbear Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 12:51 PM

Michael,

There is still a strong strain of chivalric code in the military, and the term "owned" has commercial connotations. We are not merchants, and eschew mercantile terms. It's one of those little things that lets us look down our noses at the people making much more money than we are.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 12:55 PM

Michael,

I'm so glad you finally got to Albania, even if it was only to Shkodra!

I believe you said in an earlier post that you thought Kosova was the most pro-American country in Europe. Since I haven't been there, I can't comment, but even if that were true, Albania isn't far behind.

I spent four months, off and on, in Albania in 2004-05, while my wife was a Peace Corps volunteer in Elbasan, and I taught a short course in Democracy and Citizenship at the university in Elbasan.

Albanians would never, and I mean never, act as the Come Back Alive guy said. They are most solicitous of visitors.

When I visited Albania, I always wore Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, western shirts, and often a Stetson. At 6'2", I'm at least a head taller than the average Albanian man, and I was obviously an American. I never once in my travels felt afraid for my security anywhere in Albania.

One evening in Elbasan my wife and I were walking home from her work. A man came out of his home to retrieve his son who was playing in the street. He took one look at me, dressed as described above, smiled, gave me thumbs up, and said, "George Bush, Number One!"

Albanians are great admirers of the much maligned W. In honor of his visit to Albania in September 2007 the government issued a postage stamp with W's picture, and another commemorative stamp showing the Statue of Liberty with the US and Albanian flags in the background.

Albanians' support of the US is not limited to our saving Albanian skins in Kosovo. They also support us in our venture in Iraq. As one woman in the tiny village of Voskopoje told my wife and me: "Our country knows terrorism. We lived under a terrorist {Hoxha} for 45 years! If only America had liberated us like it liberated the people of Iraq!! We prayed for something like that to happen to us."

And, from my brief observations, Macedonians are pretty enthusiastic about the US, too. I think that if you stay away from the elites just about any place in the former communist Europe, with the possible exception of Serbia, you'll find pretty consistent pro-Americanism, or at least not much anti-!

Thanks for your fine reporting. We're going back to Albania next June (2009), and we can't wait to get back to Montenegro, either!

Best,

Mike

Posted by: Mike In Oregon Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 1:03 PM

One detail to put the 700,000 bunker figure into proper context: Albania's population under Hoxha's regime was around 3 million. Also, the actual number of aggregate bunkers is closer to 800,000.

So you do the math: Accross the entire country, there was supposed to be nearly 1 bunker per nuclear family-unit of man, woman, and child! How is that for bat-shit crazy?

Michael: "Hoxha, who ranks among the most thoroughly oppressive tyrants in history, made Tito's dictatorship look libertarian."

Sadly, that's not even a hyperbole. I recently had a chance to watch the highly acclaimed German film "The Lives of Others", about the intriguing reach of the Stasi into the lives of East German citizens. I highly recommend the movie, though it happened to make me laugh through and through. It is undoubtedly supposed to pull Westerners' heartstrings by offering a dramatized recreation of what applied communism was like to live under.

With Hoxha's legacy on my family's shoulders though, this fairly realistic film made the East-German dystopia look like a paradise, and the protagonists' drama seemed like a lighthearted fairytale by comparison.

I am currently working to create English subtitles for a most jarring, beautiful, and devastating Albanian film about what Communism was really like around here. It will leave 'The Lives of Others' in the dust!

As for Albanians' attitude toward the US and Americans... When I was a sophomore in high school in Tirana, about 16 years old, some American teenagers came to our class. I believe they were missionaries' children who were visiting, because a) I thought they were dressed pretty lame b) one of the girls was indignant when my gangsta' wannabe classmate told her that Eminem was his hero: "I like his music, but I don't like his language." So these were most likely Mid-Western kids.

It was one of the most embarrassing days of my teenage life. All of my classmates were acting as if intelligent alien life forms from outer space had come down on Earth to make contact with them. I was one of the better English speakers in my class but I was the only person not to approach the Americans. All I could think of was how stupid and sheltered they must have thought we Albanians were, for treating them like rock-stars.

When I came to the US as a teenager, I was a bit apprehensive and confrontational, because I somehow thought that every American would assume that as an Albanian, I would be all over him/her with drooling babbling adoration. I am a bit proud like that. Lucky for me, in Nebraska, where I was to become an exchange student, no one knew the first thing about Albania, let alone that we had a pathological tendency to kiss American ass----or at least that's how I saw things back then.

Outside of Nebraska, the only thing Albania turned out to be known as, was a Muslim country. Ignorance can be bliss in more than one way.

This was my first clash with this notion, hitherto alien to me, of Albania being Muslim. Growing up in Tirana, among Mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, none of which were frequented with any zeal beyond that of lip service to tradition, I never thought anything of Albania's religion at all.

For all the misinformation floating around now, I am extremely grateful for the thoroughly secular and scientific education I have received in the public schools of this 'Muslim' country.

Posted by: medaura Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 1:12 PM

Medaura,

The Lives of Others is a GREAT movie, indeed. I can see why you thought it made East Germany look like a paradise compared to communist Albania, though.

Please please please let me know when this Albanian movie about Hoxha's time is released and watchable in English. I definitely want to see it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 1:21 PM

Michael and others,

Kosovo has been discovered as a tourist area. Friday's Wall St. Journal (6/27) in the weekend section has an article about the author's sojourn in Kosovo. It would be interesting to compare your experiences.

Magnificent mountain scenery--are the mountains primarily limestone?

Posted by: nvreader Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 1:48 PM

This movie is called "The Death of the Horse" and it is probably the best film I have ever seen. Not just the best Albanian film (and Albania has an interesting and rich cinematographic repertoire) but the best movie ever made, somehow! I know that's saying a lot. I admit to having seen the film about ten times within a year, and have not been able to finish yet without breaking down in tears.

It is currently available on Google Video, but without subtitles and in poor video quality. I have downloaded the film and creating my own subtitles. When finished, I will re-release it into the web.

I don't think there are any copyright issues because Albania had no intellectual property law in place in the early 90s, when the film was made. My parents are also trying to track down the director in Tirana, so I could perhaps get a higher quality video to work with. I will email you for sure when my preliminary subtitles are done.

Just wondering, anyone here who hadn't seen the video below? I'm surprised I didn't hear President Winston cited for supposedly vetoing Albania's partitioning in Versaille. Albanians usually go on and on about that.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyatmilKY3s&feature=related

Posted by: medaura Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 1:50 PM

Notice:

Earlier today my Web site was ported to a new server. If you left a comment during the transition phase, the comment would have been written to the old server instead of to the new one. So if you left a comment and it disappeared, that's the reason. I haven't deleted anything.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 5:59 PM

Michael,
Fascinating Balkans travel tale; especially the Albanian portion. Haven't read anything about that place since P.J. O'Rourke's "Eat The Rich" wherein he summarized Albania's rather chaotic state in 1997 as the "only country ever destroyed by a chain letter." (He was referring to the collapse of the pyramid schemes that swept through eastern europe in the 90's and how Albania felt the worst of it.)

Keep up the great work.

Posted by: MisterH Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 6:26 PM

Actually, you and Patrick don't need to replace your passports. You can likely each get a SECOND active US Passport. See here [usembassy.gov] They're pretty rare, but might make your life a little easier.

Posted by: ShaneIam Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 7:22 PM

ShaneIam,

I do have a second valid passport, actually, but it has expired. I'll need to renew it. I got it for travel to Israel, but yes, it would work in Serbia, too.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at June 30, 2008 9:23 PM

Michael,
I am glad the trip to Albania went relatively well. It all depends on who you meet, but now it's very very safe and guests are traditionally respected. The area you went is probably mostly Muslim, but the beauty is not knowing who is what ;)

Shkodra is as old as history; it was the Illyrian capital, until Queen Teuta picked on the Romans, by killing their envoys who asked them to stop pirating Roman ships. Not a smart move and they should have known. Since then it has gone back and forth in the 1900's Montenegro, backed by Russia, wasn't happy with the Albanian areas they had gotten, they wanted Shkodra too. A massive Albanian rebellion saved what is today Albania.

Now, Shkodra is a victim of politics of patronage: you voted for my opponent so no government funds, or less of them. Most Albanians are trending toward cities but the best houses are in the villages. In the late 1990's it was a mess, as many people came down from the mountains and let's just say that there was a cultural barrier and plenty of guns around ;)

Now, in rural Albania will see beautiful 2-3 story villas built by immigrants and I suspect they live in the cities in Europe and they like the villages better. Close to a million Albanians are immigrants so you get the picture. In the cities people own the OLD apartments, and are stuck there, even IF they had the money to build news ones? (who owns the land, or what if 5-95% of the building occupants don't want to rebuild?)

Some background. In 1997, Albania was a disaster. Having merged from Stalinism, many immigrated and pretty all their savings were put in pyramid schemes. Many went in debt as well to "invest." The pyramids lasted longer because they actually invested in businesses but eventually had to collapse. With them so did the army and police.

Imagine what would happen if US Army and police had been in place for only 5-6 years and all the banks collapse with no insurance. Every penny you have is gone and the state is not really a state. Add a 1 million guns in about 3 million people and there you have it. Enver Hoxha had loaded up on mountains of munitions, now it's costing Albania a fortune to destroy it as NATO wants new weapons. So yes, it was "State of Nature" and only guns and Albanian mentality (I'll shoot back and eventually someone WILL get my revenge) kept order.

In the 1900's as the place was the center of Balkan Wars etc it was chaotic too, but the traditions were much stronger. It was either the most dangerous place on earth or the safest one--provided you knew respected the local laws of hospitality. Coming with bodyguards was a big no-no for example, as your safety was guaranteed by the person whose house you entered or asked for help (and his clan and eventually the region.) Now you find some idiots who embarras an entire nation, but then others make up.

Noel Malcolm: "The traveller, brought `within the bond' by the sacred duties of hospitality, could more easily experience the best of the Albanian character. As one Austrian who visited Kosovo in the bloodiest period of its final revolt against Ottoman rule declared: `If you observe the customs of the land, you can travel more safely in Albania than in any other country in the world.' "
nytimes.com/books/first/m/malcolm-kosovo.html

One the worst insults (still) is "Tu mbyllte dera," or "May your door close," as in may no one deem you worthy of being a friend or coming for a visit, for weddings, deaths etc. etc. I hope it stays that way, as it is compatible with "modernism".

Regarding Isa Boletini; a TRUE hero for Albanians, Some pictures and the very definition of a "man" and a patriot.

He started at 17 fighting the Turks, and died in his 50's fighting Serbs and Montenegrins. He was there when Albania declared independence in Vlore (south) and then to stop the Serbs from "liberating" Kosovo. He actually died trying to threw the Montenegrins out of those Albanian cities you saw in what is now Montenegro. Almost his entire family was wiped out eventually, the Albanian governments certainly did their part too.

Here's how he died (as told by Milovan Djilas, the famous dissident who's father killed Isa):

"The battle with Iso's irregulars did not last long, despite the Albanians' wild heroism. The blow struck down both the leader and his most devoted followers. Iso's immediate entourage was wiped out to a man, and the rest scattered. Iso Boljetini himself was killed. But he had fought fiercely and long when he was left alone on the open road. Wounded, he rose to his knees and, though too weak to hold a rifle, he fired a pistol, at least to take a life in exchange for his own. Father hurried toward him, and the wild Albanian leaned his pistol on his left arm. He did not have time to fire, however. A soldier had him in his sights and--he fell. Father ran up, and Iso glanced at him with big bloody eyes, said something in his own language, which Father did not understand, and breathed his last. Father took his large Mauser, with its silver-mounted handle, and kept it as his most prized souvenir.

It was little wonder that we children mourned for Iso Boljetini. Father mourned him too, though he was proud that his group had felled him. It was a special kind of sorrow, rather than admiration, for a fearless hero of wild Albania who had fought to the end on a bare field and empty road, neither begging nor forgiving, upright and without protection. There was this admiration in our sorrow, too. If one has to die, it would be good to fall like Iso Boljetini. Let it be remembered, at least by those who have seen and heard it."

From nicholasnikic.blogspot.com/2006/07/land-without-justice.html (reviewing his book)

best,

Posted by: nameless-fool Author Profile Page at July 1, 2008 4:06 AM

As usual excellent. Minor quibble as the photo of the burning vehicles are not tanks but rather APCs. In this case probably Russian or Czech made BMP-1s which were still in service after 20 years of production and another 20 years in service after production ceased. Many of the ex-soviet satellites had tons of these and often used and still use them for riot control or urban combat. Which, naturally, they are ill-suited for and usually end up as burnt out barricades in the streets. Even in this case I hope that the crew and the squad being carred inside made it out before the flames gutted the interior.

Posted by: Pat Patterson Author Profile Page at July 2, 2008 5:24 AM

Great pictures and commentary. If any of these places cause passport issues will they put their stamps on pieces of papers like most Israelis will do?

I have been in and out of Israel dozens of times and only had an Israeli refuse to stamp a piece of paper once. I had to "loose" that passport to go to Syria six months later.

Maybe in these other dodgy situations they'd do the same thing?

Posted by: Marc Author Profile Page at July 2, 2008 6:31 AM

nameless_fool's observations about North Albania are spot on. I was born and raised in Tirana, where the tendency is to not get much out of, or learn first-handedly about other areas of the country, unless one ventures there on vacation.

The south is much explored, but the north is a taboo even in Tirana. I myself got to explore more of Albania in my 2-week trip with my husband two years ago, than I had during my entire life up to that point.

I was 10-11 years old when the shit storm hit us hard in 1997. It still feels like a chaotic dream looking back. The stories coming out of North Albania were horrifying, and my generation has been scarred since. You had pissed, hungry, armed, cheated highlanders going nuts. It was worse than the Wild West: pirates and criminal gangs, literal highway robbery, or more like,.. dirt-road robbery.

The region had entirely cooled off and stabilized since by the year 2000 though.--or so indicated statistics, but I was still too scarred from my memories of 1997 to go see for myself.

Many highlanders still do live by the canon, an excellent introductory post on which can be found here: http://www.bookcase.com/~claudia/mt/archives/000637.html

As you can see from reading the above series on the canon of Lek Dukagjini, vendettas can be easy to start but very hard to quench. Once chaos starts, the traditional ways of dealing with it often escalate it further. The regional mentality/culture derivative of the canon and the overall chaos of the late 1990s, accounted for much of the savagery over there. The more benign aspects of the same highlander culture would benefit visitors today, given the traditional emphasis on hospitality and generosity toward guests.

Posted by: medaura Author Profile Page at July 2, 2008 9:41 AM
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