Independence Day

Independence Day

Traveling from Albania’s capital city Tirana to the Kosovo border reveals scenes ranging from festive to frightening as Kosova declares its independence.


To drive from Tirana, Albania’s capital, to the Kosovo border you need a sturdy car and a strong back: the journey of less than 200 kilometers takes more than eight hours. Despite rumors of a mass exodus of Albanians to Kosovo’s capital of Pristina for independence celebrations there isn’t very much traffic: the state of the dirt road has discouraged even the most committed nationalists. On either side, parked bulldozers and backhoes wait to continue building the artery that will link Kosovo’s capital with the Albanian port of Durres. Albanian politicians call this road the “Patriotic Highway,” but work on it regularly stops for corruption investigations. Some months ago an investigation was launched against Albania’s then-Minister of Transport, Lulzim Basha: hundreds of millions of Euros earmarked to pave the Patriotic Highway had taken flight instead for parts unknown. Since then Basha has changed his address: he is now at the Foreign Ministry, where he is very busy with the question of Kosovo.

We cross the border before midnight, and the state of the road changes as if by magic: it’s like going from Afghanistan to Italy. In Prizren, one of Kosovo’s largest Albanian towns, shops, houses and mosques are draped with Albanian flags, and with the flags of America, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union. There is a thick snow falling. You’d think the town was about to host the Western Winter Olympics.

In Pristina at 1 am the roads are jammed with honking cars, from Bill Clinton Boulevard to Mother Teresa Avenue. Since NATO’s intervention and the withdrawal of the Serbian army in 1999, all the main roads have acquired names from Albanian national mythology: the names of Kosovo Liberation Army fighters mingle with Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Serbian names survive only on narrow side streets. In Kosovo’s Serbian enclaves, though, you won’t find a single road with an Albanian sign; Gracanica and Mitrovica North even have streets honoring the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, still wanted for war crimes in The Hague. Most of the roads are dark, dirty and full of potholes–the more patriotic the name, the bigger the potholes.

On Sunday morning Pristina wakes up blanketed with snow and Albanian flags. It’s the coldest day of the decade, as if the chill between Serbs and Albanians has begun to affect the weather. But the town center is packed with revelers wrapped in the flag like sports fans. A group of young people take turns to have their picture taken in front of the statue of Skenderbej, Albania’s national hero. Eddie, 28, has come from Tirana for the Albanians’ “D-Day.” “This is the Albanian century,” he shouts, making the victory sign. A Spanish TV crew tries to “steal” a statement from a middle-aged man who’s wearing the Albanian flag above the waist and the Stars and Stripes below, but he won’t say a word. “I only talk to crews from countries that recognize Kosovo. Spain is not with us,” he says.

This may be the most mediated independence day in history; outside the Grand Hotel you can’t move for television trucks. By the hotel entrance a crowd of people are watching themselves on TV. At some point Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, comes on to read the declaration; the cheering is so loud you can’t hear a word he’s saying.

At 2 in the afternoon I set out for Tsaglavica, a Serb village near Pristina. Agron, the taxi driver, isn’t sure they’ll let us through; just to be sure he takes the Albanian flag off his antenna. “To be honest,” he says, “we ought to put up a statue of Milosevic. If it wasn’t for him we’d never have got to this point.” For Agron this moment is “like a dream,” but with 50 percent unemployment and widespread poverty, there are hard times ahead for Kosovo. “People who say this is Serbia should go to Serbia,” he opines. “Now we Albanians are in charge.” But, he adds, his brother has a shop selling electrical goods, and all his business is in Serbia. Seventy percent of the goods sold in Kosovo come from across the new border. In Tsaglavica the silence is broken only by barking dogs and the boom of the Pristina fireworks down the road. A pigeon pecks for food on a poster of Tomislav Nikolic, the extreme nationalist candidate for Serbia’s presidency. In the Ciao restaurant the only customers are a couple of KFOR soldiers in civilian clothes (KFOR is the NATO-led multinational peacekeeping force established under UN mandate in 1999). Everyone else is locked in their houses, watching television.

On Monday morning I head for the divided town of Mitrovica, the home of ethnic hatred and of smuggling–the only enterprise where Serbs and Albanians work together in harmony. The bridge separating the two communities is guarded on the Kosovo side by a large body of troops. In Mitrovica North there are only Serbian and Russian flags; in the main square loudspeakers blare out Serbian patriotic songs. By noon thousands of people have gathered for a protest demonstration. There’s a small child wearing a Ratko Mladic cap, placards of Nikolic. Zoran, 38, tells me he moved here from Pristina in 2000 “to save my skin.” Zoran is very angry: “Don’t you foreign journalists know that the Albanians want to wipe us out in our own homeland? What the hell are you doing? It’s your fault that the world is supporting these backward thugs.” The crowd is shouting, “Ne damo Kosovo”–“We won’t give up Kosovo.” This is the favorite chant of Serbia’s football fans when the national team is playing, except when their opponent is Bosnia; then they shout “Srebrenica!” The crowd approaches the Bridge of Peace; the KFOR troops stand by. A small group of Albanians watches events unfold. The demonstrators, brandishing Serbian flags, stand for a few minutes before the bridge. Then they withdraw.

That’s when the American flag appears for the first time and is instantly set alight. The crowd disperses peacefully, leaving behind an echo of patriotic songs and the ashes of the flag.

Back in Pristina the celebrations have begun again because the United States and several European countries have recognized Kosovo. There’s still a crowd outside the Grand Hotel, watching Thaci’s press conference on the screens. The image changes to show the first violent episodes in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, where protesters are making a first attempt to burn the US Embassy. Some people in the crowd applaud: the more the Serbs isolate themselves, the better they think it will be for the Albanians.

In a cafe a young woman holds a bottle of beer in one hand and the new flag of Kosovo in the other. Her T-shirt bear the slogan, “Independence is better than sex.” Her friend’s shirt reads: “Independence is better than electricity.” Five minutes later the power goes off. The cafe is plunged into darkness; both girls swear like troopers.

Seven days on, the celebrations have quieted down in Kosovo. But the Serb protests continue. In Belgrade the burned US Embassy has been evacuated. In Mitrovica the EU mission has withdrawn; protesters wave pictures of Russian President Putin as if he were the white knight who could save them.

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