Kosovo has officially declared independence from Serbia. WAIW? would like to officially recognize the country’s independence. After all, if you don’t like me and I don’t like you why should we live together.
In honor of their move from “semi-autonomous province” to nation here’s a story I wrote four years ago about an overnight bus from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo:
By Kelsey Timmerman
Cold colorless concrete. Oil stained pavement. Barred windows. Communism is alive and well at many bus stations across the world, but perhaps even more so here in Belgrade where efficient inefficiency, for the people, is at its finest.
“Pristhina, Kosovo, one-way, please.” I hold up one finger to signify one-way and point to myself to show that I only need one ticket.
A dank air drifts out the half-circle cut in the ticket booth window and I slide my remaining Serbian dinar into it. The woman appears to be in her sixties, deducting the ten years added on by living in Eastern Europe during the fall of communism and the ensuing chaos that puts her around 50.
Her glasses are thick and magnify her tired gray eyes. Looking up from beneath her brow she blinks, blinks of annoyance. I fear that she doesn’t understand English and despises me for my use of it. I am wrong.
“You don’t want to go there. It’s shithole!” She looks through me to the next man in line.
“Bus leaves for Pristina, here at 10:00.” I plead.
The man behind me begins to step around. I whip out the bus schedule. “See, here…this one…at 10:00.”
She sighs, takes my money, and rolls her eyes as I try my best to say “Hvala,” Serbian for “thanks,” with a fair amount of sarcasm.
Postcards? Racks of Postcards in Belgrade? In the winter? I flip through the racks of cards at the station, killing time before the departure of the “magical mystery bus.” I don’t normally buy postcards. They present an idyllic, glossed-over, computer-enhanced world on one side, and a blank space on the other just big enough to write, “Dear friend or loved one, I saw this unrealistic picture of beautiful people, imported sand, and toxic blue beach water, and remembered my obligation to think of you for two minutes during the choosing and purchasing of this postcard. Wish you were here.” Beaches are boring and not a one could be found on the rack. But bombs, bombs aren’t something you see on a postcard everyday.
Certain postcards show a Belgrade skyline lit with explosions, suffocating in smoke, and streaked with tracer bullets. They are haunting images, but no more so than seeing the burnt skeletons of buildings, inhabiting prime real-estate within Belgrade itself, while walking down the street. The shocking image of seeing that first bombed out building will be etched forever in my memory: the people walking by it as if oblivious to its presence; the passengers on trams nodding-off as they zip by; and the Venetian blinds occupying a pane-less window, hanging onto life on the tenth story, waving in a light breeze.
In the spring of 1999 Serbian crimes against the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, also known as Kosovars, were mounting Hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were forced from their homes. Civilians were executed, women and children alike, as the Serbs tried to weed out members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. All of the nations belonging to NATO except Russia, a long time ally of Serbia, supported military action to gain control of a situation that could set off a multi-national war. In order for NATO to use force, the UN’s Security Council had to unanimously approve any action. Russia refused to do so.
It was the United States, led by Bill Clinton, which convinced the remaining NATO members that due to the nature of the humanitarian catastrophe action should be taken regardless of approval from the Security Council. In March of 2000, NATO planes dropped bombs on targets in Belgrade, the Serbian Capital. The bombing campaign lasted 78-days before Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian dictator, pulled out of Kosovo.
I purchase a card showing a large explosion in the night- a sunset unable to penetrate the billowing smoke, and light the remainder of the sky- somewhere in the countryside. At the top right corner is a stealth bomber circled by the date, 3/27/99, the time, 22:00, and a location, Rotten Village. At the bottom written in English, “Sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible!” The Serbian government revels in the downing of the American stealth bomber. In fact, they are so proud of this achievement that pieces of the bomber are displayed at the Military Museum as well as the Yugoslav Aeronautical Museum, both in Belgrade.
The bus seats around forty and, as we pull away, we number less than ten. Through a cloud of smoke rising from the lips of my co-riders, I can almost make out the no smoking sign at the front of the bus. The seats are a faded maroon, the kind of seats you see on the exposé news programs which they test for fecal matter and find them to be covered in exorbitant amounts. The reading light in my seat does not work so I move back a row. Still no reading light. A third move finds me sitting across the aisle from a bearded man in his thirties, and with a press of a button my lap glows white with superior luminescence. There are good things in Serbia; sometimes they require just a little looking.
On late night buses few individuals talk. Passengers lean their heads against the windows and stare out into the blackness. Occasionally a roadside lamp or an oncoming car will bring light to the surrounding landscape, but for the most part, thanks to a dimly lit cabin, the windows reflect the images from inside. Passengers are able to see themselves, check their hair, look for boogers in their nose, or if they choose, by slightly shifting their gaze in the window, they can spy on their fellow passengers. The darkness inspires, and physically allows reflection- by looking outward the passengers of the bus look inward.
We are all subjects of the same slow going hours set to the orchestra of a shifting diesel engine, straining shocks and rubber on rough pavement. No language is exchanged- we all speak in silence. Nationality does not matter; we are all of the same state- the state of boredom, the state of travel.
Sleep does not really happen, only hallucinations where your subconscious takes the driver seat. Thoughts bend and warp and soon you are thinking about eating vanilla brownies while floating on a chocolate cloud, which has no restroom and you gotta go. The only way down is a dry waterslide. It’s decision time- would it be better to pee your pants or burn a quarter of your skin off on the slide.
My head snaps upright and I try to make sense of the current state of the bus- no road symphony, no movement, and no people. Pulse pounding in my temples, I am led off.
It’s 2 am and the air is a cool, fresh slap in the face. Once we are all off, the driver shuts the door and, resting his head on the wheel, falls asleep. Soon my bag is tossed on the ground. Where am I to go?
There is no city, not even any lights, just a rundown general store surrounded by trees on one side of the road, and some sort of old abandoned vehicle on the other. This is definitely unexpected. What the hell are we doing here? My thoughts run wild with abduction scenarios. Looking around at the other passengers everyone seems strangely calm.
I walk across the road to collect myself and pee on the wreckage. Where my urine hits the metal, rough with rust, steam rises. The wreckage appears to be a car abandoned after what I imagine to be a violent car jacking. This clearing among the wooded road is the perfect place for highwaymen.
With an empty bladder and a lighter heart I zip up my pants and join the other passengers in front of the rundown general store.
It’s the first time I actually look at my fellow passengers. An older couple huddles up for warmth, a handkerchief pulled tightly around the woman’s head. A group of four strangers are engrossed in the Serbian national pastime of smoking. One man talks while the rest pretend to listen. The remaining passengers are spaced out alone, necks scrunched down positioned for heat conservation.
I approach the thirty-something bearded man with whom I had shared a row. “Why are we stopped?”
He inspects me head to toe, “You UN?”
“Most westerners are UN. What are you then? Why you go to Pristina?”
Why am I here? In Ohio, idly flipping though my Eastern Europe guidebook, I had stumbled across the three meager pages dedicated to Kosovo. Who would want to go there? Isn’t there a war or something going on? Perhaps it was to spite my preconceived notions of land mines and gun-toting militants, which attracted me to Kosovo, but most of all, I was drawn by the fact that ordinary people live out their lives in a place many of us inappropriately perceive as extremely hostile.
“I am here on holiday.”
He laughs and shakes his head. “We wait for new bus. This one is no longer safe”
“What’s wrong with it? I didn’t notice anything?”
“Nothing wrong with bus, only bus plates. If we enter Kosovo with plates from Belgrade, we get stoned or worse.”
The relationship between ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo and the Serbs has been a troubled one for hundreds of years. Following WWII, Kosovo, primarily populated by Albanians, was annexed to Serbia, becoming an unwilling member of the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Violence initiated by both sides led to increased tension. To put the animosity in perspective: in 1985, to show how “cruel and inhumane” the Albanians were, a Serbian man shoved a bottle up his own butt, and placed the blame on the “immoral” Albanians.
When Slobodan Milosevic rose to power he stripped Kosovo of what little autonomy it had. Serbians were put in control of the police, the media, utilities, and factories. The schools were required to teach a Serbian curriculum in Serbian, making it impossible for an Albanian student to attend. Kosovo declared independence in 1991 to the fury of the Serbian government.
There is no love loss between the two groups. The glass house that was Yugoslavia has been destroyed by stone throwers from both sides.
“I am Sasha. Pleased, to meet you.” Sasha is a contractor from Belgrade going to Kosovo on business. “Are you American?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“You talk like movie star.” We both laugh- warm clouds of exhaust in the night air bursting forth.
I ask Sasha about the 1999 bombing of Belgrade and Serbian’s opinion of Americans after it.
“Serbian people are very brave. They continued on with everyday lives as best they could during the bombing. Hot dog vendors still sold hotdogs on the streets, but many factories closed. Many did not work. We knew why the bombings were happening. America and NATO was not after Serbian people…only their leaders. Milosevic is bad man. It was wrong to bomb and make Serbian people suffer. America has done very much wrong too.”
In our interchange Sasha treats me with respect and not an ounce of Anti-Americanism can be found despite the bombings less than five years ago. As for his view of Kosovars, “I have friends in Kosovo who I have not talked to for awhile. I hope they are good and that they never were a part of the barbarism. Many in Kosovo are unreasonable and violent…stupid. Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia. I feel bad for Serbians living in Kosovo. They are treated like dogs. It’s big problem. The end is far. I hope to hear from my friends someday again. Many must have families by now.”
About this time a roaring diesel faintly nears in the distance to the south. Soon headlights round the corner followed by a bus similar to our own. The breaks lock into place with a rush of air and dirt. The door opens with a swoosh of hydraulics and out shuffle more night bus travelers, yawning, stretching, and grimacing in the rude early morning cold. There are many more of them than us and they file directly onto our bus.
Their new bus, our old, zips away to the darkness in the north and we board the bus with Kosovo plates. Soon I am half asleep; the bus switching episode a distant dream.
Some Serbs may refer to Kosovo as a “shithole,” but the CIA in their online world fact book refers to it as a “nominally autonomous province.” Vague at best, I recall this description when a bright light is shone into my eyes.
Two men in uniforms stare down at me. A voice behind the light commands something with authority. I am at least thirty seconds away from being able to form or understand any language. Blue, white, and red Serbian flags are stitched onto both of their shoulders and pistols attached to their belts. It is good practice to quickly respond to armed soldiers, so I pull my passport from my pocket.
This border does not exist on any map, but it is controlled all the same. I am leaving Belgrade controlled Serbia and entering the province of Kosovo administered by the United Nations based in Pristina.
They toss the passport onto my chest and continue on down the aisle.
After shutting my eyes for what seems a second, I am staring at soldiers once again- same guns, different uniforms. Serbs, Kosovars, or UN soldiers, I could care less. I am trying to steal a few minutes of sleep and keeping up with who is in charge of where and why is becoming increasingly irksome. I flip open my passport and hold it out.
“Ahh, American. Welcome.” The accent is heavy and I make out the words only after unraveling the foreign pronunciations for a few minutes. By this time the soldiers are gone and we are underway once again.
“Pristina,” announces the driver. Face buried in the seat, I sit up, wipe the drool off my chin, and wearily blink the world into focus. “Pristina!”
Following the driver up the aisle, I pass my fellow passengers in different states of consciousness. A few are awake and dutifully stare out the windows while the driver rustles through the luggage in the lower compartment. He tosses the bag at my feet, nods, hustles back to the bus, grinds the bus into gear, and leaves me in a cloud of exhaust.
A field of rubble stretches out before me. Broken bricks, busted clay tiles, and pieces of cinder blocks poke through the mud as far as the early morning light allows me to see. Pristina, the capital of Kosovo- This is exactly what I expected.
Where is Pristina? It’s not in this field of rubble. Turning I search for something standing or living, anything that has not been destroyed. The unexpected: She is 40-feet tall perched on top of the five-story hotel, aptly named Hotel Liberty. The Statue of Liberty, an apparition drowned by floodlights, looks to the West. That is not exactly what I expected.
Somewhere in my backpack is my guidebook with the three useless pages on Kosovo marked with a postcard of a downed American bomber. I yawn, hike up my collar against the cold, throw my pack over my shoulder, and head for Lady Liberty.
In a time when all ties between Serbian and Kosovo are being cut, a lone night bus links the Nation to the “nominally autonomous province.” In terms of geography, the distance can be spanned in less than seven hours despite slight inconveniences: hateful ticket sellers and a mid-night bus rendezvous. In reality the distance between Serbians and Kosovars is much greater. The conflict is steeped in history and clouded by politics. All that remains is hope. Hope that one day old friends might meet each others’ children for the first time.