Pristina Diary: A land divided by hatred and schnitzels

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The Independent Online
WESTERN politicians have often trotted out the idea that the Balkan wars of recent years (based on an original idea by S Milosevic; all rights have been asserted) were somehow inevitable, because of "buried ethnic hatreds". This analysis, which allowed a hands- off attitude, was mostly garbage. Despite and because of the complex history, ethnic identity was genuinely subsumed in the Yugoslav idea. A Serb friend wistfully remembers summer encounters now lost for ever, when cars from Belgrade and Zagreb tooted at each other on foreign motorways, in a cheerful display of Yugoslav familial recognition. A Croat friend, who grew up near Vukovar, scene of some of the worst horrors of the Serb-Croat war, discovered only from the newspapers that a former classmate was linked with Serb war crimes. Until then, she had thought of him as a fellow Yugoslav.

Kosovo, on the other hand, that's a different kettle of fish soup. When I first visited here 15 years ago, most of Yugoslavia was still (comparatively) living in ethnically wedded bliss. In Kosovo, however, armed policemen were patrolling the streets of the capital, Pristina. Serbs and Albanians have always led separate lives. Now, they scarcely talk at all. In just a few days, a foreign journalist probably has more conversations with "the other side" than many Serbs or Albanians in a year. The foreigner is asked to report back from across the divide, because people do not like to ask each other questions directly. For an Albanian or Serb to start a conversation about politics with the Ethnic Other would to most people on both sides seem a ludicrous idea.

At the tiny, buzzing Avalon club in the centre of Pristina, a crowd gathers nightly to drink and dance into the early hours. It's friendly, relaxed - and completely Serb. Albanians have their own equivalent places. One Serb student at the Avalon described how she likes sometimes to go to an Albanian cafe. But, like the gay Albanian skinhead who can be found in the Avalon, she is the odd woman out: "My friends think I'm very strange."

As a foreigner, you enjoy all sorts of dubious privileges. One is to travel where nobody else can go. Once you have the right piece of paper, you can travel through checkpoints - passing through roadblocks where Albanians would be turned back, and travelling into territory which the Serb forces are wary of entering. At the checkpoints themselves, there is a strange etiquette. The first plus (and it is a big one): unlike in Bosnia, you do not come across madmen who have been drinking slivovitz plum brandy all afternoon, and who will now wave a gun in your face, steal your money, your computer or your car. The checkpoints are disciplined. But needling is part of the operation. The strani novinari, the foreign journalists, are seen as the terrorists' friend. "Who do you think is guilty?" becomes a challenging remark, not a straightforward question. If an Albanian translator is marked on the travel permit but is not in the car, the policemen get tetchy; the suggestion is that you have smuggled an Albanian into bandit country and left him behind. Even your attire can become a subject for aggressive remarks. "Why have you got mud on your shoes?" demanded one policeman, who seemed keen to find a reason to thump us. "You've been with the terrorists, haven't you?"

That policeman, you can be sure, would happily kill Albanians. An increasing number of Albanians would happily kill him. For the moment, the shooting incidents between the two sides are sporadic. But, as in Croatia in summer 1991 and in Bosnia in spring 1992, when the atmosphere was in many respects eerily similar, "for the moment" is the key phrase. It seems likely to be a depressingly short wait.

In a way, it all comes down to schnitzels. One of the best known products of Serbian cuisine is the Karadjordjev schnitzel, named after the 19th- century Serb national hero. It is like chicken kiev, but made out of meat, wrapped together with cheese. Very tasty it is, too. In a Pristina restaurant, I found something called a Skenderbeg schnitzel on the menu, and asked the waiter what it was. I probably should have guessed the answer, since Skenderbeg is Albania's national hero: a Skenderbeg schnitzel, it turns out, is a Karadjordjev schnitzel when served in an Albanian restaurant.

This society is so divided that even the menus lead separate lives - same taste, different loyalty. It would be nice to think there was room in Kosovo for Skenderbeg and Karadjordjev schnitzels to exist peacefully side by side. Nice, but unreal.