A year in Kosovo: from Serbian oppression to the Wild West

NOTEBOOK: RAYMOND WHITAKER; Kosovo is littered with evidence of the year's conflict and it will be a tough winter for the thousands in tents, but the market stalls are thriving

AVOID MALISEVO on market day: if I were composing a travel guide to Kosovo, that would be my first piece of advice.

When I first made acquaintance with it, Malisevo - the "s" is pronounced as a "sh" - was the most sinister place in the Balkans. The Kosovo Liberation Army had seized the town in 1998 during a brief and bloody attempt at conventional warfare against the Serbs, and unwisely declared it the "capital" of liberated Kosovo.

In revenge the Serbs levelled Malisevo. Driving down its snowy, ruined main street at dusk in January, with not a soul about bar the heavily armed paramilitary police of the Serbian interior ministry, was to know how Albanians felt under Serbian rule. You shrank down in your car and tried to make yourself invisible.

That was the biggest change when I returned in June, just after the Serbian forces had been replaced by multinational peacekeepers. Now it was the Albanians who were walking tall and the Serbs who were creeping about, if they dared to venture out at all. Despite the thousands of dead, the devastation on all sides, the long summer evenings outside the Grand Hotel in Pristina were like one big party. Cars raced past with red-and-black Albanian flags flapping from the windows; joyous reunions were taking place on every side.

Not, however, in Malisevo. The town had suffered so much destruction, so many dead, that life was slower to return. But Kosovo this year has been a place of changes as sudden as those of its climate - until you open the curtains in the morning, you never know whether you will be greeted by rain, sunshine, heavy snow or an overnight thaw.

Descending into Malisevo on a Thursday this month, I was confronted by an impenetrable mile-long traffic jam. Market stalls lined both sides of the street and hundreds of people were strolling past them, narrowing the passage still further. Two lines of K-For military vehicles, heavy trucks delivering aid, tractors and the myriad private cars that now clog every road in Kosovo were trying to push through the crowds. It took an hour to get from one end of town to the other and my appointment in Prizren was a dead loss.

From grim oppression in January to euphoria in June to chaos in December: that has been my experience of Kosovo in 1999. The highway to Pristina from the snarled-up Macedonian border, where truck drivers wait for days to pay the taxes and bribes necessary to gain entry to Kosovo, is a good barometer of the changes. At the beginning of the year the restaurants and petrol stations along the way were open, but doing next to no business in a stagnant Serbian-run economy. All were destroyed in the war and in the summer you had to buy your fuel, often containing more water than petrol, from sellers waving bottles at the side of the road.

Now Serbian place names have been defaced on every road sign and at the turn-off to south-western Kosovo the names Kukes and Tirana have been added. All the filling stations have re-opened and more are being built. The same with restaurants and bars: a flood of investment has come into Kosovo, much of it from the crime lords of northern Albania, feeding off the influx of K-For troops, UN officials, journalists and the hundreds of aid organisations whose logos cover every available surface. Fortunes are being made by some, widening the gap between the top and the bottom of Kosovar Albanian society.

After the Serbs removed Kosovo's autonomy a decade ago, the Albanians did their best to ignore the authorities. They set up their own schools and clinics in private homes and went into business for themselves, funded to a large extent by remittances from relatives working in Germany and Switzerland. The Serbs, clinging to their state jobs, were often worse off.

Now the UN is in charge but the Albanians are still going their own way. And, without the sense of shared adversity which used to bind them, the result is anarchy. Pristina is a crazy place where the street and traffic lights do not work, there is no phone or postal service and the water and power are off for several hours a day, but everyone is frantically doing business amid the destruction. You can buy anything you need at street stalls and eat and drink well at restaurants equipped with their own generators. "We must wean the Albanians away from their parallel administration mentality," a UN official told me, but the Albanians do not appear to be listening.

The price, of course, is that guns rule. At first they were used against the Serbs, who were often driven out despite the protests of Albanians who knew them. In the past few weeks Albanians have increasingly become the victims. When it comes to crime, Kosovars - many still recovering from the shock of spending time in Albania during the war - are unanimous that the problem comes from there. But there are political attacks as well, often blamed on the former Kosovo Liberation Army, which seems to have no shortage of weapons despite having supposedly been disarmed by Nato. "If you want to see how many guns there still are in Kosovo, just be here on Millennium Eve, when they'll all be fired in the air," one resident of Pristina told me.

For all the Wild West atmosphere, Pristina and the other large towns of Kosovo will be considerably better off this winter than the countryside. Rural Albanians took the brunt of Serbian brutality this year, as they have done every other year, and many who lost everything have migrated into the towns. But as the year 2000 comes in, hundreds of thousands of people across Kosovo will be huddled in tents or one hastily repaired room of their wrecked homes, just trying to keep warm.

Seeking out these pockets of deprivation, we stopped at a curve on a mountainous road to answer the call of nature. A short way down a dirt track leading off the road, I came across piles of clothing slowly rotting into the soil and a moment later noticed the bullet casings still littering the tarmac where we had parked. Such relics of the summer's horrors are a sobering reminder, not only of what Kosovo has been through in 1999, but of how far into the new millennium its inhabitants will have to go before they can hope for something like normality.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most