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  • Jerome Kocher

53. Kosovo’s Stepchild

The western region of Kosovo is very agricultural, a bread basket. But it is also closer to the Albanian Alps. For this reason the city of Gjakova in the southwest corner became a central sanctuary for the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) in the 1998-99 war. They could more easily take refuge in the mountains and with the Albanian border on the other side they could smuggle in supplies and weapons.

The downside is Gjakova was targeted by the Serbs, and the city suffered the most destruction of any city in Kosovo, even more than Peja which was destroyed. Since Orthodox Serbia spared Albanian Orthodox and Catholic churches and targeted mosques, in a common show of solidarity the Albanian Christians of Gjakova sheltered Muslims within the Catholic Church. Unlike Serbia, in Kosovo religious tolerance runs very deep. In this Muslim majority country they are ethnic Albanians first. What you practice as a faith makes no difference.

In earlier communist times Gjakova was an industrial and intellectual giant. Industry boomed. Many of the elites were part of Kosovo’s leadership. It had a fierce sense of independence. But there is a price. Driving through Gjakova today you will see many monuments to the Kosovo Liberation Army as well as several memorials to the massacre of its citizens. On a main center roundabout you will see the red and black double-headed eagle flag of Albanians flying proudly, not the newly founded blue and gold flag of the government of Kosovo. Gjakova is strong and it’s proud. And it’s paid the price.

It has never really recovered from the ‘98-99 war. Industry has become stagnant. Investment does not flow into this city, but rather into the capital of Prishtina and others. There are more widows here than elsewhere. There’s even a women’s cooperative factory for processing paprika that was established by the women of Gjakova to employ its widows.

Old Yugoslavian Federation buildings from the communist era still line the streets. They’re functional, utilitarian rectangles without any aesthetics nor remodeling. These are memorials to deferred maintenance from the Socialist-Communist period.

Gjakova’s famous wooden structure bazaar in the old town was burned to the ground in the war. It may have been rebuilt, but it has never fully recovered. A handful of artisans have returned, but are outnumbered by the cheaper products flooding in from China and Turkey, not unusual in other cities as well. We even passed a well maintained Yugo car which was probably 40 years old or more. New paint can hide a lot.

It was here that Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s assistant Secretary of State, returned to the Balkans in 1998 to make contact with leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army to see if they were religious radicals or a legitimate representative of ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo. Besides the violent destruction and massacres, Serbian soldiers were deporting the ethnic Albanians to Greece, Macedonia, Turkey and Albania to “cleanse” the country. I heard this same story of deportation over and over from those I talked to. Holbrooke discovered they were legit, a partner worthy of support. His shuttle diplomacy could not end the conflict, but did result in Clinton’s decision to use NATO forces to bomb the Serbian capital of Beograd for 78 days, putting pressure on Milosevic and Serbia to stop the genocide of Albanians in Kosovo.

This intervention is why, if you go to Kosovo and Albania today, everyone with a long enough memory will turn to you with an enthusiastic smile saying, “We love America.” Without that support they would not be here today. That is why their streets and children are named after American politicians who lent their support. Nine years later after the war, Kosovo declared Independence in 2008 as a sovereign nation. Six months before this event George W. Bush publicly came out in support of Kosovo’s nationhood. But half the countries of the world, including Google search today, still do not recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty. You’ll just see a dotted line demarcating a southern region of Serbia. None of them have streets named in their honor, but George Bush has streets in the capital cities of Prishtina and Tirana. Albanians will never forget.

But for its part in achieving this freedom, the city and region of Gjacova has paid the price, both then and now. In Kosovo’s recovery process of rebuilding, Gjakova remains the stepchild. Less investment flows here. Even the Kosovo blue and gold flag may not be seen as often, but rather the red and black Albanian double eagle does fly. They are fiercely independent and still standing.


P.S. I use my own photos for my writing. But today, for this post on Gjakova, in order to give a more historical context I relied on some stock photography.

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1 commentaire

BlueFlame NoenDragon
BlueFlame NoenDragon
06 mai

Very Beautiful! Speechless even. A helping kind hand to these countries. To preserve humankind and creation. God bless for peace.

-Catherine Torres

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