26 Feb 11: Bridge over troubled water (Kosovo & Serbia)
Bregovi, Serbia to Tran, Bulgaria (11 – 22 Oct)
Total miles cycled: 1,650 (2,655km)
Thigh status: Rubenesque
It is miserable and pouring with rain when I arrive in Mitrovica, Kosovo. My first impressions, noted in my diary, are alliteratively unequivocal – ‘grey, grotty, grisly, gloomy’ – with thick furrowed eyebrows etched over the two ‘o’s to iron out any ambiguity. I am clearly in a bad mood.
Keen to hunker down somewhere warm and dry, I enter the first motel I can find. This transpires to be a half-finished, oddly cavernous place with faint hints of The Shining, run by a gnome-like man with no neck. My room is large, but the bathroom is filthy and I force the man, in the absence of any staff, to clean it himself. If nobody complains then nothing will ever improve, I find myself thinking. Three months on the road and I’ve already turned into my mother.
The motel is located in the south of the city, linked to the north via a bridge over the Ibar river. The bridge is closed to traffic, blocked by broken slabs of concrete and a meagre patch of grass known euphemistically as the ‘Peace Park’. At first the significance of this is lost on me. I am aware the city is divided: ethnic Albanians in the south, Serbs in the north. But the nature and intensity of this partition only becomes apparent during a chat with a friendly Albanian waiter over dinner.
‘I’ve lived here for 15 years and only gone across the bridge twice, when my father got sick, as they have better doctors over there,’ he tells me. This is especially surprising because the restaurant is located right beside the bridge on the southern side and his brother works in the north for a Serb construction company. He insists he doesn’t have a personal problem with the Serb population, however. ‘It’s mainly Pristina and Belgrade that have the problem, not the people.’
After dinner I walk outside into a city gone wild. Albania has won 3-0 against Armenia in a UEFA Euro qualifiers match and everyone is celebrating. Car horns screech, fireworks blaze, crowds swarm and chant in the street. It’s primal, tribal, intoxicating in its intensity. What a powerful urge it is to be a cog in a big, baying machine, I think as I squeeze my way through the throng; that deep, primordial instinct to belong and exclude. It all seems harmless at this level. But when does this change? When does the game become reality and beeping horns morph into bombs and blocked bridges?
The next day I move to a cheaper, cleaner motel across the road run by a wiry man with a terrifying Adam’s apple and spend the afternoon chatting to people working for the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX). The mission arrived in February 2008, operating under the UN to provide policing and legal support to the fledgling country. Not everyone is pleased to have them here – including members of government – seeing them as unwelcome and ineffective mediators between the state and Serbia. But without them Kosovo would arguably be in far worse shape.
‘The Kosovo government has really captured the state,’ a senior EULEX officer tells me over coffee. ‘It controls the media, money, privatisation, judicial system, everything. Rolling this back is very difficult.’
Meanwhile, everyone is leaving. Kosovans were the third largest national group seeking asylum in Germany after Syrians and Albanians in 2015, with nearly 40,000 requests. ‘At least there was vision under Yugoslavia,’ my contact says. ‘Now there is no vision – and for a lot of people, no hope. They are asking what tangible benefits independence has brought.’
Kosovo, which is 90% Albanian, unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 1998, prompting a brutal crackdown by Belgrade that ended with the intervention of Nato in 1999. Nearly two decades later, relations remain tense. Kosovo has now been recognised by 108 UN member states (56%), but Serbia still refuses to do so. Since April 2013, however, Belgrade has grudgingly accepted Pristina as a ‘legitimate governing authority’, maintaining control over only education and health.
Why is Serbia so keen to cling on, I ask? Isn’t it time to cut the cord? ‘There are lots of myths about Kosovo being a key part of its historic national identity,’ the officer tells me. ‘It also has substantial mineral wealth. And there’s the principle, of course, that unilateral declarations of independence are not acceptable.’ Most importantly, he adds, it’s a crucial negotiating tool. ‘They want to keep some leverage with the West. Especially when it comes to EU membership.’
It must be sad being Serbia, I reflect. Once a dominant drill sergeant with an iron fist and flock of pliant minions. Now, one by one they have all fled the coop, leaving it poor, humiliated and alone. It’s the tyrannical father whose kids finally work up the balls to abandon, bounding out to freedom while he screams obscenities and chases them with his battered Kalashnikov, before sinking into a bitter ball of inebriated senility and muttering phrases like ‘after all I did for them!’ and ‘they’ll be back, mark my words!’ from the folds of his baggy corduroy cardigan.
Later that night I walk to the north to meet my friend, another EULEX employee. Crossing the bridge feels like entering a new country. Here people speak Serbian, not Albanian, and use the dinar rather than the euro. Changing money isn’t a problem, however; you can do it easily on the black market with no bothersome police interference. In fact, you can do pretty much anything, within reason, according to my friend.
‘You’d be surprised what you can get away with. Changing money, driving without licence plates – nobody cares. The joke in Mitrovica is that you have to shoot three times for the police to turn up.’
It’s not a complete rule of law vacuum, he says. But it’s close. ‘If you’re looking for a terrorist recruitment region then it’s not a bad place to start. Cooperation between intelligence agencies is weak. Education is very shoddy, especially in rural areas. Religion is filling the void that communism filled before.’
Yet there’s ‘lots of resilience against extremism’, he adds. Most people are moderate Muslims, who see no contradiction between their faith and drinking, smoking and sex. ‘It’s more about culture and tradition. The main religion is Albanianism, as ethnic belonging took over from religious during the decades spent fighting against Muslim Ottoman rule.’
The Berlin of the Balkans, Mitrovice is a vibrant but confusing place. Littered with NGOs and UN agencies, its unsettled identity is forged from conflict, chaos and international interference. Plans to open the bridge are constantly postponed, while tensions simmer unchecked. ‘It’s two very different cultures and languages,’ my friend says. ‘It’s difficult to see how the north could become fully integrated.’
Before leaving for Pristina, the capital, I meet someone working on the Anti-corruption Campaign for Northern Kosovo. Investigations are currently ongoing against two-thirds of the Kosovan parliament, she says. Many of these involve the tender process. ‘Someone will give a job to his brother’s company and not even be aware he’s doing something wrong. “It’s my brother,” he’ll cry. “He’s great!”’
The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) is doing its best to uncover some of the dodgy activity, but it’s not easy. Reporters work under difficult conditions, and are constantly pressured and harassed. One man was recently caught entering their office with a hand grenade, while another threatened to kidnap a reporter’s son. Meanwhile, those at the top remain untouchable. ‘We can report on mayors and ministers, but not the prime minister or president,’ the campaign officer tells me. ‘There are limits.’
After my friend leaves, I’m told my coffee has been paid for by the man at the next table. I assume it’s a come-on – Balkan men are feisty beasts when it comes to preying on weak, vulnerable fillies such as myself, I’m discovering – but it turns out it was his young son’s idea. ‘He overheard you’re a journalist and he likes journalists,’ the man tells me. Wow, I think. I wonder how long that will last?
This thoughtful little journophile is not the only Kosovan youngster I develop a soft spot for. Generally, I’m not a huge fan of kids, who I tend to view as a worryingly feckless bunch of miniature sociopaths. But dozens of them run and wave and shout cheery greetings as I cycle towards Pristina, and one even rescues my pannier after it flies off over a rogue speed-bump. During a rest stop by a school, I tell a teacher – the only person I meet who speaks English – how sweet they all seem. ‘Yes,’ she concedes. ‘They’re our best hope for the future.’ However, in many schools they are poisoned against the Serbs, she says. ‘For me there is no good nationality and bad nationality, just good people and bad people. But if you poison the children then what hope do we have?’
My first impression of Pristina is of an attractive, modern, functional place with few obvious signs of the precarious instability at its core. There are also few obvious signs of its rich history of Ottoman occupation, the city having fallen victim to the Communists’ ruthless modernisation drive. I spend an enjoyable afternoon visiting what remnants of its past remain, however – including four striking mosques, the Great Hammam (bathhouse) and the charming 18th century Emin Gjiku museum containing traditional tools, textiles, furniture, pottery, handicrafts and weaponry.
Overall, the city seems something of a muddle. A quick scoot around the centre reveals a clutter of old and new (or new and newer) buildings thrown together like clothes at a jumble sale. This is mainly due to historically lax enforcement of planning laws, I am told – as well as the fact that much of of the construction industry is controlled by the mafia, who use housing to launder their loot.
In Pristina, I meet a EULEX prosecutor for dinner near ‘small cafe street’ (roads are known by colloquial, descriptive names here), who tells me that organised crime remains a massive problem in Kosovo. ‘But rule of law is strengthening,’ he stresses. ‘Change is visible with the naked eye. You don’t need a microscope.’
The lawyer is a great fan of the Kosovan people, who he believes have ‘warm hearts and curious minds’. I find myself agreeing with him. Here, I’ve only encountered friendliness and goodwill, and I find myself reluctant to leave. But leave I must, and after just a couple of days of rest and recuperation with my lovely hosts – an American investigative journalist and Irish lawyer – I reluctantly hit the road again.
Over the next two days, I work my way across Kosovo and Serbia towards Bulgaria. Despite my intention to keep abreast of it, winter has now caught me in its spindly claws. Wind whips and blusters around me as I pedal up and down the hills towards Gjilan (dreary) and Vranje (marginally less dreary). The usual melee of half-built houses, hopeless mutts, semi-deranged livestock and dusty, ramshackle shopfronts line the road en route, and I find myself itching to reach the border.
In Vranje, I chicken out of camping as the temperature is outside my optimum range of 19-22C and instead check into by far the best budget hotel I’ve stayed at yet, boasting both clean sheets and a towel rail. To mark the occasion, I venture into town for dinner, where I am invited to join a chirpy Serb who is celebrating his 36th birthday with his brothers. He is originally from a small, east Kosovan village where Serbs and Albanians ‘live happily side by side’, and now works in a Vranje factory making heating equipment. He chats me up while showing me dozens of pictures of him and his friends feeding ducks in Geneva. ‘Serbia isn’t a good place to live,’ he says ruefully. ‘Everyone is sad. Nobody laughs enough.’
The next day I set off on a tough schlepp towards Bulgaria, along a fat, single-lane road where lorries compete to send me hurtling into the afterlife. At about the halfway point, the road starts wending uphill, following the gentle contours of a stream deep into the mountains. For the next 30km I climb and climb, my skin tingling in the sweet autumnal air. The beauty of my surroundings is invigorating, and soon the cars and houses fall away and it’s just me, the road, the sun and the sky. Then, suddenly, I’m at the top, and off I swoop down down down through the thick, sunkissed forest, the cool breeze wrapping about me like a silk chemise.
At the bottom I hit the border – and I have to admit it’s a disappointment. I am expecting some glorious Ozymandias-style relic of gnarled, rusty decline; tangled coils of symbolic barb heralding empires’ inevitable decay. But no hint remains of the Iron Curtain now. Instead, I find just a normal, uninspiring checkpoint with a smattering of pleasant guards, who unsportingly let me through without a second glance.
About 18km later, after following a lovely, leafy road through the fields, I arrive in Tran. It suddenly dawns on me that I’ve hit my 12th country out of 20 and my last fully-fledged European state. I am excited to have made it this far, and feel obliged to crack open a bottle of excellent, earthy Domaine Pesthera 2011 in celebration. What’s in store for the remaining eight countries, I wonder? Will I make it through intact? Will Maud ever truly be tamed? Will I finally be blessed with the firm, shapely calves I’ve hankered after for so long?
As I squint with my mind’s eye, however, what lays beyond the horizon remains little more than a grey smudge; a misty morning sky yet to clear. I have absolutely no idea what’s in store. Except that it’s going to be an adventure. And begin with a god-awful hangover tomorrow morning.