Kosovo: Europe’s Newest Country
In the aftermath of conflict, the people of Kosovo rebuild their country, continuing the uphill climb to a brighter future. Words and images by Musa Chowdhury.
Although Kosovo is now recognised by many countries as an independent state, the Serbian government regards an independent Kosovo as a violation of their sovereignty and national constitution. It is also feasible that political leaders of other troubled countries could see Kosovo’s independence as a threat to their own sovereignty. Indeed, Kosovo’s legacy may ultimately end up being its influence in causing a domino effect of republics wanting to claim independence as well.
With the support of the United States and various European countries, Kosovo declared her independence on February 17th, 2008. Russia, however, opposed the move, standing by its neighbour, Serbia. Within hours of the announcement of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, Russia declared the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — both of which have struggled for independence from Georgia, a former member of the Soviet Union and foe of Russia.
The Kosovo War, which lasted from 1998 to 1999, involved the armed rebellion of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which was later backed by the US, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Kosovo’s southern neighbour, Albania. This war saw the defeat of the Serbian army and the beginning of the downfall of Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milošević.
A Kosovan-Albanian, Ibrahim Rugova, was regarded as the figurehead — a proxy leader — of that uprising, which eventually brought about Kosovo’s independence. Today, he is rightly known as the ‘Father of the Nation’.
Kosovo, Islam and a Harmonious Past
Kosovo has a largely secular Muslim population and, being the size of Lebanon or Jamaica, is the smallest country in the Balkans. Driving from one side of the country to the other takes only an hour, leaving you with ample time to explore its rich cultural cities that have witnessed many empires and religious influences.
The Ottoman Empire ruled the area from the mid-15th century, a period when Islam grew in importance and the migration of Albanians into Kosovo increased. In the early 20th century, Kosovo was incorporated into Serbia, at the time part of Yugoslavia. By the second half of the century, Muslim ethnic Albanians outnumbered the predominantly Eastern Orthodox Serbs in Kosovo.
For decades, this region saw no real conflict between ethnicities or religions. Kosovans, Serbs, Albanians, Bosniaks, Goranis, Roma, Turks, Ashkalis and Egyptians lived in relative peace; first and foremost, they considered themselves to be ‘Yugoslavians’. The disintegration of Yugoslavia and the dismantlement of communism peeled away this idea of sincere nationalism under one banner and was the catalyst that divided the different religious and ethnic groups.
Memories of Mitrovica
A bridge that connects the Orthodox Serbian communities in the north of Kosovska Mitrovica to the Muslim Albanian Kosovans in the south effectively divides the two opposing communities. Crossing the New Bridge (or Mitrovica Bridge) brings about a sense of sadness. My visit to north Mitrovica is made somewhat sombre by the inter-ethnic divide that each group has for the other.
Mitrovica was once known for its Trepča mines; a huge, thriving industrial complex that employed over 23,000 people from in and around the region. Neglect caused by the lack of control and funds, as well as increased ethno-political tensions, reduced the mining complex into a sad legacy of conflict.
My presence in Mitrovica is received with much suspicion. This, coupled with the grim remains of war — buildings neglected and in a state of disrepair, shops empty, streets all but deserted — creates a sense of eeriness.
The world is watching Kosovo.
It remains to be seen whether its struggle for independence will develop into a successful state and a credible family of nations, or if the legacy of war will continue to blight and stunt its progress.
In 2008, Kosovo’s people had great hope, and I believe that the strength that got them this far still exists. These good-natured people have not given up hope and they retain an inner belief that, out of the fire of conflict, a strong and successful Kosovo can still be forged.
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