On Saturday morning, I was supposed to be at the airport at 5:30am to meet my Justice and Human Rights class for our flight to Pristina, Kosovo at 7am. However....lucky me didn't wake up to my alarm that was set for 4am and instead woke up at 6am. HOLY CRAP. I frantically panicked to throw all of my stuff together, and since it was way to late to take the train to the airport, I woke up my host parents and thankfully Johnny was able to drive me. We left at 6:10am and probably got to the airport at 6:30am.....how it only took us 20 minutes, I will never know, but I am eternally grateful to my host dad for saving me. Getting to the airport, I made it just in time to check my bag and ran through the airport to get to my gate. And I made it... to everyone's shock...including my own...what a fantastic way to start my adventures in Kosovo.
When I was finally able to breathe, I realized we arrived in Vienna for a short layover and then onto our second flight. As I looked out the windows as we were lowering over the Balkans, I could see green, rolling mountains and golden fields dotted with little farm houses. Immediately I fell in love. We finally landed in Pristina and the journey officially began!
We had a guided walking tour through the city, and our guide pointed out a lot of famous landmarks and interesting buildings, as well as different artistic forms of youth activism. 50% of Kosovo's population is under 25, and 70% is under 30. With such a young population in a country that is technically on been independent since 2008, there is so much potential for growth.
Yes, that is a statue of Bill Clinton. They also have a street named after him. Clinton was president during the 1999 Kosovo/Serbian war and the US has supported Kosovo since then. Needless to say, they love Americans here.
An unfinished Serbian Orthodox church that has remained "under construction" since the late 90s. It's located in the middle of the university's campus, but no one really knows what to do with it. Politics still getting in the way...
Takes the words right out of my mouth.
The ugliest library in the universe. It looks like some post-apocalyptic, distopian architecture.
One example of passive protesting. All of the colors are supposed to represent the importance of diversity within the country.
A 1950's styled diner...I told you they love America
Students creating another artistic form of protest. I think the faces are meant to represent the people who have been missing since the war.
"Newborn"- Kosovo's motto. This country is definitely in the process of rebirth and revolution.
Here is a picture of Kosovo's president. Yes, she's a woman! This cardboard cutout is another act of protest against how much the government spent on a conference abroad. I don't know if she's very popular...but it is interesting that, under Kosovo's constitution, at least 30% of government representatives have to be women. Progressive or forced equality? You decide.
Bet you didn't know Mother Teresa was Albanian? About 95% of Kosovo is ethnically Albanian, so they regard her as a national saint...even though Catholics are a very small minority.
Inside a 13th century mosque in the heart of Pristina. Since 95% of Kosovo is ethnically Albanian, 95% of the population is Muslim. The ethnic Albanians are all Muslim, but religion here is less strict than in other Muslim countries. Their way of practice is actually very similar to Christian Danes: more of a cultural identity than a religious one.
Over the next few days we went on academic visits to various government organizations and NGOs around Pristina, including the ICO (International Civilian Organization) and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees), and we actually got to meet the Minister of Defense of Kosovo...let's just say this man was pretty intimidating. I wouldn't want to get on his bad side.
View of the city from the former ICO offices. A little smoggy...kind of reminds me of L.A. Oh, and did I mention it was sunny all week? And the temperature was around 75 degrees every day? Nice break from 50 degree Copenhagen...
Our fancy lunch with one of the former ICO officials. Traditional Kosovo food is (in my opinion) a mix between Italian, Greek, and Middle Eastern...aka de-licious
Oh hey Dallas? Talk about completely random...
More randomness at the Ministry of Defense: Iowa and Kosovo? Who knew?
On Tuesday we went to the Northern city of Mitrovica. Mitrovica is one of the only cities in Kosovo where an existing conflict is still evident. The city is separated, North and South, by a river. The Southern half is made up of ethnic Albanians, while the smaller North is mainly ethnic Serbians. Two years ago, there was a violent protest on one of the bridges separating the city, leading to the death of a couple policemen and ultimately the creation of a small blockade on the bridge. Today, the blockade stands and KFOR officers patrol the bridge to quell protests if any arise. Besides the tension, Mitrovica is a gorgeous city (a lot cleaner than Pristina). Hopefully peace will come soon.
On top of that mountain are the ruins of a 11th century Byzantine castle...geez this country has so much history
OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) flags. We met with 3 officials: one Pole, one French, and one Kosovar Serb...what a blend!
Strolling through the streets of Mitrovica
The blockade on the Serbian side of the bridge. Notice the Serbian flags in the background?
Standing in the middle of the bridge. Both sides so separated, both sides technically apart of one nation, yet it appears as though peace is very far away.
And the graffiti is an everyday reminder of this tension.
Wednesday was our NGO day. The class was broken up into small groups of about 5-6 people to go visit different NGOs in Kosovo. My group chose to visit the DRC (Danish Refugee Council). The DRC is an international NGO, with obvious roots in Denmark, that works hands-on trying to rebuild the lives of refugees in various countries. The woman we met with was from the US, which was a relief because the language barrier was difficult to get used to...nobody really speaks English in Kosovo. The DRC seems like it's doing a lot of good, but she admitted that every year funding goes down, and at the current rate of decline, the DRC's mission in Kosovo will come to an end in about 2 years. Hopefully the Kosovar government will start taking control of refugee issues so that when the DRC leaves, these people will still be able to receive the help that they need.
We also met with KFOR (Kosovo Force) officers. These military men are from all over the world and they are here to be "peace keepers" until tensions in Kosovo come to an end. However...I asked the guys we spoke with if KFOR has an exit strategy for Kosovo and he said, and I quote, "Hell no." So I think it's pretty safe to say that they'll be here for a while.
After the KFOR meeting, we went to a small town just outside of Pristina where the Serbian and Albanian communities have integrated very well. The mayor is even an ethnic Serb, which is rare to find. There we visited a 13th Serbian Orthodox Monastery. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but here is how gorgeous it is on the inside.
Fun fact: St. Nicholas is the patron saint of travelers. I should definitely pick up a pendant of his with all the traveling I'll be doing this semester!
Thursday was our cultural day! After sooooo many academic visits, it was time for a little break. Destination: Peja
Peja is a gorgeous city in western Kosovo that is (obviously) backdropped by mountains that are actually a part of the Alps southern range.
We took a walking tour through the city, and then went to visit another 13th century Serbian Orthodox monastery, but this time I got to take pictures!! And boy did I... I love old churches. When ever I walk into one, I'm overcome with a sense of calm and tranquility. Maybe it's just the candles or the pretty frescos, but for some reason I feel at peace. It's probably just the history nerd inside of me recovering from the sensory overload...
Inside another beautiful, medieval mosque in Peja
The beautiful mountains behind the monastery
The 13th century church. All the stone was mined from the surrounding mountains
The intricate ceilings. It took 20 years just to paint all of the frescos
The OCD in me wishes the lines were straight in this photo, but it's not my fault! The monks should really spend more time on alignments than praying (that was total sarcasm). Also, fun fact, the monks brew their own brandy :)
Our monk/guide in traditional Orthodox garb
Prayer candles :)
The day wasn't over yet, and now it was time to venture into the mountains to visit a tiny little mountain village, and the adorable family that lives there. Our guide's best friend and his family live on a farm where they harvest apples, honey, and milk (for the most part), but many other vegetables as well. I could definitely see myself living here...
The gorge between the mountains. If you keep heading west, you end up in Montenegro!
Our guide and the family! You can tell the wife wears the pants...
What a feast! Everything is made from scratch at the farm
Just the most beautiful mountains ever.
The PERFECT apple. I dare you to challenge me. Plus, it was just picked from a tree. As fresh as it gets, folks.
The sun setting over the mountains...I'm going to miss this view.
The trip to Kosovo couldn't be concluded any better than with a GIGANTIC bottle of Peja (the beer). Probably in my Top Ten most amazing beers list.
Look at those Danes, eyeing down the beer. I bet they could finish the whole thing between the both of them...but seriously. Never try to beat a Dane in a drinking contest. It's a lost cause.
Everything about the trip is still sinking in. In my entire life, I would have never thought that I would be able to say that I went to Kosovo. It's not the most touristy place, or the most beautiful, and definitely not the cleanest...but its history and its people make it a completely unique European country. After hundreds of years of war, being able to preserve the culture and identity that is "Kosovo" is an amazing feat...and the people still have so much hope for the future. It makes you realize what you're truly grateful for in life, and how much potential you have to succeed.
If they can do it, anyone can.
Now I'm back in Copenhagen, and it certainly does feel good to be home (Yep. That's right, I called it home)