Entry into Kosmet
As we approach the administrative boundary of Kosovo and Metohija (often abbreviated as Kosmet) with the rest of Serbia, a certain uneasy feeling sets in. Certainly, we all firmly stand behind the postulate of 'Kosovo is Serbia' and reject the oft-touted 'new realities' of the (nauseatingly) aggressive Western political rhetoric; and after all, we are entering from the 'Serbian- controlled' north of the province. Still, there is a certain fear of the unknown, rooted in a reality that may be wrong, but at least in part must be faced on earthly terms. The police checkpoint at the 'inner Serbian' side of the line is rather simple and expeditious. Perhaps more telling than any of the bureaucratic motions we went through was the lightly worried but hopeful look on the policeman's face wishing a loaded 'good luck' while handing back the documents. Half a mile later comes the 'outer Serbian' side of the line - the checkpoint inside Kosovo itself. Recent history becomes evident right from here - the charred remains of the Jarinje 'border post' match the ones that had filled news headlines about Serb defiance less than four months earlier; I'm tempted to photograph this history, though quickly dissuaded by more informed crewmembers. Other elements of the decor are also different and slightly ominous - UNMIK warnings and KFOR vehicles, although passive, along with police personnel that's friendly in demeanor and ostensibly ethnically Serbian, but lacking any Serbian state insignia. All in all, although we thus completed our original 'entry into the province' without a major hitch or delay - there is an uneasy sense of entering a 'twilight zone', exacerbated by awareness of the fact that in a mere few days, the scheduled passing of the secessionist 'Kosovo constitution' is bound to raise the ante and create more unknowns at this point of entry.
And in a way - a twilight zone it is. Apparently devoid of excise taxes collected by any authority, gasoline prices in this 'Serbian-dominated' Northern Kosovo are almost a full 40% less than in the rest of Serbia (or Kosovo, for that matter) - indeed the lowest in all of Europe; similar trade anomalies apparently also apply to other segments. But I suppress these troubling thoughts as we gradually descend down the picturesque wooded slopes of the broader Kopaonik range into the Leposavic area and further down the Ibar valley towards Zvecan and Mitrovica.
Our first stop is the Sokolica monastery, a well-kept women's monastery perched on a picturesque hilltop. The Blago team had done the archiving work there some years ago, and the short visit is primarily to exchange some gifts and news with the Abess, mother Makarija, and meet our escort for the rest of the trip, driver Sinisa. The monastery highlights another one of those 'administrative', dividing, cultural or even mental, lines that crisscross the province. Getting there from the main Mitrovica thoroughfare, takes a short but steep dirt road, all still within the Serbian 'Northern Kosovo', to a checkpoint manned by a couple of friendly Greek KFOR soldiers that seem delighted to exchange a few words in their native tongue with me. The commanding view from the monastery's hilltop position is delightful, but you soon realize that is the southern outpost of that 'Northern Kosovo north of the Ibar' - far less obvious than the spotlit Mitrovica with its notoriously contested Ibar bridge, with no river in site here - but no less real. Two houses built on the adjoining lower plateaus, on second glance, fly the flag of the Republic of Albania. We are later told that they are on general monastery land, and there is an UNMIK decree that mandates dislodging the squatters and restoring land ownership. The usual feet-dragging has ensued - implementation contingent on that ubiquitous 'political will' - and the eventual outcome remains uncertain.
An old friend of ours and participant at the 2004 SUC convention in Washington, Mother Makarija impressed me then, and even more so now. Advancing in age but experienced and highly educated, she has secured the sisterhood by developing an original iconography school and manufacture, combining her artistic skills and advanced chemistry degrees. She is articulate, outspoken and energetic. She retells with passion the story of March 17, 2004 - the pogrom against Serbian and other loyalist population - and her stratagem that saved the day for them. French KFOR peacekeepers were then under orders to evacuate the sisterhood and effectively leave the compound unprotected and open to mob destruction - the sad fate met by the Archangels of Prizren, monastery Devic and many other holy shrines on that day. She skillfully and diplomatically delayed the evacuation until it was eventually abandoned as a plan. A small but important moral and practical victory in a land where a sense of faith, preordained outcomes and conspiracies sometimes tends to overwhelm rational reasoning. Still, as we savor that achievement, sipping coffee and great local apricot brandy in the meticulously maintained monastery garden, a feeling of general uncertainty clearly remains.
Road to Gracanica
We further continue to our final destination for the day - Monastery Gracanica, the semi-permanent seat of the Bishop of Raska-Kosovo. Getting there requires passing through the provincial capital, Pristina, and prior to that - passing another de facto line of separation, that between the North and South. We are now in two vehicles - our rented van with Belgrade license plates, and Sinisa's car with plates of Novi Pazar, the main town of the neighboring Raska province in central Serbia that we had just emerged from. In the fluctuating legal and practical limbo that currently rules, the latter plates have come to be perceived as somehow acceptable to all sides, apparently due to intermediary activities associated with local merchants. We are advised that few problems are expected right now, as we are in the run-up to the scheduled acceptance of the pseudo-constitution by Kosovo Albanian parliamentarians, and the instructions to their administration is to 'lay low' at this point. Kosovo Albanian police perform their customs check of sorts, demur at our Belgrade plates, then relax slightly when faced with a couple of American passports.
We move into central Kosovo, without stopping until our destination, gazing through the window at a noticeably different environment than the Serbian-controlled North we have just left - an observation that will generally hold throughout our trek that crisscrossed the province and its many lines of virtual separation. There is the obvious presence of numerous mosque minarets - many are apparently Saudi-financed products of the post-1999 period. There are visibly more people here, the atmosphere seems lively and at times chaotic. Clearly, large amounts of money (obviously from sundry sources - by all accounts mostly shady and excluding the moribund local economy) have been recently pumped into this rather poor area, with numerous, usually incomplete, large brick-and-cement houses dotting the road and the once pristine pastoral horizon beyond. Complementing this is the evidence of industrial investment, led by gas stations and car washes - a little too numerous and shiny for what actual conditions and needs would warrant. Finally, there are the occasional landmarks, diverse in nature and value. The tacky Liberty-topped hotel in Pristina is more a testament to the unprincipled Clinton foreign policy and meddling that have fundamentally shaped the current state of this conflict, than to any sincere adherence to cherished American values in these parts. A short while later, again to our left but a bit further out, we recognize the familiar outline of the Gazimestan monument - the memorial to the famous Battle of Kosovo. A site with more than just great symbolic significance, it has seen its share of pilgrimages, gatherings and counter-gatherings in the tumultuous recent years. It now stands silently, sullen and haunting - a big question mark before the future. We continue on southeast, towards Gracanica.
Traffic is brisk on this main two-lane road, with a hodge-podge of vehicles sharing it - from heavy military hardware, though commercial and passenger vehicles of all shapes and sizes, to agricultural machinery. However - both here and on other local roads we were to traverse over the next couple of days - overall driving habits and demeanor appear quite tame compared with other parts of Serbia (add Montenegro, or even Greece, Italy, etc.) and for a Balkan region known for general lawlessness. We are later told that this is mainly the result of the drastic fines levied by UNMIK for traffic infractions. Makes one wonder why such successful policies do not carry over to other areas of law enforcement here... Still, with 'bigger fish to fry' in the background, we appreciate at least the relatively civilized driving experience. At some point, having turned off this main thoroughfare to a deteriorating side road, the sudden appearance of Cyrillic store signs - the first time since we crossed into the 'South' - indicates we are in the Gracanica-Caglavica enclave, and close to our destination for the day.