The bus conductor glanced at my passport as I handed it to her for border registration and sighed. She and the driver exchanged a few words in Serbian, which, from the tone and expressions, seemed to roughly translate to: “Great. An American. So much for a quick crossing today. Good thing we brought extra smokes.”
I was crossing from Serbia proper into Kosovo, a nation that declared their independence in 2008 from Serbia, who refuses to acknowledge it. Both the WTO and the IMF, as well as about 75 nations (including the US) do, but thanks to Russia’s support of Serbia and their veto power on the Security Council, the UN cannot recognize it as an independent state. So technically speaking, it isn’t a real country.
Except that it is, especially to the 1.5 million ethnic Albanians who currently call it home. They don’t consider themselves Albanians, even though they share similar language and customs. In fact, ask anyone outside of Kosovo in the Balkans about this particular push for independence and they’ll shrug. “Why not just join Albania?” they ask me. “No idea.”
But they don’t consider themselves to be Serbians, either. And this country-but-not-a-country is home to Serbians, Turks, Bosnians, Macedonians as well. The area has been fought over and captured for centuries, starting with the Romans in BC times, to the Bulgarians in the 800s, to the Ottomans in the 13th century… the most recent nationalist movement was, as I would learn, just the tip of the iceberg in one of the most complicated regional histories I’ve ever encountered.
After a fairly uneventful border crossing (Serbian guards were nice, Kosovo guards had a lot of questions once they learned I was entering as a tourist and not to work for one of many NGOs as most foreigners do), I spent the day in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. It’s an odd city. Nothing about it felt comfortable or interesting, and I tend to find something to like about most places I visit. Pristina just felt hollow. The border crossing was what had drawn me to Kosovo in the first place; never having been to a non-country that had border controls on a non-border seemed fascinating, and it was. At that point, I didn’t feel the need to linger. After halfheartedly checking with four hotels, all of which were full, I just wandered around for the day and made plans to take the overnight bus to Sarajevo that evening.
About to board the bus in Pristina, the conductor took one look at me standing expectantly at the door and started waving his arms and speaking loudly. Within minutes, a large crowd of worried-looking grandmothers and amused men had gathered around me, all shaking their heads and chattering in Albanian. One man elbowed his way in and asked me in accented English what was wrong. We finally pieced together that the conductor was worried that I’d be turned away at the border, but I showed him my Serbia entry stamp and assured him that I had done it correctly. Laughter and back-slapping ensued, along with cookies from the relieved grandmothers.
See, there’s an easy way to enter Kosovo overland and a hard way. I chose the easy way: enter Kosovo from Serbia and leave into Serbia. Because Serbia considers Kosovo part of Serbia, in their view, I never left the country. Neither Kosovo nor Serbia had stamped my passport, save for my original Serbia entry stamp when I crossed from Bulgaria.
When it gets complicated is if travelers enter Serbia from Kosovo having entered Kosovo from another country like Macedonia or Albania. They’ll get a Kosovo entry stamp, which Serbian authorities don’t recognize. In their view, you entered Serbia (Kosovo) illegally. Best case scenario is that Serbian border guards will give you a hard time, stamp over your Kosovo stamp CANCELLED with a Serbian entry stamp and let you enter. Worst case scenario is that you’re not allowed in and must try your luck at another border: a lengthy and sometimes expensive process.
(This is only a problem if you plan to go to Serbia after Kosovo. And perhaps Russia. Otherwise, just go to Serbia first and then exit Kosovo at the Albanian or Macedonian border. Those guys aren’t fussed.)
My translator, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, took a seat on the bus beside me and proceeded to wax eloquent about America and the “wonderful Mr. Bill Clinton who saved us.” We discussed the war for two solid hours; it was the first of many conversations I’d have in coming days about the war, US intervention, and US obligations throughout the world. “We all need you,” my new friend kept repeating.
At the Kosovo-Serbia border, things were smooth, save for a little old man who was questioned considerably about the 30 kilos of homemade cheese he had with him. The Serbia-Bosnia border was another matter. Again with the cheese, but this time, five men were detained, all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. My friend was spared for some reason, and translated the commentary from other passengers on the matter. The border guards were demanding bribes, he said. Not much, maybe 20€. It’s normal. But it usually only ever happens to his people, he said. “Only Kosovo Albanian,” he sighed.
I was surprised. I’ve seen many bribes pass hands in my travels, mostly during my time in South America. “Tips,” they called them. But never before had I witnessed such a public shakedown. There were dozens of people on the bus, including this observant, opinionated and talkative American. And never before had I seen such an obvious targeting of a specific ethnic group. Was this really happening?
When the men returned, their eyes were downcast. They forced a smile at the indignant passengers, one of whom was a Serbian who was delivering a particularly vehement speech and pointing at me. The only words I caught were “Washington Post” and “Clinton.”
"He wants you to write to the Washington Post and tell them about this disgrace,” my new friend translated. “And call our friends Mr. Bill Clinton and Mr. George Bush. They will stop this bad business. Please.” His eyes were suddenly very sad.
I tried to explain that there probably wasn’t much I could do. “Please,” he repeated, so I relented and promised I would write someone when I got home. The other passengers -a mix of Serbians, Kosovans, Albanians and Bosnians- nodded their approval as he translated my response for them. “We are all neighbors,” he said to me. “When these guards do this bad things, they make it hard to be good neighbors. You understand?”
USA Cross-Country Road Trip
Southern Baja, Mexico
AROUND THE WORLD 2011:
Bosnia and Herzegovina