Seventeen months after declaring independence, Kosovo is no longer in open warfare, but it remains a region of abject poverty, black markets, blood feuds and missing people. Christopher Stewart reports from the chaos of the world's youngest country. On the road to Pristina, we passed slum dwellers hawking smuggled cigarettes and phone cards, trash heaps crawling with feral dogs, shotgun shacks crammed together like bad teeth, and, intermittently, sites of glimmering new construction. Here and there, protected by sandbags and concertina wire, were the offices and barracks of the United Nations and Nato, some structures little better than shipping containers built to house the international bodies that came to save the land. The hot June air was heavy with petrol fumes, the stereo blared rap music in Albanian over pounding bass lines, and in the distance the red sun was sinking behind snow-draped mountains. My driver, Scratch, jockeyed through traffic down one and two-lane roads pocked by potholes wide enough to swallow our blue BMW sedan. Scratch said that he was armed and told me not to worry. "You never know," he said. Scratch swerved the car around a cow, then a military vehicle equipped with a swivel gun. The speedometer clicked upward, and a man came into our sight, staggering down the edge of the road, carrying in his arms what appeared to be the limp body of a woman. The man shook his head at the passing traffic. Soon I could see that the woman's head was bleeding, her eyes and mouth wide open, and her left hand dangling twisted and limp as if her sun-burnt skin were the only thing keeping it attached to her arm. Shouldn't we stop? I wondered. We didn't; no one did. Cars and trucks cut around the man and woman, kicking up tiny clouds of dust, and then past two crashed-up hatchbacks in a weedy ditch, where three men stood gesturing at the darkening sky. "Welcome to Kosovo," Scratch said.
I checked into Pristina's Grand Hotel, a decrepit grey high-rise about as welcoming as a correctional facility - despite the five stars on its flat roof, only three of which still light up. Parked outside were several white UN Land Rovers alongside a few late model Mercedes with tinted windows. One of my Kosovar friends had recommended the Grand. "The foreigners there will keep you safe," she said of the hotel's large United Nations clientele. "They will know that you are in town and some will probably not like it." She did not specify who "they" were, but I heard lots of such paranoid talk in Kosovo. Indeed, paranoia is endemic in a society where as much as 50 per cent of the economy transpires informally and the native institutions of government are seen as both impotent and corrupt. Although Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008 and has been recognised by 60 countries, including the United States and most members of Nato (Spain and Greece are holdouts), the territory is still, in part, administered by the United Nations and largely secured by NATO forces and, as of December, EU police. This has been the case since Serbia's surrender in June 1999, when the United Nations Mission in Kosovo was established, backed by 43,000 Nato peacekeepers. (The number is down to 14,000 today.) Working from UN Resolution 1244, which gave the UN control of the province, they set out to subdue the postwar chaos, escort Serb paramilitaries to the border, demilitarise the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and engineer an ethnically colour-blind, western-style democracy. In the name of a future with fully functioning institutions and a robust economy, the Kosovar politicians, some of them former guerrilla fighters, echoed the internationals and urged their people not to rock the boat. About two million people live in Kosovo; 90 per cent are Albanian and about 10 per cent Serb. The two groups, however, have never coexisted peacefully, and the war - which followed decades of brutal repression by Serbs and resulted in the deaths of around 10,000 people, some of them found in mass graves - didn't end without complications. The United Nations has spent a decade trying to heal and rebuild. But bodies are still being found and war crimes are still being investigated. Of the hundreds of thousands forced to flee during the conflict, most estimate that more than 200,000 Serbs and Roma remain refugees. The Serbs who returned largely live in protected enclaves, and many are caught up in efforts to reclaim their old homes, which were destroyed or occupied by similarly dislocated Albanian families. The United Nations itself has yet to acknowledge Kosovo's independence, and any attempt to seat Kosovo in the UN would likely be vetoed by Russia. In this liminal state, Kosovo is unbound by and prohibited from entering into international treaties, and its borders, patrolled by poorly paid customs agents susceptible to bribery, are essentially porous. Last June, Kosova Democratic Institute, a watchdog organisation, derided the members of the Kosovar parliament for "irresponsibility and lack of seriousness" when only 30-odd MPs out of 100 showed up for a hearing on corruption. In January the government announced that it had hired an Israel-based branch of the public- relations firm Saatchi and Saatchi to undertake a "nation branding campaign" at a cost of $7.3 million to dispel its reputation as a zone of ethnic strife, political venality, black-marketeering, jihadi training and organised crime - Europe's "black hole." Kosovo is not in open warfare, and things have been done to advance the unruly place, but it is still a region of burnt homes, sporadic electricity and water shortages, reports of blood feuds and missing people. More than half of the population is unemployed, the country exports almost nothing, and foreign investment is slight. The political climate is tenuous, and the country's future as a proper state is undecided. Kosovo has announced its independence - but what does independence mean in a place like this?
On a rainy afternoon I paid a visit to Basri Capriqi in his office in one of the stone buildings of Pristina University. A poet, president of Kosovo's PEN centre, and the author of several works of scholarship, Capriqi is a brawny man with grey bushy hair and a goatee that needs trimming. In a wrinkled and threadbare grey suit, he sat slumped behind his wooden desk, as if just woken from a nap. "It's so dark," he said. "I'm depressed." Capriqi, 51, has spent the greater part of his life thinking about the future. Born in Pristina, he began teaching Albanian literature at the university shortly after his own graduation. In those days, under Tito, there remained a free exchange of ideas among Serbs and Albanians who worked and taught together. Capriqi was a youthful 31 in 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic made his infamous speech at the field of Black Birds, invoking the Serbs' defeat there at the hands of the Turks in 1389 to incite anti-Albanian sentiments among the thousands of Serbs in his audience. In the months that followed, Kosovo's status as an autonomous province within the republic of Serbia was revoked, and ethnic Albanians were purged from public institutions - judges, prosecutors, police officers, teachers. Out of a job, Capriqi watched as street signs, storefronts and newspapers all came printed in Serbo-Croatian and any Albanians deemed enemies of the state were arrested and tortured. Capriqi retreated into literature, reading books to remind himself that there was a sane world beyond the horizon, and writing what he terms "antinationalist poetry. Everyone else was writing about being brave and fighting. I wrote: 'I'm scared like a duck. I'm afraid.'"
Capriqi joined a group of Albanian intellectuals in a clandestine political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Its leader was Ibrahim Rugova, a poet, journalist, and literary critic who would in 2002 become the first president of Kosovo. (Rugova died in 2006.) The LDK conjured a parallel system of governance with Albanian schools, hospitals and a parliament, all funded clandestinely by a government in exile. Capriqi taught his students at private houses. The shadow state improved those lives that it touched but at the same time fostered a society accustomed to living underground and outside the law - an alteration to the social fabric that now seems permanent. "In the beginning the goal was not independence," Capriqi told me. "But after Croatia and Bosnia broke away, we knew that Yugoslavia would no longer exist and we wanted to be independent. Our thought was to achieve this through passive resistance, like Gandhi. The sad truth is that nothing in this region could be resolved without war. Other places broke up without bloodshed, like the Soviet Union, but this region is different." Capriqi paused and fiddled with a pencil. "After the war, the intellectuals felt lost. Our peaceful project had failed. We felt sorry that our ideas had failed. I came to think that war was probably the only way, but that is very sad. It has changed things." Capriqi's most recent book of poetry, Taming the Snake, published in 2005, is a veiled critique of what has happened to Kosovo. "It is about taming the beast and restoring humanity to the land," he said. "There is a lot of that to be done here, taming and restoring. I just don't know anymore. I had high hopes, but this is not exactly the Kosovo I imagined. I'd like to be optimistic, but it is hard. Some of the people in power are warriors, not politicians," he said. "Most of them are out there for themselves. And they are getting rich. They drive expensive cars and live an expensive lifestyle. "I'm afraid there is much anger in the people," he went on. "The internationals have been ineffective and the politicians are corrupt. Everyone here did a lot of bad things, but the people in power always tell us to wait and not to talk and that's how it goes. It is like a swamp here. The biggest danger - and everyone is afraid of this - is that people in power will buy the future elections, they will buy Kosovo, and all hope will be lost." The rain continued through the night, thunder cracked above the city, and lightening illuminated the crumbling landscape. The next morning, the wet streets smelled of trash and were strewn with tree branches. It was unusual weather for Kosovo this time of year. At the Grand's front desk, two UN police officers from America were talking about the storm. They had just arrived for a one-year stint; when I asked one of them why here, he made the universal sign for money. "I woke up last night," one of them said, "and thought the world was ending." "It was a terrible storm," the other man agreed, and then made a noise of disbelief. The Kosovar behind the desk took their keys. "It is lucky we are all still here," he said. Though he was joking, the UN men didn't laugh.
The land on which Kosovo sits has long been a node on the path of narcotics into Western Europe from points east - primarily heroin originating in Turkey and Afghanistan but also cocaine, Ecstasy and marijuana. A 2008 US State Department report paints the region as a clearing house for large shipments of narcotics that are broken down into smaller quantities to be distributed by Kosovars visiting relatives in Italy, Switzerland, the UK or Scandinavia. The drug trade, well known to be a major source of funding for the independence movement of the 1990s, is linked to the parallel industry of human trafficking. Both are said to be fields of rare co-operation between Albanian and Serb gangs. Recently a market for drugs has swelled within Kosovo itself, and a growing number of heroin addicts have begun to seek treatment at Pristina University Hospital. Street prices are the lowest in the Balkans. A gram of heroin - $20 in Serbia or Albania and $170 in the United States - costs $8 in Kosovo. I learnt about the drug trade on a humid night at a rooftop bar in a desolate industrial city in the south of Kosovo, where I met with two 26-year-old traffickers on the condition of anonymity. I agreed not to name the city and to refer to the men by pseudonyms: Blacksy and Rambo. When we reached the hotel for our appointment, Scratch went in to make sure we were still on. He had known the pair for a few years, had for a time been their roommate, and had gained their trust. A half-hour later, near midnight, Scratch called me to come in. "You have to understand," said Rambo, as we sat down. "No one knows what we do. Everyone thinks we're just two internet guys." Rambo was tall with short black hair that shimmered with gel. He wore a striped Izod sweater and dark blue jeans and was constantly whispering into his cell phone. Blacksy was on the short side, with mussed blond hair, clad in a collared beach shirt that lent him the appearance of a California surfer. I remarked that they looked like mild-mannered young men. "We are," said Rambo. "Except for, well - you have to understand: bad economic conditions make you do things you don't, well, things you don't want to do. This is the way it is." Kosovo is a youthful land - almost 70 per cent of the population is below the age of 30. Jobs are scarce, as they have been since the war. Blacksy and Rambo considered moving abroad, but that required either a political connection or enough money to buy forged documents. When they first hunted for work, the easiest cash on offer was from jihadist recruiters flown in from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. That remains, in part, the case today, even though the predominantly Muslim region takes a casual approach to Islam. ("Osama bin Laden is not much liked," one imam told me. "Have you seen girls around here? They drink and don't wear scarves. You can see their bellies.") Another option for the young men was to spend their days sitting in cafes, an many other jobless 20-somethings do these days, living off money from relatives abroad. But such a life, they told me, would be boring, and Blacksy and Rambo preferred a little adventure. So they went underground. They knew people in this world, friends of friends, and these people helped launch them. Blacksy and Rambo fit the bill: they were adventurous, more than a little fearless, and they could keep their mouths shut. The jobs started small, a kilo here and there - heroin, marijuana, cocaine, whatever they were asked to move - about once a week. The phone would ring, day or night, and they would board a bus to deliver to the next man along a tightly knit chain stretching from Pristina, the hub, across the mountains and into Western Europe. As the loads increased and the money poured in, they started driving their own cars and hiring others to work for them. Now they say that in a good week they transport about $1 million worth of product and that each of them takes in around $20,000 - in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $200. Blacksy and Rambo spoke with pride about how smart they had been. Early on, they had devised a system that they still employ today. A "book" is code for a kilogram, and when a voice on the phone instructs them to pick up and deliver 10 economics books, they know they will be moving 10 kilos of heroin. A political book is cocaine; philosophy, marijuana. Blacksy and Rambo's share of the greater Balkan drug trade is minuscule. Most estimates place the traffic through the region at $400 billion annually, accounting for some 70 per cent of the heroin heading for Europe. When I asked the pair of gangsters about their bosses, their faces went blank. "There are probably 10 or 12 top guys in Kosovo moving this stuff into Europe," Blacksy said. "But we don't know them. It is not good to know the top guys, if you know what I mean." The conversation turned to violence. Blacksy and Rambo claim to have seen deals devolve into beatings and murders. And though they wouldn't go into details, I'd heard stories. Albanian crime gangs are notoriously brutal and secretive; authorities have found them impossible to infiltrate. "The police are a joke in Kosovo," Blacksy told me. "You just need to know how to handle them." Because Kosovo is a tiny region, its families are large, and everyone knows everyone else, few dare to testify in court. The act is considered a death sentence for a family: witness protection is weak, and relocation agreements are either nonexistent or impractical, as extended families are considered legitimate targets for revenge killings. The internationals fare no better than the local police. "For a few years," said Blacksy, "we lived right next door to a bunch of UNMIK [United Nations Mission in Kosovo] police officers. They would say hi to us. They thought we were students." He paused, his face brightened. "Now we're the internet guys!" Blacksy and Rambo actually do install internet service around southern Kosovo. They own company vans, two-seaters equipped with secret compartments that double as drug carriers. "We are a big success!" Blacksy bragged. It was getting late, and Rambo said he had things to do. As they stood up, Blacksy made it clear he wanted me to know one more thing. "We are not bad guys," he said, as he lit a cigarette. "Do you know this? There is guilt every day for us. It is not an easy life that we live", he says. Rambo nodded and looked off into the dark. "It is not like America," he says. "Things don't always make sense. Don't forget this."
About a ten-minute drive from downtown Pristina, on a dusty motorway lined with smashed-up strip malls, newly-poured concrete and begging gypsies, stands UNMIK's Alpha Bravo compound, a scrum of white- painted breadbox style buildings and white SUVs behind sandbags and barbed wire. From here, Mark Miller, a middle-aged Briton, and the 215 other men in UNMIK's Criminal Investigation Unit have worked to counter crime syndicates, bribe-taking politicians, war criminals and terrorists. Miller was also in charge of training Kosovo's own burgeoning native police force. In Miller's description, Kosovo was a wilderness of shady entrepreneurs and gangsters operating in collusion with slippery officials - the Wild West under the thumb of the Mafia. "Have you heard about the grenades?" he asked. "People want to feel safe, but people are throwing grenades. Quite often if someone is unhappy with someone, a grenade will end up in their backyard or shop front. The AK-47s are another problem. A lot of people have them. Organised crime is very dug-in here." Miller talked about these networks as if they were an opposing army holding the region captive. "The UN has been here since 1999, but they've been doing what they do for much longer than that." Since the war, UNMIK has virtually governed the region, picking leaders, running the justice system, dictating domestic policy - essentially trying to engineer a society from above.
Meanwhile, there have been fake lotteries and rigged casinos. Smuggled cigarettes and pirated phone cards have been rife in the streets. Privatisation has been tainted by allegations of political corruption, as businesses have had to pay bribes to obtain licenses, then protection money to keep their doors open. "Look around Kosovo. You see all the expensive houses going up and the fancy cars on the streets in what's a very poor country. I see more cars worth over 100,000 here than I do back in the UK, and I like to think that the UK is a little richer than Kosovo." Miller mentioned some heroin and cocaine interceptions, human trafficking networks broken up, but he admitted to me that drugs and sex drive the grey economy. Given the limited flow of cash entering the country from the UN - the state budget is just over a billion euros - and NGOs, the grey economy's allure is irresistible. Miller expressed pride in the police force that UNMIK had built, now 7,000 strong, and of the new special organised crime unit (though few locals want to join it), but he conceded that few are paid enough to stand strong against darker, richer forces. A Kosovar policeman is paid around $300 a month; judges and prosecutors are not paid much more. One local judge I spoke to told me that he and his wife work four jobs and still have trouble paying rent. "And you expect people not to get corrupted?" he asked. "You expect people to risk lives?" The general sentiment among Kosovars I met, both Albanian and Serb, was that they wanted Miller and the other UNMIK officers gone. I heard UNMIK described as incompetent and oblivious of the local context. The tone of conversation would turn resentful and nasty - the UNMIK people were mercenaries who came to Kosovo for the money, not to change the world. An UNMIK officer's salary is generally 10 times that of a Kosovar civil servant. UNMIK trucks have been blown up and officials murdered. One night an Albanian tells me that Kosovo should be renamed UNMIKSTAN. "They are dictators," he says. "Failed dictators." "The problem," Miller said, "is that Kosovo is a very small neighbourhood. Undercover work is very difficult, and you can't get people to testify because we can't protect them. It's a postconflict vacuum. We're working to deal with it. But you have people here who live by their own laws that modern society does not accept. It's a cultural thing. People have to want to change the criminal environment here. To use a cliché phrase, crime doesn't pay, but in Kosovo at the moment it very often does. And that's very dangerous."
On June 23 Agim Ceku, who served as prime minister of Kosovo from the spring of 2006 until the ascension of Hashim Thaci in January 2008, was arrested in Bulgaria on the basis of a 2002 Serbian indictment related to his "command responsibility" in the deaths of more than 600 Serbs in 1999. He was released two days later.
When I met Ceku in Pristina, he told me: "The KLA never fought against Kosovo Serbs," he says. "We fought against Milosevic's regime." Before the Kosovo war, Ceku served as a brigadier general in the Croatian Army during the war against Serbia. In 1993, he commanded forces in the Medak Pocket offensive, where, according to international observers, the Croat Army conducted mass purges and killed civilians. Two years later, he was involved in the Croatian offensive called Operation Storm, where in less than a week some 200,000 Serbs were expelled from Croatian Krajina; more than 100 were killed.
In the late 1990s, Ceku returned to Kosovo and joined the KLA as its chief commander. His exploits became the stuff of legend, as did the death of his father at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries. After the war, he transformed the guerrilla army into a kind of homeland security group, known as the Kosovo Protection Force, whose early members were accused of murder, torture and blackmail. When I met him, he was tall and muscular in a fitted blue suit, with a square jaw, a shiny mostly-shaved scalp shaped like a warhead, and heavy rings around his dark eyes. Yet he sounded notes of hope: "I'd like to see Kosovo as a kind of Switzerland. Getting the Serbs involved in Kosovo is going to be the hardest problem. They are confused. What country are they living in - Kosovo or Serbia?" He echoed this sentiment to reporters upon his release in Bulgaria: "My extradition would weigh heavily on ethnic relations in Kosovo, which are already very tense."
To get a sense of these tensions, I visited Mitrovica, an ethnically divided city an hour north of Pristina on the border with Serbia. Mitrovica is the largest of about a dozen Serb enclaves in Kosovo that are home to about 125,000 Serbians. Some of these enclaves are just a collection of shipping containers, where families have lived ever since being displaced by the war - some were forced out by Albanian families, others had lost homes to bombs, more just felt unsafe, strangers in a new world. To the north-east of Mitrovica are the long-dormant lead, zinc and gold mines of Trepca; Kosovar Albanian leaders contend that these are crucial to the region's economic future, but Belgrade wants to reclaim them.
The River Ibar divides Mitrovica, with about 17,000 Serbs living on the north side and roughly five times as many Albanians to the south. The prospect of street violence always looms. In 2003, an armed mob of Serbs chased off a group of Albanians and World Bank officials, throwing stones and lighting cars on fire. In 2004, despite the armed Nato presence, the two sides rioted, igniting Albanian-Serb conflicts throughout the region, leaving dozens dead, hundreds injured and scores of houses and religious sites burnt. After the government in Pristina declared independence in 2008, thousands protested in the streets, chanting "Kosovo is Serbia." The weeks that followed were marked by grenade attacks and deaths on both sides.
On a bridge of the Ibar, two Nato soldiers did not want to let us cross to the north side. "You can't go over there," said a woman in green fatigues and sunglasses. "It is too dangerous right now. You must know that we can't protect you over there." We crossed anyway. It was a steamy Sunday and few people were in the streets. It feels slightly like a ghost town. Like the rest of Kosovo, it is visibly poor, with over 50 per cent of its residents unemployed and many living off of meagre subsidies from the Serbian government. Trash litters the streets and everything - the storefronts, the streets signs, the currency - is in Serbo-Croatian. Next to the communist-style apartment blocks and lower lying storefronts, there are new Serbian-government-built apartments. The grimness of the landscape was relieved only by a new Orthodox Church. Sprawling and magisterial, it looks out over the valley, like a beacon; it had been constructed to replace the old church across the river that had been burnt to the ground.
Nothing happened to us in Mitrovica that day. On the other side of the bridge, the two Nato troops watched us pass. "You made it," the woman said, with a look of surprise. On the south side, a group of Albanian teenagers were sitting around a circle on the riverbank. One strummed a guitar and the others were singing Bob Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door. "We are dead," said a boy with long black hair in a Metallica T-shirt. We said goodbye, and the song drifted through the summer air like a dirge.
Christopher Stewart writing has appeared in GQ, Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications. He lives in New York.