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Feature - The long trek to peace

A Whistler student is part of an international effort to establish a Balkans Peace Park

Having finally reached the crest of the hilltop we settled down in the tall grass to eat lunch and drink in the view. In the middle of a magnificent alpine panorama, we lazed in the sunshine and picked sweet wild strawberries. Light clouds moved quickly in the sky above us, casting long shadows onto the green slopes of the valley below. Tiny mountain villages with their distinctive haystacks dotted the landscape in front of us. The river and the simple dirt road at the bottom of the valley meandered off into the distance. The chatter of the group in its jumble of languages blended together with the sound of the crickets and birds. Though it had taken a 13-hour flight to get here I had found myself thinking of home, of Whistler minus the ski runs and vacation houses. I had no idea that such a gorgeous place existed in the mountains of western Kosovo.

I was in Kosovo (Albanian: Kosova) as one of 35 people preparing for a two-week trek. Coming together from eight different countries, our aim was to contribute to the foundation of eco-tourism in the region, and to promote the creation of a cross-border Balkans Peace Park. The so-called Peace Park would be established in the area around the tripartite meeting point of the borders of western Kosovo, southern Montenegro and northern Albania. Our goal was to travel through the areas of the proposed park, assessing the viability and potential impact of such a project.

The opportunity to help organize and then participate in the trek was part of a two-month internship in Kosovo arranged by the Peace Studies Program at Colgate University. Peace Studies became involved in the Balkan region through the efforts of Antonia Young, a dedicated research associate, and her husband Nigel, the director of the program.

I am currently enrolled in my third year at Colgate, a small liberal arts institution in central New York State. I was selected to spend the summer in Kosovo through an application process and, along with one other student, Ellen, found funding for the trip through various resources at Colgate. We spent our time in Kosovo working with an environmental NGO and helping to organize the first section of the trek.

Kosovo today is a region at a crossroads. Though wounds and tensions remain, reconstruction has proceeded quickly following the devastating 1999 "ethnic cleansing" campaign. The origins of the war in Kosovo are, like everything in the Balkans, complicated.

When Tito died in 1980, so too did his dream of a unified Yugoslavia. In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic came to power with an uncompromisingly nationalist agenda. He quickly revoked the autonomous status that Kosovo had enjoyed under Tito. In the following decade the 90 per cent Albanian majority in Kosovo saw their rights systematically vanish. By 1991 Albanians were completely shut out of the education system; the only way for an Albanian in Kosovo to get a basic education was in one of the many illegal "underground" schools held in a series of Albanian households. By 1998 many ethnic Albanians had been forced out of their jobs and were increasingly targets for violent police harassment.

Frustrated by the apparent failure of their eight-year long campaign of passive resistance, and in reaction to the police violence, an Albanian peasant group calling themselves the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began to organize to protect civilians. The formation of the KLA and its sporadic acts of armed revolt gave Milosevic an excuse to write them off as terrorists and escalate his campaign against the ethnic Albanians. KLA actions were met with disproportionately severe and indiscriminate responses from Serb security forces, which in turn stimulated the growth of the organization. Western negotiators could not convince Milosevic to halt his campaign of expulsion and extermination, and after the failure of the talks at Rambouillet, the NATO bombing campaign began on March 24, 1999. The war ended on July 10 and the long road to recovery began.

Everyone we met had a story about the war; many had lost family members. One of our good friends, today a filmmaker, had been a KLA scout in the same valley through which we hiked during the trek. He joked about how bullets would whiz past him as he tried to film the fighting. His brother was killed by a Serb sniper.

Another man we met and worked with had lost his brother, father and uncle in the war. After losing everything, he too became a member of the KLA. One of our friends had a local colleague in the UN who couldn’t make a meeting one-day because he had to attend a funeral. The body of his nephew, killed when he was 11, had finally been returned from Serbia for a proper burial. Teenagers my own age talked about going to refugee camps after their houses were burned down as if it wasn’t out of the ordinary.

We were amazed that after all they had been through the Kosovar Albanians were not bitter or victimized, but instead were grateful to be getting on with their lives. They are truly some of the most hospitable, welcoming people I have ever encountered. Friends would stop us in the street and invite us to have coffee with them and would always apologize for their English not being good enough. They would invite us into their houses for enormous meals. When we asked if there was a Laundromat in town they would insist on doing our laundry for us. We still receive e-mails from friends that begin "accept our most sincere greetings to you and your family."

Things are far from back to normal, however. When the Albanians returned following the NATO bombing a small group took retributive actions against the Kosovar Serbs. The tiny Serb minority that remain in Kosovo live segregated from the Albanian majority. Serbs live in NATO-protected enclaves and also in the north side of the divided city of Mitrovitca. While reconstruction proceeds with haste in the Albanian areas of Kosovo, Serb villages have been destroyed and abandoned, and remain in the same state today as they did at the end of the war. When, if ever, the two ethnic groups will be able to live together again is impossible to tell, though any reconciliation in the near future seems doubtful.

Today Kosovo is a "UN protectorate." This uncertain status is frustrating for locals and discourages foreign investment, adding to the economic woes of the region. There is no apparent resolution; the Kosovar Albanians, who make up more than 90 per cent of the population, are unlikely to accept anything short of independence. Serbia, on the other hand, is unlikely to grant Kosovo anything more than limited autonomy. At the moment the UN maintains that now is not the time for discussions regarding Kosovo’s status.

Life in Kosovo

While Kosovo’s political future is unclear, life goes on for Kosovars and the international community stationed there. The region has its particularities, many stemming from the tension between the desire to modernize while maintaining local traditions. Old men and women in traditional clothing walk the streets alongside teenagers in Europe’s latest provocative styles. The UN’s ubiquitous white Toyota Forerunners and the bulky NATO army vehicles find themselves sharing the road with the locals in their cars, tractors, bicycles and horse-drawn carts. To add to the chaos, cows and sheep wander on and off the road, unperturbed by the honking and general recklessness of the drivers swerving around trying to avoid the potholes.

Both NATO and the UN are deeply involved in the post-war reconstruction process. NATO’s 46,000 military personnel, from 39 countries, form the core of the international peacekeeping force, known as the Kosovo Force (KFOR). The KFOR troops we encountered were mostly bored Italian teenagers protecting the Serbian Patriarch outside of Peja (Serb: Pec). One afternoon while we were on a run past the Patriarch, the Italian soldiers, living up to their national stereotype, drove by and offered us flowers from the window of their army vehicle.

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo is the organization’s largest and most expensive mission. UN workers from India, Pakistan, Sweden, Senegal, Nigeria, Canada, Cambodia, the Philippines and everywhere in between work together in Kosovo. As one might imagine this results in some interesting cultural interactions. One evening we were invited to a UN farewell party being held for the Peja regional director, an Iraqi-Canadian who was leaving to go to work with the expanded UN mission in Iraq. Before the barbecue we had coffee at a restaurant that our Ugandan friend later told us was on the UN "blacklist" (a list of establishments that UN workers are not allowed to patronize because of their known association with the mafia). At the barbecue we talked to our African and European friends as we ate kebabs and watched the Albanian guests doing their traditional circle dance. We decided to leave later on in the evening just as the KFOR troops were getting rowdy on the dance floor; we were a little uneasy at the prospect of intoxicated Italians dancing around with massive guns strapped to their backs.

The most popular music among the youth is American hip-hop – remixed with Albanian or oriental tunes. When we asked a friend about the bizarre sounding remixes he told us that they took American music and "made it better."

Evening entertainment for young people revolves around "going walking." In Peja, one of the main streets was closed to traffic from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. so that people could walk up and down the middle of the cafe-lined street. The patrons in the cafes were mostly men staring at everyone strutting up and down the street in front of them.

The other student I was with, Ellen, is from Boston and couldn’t understand for the life of her how people could walk so slowly down the street with no destination. If we sat at a cafe long enough we would see the same people walk by us four or five times. We were amazed that with such a young population (half of the population of Kosovo is under 21), and with so little in the way of entertainment, the youth generally kept out of trouble. Hardly anyone our age drinks, and drugs are almost unheard of. Young people seem to be content to hang out with friends and family.

Family is by far the most important aspect of life in Albanian culture. Friends of ours who were 25 and 30 still lived with their parents and would let them know if they planned on staying out late. The entire family usually lives together; grandparents and grandchildren under the same roof.

Unfortunately, young people are increasingly choosing to leave their families for better economic opportunities. With a 60 per cent unemployment rate, it isn’t difficult to understand why.

I met a 17-year-old boy whose uncle had moved to Vancouver and had sent him a picture of the city. It seemed that his only goal for the future was to go to Canada.

"It is beautiful in Canada," he told me. "There are no problems, no beggars, no garbage in the streets."

I tried to get him to understand that we have our problems too. I told him that our family ties generally aren’t as strong, that we have garbage and stray dogs and homeless people too. He would have none of it. He had no hope at all for any future in Kosovo. His attitude was not uncommon. It makes me wonder who will stay to help rebuild Kosovo and to solve the problems that drive so many away.

Most people who had dreams of leaving wanted to go to the United States. Kosovar Albanians generally like foreigners, but they adore Americans. As far as most locals are concerned, it was Clinton and the Americans who liberated them from the Serbs with the NATO bombing. The main street in the capital, Pristina, is named Bill Clinton Boulevard. A huge poster of a waving Bill Clinton hangs on the side of a building overlooking this street. American flags fly alongside Albanian flags in cars and in shop windows. Hotel Liberty in Pristina has a mini Statue of Liberty perched on the roof. The second largest American military base in Europe is in southeastern Kosovo, and the locals wouldn’t have it any other way.

While working with the environmental NGO we learned about the distressing state of the environment in Kosovo. Litter is absolutely everywhere. People water the streets to clean them, only to face water shortages later in the summer. Air quality is poor due to the use of leaded diesel fuels and the unfiltered smoke pouring out of a massive ore smelter outside Pristina. Steps are slowly being taken in the right direction, but changing the state of the environment in Kosovo will only come about with a change in the mentality of the locals. The sense of community and shared property that we take for granted at home is largely absent in Kosovo. It will take years to clean up the damage that has already been done.

In Mitrovitca, a city now ethnically divided by a river that separates the Serb north from the Albanian south, a lead smelter outside the city was shut down only three years ago. Until then it had been pouring out unfiltered smoke over the city for decades. The high level of lead in the atmosphere has caused birth defects, stunted childhood development and increased aggressiveness. In a divided city, increased aggressiveness doesn’t help to improve the already tense situation.

Though the environmental picture in and around urban areas in Kosovo is quite bleak, the more remote mountain areas are much better off. Kosovo is home to some of the last pristine alpine wilderness in Europe. One of the perks of organizing for the trek was testing out a number of hikes with our local friend, Fatos. These trips were absolutely stunning. On one of the hikes we walked through the woods for a few hours, eating wild strawberries along the way, before coming out into a clearing full of wildflowers. We followed a small mountain stream up to a beautiful glacier lake and then walked a little further to another lake full of blue dragonflies and lazy red-bellied salamanders.

On another hike we again sat in a huge field of wildflowers, sharing the experience with the one family who spent their summers in this high alpine pasture, grazing their sheep and cattle. Minutes after we arrived on the ridge near their home the local family sat us down on a mattress on the hilltop and brought out some fresh milk for us to drink. Not wanting to offend our hosts, my lactose-intolerant friend and I reluctantly sifted out the chunks.

The father of the small family joined us when we continued our hike to a viewpoint above his village. The view was incredible; in one direction we could see almost half way across the flat plain of Kosovo, in the other direction the mountains of Kosovo and Montenegro faded into the distance. The father who accompanied us had never, in his 40 years of living in the area, done the two-hour hike to the top of this ridge. He was so excited when he got there that he took out his cell phone and used up all of his credit calling his relatives in New York. He even handed the phone over to me to say hello to his brother.

The trek finally begins

After spending the first six weeks in Kosovo getting the details sorted out, the trek began. Over 30 people between the ages of 19 and 67 came from the U.S., Canada, the UK, Italy, Germany, Turkey, Kosovo and Albania to participate. We were an eclectic group of students and retirees, teachers and Fullbright Fellows, guidebook writers and NGO workers.

We began the trek in the Rugova Valley in Kosovo, the section that Ellen and I had been responsible for organizing. A small group of trekkers went on an overnight hike and summited the peak of the second highest mountain in Kosovo. The rest of us went on local day hikes to the places that Ellen and I had tested out earlier.

On the third day we took time out in one of the local villages to dedicate a newly rebuilt house to peace. The house belonged to one of the members of the environmental NGO we had been working with. His house had been destroyed in the war and his family had fled to Montenegro through the same valley we were hiking.

We moved on to Montenegro by bus because the border crossing we had hoped to be able to use was closed indefinitely. Our guide for this section of the trek had organized a stop for lunch in the village of some of his friends. In the company of what seemed like the entire village, we enjoyed fresh milk, yogurt and cheeses, vegetables straight from the garden, honey from the beehives and homemade pastries.

Following lunch our guide told us about life during the war. He told us about the destroyed houses and the massacre of six young boys from the village. He took us to see a house still covered with bullet holes. It was impossible to believe what he was telling us had taken place in such a beautiful, tranquil village.

On one eventful day in Montenegro a few trekkers had gone ahead to make arrangements in the next town on the itinerary, Plav, only to find that the hotel some of us were supposed to be staying in was now inhabited by Bosnian refugees. They eventually found another hotel where half of the group stayed the night. The other half went on to a hut at the foot of the spectacular Accursed Mountains. These steep, rocky mountains separate Montenegro from northern Albania. We didn’t know until we arrived there that the hut was about 100 metres away from a Serb/Montenegrin army checkpoint. The Albanians in the group were uncomfortable being so close to the soldiers at the checkpoint and decided to stay back at the hotel. We didn’t have any trouble with the soldiers, who we later learned were to be replaced with local police in a matter of days.

We spent the following day hiking around at the foot of these beautiful mountains. As we walked higher up in the valley we found ourselves in fragrant fields full of wild mint, ginger and strawberries. When we walked back through the same valley later in the day we met a few locals who were putting up signs indicating trailheads. Things were slowly but surly becoming more tourist-friendly in this valley.

Though we had been assured by officials that it was possible, the border we wanted to go through to Albania could not be opened for us. Instead of walking about 10 kilometres from Montenegro, over the border and on to our destination in Albania, we had to travel more than 300 kilometres by bus to the closest official border crossing. We later learned that the border we had originally wanted to cross would be open within the month.

Except for the sign reading "Stop Human Trafficking," the Albanian border crossing was fairly uneventful. We arrived that evening in the Catholic mountain village of Vermosh, where we were divided into small groups and were hosted by local families. The meals they served us were wonderful: fresh pork and vegetables and more cheese accompanied by a homemade plum brandy called raki.

We had an interesting conversation with our host family that night about blood feuds. It is written in traditional Albanian law (known as the Kanun of Lek Dukagjin) that if someone in your family is murdered, you are then obligated to take blood from a member of the family of the person responsible. If you do so, however, that family then has the right to do the same to your family, and the cycle continues for five generations. We asked our host if this custom is still practised, and he said that yes, he would be obliged to follow the custom if the situation arose.

Blood feuds are still a major problem in Albania. Antonia Young, who helped to organize the trek, was involved in establishing a blood feud reconciliation centre in northern Albania to attempt to peacefully solve the existing feuds.

Our final stop was the stunning mountain village of Thethi. After an eight-hour drive along the most treacherous mountain road I have ever seen, we arrived in the village and were again hosted by local families.

Some of the trekkers chose to hike from Vermosh to Thethi instead of take the bus. Their hike took only four hours longer then our bus ride.

Unfortunately this village is one of many faced with the problem of rural-urban migration. Following the fall of communism and the ensuing upheavals of the past decade, many families have moved to larger cities or emigrated in search of both financial and physical security. Despite its breathtaking beauty, they simply cannot make a living in this isolated village.

On the last morning of the trek we hiked up to a waterfall where we relaxed for a few hours before walking back among plum, walnut and cherry trees, past old stone houses, through cornfields and along a dried up riverbed. All of the houses in Thethi had amazing gardens full of sunflowers, pumpkins, cucumbers and peppers. Most of the houses had patios protected from the sun by a canopy of grapevines.

We celebrated our last night together with a feast of lamb, fresh produce and raki. Sitting around together under the stars in the fresh mountain air we made toasts and wished our hosts and their children good luck in their future. We promised that we would be back one day and that we would tell people at home to go visit their beautiful valley.

The trek was an unforgettable and rewarding experience. Being raised in Whistler, a place completely dependent on tourism, it was interesting for me to realize just how beneficial small-scale eco-tourism could be for this beautiful but struggling region. The people who inhabit this area are the kindest and most hospitable I’ve ever encountered, the mountains as spectacular as any I’ve ever seen.

I hope that the work on the Peace Park will encourage more people to visit the region and contribute to the livelihoods of the inhabitants. I hope that people will not see Kosovo and the Balkans as a news story from four years ago but will go and see for themselves the beauty that this region has to offer.

I would like to thank Antonia & Nigel Young and the Peace Studies Program, Colgate’s chapter of Phi Eta Sigma, the Center for Ethics and World Societies, and the Development Office for their support and generosity, without which this trip would not have been possible.

If anyone would like more information on the Balkan Peace Park project or about traveling and hiking in the region, please feel free to contact me at