Kosovo Under My Skin

By Martin Dvořák


Selections from the book Kosovo Under My Skin (Studio No-Ban, s.r.o. 2000) by Martin Dvořák. (The book was published in Albanian by Koha Ditore).

Martin Dvořák (1956) is an economist from Prague who was UNMIK Administrator of Istog and Gjakovä 1999-2002; later worked as Political Adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Basra and Baghdad; with the Czech Embassy in the USA; and with the Czech Consulate General in New York. He is currently the Czech Ambassador to Kuwait and Qatar.

An Apology In Place of an Introduction

When I came to Kosovo in October 1999, the place was virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Postal services were not available, telephone links were offline, and in Pristina, only three computers were hooked to the Internet. There’d always be a long line of people waiting all day long to read their mail and send out brief messages. I wrote my first reports on a computer and then sent them off, en bloc, to all those who may have been interested in my raw impressions from serving with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. These early texts were neither private letters to my family, nor messages to friends, nor press releases. There was nothing definite to peg them on, but my method proved quite usable for the purpose of my staying in touch with those who considered my information relevant, while blocking the computer for a minimum of time.


First letter: October 20, 1999


The UNMIK building here [in Peja] is also more ornate than in Pristina—it’s a confiscated former bank, and big banks tend to lavish on themselves, and not only in Kosovo. Carpets, central heating, leather seats and conference rooms downstairs. Our gang, who arrived ex-post, were curtly asked to find a desk. “Some might still be available on the fifth floor.” I found myself a small office with the panoramic view of mountains (2,500 metres and above), which, unlike the rest, was really meant for one occupant only. I’ve got a telephone now, I hope to get a computer and maybe even an Internet address and access to the public telephone network. Also, I will soon be furnished with a walkie-talkie (of the “Alpha-Bravo-Echo-for-Alpha-Echo-Bravo type, Over…). That’s swell, I am not supposed to touch it, but they say I have to have one in case I’m stranded. We work on Saturdays, too, eight to five, with a theoretical one-hour lunch break, but nobody meets the quota. […]

On Sunday, I would have liked to do a lot of work if it hadn’t been for a three-day electricity blackout.  Therefore, I set out for my first fact-finding tour, made a couple of photographs, had some sleep and drilled my English until dark. English is my principal problem. They all have different accents but perfectly understand each other, but I am lost and have to ask twice about everything. But either they may have dismissed me as a pea-brain or my English is getting better and I may even have a chat with them. Now I come to what Sam had to say for the Indians. They happen to form the largest community here, numbering six! Then there are three French people (probably because the mission chief is French), and one each of a kind. There’s one Irishman here, one Congolese, one from Ethiopia—my two meters tall buddy, Masaj Huho, a good sport, the ever-smiling Caroline from The Gambia, who has lived in NYC for ten years; my next Istog colleague is Patrice, from Burundi, and today we welcomed Grace from Ghana. The slightly vile chief technician, Saad, hails from Iraq, but holds a Canadian passport, while Bjorn from Sweden remembers the Czech hockey and tennis star Drobný and knows František Janouch from the Charter-77 foundation; there’s also the young Italian, Marco, who works hard, no matter what the rest of the world says of his nation, and the man in charge of all municipalities, including mine, is Jose Manuel from Venezuela. The team would be incomplete without Zamira from Kyrgyzstan, Abdullah from Morocco, and Vidmantas from Lithuania. A nice set-up.

We had another meeting on Monday, another set of handshakes, whereupon Alain had one-on-one interviews with all of us to establish where we would be posted. As for me, he said my papers hadn’t arrived. I offered him a brief recap of my resume and said I was sorry there were not any copies left since not even Pristina had my documents. He offered a post in Istog, or Istok in Serbian, which is one of the five bigger towns of the region, with a population of some 50,000, a tiny Serb enclave and other ethnic minorities, About 70 percent of all houses were destroyed, burned down or demolished during the war. In short, a community like many others. […] For starters, we were supposed to find a functional model for the future Municipal Board, a sort of provisional steering body that would see the region through elections. Now, this is a little bit of a tangle, because even before UNMIK’s government reached the villages, KLA, or “the Thaçi government,” had installed their own “mayors.” For the time being, they are tolerated by UNMIK, but as KLA positions grow weaker and the impact of other elements, mainly Rugova’s LDK, grows stronger, the mood is that the Thaçi people are self-styled governors, are undemocratic, etc… To further complicate the situation, there is the “Bukoshi government” with claims of their own, even though their legitimacy is not stronger than Thaci’s.

Istog is not different, both camps have their dander up, one supported by Thaçi, the other by Rugova, who was born there. That was an enticing situation but we have not sorted things out to date.

About my apartment—it’s quite cosy but there’s no electricity and almost often also with water, which tends to be unavailable more often than not. Unless my landlord puts things into perspective, Sarit and I are prepared to move  flat to where such problems do not exist. I haven’t done any cooking yet as there is no stove here. But this place is full of restaurants and rotisseries, where there’s cheap food and warm chimneys, although the menu tends to be quite unimaginative: typically, there are four courses on offer—kebab (fried ground meat), stew, chicken and, in the best diners, also fish. Otherwise, food is plentiful in groceries, as are also fruits, vegetables and milk. Butter is available only in open-air markets, but is of excellent quality. Let’s see what the winter holds, I’m scared of thinking of the roads, but thus far, this has been a pleasant post.


October 30, 1999


This week we have reached an agreement concerning the new head of the local school council, because the original one was sacked by a Thaçi’s “minister” and his successor rubbed teachers the wrong way. People in Pristina promised on Friday to choose a replacement candidate and instantly accepted our proposal that the post be filled, on an interim basis, by the headmaster of the local grammar school. Thence we appeased the striking staff of the Banja Pejë sanatorium that protested against the hot springs being occupied by homeless people, because for them, (the spa employees), the hotel is a source of subsistence. Dr. Da Goya from Burkina Faso, who has studied in Prague and speaks beautiful Czech, has decided in his capacity of chief of the UNMIK Health Sections, that the spa will resume its former purpose whilst emergency housing for this coming winter will be provided elsewhere within the compound. Also, we have defused the situation in one school, whose teachers went on strike at the start of the school year over eight-month-old pay arrears. Luckily, UNMIK will have some teacher stipends ready next week (between 100 and 200 DM (Deutsch Marks) per person is not much, but at least they’ll get something) and the teachers understand that the issue of unpaid salaries will be solved by their next legitimate bosses if they agree to the provisional stipends.

We have also raised funds to pay forest protection guards. We would have probably turn the blind eye if somebody gathered firewood for the winter and “forgot” to pay, if wood theft hadn’t acquired massive proportions and, at the current price of 200 DM for a load of firewood, certain well-prepared groups hadn’t begun collecting the money. Time and tide will tell how efficient this move was. Also, there is an urgent need to secure provisional housing for as many homeless people as possible. This is a worrisome chore that entails at least one legal and ethical problem. In Istog (and elsewhere), there exist today a number of flats left behind by Serbs. They are vacant but there is a legal owner or proprietor to all of them. The chief mission of UNMIK is to protect the rights of minorities—and they are Serbs in the first place. Then again, it would be logical to use these homes simply because they are vacant and many people are reduced to tent life not of their own will, but precisely because of what the owners of the now-empty flats have done to them… Well, we’ll find a way, it seems I may issue an edict (I am empowered to act single-handedly, without an approval from the town hall, but am required to take counsel and recommendations) to the effect that, following proper registration of interim tenants, these dwellings are available for use during an interim period till next spring.

One has to tackle a whole lot of problems every day, but these are fascinating times. Yesterday I went to Pristina to collect trilingual rubber stamps “UNMIK-Town of Istog,” so it looks like a lot of paperwork lies ahead. At this stage, my place is aeons away from the town hall as we know it—and it seems there’s never a dull moment in store for us.

Greetings from somewhere where the sun has set and the evening air is filled with everyday muezzin calls to prayer. Only five of them now have to serve scores of mosques around Pejë. But they have PA systems and are heard all over the place, and beyond.


November  7, 1999


Things are getting back on track and this week we have had fewer unusual events than ever. One of them was noteworthy—a refurbished high school building opened in Istog yesterday. The repair work was done chiefly by a Spanish charity organisation who delivered truly a splendid job. I was glad to see that the renewal of Kosovo starts from essentials, i.e. schools, as educated experts is what this country will very badly need in the coming years (not that other nations would exactly suffer from an expert glut). On a makeshift rostrum, a group of very young charity workers sang that dictators need not be feared, and I was a little moved to see them joined by our “Regional School Inspector” Bart, a great guy from the Netherlands, who has done a lot of good work here. Everything was so real, and those people were so visibly proud of what they had achieved! Their student audience enjoyed the day quite tremendously. On the other hand, the cultural programme staged by locals I found a trifle monochrome—impassioned reading of poems eulogising the heroism of combatants and mothers of slain warriors had a strange déjà vu impact on me. I had to think of the debates we often lead at home about patriotism, what it is, what it’s good for, why there isn’t enough of it, why our children are not adequately proud of their national flag, anthem, history… Much as I can appreciate the darker facets of Czech national scepticism, I do believe that sometimes, it is good to be slightly above sentiments. Maybe our permanent self-irony is the reason why Czechs and their neighbours have long ceased to kill each other and burn down each other’s homes.

Sometimes we have fun. We are currently facing the almost political task of setting up local commissions on the protection of minority (i.e. mainly ethnic) rights. Now, this is a bit difficult to do in Istog. As we discussed possible line-ups to reflect the multi-ethnic local conditions, a local resident looked up and said: “What do you think you’re going to come up with, just look at yourselves—a Czech, a Ghanaian, a Spaniard, another one from Burundi—isn’t this multi-ethnic enough?”


A fresh comedy story from here: It came to pass in Istog that yesterday, the building, which until recently housed a parallel, therefore illegal, police force and an unauthorised court, was officially handed over to UNMIK. The grotesque moment came about when it turned out that nobody had the keys to the previously sealed house. Locked inside were tons of documents for the past ten years, which really oughtn’t to get into unauthorised hands. Not mentioning quantities of luxury furniture and equipment very much in demand. I proceeded officially to take custody of the building crammed with thousands of Deutsche Marks-worth of paraphernalia and documents of incalculable value without receiving a single key. I didn’t see a problem. I asked my driver to get a lock and hasp to provisionally lock the edifice. But Riza, an experienced UN hand, notified me that such things have to be supervised by a special technical unit based in Pejë. I struck me kind of funny, to have to radio to the HQ about such a trifle, but I called them nonetheless. By sheer luck, their boss, Andrew, had planned a business trip to Istog, arriving in town at 3 p.m. (Now it was shortly before noon. I cursed my fate for having to find to find someone to keep guard outside the door for three hours, but then we spoke to Civpol, the UNMIK police, and they promised to guard the building although they were very few and far between). By half past three, I grew slightly nervous and asked Riza if he thought that help was nigh. The experienced Riza shocked me by saying that, in all likelihood, the emissary would not bring any lock with him, but he would bring a form for us to fill in (I’m planning to write a thick volume on local forms and questionnaires), on the basis of which the lock would be supplied as a turnkey venture. I dawned on me then, that this was Saturday afternoon, which probably meant that the house would remain unlocked at least until Monday morning. My respect for the UN authority suffered a serious bruise. Annoyed, I left the scene, invested my 10 Marks into the purchase of a lock, complete with doorknob (no problem that, in Istog, even on a late Saturday afternoon) and, with the help of Riza and from divine quarters, fitted the contraption in its place and went home. I’ll be smarter next time, I won’t radio and will save precious time for both myself and the UNMIK technical unit…


December 5, 1999


Last weekend was marked by vibrant celebrations of “Flag Day”. The merriment went on for three days, from Saturday till Monday, which was declared a “state holiday.” How odd for a people who has neither a state nor a flag! Anyway, nobody went to work on Monday and we had to improvise a lot in order to keep the town going. We were more concerned by the probability of Kosovo’s independence becoming the keynote and the KLA’s glory the central theme of celebrations as, to put it mildly, both issues are rather “delicate” for UNMIK. Ridiculous though it may seem, we made every effort not to offend the Kosovars’ national feelings and pride, while desperately trying to avoid providing official cover to anything that could be at variance with valid international treaties concerning the territory. In the end, it was decided that we would take part in the cultural and sports parts of the festival if a UNMIK representative receives official invitation, but would stay away from celebrations of legally non-existent entities. I tried to clarify our policy to Istog representatives, they seemed to understand my point, but I felt awkward. Therefore, I missed the opportunity of planting a tree for the victims of the war, but I did attend a cultural programme, which, in my view, violated these same agreements on more than one count. I would often not request translations of some speeches and poems blaring out from the grandstand, illuminated most of the time by power generators, supplied by the Spanish KFOR unit. It was funny to see officially provided light illuminate less than innocent displays of national fervour. I found myself to be among the decorated officials without really seeking such honours, and now, a “Falenderim,” a letter of thanks for my contributions to the advancement of democracy in town that was awarded to me by an illegitimate government and signed by an illegitimate mayor, hangs framed on my wall. One day, it will be a pretty rare historical document. In my acceptance speech, I could not avoid commenting on celebrations admonishing all the fallen heroes and their brave mothers. I wished for the future Kosovo to never have to eulogise heroes fallen in combat and weep for its dead, and to be able to sing the praise of those who will make their homeland famous because of the good things they have done. As I inferred from the stormy applause that followed, they either hadn’t understood me or had enthusiastically accepted my every word. The latter would be good news. Then they played on the shiftelia (çifteli)—a traditional, two-stringed strumming instrument, accompanied by an accordion, violin and drum. They danced “shota,” a very popular local dance embraced by most of Kosovo’s international expatriate community (Charles from Congo is an excellent dancer. By the way, he holds a Polish passport that shocks customs officers throughout the world, but he says he only uses it when Poland has a good government, producing his Congolese papers on all other occasions. Who knows, maybe he is being monitored by the Polish governments to obtain the judgement of perhaps their only citizen of African stock.

Finally, I’d like to explain why, despite all the positive developments that I am glad to report on, the situation here will continue to be complex. This country has ages-old traditions and customs, which survive largely because of its people’s long isolation from the global impacts of a civilisation considered by many to be the only correct and viable option. I have had endless debates with many people on the inadmissibility of staying forever in the vicious circle of revenge, vendetta and blood feud. The thing is, apart from the more or less (less is the word) recognised legal system, they are also governed by their own codes, as I mentioned on several occasions. Thus, apart from a criminal code which basically stands comparison with the rest of Europe, they are more favourably inclined to respect their “Lek Dukagjini,” also known as the Kanuni, which has stipulated for centuries, e.g. the right of a family, whose member was killed by another family, to kill back. If the first victim is under 16 or female, the rate redoubles and two members of the assassin’s family must be killed. Little does it matter that the “avenger” may be apprehended and sent to jail for up to 12 years under valid laws. If a family failed to take this revenge, it would become generally despised—a worse punishment than imprisonment. Family and Clan are sacred concepts, and the need to honour the codes of blood feud is still very topical. It is hard in this environment to preach forgiveness. Today, virtually every family has victims who must be avenged. Only a few people will admit that at least it is not possible to kill a Serb when you see one. They simply will not even discuss the option of the offender being arrested, tried by an independent court, and punished according to the law. I fear this international mission would have to go on for generations before the impact of the Kanuni is lessened and a legal environment is installed. But I might be in for a pleasant surprise, like many times before here in Kosovo…


December 12, 1999


Whenever the police commander reports to me that a person was killed in a pub brawl, I always ask first if either the assailant or the victim were not Serb, and I’m relieved if I hear both of them were of the same nationality. As if death knew such distinctions. No, I cynically and selfishly rejoice we are not dealing with yet another ethnic conflict! To my credit, I must say I was deeply ashamed of this momentary relief—but that’s not too much, is it? A similar thing happened to me when an unidentified assailant fired an anti-tank shell at a barroom but missed his target. I was glad nobody was harmed and that the attacker was not a Serb. I almost took it as a matter of fact that somebody fired a bazooka in this community…

I am not ending this millennium on an optimistic note, so I make haste to add something more encouraging. In another bomb attack, the assailant used more explosives than necessary and demolished not only his original target, but partly also an adjacent barbershop. The barber has five children and the shop was his only source of income. He told me about his plight and I tried to find a solution. I asked the local people if they knew about an empty shop as an interim arrangement. I was told they knew the barber was poor as a dormouse and that the “community” had decided to pay the repair costs. Another proof that parallel structures exist and often are more efficient than the official authorities. That’s the spirit of Christmas to you—when human hearts are more open to charitable intentions.