Kosovo: Stuck In The Middle
By Mark Vinson
"Sherefe!” we yelled as we clashed our beers together. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘a mutually intelligible phrase.’ Before I had finished the thought, we clanked our pints together again; "Chok Guzel" my host bellowed, as he wiped suds from his mustache. Just how or why these three men I was sitting with had come to speak a smattering of Turkish was not clear.
True, large parts of the Balkans were once ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but surely its linguistic legacy could not have lasted this long. Another swig of pilsner, and I mulled further. Perhaps they picked up assorted phrases from the Turkish peacekeepers stationed there as a part of NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR). However, I was unable to confirm my hypothesis, and after another swig of beer I refocused my attention on the newly arrived plate of chicken in front of me. "Nefisti," I thought as I dug in.
If this were Turkey, I would call the setting a tea house. Smoke filled room full of men sitting at Spartan tables, no bar to speak of. However, it seemed my chances of successfully ordering a cup of tea were as remote as my chances of obtaining a jigger of Beefeater. No, a martini bar or tea house this was not. Perhaps a makeshift banquet hall thrown together for some special occasion.
One thing was certain; there was no shortage of beer or merry men to swill it. Still, two o'clock on a Monday was not a customary time for widespread revelry--even in the Dragash province of southern Kosovo where unemployment is higher than the rest of this war scarred country.
"Fiesta?" I offer in our emerging pidgin language. "Si, fiesta!" a man of about forty yells as he ceremoniously smashes a bottle on the floor. A short game of charades reveals that an engagement party is afoot. "Sherefe!," I announce as I order my patient translators another round.
My enthusiasm is well received as weddings are large fare in the small mountain village of Brod, Kosovo. Tucked away in the Shar range in the extreme south of the disputed territory, Brod is close to the borders of Albania and Macedonia. Its population, however, is neither Macedonian nor ethnic Albanian, but Gorani. Literally "mountain people”, the Gorani are a Muslim minority who speak a language all their own. Centuries of conquest, ethnic cleansing, and migration have had a strong effect on this notoriously small of stature people. While only a couple thousand of the 85,000 Grorani call Brod their home, it remains their largest enclave.
It has been eight years since the U.S. lead intervention put an end to full scale military operations in the region. Still, Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence some 70 days earlier and the resulting political backlash in Serbia meant that the future remains uncertain for the Gorani citizens of Brod. However, the men celebrating here today seem optimistic. Engagements mean weddings, weddings mean children, and children mean survival.
"Come again?” I yell as I try to filter his voice from the commotion outside. "The Serbs think we are Albanians, the Albanians think we are Serbs," a local English speaker repeats as he pushes a small Turkish style espresso across the table. In a region where ethnic allegiance often incites violence, the confusion of the Gorani identity by Serbs and Albanians alike puts them in a precarious position. If they were transplanted to the battle field of WWI, they would find themselves in no man‘s land singing the Marseille while sporting a Pickelhaube. By 5 o'clock the party is no longer confined to the smoky brew house. Outside, a crowd collects around traditionally dressed men banging on drums and blowing into a horn type instrument known as a Zurle. Inside, the local proprietor of a coffee shop indulges my curiosity when I ask him if there is any interest in Gorani separatism or autonomy. He explains, "No, we are tired of fighting. We want only to work." Such sentiment is understandable in a country where unemployment is a staggering 43%.
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