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.