An old Albanian passes us on the dusty, lumpy road between Pristina and Mitrovica. He looks life-tired, beaten by the cold breeze coming down from the sharp mountains. He still smiles.
We are heading to Mitrovica for cutaway shots of the river which divides the communities there and we’ll go to Prekaz to review the massacre that took place there in 1998. I’m getting ready to see and hear, feel and smell ‘the real thing’ I’d been promised.
The old man wears a white traditional hat, I think it looks like a bowler with the brim cut off. His horses look fresh, their manes reflecting in the sun and the younger guys in his wagon seem content.
Avni tells me Western journalists he’s worked for have left him out on the road with a camera for hours waiting to get a shot of a guy like this. He tells me that it’s all they want even though the old man’s clothing and transport represents less than 2% of the country’s population. “It adds…hmm, what’s this word they use? Ah! Colour!” he says sarcastically.
It makes me think.If misrepresenting a place is ‘adding colour’, I don’t think I’ll be a painter. At least, I wouldn’t use that self-serving fifteen inch brush.
Imagine if Da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa with garish eye make-up and a lip ring. Imagine if Munch’s Scream was a portrait of West Belfast hairdressers ‘having a scream’ at a hen night. Would they standout, be useful or even work?
We keep driving.
I can see a factory billowing smoke in the distance. A thick black mess mixing with the hazy morning sun, dust and the wind to create a small hill of ash a hundred yards to the left of the road, a few miles away from the factory.
Avni explains it is a power station, about to be pulled down and replaced by a new, more eco-friendly one, like the one they’ve already completed and which can be seen a little further away.
We talk like this most of the journey, swapping bits and pieces of our lives, our history, our aspirations, our families. We laugh about stuff that’s common.
He’s a father of three. His kids are between sixteen months and twelve years old. He tells me that being married is great for him and I can see a gleam on his face when he talks of his wife, her habits and her cooking which he rates extremely highly.
We talk about work and when I ask him if he’d leave Kosovo, he smiles and reminds me what he told me yesterday at lunch- that Kosovars can only travel to four or five countries without a visa.
These countries border Kosovo and offer little that he can’t already find here. He tells me it’s 3,000euro for a Western visa. Anyone I’ve asked openly says the same. Corruption is commonplace here. That meant he had to leave his wife and family here to study in Cardiff a few years ago. Dreq as they say here- shit.
I think more about our chat yesterday. “Our institutions exist, but they don’t function,” Avni says over a macchiato. He points to a table of young guys and says “Unemployment is almost 50% and the state doesn’t’ care if people starve. Even if they did care, they couldn’t help. It’s capitalism and only some people here understand it.
“But look at these guys. They still smile and joke and laugh together. They have coffee and friends to socialise with, so who gives a fuck if they have five euro in their pockets?”
The real thing seems familiar.
As yesterday’s words reverberate, we hit a bump and I’m back in the present. “At least under communism, people had security. You knew what you’d be earning at thirty, at forty and at fifty. I think some people miss the old Yugoslavia. They don’t miss the regime, just the security we had.
“If you needed a house or a job, you got one and you didn’t worry. Some older people still think they can just ask the parliament or a municipality for a job, but it doesn’t work like that.”
We get to ‘Mitro’ and we stop for pretzels. Avni goes back to his boyhood and I feel gutted not to share a Belfast bap with him.
As we drive on through the divided town, we see the bridge that divides the North and South sides, the Serbs from the Albanians. KFOR and Italian Carabinieri patrol the bridge. There’s a tension that our peace walls don’t create, the enemy can see each other and it’s palpable.
We can walk around but not much. People stare and we work quickly. I watch Avni’s back and he shoots with the camera as I direct. I see three Serb boys on the North bank and about forty Albanian teens on the now richer South. The river is a wall. It might not be made of bricks and steel, but no one scales it. We leave and go on.
As we near Prekaz, Avni says “where we are going now is where it began, this is hardcore and this is the Kosovo you should see”.
Still, as we got there and I saw the bullet holes, the shell blasts, monuments and death, I couldn’t help but think that ‘the real thing’ was in the face of the survivors I met today and perhaps even sitting across the café from me yesterday, across my table and behind the camera as I directed.