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Pristina. Photo: flickr/gjon_gjoni

Pristina, a city of some 250,000 people, is the capital of the new state of Kosovo. It is not a beautiful city, but certainly a lively one. Above all, it is young: two thirds of Kosovo’s population is under 30 years old. Young people pack Pristina’s many cafes and bars, sipping their macchiatos, and stroll down Mother Theresa Boulevard.

Pristina’s recent history has been marked by abrupt breaks. In the interwar period and again in the 1950s, Pristina saw a mass exodus of its Turkish-speaking Muslim population. After World War II, most of its Jewish population moved to Israel. In the spring of 1999, the city was emptied of its Albanian population as part of the Milosevic plan to ethnically cleanse Kosovo. After the Milosevic’s fall from power in the summer of 1999, Pristina lost its Serbian and Roma population, most of whom fled to Serbia-proper or Serb-majority villages around Pristina. Little has remained of the city’s multi-cultural past.

The communist leadership also set out to destroy Pristina’s Ottoman heritage. Under the motto "destroy the old, build the new", the old bazaar, the commercial heart of the city, was torn down. Churches and mosques were destroyed, all but a few Ottoman-era homes were replaced by concrete apartment blocks, and socialist planners transformed the city into a administrative centre. Workers from the nearby mines settled in illegally built houses in the  infrastructurally-underdeveloped northern part of the city. Jobs in public administration and industry attracted migrants from other parts of Kosovo. During the 70s and 80s, the city doubled in size.

By the 1950s Pristina's main river, the Vellusha, started serving as the city's sewer. City planners, having failed to put in place a proper wastewater system, simply decided to cover the river. The threat of recurring floods and the smell of excrement persuaded the municipal assembly to eventually cover the second river, the Pristina.

Although the city started its first public water system in 1946, the necessary filters to treat the water were never put in place. Even today, the town's sewage water flows unfiltered into the Sitnica River south of Pristina.

For rock musician Migjen Kelmendi, Pristina's covered river was a symbol of a hidden identity. His rock band, Traces, made a song about a “City without a River”. More recently Migjen wrote a book about this theme. The rivers hidden from view expose the arrogance of communist planners, as Migjen saw it, but also remind us that looks can be deceiving. Pristina is a place of secrets, a city more interesting than it might appear at first sight.

To a local, just as much as to a casual visitor, Pristina is indeed a city of secrets, recluctant to reveal anything about its recent past or even its present. There are few historical monuments, and those that exist are often hidden from view. There are no signs on any of the buildings, and no clues explaining their historical importance. Archives are lost, stolen, burned or difficult to access. If the official website of the municipality is anything to go by, Pristina – leaving aside its distant Illyrian past – seems to have no real history. There is hardly a word on the Ottoman period. No books on Pristina are to be found in any of its bookshops. The rich and colourful past of one of the oldest urban centres of the region, and one of the youngest capitals of Europe, remains as concealed as its rivers.

Grand Hotel Prishtina
"Grand Hotel Prishtina"

Today there is almost full employment in Pristina. However, most of the economic activity depends on the government and the international community. The presence of UNMIK, KFOR, international NGOs, and diplomatic missions injects money into the local economy. New restaurants, cafes and shops have begun catering to international officials and Kosovars on the UN, EU or OSCE payrolls. Pristina airport, meanwhile, has become one of the busiest in the region, with close to one million passengers per year.

May 2008

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