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Pristina. Photo: flickr/gjon_gjoni

Pristina is the capital of the new state of Kosovo. It is not a beautiful but certainly a lively city of some 250,000 people. Above all it is a young city in terms of its population. Two thirds of the population of Kosovo are under 30 years old. The many cafes and bars are packed with young people sipping their macchiato coffees, or taking a stroll on Mother Theresa Boulevard.

The recent history of Pristina 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 Two, most of the Jewish population moved to Israel. In spring 1999, the city was emptied of its Albanian population as part of the Milosevic plan to ethnically cleanse Kosovo. After the defeat of Milosevic, in the summer of 1999, Pristina lost its Serbian and Roma population, most of who fled to Serbia-proper or Serb-majority villages surrounding Pristina. Little has remained of the multi-cultural past.

The communist leadership also set out to destroy the 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 and all but a few Ottoman-era homes were replaced by concrete socialist apartment blocks. Then socialist planners transformed the city into a communist centre of administration. There were also many miners who worked in nearby mines and how settled in houses built illegally and without infrastructure north of the old centre. Jobs in the public administration and in some industries attracted migrants from other parts of Kosovo. During the 70s and 80s, the city doubled in size every decade.

By the 1950s, Pristina's main river, Vellusha, started serving as the city's sewer. City planners failed to put in place a proper waste water system and decided to simply cover the river up. The threat of recurring floods and the smell of excrement persuaded the municipal assembly to eventually cover the second river, Pristina, as well. Although Pristina received 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 still flows unfiltered into the river Sitnica 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 the City without River. More recently he wrote a book about this theme. The rivers hidden from view disclose the arrogance of communist planning 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 citizen of Pristina, as much as to a casual visitor, this is indeed a city of secrets. It is hard to find out anything about either the recent past or the present of the city. 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. On the official website of the municipality, leaving aside the distant Illyrian past, Pristina has no real history. There is hardly a word on the Ottoman period. Nor are there any books on Pristina 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 submerged as its rivers.

Grand Hotel Prishtina
"Grand Hotel Prishtina"

Today there is almost full employment in Pristina. However, most of this 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. Restaurants, cafes and shops opened up to cater for the needs of the international community and those Kosovars who are on the UN, EU or OSCE payroll. The airport of Pristina is also one of the busiest in the region, with close to one million passengers a year.

May 2008

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