A Small Nation Gives Thanks

Notes from Kosovo #3

It turns out that I had worried needlessly. America is still king in Kosovo. While over here we are struggling with threats to “liberty and justice for all,” the nation that led the NATO charge in the Balkans war in the nineties is still revered beyond all others in this tiny nation state. 

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I had been cautiously looking for clues. I wanted them to be as revolted as we were at our new administration, to cluck their tongues with me as I harangued against the most recent outrage, whatever that was at the moment (so frequently are we provided with a new offering). But I held my tongue and so did they. I hesitated to rail against my own country while abroad, especially not having been invited by natives to do so. I found I would make an oblique reference to our president and it would be met with silence. What were they thinking? I would wonder. Is it that they didn’t agree with me and were not bothered by what they saw and heard? Or were they afraid to offend me? I’ve been to Kosovo three times since our election, and this trip over, I discovered the reasons for their silence.

It was a Saturday when I approached the museum, not sure it would be open. I had meant to come here many times before, but only now after several years of visits did I make the effort. I walked through the black wrought-iron gates to the yellowish concrete villa once the home of a Turkish Embassy two centuries prior. On the steps outside sat a young man smoking one of those vile cigarettes that lends its stench to every public place in the city. I could see that he wore a badge that said ‘Museum Staff.’ So I inquired if the museum was open and he smiled, hopped off the step and led me inside. I expected to be shown where to buy a ticket, but there was no one there and the young man indicated that entrance to the museum is free.  He led me to the exhibits and stuck by my side, explaining each one to me with great pride, in very limited English.

The second floor of the Kosovo Museum tells the story of the country’s brush with their national version of the Holocaust. A moving exhibit by photojournalist Afrim Hajrullahu tells his personal story and with his camera smuggled out hidden in some food, shows scenes of this latest episode of human atrocity, chillingly called “ethnic cleansing,” as if it were a service being done for the populace: Serbian tanks patrolling through the streets of their capital city, as well as throughout the countryside, police banging on doors in the middle of the night, ejecting the Albanian Muslim population from their homes with just what they could carry; shooting any in the streets that hesitated or stopped to catch their breath; shoving them onto trains bound for who knows where; displaced hordes camping by the thousands in the woods in makeshift refugee camps with no facilities whatsoever and in the dead of winter where some froze or died of hunger. How many times in human history must this same sort of barbarity play out?

In the central room of the second floor sits a glass case in the center. There’s not much in it, but you can see from a distance a small sized cowboy-styled hat and an American flag. A closer look shows displayed an American flag pin ringed in small diamonds and a plexiglass award labeled, Hands of Hope Award. This case is dedicated to Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, Hungarian immigrant who claims to only have found out in her later years that, though raised as a Catholic, her family was Jewish and had fled Hungary prior to World War II. This diminutive old lady might just as well be the Queen of Kosovo: she is widely acclaimed, along with Bill Clinton, for saving the lives of the Albanian Kosovars and conferring upon them a country of their own. And if she is the Queen, her first guard is memorialized in a set of cases along the wall: Wesley Clark, Commander of the NATO forces that came in and put an end to the Serbian slaughter, has donated his uniform and other personal effects, and thus is given his place in the narrative of the place. These former officers of our government and our military are theirmodern day heroes. It would take a lot to shake them from their pedestals – particularly Bill Clinton who literally stands on one on the corner of Bill Clinton Boulevard.

After the election, many Kosovars were nervous. Donald Trump was blustering about NATO and cozying up to Putin. But after his first visit to Europe where some of us feared he would pull us from that bulwark against communism that had stood since the end of the second world war, the nervousness subsided; he did not withdraw and promised to abide by the agreements. At this point, they are just holding their breath and hoping – not daring to say a negative word – and feeling more or less confident that America will always be America and that the next president will be better. One can only hope that their hopes and trust are not poorly placed.

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