John Retallack – Pristina research trip

John Retallack – Pristina research trip

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Fly into Pristina airport at 6.00pm. The 45 minute ride to Hotel Parlament in the centre of Pristina costs only 13 euros. The hotel is clean and simple and 100 yards from the parliament building. The only thing that recalls the former Yugoslavia is the low wattage of the lighting- that, and the strong smell of wood smoke in the night air. It’s thirty years since I was in this part of the world and this is my first visit to Kosovo.

I read my old Rough Guide to Yugoslavia (1986) before I left England, quite a historical document now. Its ‘Introduction to Kosovo’ opens:

‘Although a province of Serbia, Kosovo is less explored, more politically unstable and immeasurably poorer than just about anywhere else in Yugoslavia.’

Well, it got a whole lot worse before it got better.

From 1990, Serbia applied increasing pressure on the majority Albanian population in Kosovo. Albanian Kosovans lost their rights to education, welfare and to employment. In 1998, Milosevic, the president of Serbia, unleashed a bombing campaign with the strategic aim of taking over the entire state of Kosovo and making it part of a greater Serbia. During this time, a large number of Kosovan teenagers were sent to the UK or USA to work, safe from the extreme discrimination/apartheid that was now rife at home. Many 40 year olds that you meet now in Kosovo received their education in the houses of neighbours where teachers set up temporary schools because all Albanian secondary school pupils were banned from attending their now almost empty local schools. During the war, almost a million ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo. Britain under Tony Blair initiated the intervention that stopped the Serbs. To this day, Kosovans love and respect Britain and the USA for their part in the country’s liberation.  There is a boulevard named after Tony Blair and, nearby, a huge statue of Bill Clinton.

From 2000 onwards, a very large number of Kosovans returned. After a long period under the UNHCR, Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

It is now a multi-party democracy and the description in the 1986 Rough Guide is no longer even remotely recognizable in the capital.

This is how the Lonely Planet guide describes Pristina in 2015:

‘Domestic economic and political woes aside, Kosovo is slowly but surely coming into its own as one of the last corners of Europe for travellers to fully discover, with a spirited and sophisticated capital. While Pristina is not the most aesthetically appealing city you’ll ever come across, it exudes an infectious energy. Not many other places on the continent offer such juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, from its Balkan mishmash of culture to world-class dining and partying. Forget the negative stereotypes you’ve heard and the never-ending associations with war – Pristina is arguably one of the safest capitals in Europe and an excellent base for exploring the rest of Kosovo, making it an optimal choice for your next unconventional getaway.’









I am here for one reason; to research the background for a sequel to my 2001 play Hannah and Hanna. In that play, a 16 year old Kosovan girl, Hanna, escapes the war in spring 1999 and finds herself, with her mother and her brother, in Margate, living in a run-down hotel. She encounters Hannah, a native of the town, who, like all her friends, sees the sudden influx of Kosovans as an ‘invasion’ that has to be resisted. The two conflict with each other and then become friends—by the end of the play, the two girls end up in Pristina, Margate Hannah having herself stowed away in a lorry to remain with her new friend.  Hannah has now learnt what it feels like to be victimized – her group turned against her for befriending a Kosovan.

The 2001 play was about insularity and prejudice. It was leavened by lots of action scenes happening around the Margate sea front and the girls’ shared passion for karaoke.

Jan Ryan of UK Arts International, who originally toured the play, asked me what might have happened to Hannah and Hanna sixteen years later. With the help of some research money from HOUSE, I’ve visited Margate recently and talked to some people there and seen how much the town has changed – for the better – in the intervening years.

But I didn’t feel that I could write a second play without coming here and meeting some women of similar age and experience to Kosovan Hanna and seeing something of my character’s native city.

On arrival, I hadn’t much idea of what is happening in Kosovo – all I knew is that for a country of only 1.6 million people, an enormous number left it in search of employment abroad in 2014 and 2015 – far more from here than any other European country.

I also know that Kosovo has the youngest president in Europe, an ex-policewoman called Atifete Jahjaga, aged 38, and that she is doing a great deal for rape victims who have not been allowed to speak out since the end of the war – Albanian custom means that rape is seen as shaming to the husband, to the family, to the community. The President has done a great deal to change this. In the first play, Hanna tells Hannah how she was raped by a group of Serbian soldiers.

The third and last thing that I know is that, since earlier this year, no one from Kosovo can claim refugee status in another country.


I talked about this to Jeton Naziraj, the former director of the Kosovan National Theatre (see photo above) and a prolific playwright. He writes strong political parables, often based on a classic play – Peer Gynt From Kosovo, War In Times Of Love and Aeneas Wounded, to name three. And they are now performed all over Europe. We know each other from various meetings in the past and it is great to re-unite. I meet him in Soma, the chic-est, most stylish coffee bar that I’ve ever seen. We talk for over an hour and then he suggests lunch. We have veal soup, stuffed peppers and a glass of wine followed by expressos for an impossible 8 euros each in a beautiful restaurant called Gagi, sitting on the terrace in the warm hazy October sunshine. I can’t quite believe all this is happening. It’s such a pleasure to talk to Jeton and to have so much in common. He suggests that we meet at 8 and he will take me to the old-style raki bars










Yellow raki is, in effect, grappa flavoured with quince and is what I have several glasses of later when we are meeting various friends of his as we walk from bar to bar and finally talk a bit about the new Hannah and Hanna play. ‘How do you make a play about two people from places that have improved out of sight in the last 15 years? It was alright when Margate was totally depressed and Milosevic was bombing Pristina – I had a story there. Isn’t it just too much of a good news story to be a drama?’  Jeton is philosophical. He says, ‘Maybe it isn’t a political action drama. Maybe it’s about private experience. Maybe they just message each other on Facebook and start talking.’

Wise words.

As I walk back to the hotel, I see a dog cross the road – and then three tiny puppies follow her into an alley. They are abandoned by someone – and no one is taking them in. They are tame enough to pick up and stroke.

Wednesday 28th

I spend the morning writing and thinking about Hannah and Hanna 2.

56I go to the main city bookshop around the corner. I’d like to buy a Kosovo guidebook. There is one but it is so badly written and printed that I buy a tourist map instead. And the postcards of Pristina are simply terrible. All you could write would be, ‘Having an awful time in this place – glad I’m on my own,’ which is crazy because as you can see from the pictures, it’s an attractive place in the sunshine and the Kosovans are an attractive people. They just need a bit of marketing – a few shots of Soma and the people sitting there.










Nita and Fis

At 5.30, Nita Qena (from British Council, who I talked to last night) and Fisnik Ismail, her husband and an opposition MP for the Self-Determination Movement, arrive. ‘Fis’ is 6ft 6in at a guess and a very big man. He has recently been diagnosed as diabetic and has lost 60 lbs. It’s hard to imagine how vast he must have been. He is a striking man, with hair and beard both close-cropped, the beard to a V, very strong eyebrows too, so he looks like a villain from Marvel Comics. It turns out he loves Marvel Comics and he has a T-Shirt on, a vast T-shirt, with a kind of Joker figure on the chest. He creates a powerful first impression with Nita, his gentle and lovely dark-haired wife who routinely interrupts his monologues in quiet tones that refuse to be silenced, so that he eventually pauses and she prevails. I think this is what the French mean by ‘rapport de force’.

‘London made me a person.’

Fis articulates something that every one that I’ve met has felt.

And how difficult they found it to return to Pristina

Before his final return, he went back to Kosovo in 1998 and fought for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) for 3 months, ‘the best time in my whole life’, he says.


‘There was only one thing to think about – one mighty thing in which you are completely justified and in which you absolutely believe. We were a battalion of 1500 against 12000 Serbs and we survived. It was a different world. No telephone bills, no nappies, no school runs, no decisions, no choices, just the one imperative to save your own people whose civilization is in mortal danger. It doesn’t come purer than that. Life was so straightforward. I loved it.’

8When he came back, Fis set up a successful media business and then in late 2007, just before Kosovan Independence in February 2008, he conceived NEWBORN. This is a monumental cast iron installation of this word that was in place in time for the Declaration of Independence. It is one of the first things any tourist goes to see if they come to Pristina. Every year the vast letters are painted differently. This year anyone can write their graffiti onto the letters. When I went to see it, I liked ‘DREAM BUT DO NOT SLEEP.’ NEWBORN won him all sorts of international awards, including a Golden Palm from Cannes. Both Nita and Fis say that the first two years of independence were inspirational.


After 2 years of Independence, the returned émigrés began to lose hope. They say that the government was made up of ‘gangsters and criminals’ and that all that Kosovo had won at such terrible expense was being squandered. I hear this and I see that each of the interviewees with whom I have spoken have reached a moment of decision for the same reason – shock at the actions of the government. They all agree in saying that they have a fear that there is no plan for the future in place, no economic plan at all, no vision for education, culture and health. Fis wanted to leave two years ago. He wanted to go back to the UK and to get a job in media where he knew, because of NEWBORN, he could command a top salary. And what stopped him?

He decided to get involved in politics.

He is an MP for the Self Determination Party. They have 17 seats in the chamber, which represents about decent proportion of the total 121 MPs. The Mayor of Pristina is a member of the party – Fis said the celebrations on the night the mayor was voted in rivalled those of the Cease Fire in June 1998 and Independence in Feb 2008. The Self Determination Party objected so strongly to the governing party signing up to a pact with Serbia recently that they let off tear gas in the parliamentary chamber and insist that they will block all future sessions of parliament until they remove the national signature from the deal. This is the current stand off.

Amongst their MPs is a young woman of 33 called Puhie Demaku (‘Puki’ as Nita calls her).

Puki went to Brussels when they all went to London. That is, she went with her family at the age of 7. She has lived there but returned to Pristina after the war, some 12 years ago, at the age of 21. She studied Political Science and became an interpreter. Everything went very well with her – her best friends include Nita and Fis, and also Shqipa, who I see later this same evening. Her years in Brussels made her very open-minded and she failed completely to find a partner in Pristina. Nita says that men here, Kosovan men, are less able to relax in the company of a very bright and emancipated woman like Puki. She met a man in Holland not so long ago, a Kosovar who had spent years in Flemish culture, another émigré like her. They married and Puki is this minute in Brussels expecting her first child anytime now – she went there because she had experienced a miscarriage in Kosovo and she wanted to be absolutely sure of the medical attention that she would receive.

Puki is now not sure of what the Self Determination Party is doing. Shqipa says that she feels that being ‘an idealist in a globalized economy doesn’t work anymore.  It’s like driving the opposite direction on a motorway.’ She hints that the Self Determination Party is led by very well educated people who have limited experience of politics, idealists who know nothing of compromise. It’s the Corbyn issue. Well, I think it is.

Pukie is actively talking to her friends about what she might do after she has settled in with her baby. Will she and her husband leave Kosovo behind for good, at this peak time in their working lives, and move to Belgium or Holland? Or will they stay in Kosovo and fight for their country politically, attempt to change its direction from that given by leaders that they consider ‘gangsters and criminals’?

This is a plausible dilemma for Hanna.

And there is good reason (and Hanna may not yet have a baby) that she might go to England for a conference or holiday or meeting and decide to look up Hannah and see how she is.

After all, that was a relationship that got her through a lot of personal hardship 15 years ago…

Hanna believes that there are not ‘stupid and smart people’ rather ‘people with and without opportunities.’

Has Hannah had opportunities?

What has she done with her life to this date?

And will talking to Hannah help her to see what she will do with hers?










Thursday 29th


Gjacova is 90 minutes by coach from Pristina and Moni Zhumi meets me there at 10 am. About 60, Mon is a former journalist and has lived for years in Zagreb and Sarajevo. He is big, craggy and gentle and apologizes immediately for his English, which is broken but increasingly fluent through the morning. His family have lived in this town for 500 years he tells me. He appears to know everyone and everyone greets him as we pass. After coffee, he takes me to a graveyard at the end of a rough track. It is a hilltop site and no expense has been spared on the large white marble graves. A sign says in Albanian that this cemetery is the result of a Serbian War Crime. The bodies were originally buried in a mass grave in Serbia and later reclaimed, identified and buried here, looking out over Gjacova. Beneath the war crime sign are the pictures of all the young men and women buried here. Some are in the 30’s or 40’s but most are in their teens or early twenties.










We drive back along the track where a black VW is heading towards us. Neither Mon or the other driver acknowledge each other in this place. It is a sinister passing moment – who is in that car? So many times people here must have been terrified. The worst atrocities against Albanians in the war happened in this town; it is just 10 kms from the Albanian border. It has always been an exclusively Albanian town and the KLA used to camp out on the other side of the border. Here, for example, a mother and her five daughters were raped, killed and torched – as Nita Qena reminds me the following day. Many such atrocities occurred in Gjacova. The paramilitaries did their absolute worst in this town and even after the ceasefire in June 1999, they torched and destroyed all that they could as they left.

See the following entry in Wikipedia:

The town was badly affected by the Kosovo war, suffering great physical destruction and large-scale human losses and human rights abuses. Yugoslav units were stationed in and near the town in two barracks due to the risk of an attack by the Kosovo Liberation Army(KLA) from across the border in Albania. Actions on the ground had a devastating effect on the town. According to the ICTY, OSCE, and international human rights organisations, about 75% of the population was expelled by Serbian police and paramilitaries as well as Yugoslav forces, while many civilians were killed in the process.  Large areas of the town were destroyed, chiefly through arson and looting but also in the course of localised fighting between government security forces and members of the KLA. The actions of the government forces in Gjakova formed a major part of the United Nations war crimes indictment of the then-President Slobodan Milošević.  In 2011, several dozen corpses were identified and returned to their families, though the number is relatively small compared to the figures of those who are still missing

Gjacova has always been singled out for the worst possible treatment and the people here are famous for two things; one, they are a very talented group – many highly successful and very able citizens have emerged from the town; and, two, they really stick together and support each other. For this the town is legendary. Three different people here have all spoken of them as being ‘like Jews’.

Mon says that people are ‘jealous of us’. He is relaxed and lugubrious; he says that he always buys his shoes in Austria and he bought his new Peugeot estate in Zagreb. He has a Croatian passport and can travel as and when he pleases. I ask him if he can remember the first day that he came back here after the 98/99 war. He was working as a journalist in Albania and reporting on the war from there for a Bosnian paper. He was the first international reporter into the town and the first to report on the level of destruction and devastation.

Gjacova is beautiful now. Though it is not a tourist town, the bazaar has many cafes and bars with hundreds of tables and chairs outside, under awnings – it must be delightful in the evenings with crowds of Gjacovans talking and drinking in the open air. There are also many clothes outlets, mostly selling clothes that look about 40 years out of date. Strange mannequins line the pavement creating a sort of spectral presence, dressed in jeans and fake leather jackets or the female ones in traditional Albanian wedding dresses. Mon owns one of the shops. The woman working there does not recognize him.










The only other shops are butchers that have whole skinned animals in their windows, necklaced with sausages. I feel that this place has ghosts present in broad daylight. We go into the office of the Ministry of Information and Culture and I meet an old friend of Mon who works there. Mon asks if he has a publication in English about the history of the town. Half an hour later his friend comes up with one – photographs of the ruins of 1999 and a mangled text – the book almost falls apart on opening it. Visitors would love this town, I think – but it has only just re-built itself and it feels as if it cannot invite the world in just yet. Mon takes me to a beautiful wooden building with carvings on the walls, centuries old that used to be a coaching inn. ‘Perhaps Byron stayed here,’ he says. Byron did travel all over Albania in the early 19th century. The coaching inn is now a pleasant rural restaurant with Albanian Parliament on the TV and a party going on upstairs. Mon drinks raki and I have good local red wine, not too strong. There is no menu, instead a mixed grill of chicken, beef and sausages are brought to the table with grated carrot and cucumber – after a few plates of this, we get chunky salad with salty sheep’s cheese and delicious local crusty bread. We are joined by a friend of Mon, an engineer responsible for the roads around the town. His day is 8 – 12 and 2 – 5. He has a couple of rakis with Mon. He is as thin as a rake while Mon is a really big guy. Men tend to be thin in these parts and, on the coach to Prizren which I take after lunch, I see knots of 4 or 5 men by the side of the road, many smoking, most in dark zip jackets and jeans, almost a uniform in drab dark colours with short hair, the young men with short back and sides.

On the coach through the villages to Priznen I see a lot of rubbish and plastic all the way along the side of the road. The litter is constant and so are the Albanian pop videos that play endlessly on the coaches. They all have the same format – there’s a guy (singing) with very short hair and/or beard in dark glasses by the sea. It’s very hot and lush girls run their fingers through their wavy hair and strut slowly in short dresses or bikinis. Props include fast cars, small jets or a yacht. They provide an alternative to the view out of the window. I was on a coach for 4 hours today across the 3 trips and I don’t think any video repeated itself but they were all the same.

It’s a very long way from Hannah and Hanna singing Perfect…

Priznen is a beautiful old town with a river running through it, steep hillsides, ancient monasteries of Serb origin plus many mosques – the evening call to prayer came from half a dozen minarets around me. It also has many good shops, selling jewellery and textiles. It is well geared up for tourists. I caught a bus back to Pristina at 5 and was in the capital by 6.30.










Friday 30th

I met Nita again at the British Council, which is in a very nice street with the terrace of a big coffee bar facing it, part shaded by trees. It’s a beautiful radiant morning and we sit in the sun. The street is very animated and it is a pleasure to talk with Nita who has become the narrator of my trip, always filling in the background that I don’t know. This morning she tells me about the Albanian language and its total lack of affinity to Serbo-Croat; how since 2000, children do not learn Serbo-Croat at school so that Albanians are growing ever further from their neighbours. This is not surprising in itself but it will not help Kosovo become part of the EU. She tells me about the popularity of Albania as a holiday destination and I can see how ‘Greater Albania’ will informally happen, especially as the Germans and Dutch realize how attractive and extremely cheap it is. Then we talk about Puki. Nita will send me info in English about Slow Movement and about ‘New Spirit’ the party that tried to beat Slow Movement at the polls but ended up with only 2 seats. New Spirit was constituted by three key players – her husband Kis, The Mayor of Pristina — and Puki. After their defeat they joined up with Slow Movement and now Slow Movement have their 17 seats. The Mayor is an interesting character – he is a lecturer at the American University and he also owned and ran the Sports Bar in the city. This is the only place where karaoke used to happen on a regular basis. Fis and Puki and the Mayor himself used to sing there – Puki’s special number was a Shania Twayne number. The Mayor always sang a traditional Albanian song and Fis sang Metallica numbers! I can see him being a heavy metal giant.

All this is very interesting for Hannah & Hanna. Nita will send me various thoughts – she said they used to sing songs by Pink and Amy Winehouse a lot. Nita will clearly remain completely in touch re any details concerning the play and I can see a) how much she wants it to happen and b) how she wants at least half of it to be set in Kosovo. I have heard this a few times now – and why not? 15 years ago Margate Hannah got very close to Pristina – and was then sent home. Now her time has come.

I get a taxi to the airport and the driver speaks good English. He is 29 and was sent to Denmark by his parents when the war broke out in ‘98. He was 14 then. He asks me how much I think he earns, after he has told me that he works 28 days out of 30. I guess 500 euros a month. He says. Take away 200.’ ‘Really? You get only 300 a month?’ He has a wife and a child and he says that he wishes, since I say I like Pristina, he wishes that he could swap places with me and go to London. ‘I am so fed up. I can’t stop working all the time but I can never make enough money. I have 2 and a half euros in my pocket. That’s all.’ ‘Would you leave like the 30,000 who left in January?’, I ask. ‘Yes, of course. But it’s too late. Hungary has closed the border now, even if I could get out. My brother left then and he is in Bremen. He is looking for a job.’ He feels trapped now. His parents are getting frail and he can’t get off the treadmill for a minute. And, having spent 4 years in Denmark, he knows another world.

On the plane, I meet Ross Bull, a tall and imposing Englishman who looks a lot more like a theatre director than I do – and dresses like one, big scarf, big boots, braces over a t-shirt. He has worked for the Ministry of Finance for years and travelled an enormous amount. I saw him in the Hotel Parliament this morning. I end up next to him on the plane from Vienna to London. I am intrigued. It turns out he has done the journey from London to Pristina scores of times since 2002, running workshops for the Ministry of Agriculture in Kosovo.

He is certainly very informed about Kosovo and Kosovans. After talking for a few minutes, I find myself looking for something a little more positive about this nation he knows so well. ‘What are Kosovans good at?’ I ask. ‘Cheating and getting away with doing as little as possible,’ he says. He points out how young the nation is, how it has no intellectual past (ie philosophers, books, traditions in thinking how a society works and so on.)

He says that it is a condition of countries that want to join the EU that young people are given the lead because the old – in such countries – carry so much baggage – so much bitterness and cynicism.

He is an expert on everything and the complete mandarin. He is the very opposite of a visionary human being in the sense of Fis. Yet — he is right, I am sure, in believing that the Slow Movement are too intractable re co-operating with Serbia.


So I have Hanna, an MP at 31 years of age, who worked for the World Bank at the age of 19, who is going to have a baby and doesn’t know whether to throw herself into the future of her country and aim to become Prime Minister before she is 40 and see Kosovo become a member of the EU – or whether to take a more individual, more personal route and go off with her lovely Kosovan/Dutch husband and live as an émigré in prosperous western Europe.

She needs to take a decision about the future – who should she talk to? Someone without an agenda, someone she trusts – someone she has been close to…




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