Belfast journalist, Ciarán Bartlett is in Pristina, Kosovo. He’s travelled there to produce a video documentary about the internal reporting of the war there twelve years ago and the political progress since then. Having just made it to his hotel, he gives us his first impressions of a country easily compared with Northern Ireland.
Sometimes when I drive past a new apartment block or a freshly opened fancy hotel, I can’t help but think “this isn’t Belfast, at least not the one I knew”- it’s either a fear of ‘progress’ or I’m turning into my father.
Soon I’ll be telling my young nephew and niece that the Westlink didn’t always look the way it does now, that the new apartments on Black’s Road used to be a small makeshift football pitch.
I can hear my father’s voice in chorus with mine and I’m reminded that in his Belfast, St Mary’s School used to be in Barrack Street and which streets were wider back then to accommodate the types of horses and carts my granda would have driven.
I’ll smile when the kids stare at me blankly, wondering why I’m telling them this because I asked myself why I needed to know what Castle Street was like before I was born. Now I know and while it might sound a little parochial, you can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been.
When I land in Pristina airport, I could only feel at home. There is a thick mist on the black mountains, the sun has set and it’s cold enough to see my breath on the air. Always nice that, feels like leaving part of yourself in the atmosphere.
My fixer and Kosovar journalist, Avni Ahmetaj answers his phone but can’t see me straight away until I tell him I’m the big Irish guy with a UFC hoodie on my back.
He looks younger than I thought he would. I always picture people when I speak to them on the phone and I’d thought Avni would be older and maybe fatter than he is. His deep Albanian voice doesn’t always match his thin frame. His eyes look busy and he smiles a lot, revealing lines across his forehead- the only thing that makes him look older.
We get into the car and start chatting about our lives. He knows I dabble in the stand-up comedy scene in Northern Ireland and we’ve arranged to meet a popular local comedian for a radio documentary. So, as we talk humour I hear his high pitched laugh which, in itself makes me laugh because it shouldn’t come from a man with such a deep voice.
Still, as we near the town centre, Avni tells me of his experience during the war in Kosovo twelve years ago.
“I’d just been married and we’d had our first daughter when it all started”, he says.
“This was before the bombing by NATO, just when the Serbs were throwing us out and executing people. I was living down here in Pristina for work but my wife and daughter and my mother-in-law were up north in Mitrovica.
“So my memories of the war are very personal because all I thought about was if I’d see any of them again. It’s weird though because all of us were in the same problems and you took comfort from people who were worse off.
“I remember interviewing a guy who told me he happened to be away from his village when his entire family was executed by the Serbs. It was so shitty. I mean, that’s terrible, he was the only one to survive and it was by chance. But humans find comfort wherever they can and I took comfort in just knowing that at least I had hope, the hope of seeing my wife and daughter again whereas this guy was totally alone now.”
I ask Avni what he thinks of the Serbs now and through a half smile he says that he finds it hard to blame a nation of people for the massacres carried out by a few but he admits being sceptical about them in general.
“This wasn’t our first war with the Serbs,” he laughs, “we seem to have a go at each other every seventy years or so now, it’s like a routine. I just have my doubts about them but I don’t hate them as a nation, I blame individuals, not the country.”
I tell Avni that most people think I’d be too young at 24 to remember or care about our conflict in Northern Ireland. I tell him how typically Irish it is to downplay everything and call a civil war ‘the troubles’.
People are wrong to think I don’t remember what it meant to get inside the house when the soldiers came or stopping outside shopping centres while my mother’s bags were checked. Wrong to think I don’t remember bombscares or hearing them shoot at Woodbourne barracks or being put out of our family home by our own people because my father wouldn’t let our house be used as a base of operations.
I was twelve when the Good Friday agreement was implemented and until then, the police state way of life was all I knew- but I couldn’t complain because I knew no different and I loved my childhood. I just can’t stand when people assume I have no memory or that our conflict had no influence on my identity. That drives my scepticism.
We near the hotel and drive past a huge mural of Bill Clinton and a statue of the former American President. Avni explains he is loved as a liberator here along with Tony Blair. He tells me he knows a kid whose name is Tony Blair Osman, one of nineteen children from Pristina called Tony Blair.
It is odd to see these two stalwarts of Western ‘diplomacy’ still being lauded today in an age where America and Britain are so hated by Eastern states.
So, as I step out of the car, Avni shows me the local pubs and restaurants and we agree to meet tomorrow for filming. I can smell coffee, fried onions and tobacco.
Just before he leaves, he leans over and says “just so you know, mate, this here, all of this, the construction, that roundabout they’re building, these new hotels and restaurants, this is not Kosovo. Not the way I know it. I’ll take you to some of the villages and show you the real thing.”
He smiles, waves and gets in his Volkswagen. I would have been happy to film what I’ve seen so far but now I’m on my toes in anticipation of ‘the real thing’.