Kosovo: Realities of Peacekeeping

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  • Display of a death ritual in Pristina’s Museum of Ethnography.
    Traditional funerary practices capture the syncretism of Ottoman-era Kosovo’s different religions and ethnicities. Many elements of funeral ceremonies, which are common in the Albanian tradition, predate both Islam and Orthodox Christianity.

  • Farmers from the Peje/Pec region discussing a UN project.
    Despite ethnic tension between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians, economic conditions such as unemployment and inflation have encouraged them to work together more closely, especially in the agricultural sector.

  • Police officers in Gracanica patrol the town’s main municipal building.
    Since the 2008 declaration of independence, Kosovar police have gradually expanded their remit as they perform roles previously undertaken by the E.U. and U.N. missions.

  • Teens in Pristina relax during Ramadan.
    Kosovo’s average age is twenty-six, but with a national youth unemployment rate near sixty percent, many young, well-educated Kosovars have emigrated. Many Kosovars who go abroad for education and employment return annually in July, temporarily doubling the population of Pristina.

  • Young Kosovars sit near a graffiti-ed wall in suburban Pristina.
    Despite the economic hardships and widespread unemployment, Kosovar youth remain optimistic for the future.

  • People of Kosovo.
    The dominant narrative is that ethnic tension has prevented and continues to prevent progress, but many Kosovars express more fear for their children’s future--not each other.

  • Farmers from the multi-ethnic farmers’ association discuss recent UN agricultural projects.
    Farmers are concerned about the unpredictable climate changes they’ve seen in the past few years. For many, the environment has wreaked more havoc than the war ever did. Kosovar farmers suffer reduced crop yields and are paying the price at the open market.

  • Children in Skenderaj ride bikes in an open field during the summer break.
    Skenderaj is where the war started in 1998, and this region has seen more devastation than any other region in Kosovo. The Offices of Communities and Returns serve as a link between the unrecognized Kosovo administration and the U.N. mission.

  • Farmers in Skenderaj give a demonstration of pellet making equipment.
    The U.N. mission finances small-scale projects aimed at building trust between different ethnic communities. This work is organized largely by local U.N. staff.

  • A boy runs in the countryside during the summer break.
    Little opportunity exists outside of the capital city for children to engage in meaningful extracurricular activities.

  • An early summer, late afternoon street scene outside of Klokot.
    Many small towns in Kosovo are increasingly getting smaller as more Kosovars either emigrate or move to Pristina for employment.

  • Young men in Prizren walk towards one of the Ottoman-era mosques.
    Known as the Constantinople of the Balkans, Prizren, remains dominated by a distinctly Turkish cultural influence. During the armed conflict many Kosovar Serbs lost their homes, and as a result, Prizren is a Muslim-majority region.

  • Fruit and vegetable vendors outside Prizren’s city center discuss the recent elections.
    Despite the relatively steady stream of tourists, many Kosovars living in Prizren rely on foreign business contacts for their livelihood. Prizren farmers are increasingly looking abroad for markets for their produce.

  • A man walks by a graffiti-ed wall in Prizren.
    Due to the hundreds of years of Ottoman occupation, Turkish is widely spoken throughout Prizren.

  • Children climb on the Newborn monument outside of the Youth and Sports Center in Pristina.
    Erected in 2008 to celebrate Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia, the Newborn monument is continually changing. Changing of the colors and orientations of the letters are meant to symbolize the dynamism of the young country.

  • A man arranges vegetables in the open-air market in Prisitna on the Sunday of national elections.
    The bazaars, or markets, of Pristina, the capital city, are increasingly dominated by foreign imports and foreign immigrants from a destabilized Syria. Kosovo’s sizeable, informal economy thrives in open markets common throughout the territory.

  • A shopkeeper and his companion chat about the recent elections (near Tophane district).
    Kosovars are ambivalent about the presence of international organizations and NGOs that provide capital but influence domestic politics. Markets like this one remain a popular space for airing grievances of international interference and for sharing information amid a rise of Internet disinformation.

  • A farmhouse in the ethnically-mixed village of Susica sits near open-sewage.
    In one of the few Kosovo villages where Kosovar Serbs and Albanians live side-by-side, the residents of Susica face problems of open sewage and lack spaces for public gathering. Due to disputes between Belgrade and Pristina, Susica lacks regular waste management.

  • U.N. peacekeepers and mission staff dance at a midsummer’s garden party in the lawn of the U.N. compound in South Mitrovica.
    Mitrovica is a microcosm of the geopolitical complexity and difficulty of trust building among the Serb and Albanian communities of Kosovo.

  • Kosovar Serbs gather at an election rally for Srpska Lista, the Belgrade-backed, pro-Serbia political party.
    The 2017 parliamentary elections saw a gain for Srpska Lista but also the first viable challenge to this party via smaller pro-Pristina Serb parties. Much like other regional and international elections in 2016 and 2017, the nationalist party, Vetëvendosje, took seats from centrist parties.

  • The photographer interviews a Kosovar Serb farmer in his greenhouse in Klokot, a Serbian enclave.
    Kosovo’s economy was dominated by the agricultural sector in the past. Today, this way of life is increasingly under pressure and pays diminishing returns as foreign imports from neighboring Balkan states flood Kosovo’s open markets.

  • A wall in the center of Pristina is tagged with anti-UN and anti-NATO graffiti.
    Graffiti captures the uneasy relationship between a growing section of Kosovo that views international organizations as foreign occupiers.

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Plagued by a history of violent ethnic tension between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. Although Serbia refuses to recognize the former territory’s sovereignty, Kosovo has gained diplomatic recognition by a majority of U.N. member states. These photographs capture a people and a territory that have been under international occupation since 1999.  Before the 2008 declaration of independence, the U.N. mission handled all administrative tasks of a state; from issuing marriage certificates to management of waste collection. As a result, Kosovar Serbs living in ethnic enclaves continue to rely on Belgrade for public services such as healthcare and education.

Thousands of Kosovar Serbs struggle daily with reconciling the competing demands of Pristina in Kosovo and Belgrade in Serbia. Official documents such as automobile registration, education credentials, and travel identification issued by Pristina are not recognized by Belgrade; and having Pristina-issued documents can prevent Kosovar Serbs from availing themselves of public services in Belgrade.

Given the large-scale economic and human devastation of the war, court systems are important for post-conflict reconciliation and trust-building. Yet, the Kosovo court system uses Albanian as the only official language. Therefore, Serbian-speaking Kosovars are effectively disenfranchised from the court systems. Widespread inability to reconcile property rights and missing-persons cases is one of the most serious impediments for meaningful reconciliation and economic growth.

Kosovo adopted the Euro in 2002, yet is not a member of the Eurozone. Thus, Kosovar policymakers cannot exercise monetary policy. Serbian enclaves still illegally accept Serbian Dinars, and many Kosovar Serb-owned establishments list prices in Dinars but accept Euros as payment. Lack of a coherent monetary policy, a failure to invest in infrastructure, and weak economic growth have exacerbated unemployment.

Many Kosovars are ambivalent about the presence and effect of international actors. They are simultaneously critical of the perceived impediment to autonomous statehood; yet, they are heavily reliant on the influx of foreign investment and aid.

Until very recently, Belgrade, backed by Russia, has called for the withdrawal of international organizations. Since the election of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, Belgrade has grown increasingly more amenable to Kosovo exerting its authority. At the same time, Pristina has become increasingly impatient with a decades-long occupation and no sign of autonomous statehood. This tension routinely plays out in the quarterly U.N. Security Council Meetings, where there is a clear division among the five permanent members.

In this sense, Kosovo continues to serve as a proxy for the battle between the two sides of Cold War that is anything but resolved. These photos capture the ambivalence, the struggle for several generations of Kosovars in an increasingly fraught geopolitical landscape.

About the Author

Esther Owens studies Environment and Energy and International Security Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is the managing editor of the Columbia University’s Journal of International Affairs and the head comedy writer for SIPA’s annual Apollo comedy show, Follies.


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