Now that I’ve been here a few weeks, I’ve gotten to see some of the country, having gone with ESE to their legal aid center in Shtip and traveled to Kosovo over the weekend. The countryside is incredibly beautiful, but clearly much less developed than Skopje.
Shtip is a very picturesque, Mediterranean-looking town built onto a hillside. Its economy is mostly based on textile manufacturing, and we stopped by a factory on our way out of town. The factory itself was clean, brightly lit and almost cheerful – but Gabi from ESE explained that the women (almost all of the employees are female) work much longer hours than is officially reported, and are paid wages which are barely enough to live on. None of the women spoke to each other or took their eyes off their work – they’re paid by the piece and every minute is precious. As elsewhere, during the transition from communism bosses were able to buy the factories they ran at incredibly cheap prices, and have since grown wealthy while most of the population remains poor. No one is calling for the return of communism, but for many of these women, life has become much harder since the transition. This is one of the reasons ESE was founded – to help women who had previously enjoyed at least formal equality and suddenly found themselves without jobs, health care, and other services which had been provided to some extent by the Yugoslav state.
Since weekends in Skopje are pretty quiet and I want to take advantage of my time here to explore the region, I headed to Pristina last week and am planning to go to Tetovo, about half an hour west of Skopje, on Saturday. I’ve been brushing up on my Balkan and Ottoman history, so it’s fascinating to see the mosques and churches and forts I’ve been reading about. Many date from the 1400s or earlier; the Skopje fortress was first built in the 500s, although it’s been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Sadly, much of the region’s history has been destroyed, either by earthquakes or wars. So much of the region was bombed during World War II that travel writing from before that period is almost obsolete. It’s strange to read a guidebook description of a mosque or church in Kosovo from only a few years ago, and realize that the place has been desecrated or destroyed.
Every society builds monuments and statues, erects memorials and names streets and bridges and buildings after national heroes. But in this region there is always a dangerous edge to the process. Even names carry tense political weight: Is it Kosovo or Kosova? Tetovo or Tetova? And can the Republic of Macedonia be called that, since historical Macedonia extends into northern Greece? The Greeks don’t think so.
Particularly in Pristina, the politics of the past—both recent and distant—are everywhere apparent: stories-high murals of Bill Clinton and the late Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova on the sides of buildings, and statues of every Albanian hero since the Middle Ages. Photographs of those missing since the 1999 conflict cover a gate in central Pristina. And now, thanks to Bush’s recent visit to Albania, posters of the current U.S. president abound in the city. In Macedonia, the airport is named after Alexander the Great, which has only antagonized the Greeks further. History is certainly alive here – and it’s usually not a benign force.
Posted By Stephanie Gilbert
Posted Jun 20th, 2007