Distance in Your Mind

There are places where one can travel to in this world where you feel distant and an outsider.  Makes sense of course, you are an outsider.  But here in Prishtina, time and time again, people who I’ve never met before make me feel like I am their neighbor and they’ve been expecting to see me.  Perhaps it is the large number of foreigners who are here working as part of the development and security world. Or maybe it is simply that Kosovars are all over the world and sometimes, they return home for good.  Whatever the reason, you’ll rarely meet someone who  gets wide eyed if you mention New York or Paris, these cities are part of their vocabulary and in some cases, a familiar part of their lives.

It all makes for a strange and alluring atmosphere; wander into a café and one friend will introduce you to another. Before you know it, a conversation that transcends borders and the conventional small-talk erupts.  They will want to meet up again, as often is possible, they will make time for you, don’t worry. No topic seems off the table. Even those probably tired and repetitive visitor questions about the country and its significant list of problems. Its no problem here, we can talk about it, we can even talk about problems in a far away land, no country or context is too distant.

Surely it is an old song. I came to Kosovo and made some fantastic friends that I shall seek to see again and surely never forget . I’ve said that of so many countries I doubt anyone takes it seriously. But this is no polite travel note, this is a seasoned veteran traveller telling it like it is in his experience. The world may often forget about Kosovo these days, but here in Prishtina, Kosovo is very much a part of the great big world.

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This Bus Goes to Kosovo

The border crossing looks new and partly unfinished. In different corners there are exposed wires and lamp fixtures that will probably soon find their permanent place.  It is the middle of the afternoon on a quite holiday afternoon, the border guard in his nice new blue jacket and pants saunters onto the bus looking at each person’s passport.  As he approaches a few other western passengers seated in from of me, I notice the nice blue patch on his arm featuring the yellow outline of the country, “Its your first time in Kosovo?” he asks each of us, “Just visiting?”

The whole process takes less then a minute and soon we’re passed the customs area, passed the 4 construction workers staring at an open hole in the ground, and back on the two lane highway.  The mountains here are steep and drenched in red, yellow and orange autumn colors.  Occasionally we pass a little hamlet and I notice a newly completed bridge or road, even the lonely single track railroad seems to have been recently renovated.  As we drive into the heart of this infamous part of the world, I can’t stop thinking of how much it reminds me of mining country in Eastern Pennsylvania.

The towns we passed may have some new pieces of construction, but they don’t look like happy places.  The typical unfinished houses look vacant and what becomes even more clear as we get nearer to Prishtina, is that there is an overabundance of empty office space in Kosovo. One after another we pass shiny new warehouses and storefronts that look abandoned before they could ever be occupied.  This one would probably be good for selling tractors, that one over there looks more like a furniture outlet, neither has a single sign of life.  We drive on slowly, passed the Greek KFOR military base, the speed limit reads 60kmph, I find myself thinking of how different this place is from my dear Portugal, where no one respects such speed limits on country roads.

The beautifully vast and empty horizon finally changes after what seems like an hour, there is clearly a city up ahead, and I think it is Prishtina.  The two lane highway becomes 4 shiny new lanes, and the slow pace speeds up some.  On either side of the road its a mix of motels of small scale commercial operations.  Each one making heavy use of the following flags in this order: Albanian, Kosovar, American, followed by a hodgepodge of European Union  member state flags.  The favorite seems to be the French followed closely by the German flag.  “Made in Germany” several of the advertisements for machine parts along the road read in smaller print.  Pulling into the quiet bus station and it seems like the entire city could be on vacation. “Prishtina is quiet” is the first uncontrollable conclusion I make in my head.  I could not have been more wrong.

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Behind Walls in Jalalabad

“Has anyone NEVER flown on a helicopter before?” asks the tall, well armed soldier with an Australian flag sewn onto his flak jacket with oh so many extra banana clips in it. “We haven’t!” – my colleague and I are the only ones of the group of 5 to respond. “Oh,” he cracks a smile and his blue eyes light up, “You’re gonna love it! No worries!”  Not that we needed reassuring, but when you’ve just found out that your transport from the capital city the second largest city closer to the border with Pakistan is an old Russian Mi-8, being guided by guys who say “No worries mate” makes it all the more exciting.

Enjoying the SceneryFrom the moment we step into the belly of the chopper I’m mesmerized by all the Russian writing and the obvious fact that since this thing was manufactured, back around 1961, very little seems to have changed.  “If I give a signal it means we’re going to land hard so just put your arms up and lean forward like this,” our easy going flight chief shows us, as his machine gun dangles at his side.  Minutes later we’re floating above the city and racing, as much as such relics can race, along the path to Jalalabad.

The 1.5 hour journey seems to last much longer, but we can’t be sure since we’re so busy taking photos and being amazed by this machine we’re sitting in and the changing landscape not so far beneath us.  After dropping off a VIP at some military outpost, we eventually find ourselves being dropped off inside yet another military outpost. As we step off the helicopter I see the sign: “Forward Operating Base Finley Shields”, a base I would later learn was named for two soldiers who died while on a mission in this area. We wander the lanes of the base slowly with our gear as the afternoon heat pounds on us, after alot of discussion with many layers of Afghan Army guards we eventually find our ride outside the gates.

The driver greets us, and we listen to our first long conversations in Pashto; new region, new language.  As we drive away from the base I’m impressed by the amount of businesses bustling with activity.  Mechanics, furniture makers, metal workers, food vendors, textiles, the list goes on and on.  The other common scenery, as we eventually pass through Jalalabad, are the schools and organizations with their elaborately painted signs, slogans, and murals outside their massive walls. Many are the world renowned names, but others appear to be simply local organizations with an education or community outreach focus.  The people along the road also strike me as interesting for one basic detail, no one here is wearing western clothes.  Unlike Kabul or Herat, the only other cities of Afghanistan that I know, in this Pashtun world, the shalwar kameez is the only outfit to be worn by men.  On the women’s side I see more burka’s then I’ve ever seen in any other town.  Just as everyone has tried to explain to me, this place has its very distinct differences that one can’t help but notice all the time.

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The Return to Afghanistan

Greetings from Kabul, dusty but determined capital of the country everyone has an opinion about: Afghanistan. For the second time in my life, I’ve arrived in Kabul.  No longer confused or intimidated with how things look or work (or don’t work), being back in this magic town is like starting your second year of high school. You’re far from mature and wise, but you’re better prepared and strangely comfortable.

The Familiar Hills of Kabul

Over the next 16 days as part of the intrepid Small World News training team, we will be working as part of the international media development organization Internews. The mission is to teach, train, guide, and share knowledge with aspiring journalists, film makers, new media producers with all manner of interests and objectives.  With our combined experiences, not to mention the unique experiences of these young people, we intend to better prepare them for the career that could lay ahead.

During the course of these trainings, I’ll be telling my own stories of what I see and what I hear, as always. But to be here in Afghanistan in 2011, one year after having been here for the elections of 2010, one prevalent feeling in the air (at least the air I breathe) is that at this point in global history, Afghanistan is no longer important. The international light that once shined on this place has grown dim, with those who wield it unwilling or unable to keep it on much longer. Whatever the typical time limit for attention and engagement this fickle and easily distracted world, it has been reached.  Listen to a political speech or a news analysis and you’ll hear what to many are good arguments to stop engaging in helping this nation rise from the decade old ashes. Yet here we are, not just Small World News, but so many dedicated people, who still come despite the risks, obstacles, and the criticism; who still work hard for a specific purpose.. helping people build a strong nation with a good foundation.  A foundation that took and will take substantial time and investment in various forms.

So it goes. Working in Afghanistan, for Afghanistan, long after it has gone out of style.

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