By Alexandra Channer | The border first became a problem for Demir, a schoolteacher in the Kosovo village of Kryenik, when his mother fell sick in December of 1993. The nearest hospital was about 15 miles away in Skopje, Macedonia, which had recently declared its independence from Yugoslavia. But Kosovo was still ruled by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The border between the republics had suddenly become an international frontier.
Demir took his mother by mule and walked to Skopje, where she died in the hospital. When he tried to bring her body back home, Serbian border police told him he could not re-enter Kosovo without a permit from Belgrade. So he waited in no man’s land until it got dark, hoisted his mother onto his back (she had been, he told me with a smile and a shrug, extremely fat and very heavy), and with the help of a cigarette seller who diverted the guards, disappeared into the mountains, crossing the border in the dark. He finally buried her, secretly and at night, by the light of a tractor leant to him by a villager.
When the Great Powers recognized Albania in 1913, Austria-Hungary and Russia fought tooth and nail over where its borders would fall—and thus where their influence would begin or end. The lines, drawn on a map in London, left over half of the Albanian population outside of the new country, living in compact settlements on the wrong side of its new border. British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, who chaired the negotiations, justified the final agreement as one that would prevent war between the Great Powers. It was also necessary, he argued, to recognize some of the gains made by Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece in the Balkan Wars.
In my travels along five of the international borders dividing Albanians in Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania, the people I talked to continually reminded me, with friendly grins, that their families had been divided because of my country’s diplomacy.
As a Celtic mongrel who has lived in Kosovo for the last three years, I have become envious of the passion with which Albanians identify themselves with their homeland. Most of my grandparents originated from Ireland, but my father was born in Glasgow and joined the Highland regiment in which his father had also served. Scotland is home. School, however, was 10 hours away by train in Devon, in southwest England. I still remember the wild excitement on the journey home when the border was crossed, although there was nothing to mark its existence. When I was about nine, we lived for a year in a village precisely on the Welsh border. Our side of the street was in Wales and the other side in England. We only knew because our phone codes were different.
Borders for us were all but invisible. For the Albanians who have befriended me, they are inescapable. This fact was first hammered home to me in Plav and Guci, in Montenegro. This is an area that sits on what is known locally as the “Albanian-Albanian-Albanian border,” because it divides Albanians in Kosovo, Montenegro, and Albania.
Just after my bus passed this dividing line, the driver took a telephone call from Tahir, who was expecting me. Tahir wanted him to point out a peaceful green field where 700 Albanian men and boys had been executed by Montenegrin troops just after the Balkan War in 1913 for resisting annexation. Further south, in the mountains between Albania and Kosovo, a man named Fatmir told me bitterly, “There is no home here without a history of family members who have been killed.” Violence and fear, from the very distant past up to the last decade, confront you at every turn on these borders.
At the foot of the bleak Morina pass, which separates Kosovo from Albania, I met an elderly man named Mehmet in a village on the Kosovo side. After the Second World War, he had been betrothed to a young girl who lived on the other side of the line, as was customary. But in 1948, the communist regimes in Albania and Yugoslavia cut off relations. Albania’s border was sealed. Mehmet and his fiancée were never able to marry.
Fifty years later, in 1999, he crossed the border for the first time since 1948, this time as a war refugee. When he told his story to the family who had offered him refuge, they realized that his former betrothed lived next door. They brought her to meet him. Both had long since married and raised their own families, but when he told me his story, he trembled with emotion.
For Albanian politicians, the phrase “national unification” has become taboo, because it is interpreted as an expansionist threat by states that would lose territory as a result. The international community also considers it a dead idea. Yet for the Albanians I talked to, unification was the only natural solution. “We should be united because we never occupied anyone,” Fatmir told me with incredulity when I asked him about it on the Morina pass. “The others occupied us. It is natural for us to be united. It is for our prosperity and wealth. We have the same traditions and customs and language. We are the same blood. Bread is called the same, water is called the same.”
A fierce and intense longing for Albania dominated my conversations. At a small village near Dibra, a vibrant Albanian market town in Macedonia, a man showed me a view across a broad valley. “If you look down there,” he pointed, “you can see the border. It cuts straight across the valley and up the other side into those mountains. That’s Albania.” He paused, looking. “I remember standing here every evening when I was 11 years old with my father and just gazing at Albania. We couldn’t point then, because it was too dangerous. We just looked. I came to this spot every day just to look.”
Rasim told me another story. His home was a tiny village on the Macedonian side of the border near Dibra, but his mother had been born and raised in a village on the Albanian side of the customs post. In the late 1980s, he recalled, she had asked him to take her to a spot where she could safely look at her old home. “She took some binoculars to look at her house,” Rasim said. “And opposite, the Albanian guards were using binoculars to look at her.” Throughout the day, he had used a word for Albania which translates directly as the motherland.
According to the latest figures, Albanians constitute about 92 percent of Kosovo’s population, a quarter of Macedonia’s, 5 percent of Montenegro’s, and about 60 percent of the Presheva Valley in Serbia. The 1913 border cut off the majority of mountain communities from their traditional market centers, isolating them and crippling their development. As a result, over the years many Albanians have left, seeking escape from discrimination and the chance of jobs in America and elsewhere in Europe.
This has left many smaller communities fearful that they will disappear. It is estimated that there is a diaspora of some 50,000 Albanians from Montenegro; only 31,000 remain inside the country. When I visited Arif and his family in Vuthaj, a village that lies in a magical setting in Plav and Guci, it was silent and empty. I asked him why he had not left like so many others. He just laughed and said, “To annoy my wife and the state.”
In Karaceva, a village in eastern Kosovo, no one is sure exactly where the border with Serbia is anymore, and there is a quiet sense of fear lacing all of my interviews. Since 1999 the border has been in dispute. Villagers believe that when NATO signed the Kumanovo Agreement with the Serbian army after the war of 1998-99, they used old maps. Everyone can point to a particular spot further up the valley where the line used to be. Now it has shifted perhaps a kilometer down the valley. A new slip road means that NATO and the Kosovo police don’t have to cross the contested line, but the Serbian gendarmerie is not so careful and is often seen in the village.
Here, an elderly man named Rexhep invites me for coffee on the porch of his house. His grandfather had died fighting the Serb invasion in 1912. Rexhep points to a distant line of green hills in Serbia and talks about the old border. It takes me a minute to realize he is referring to a very different line, the one demarcating the edge of the Ottoman Empire in 1912.
Alexandra Channer is a PhD candidate in political science.
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Left: Mehmet, on the Kosovo side of the border;
Arif and his family, "annoying the state" in Montenegro.