Pristina's Postwar Boom

Pristina is enjoying a new lease of life almost a year after it was turned into a ghost town.

Pristina's Postwar Boom

Pristina is enjoying a new lease of life almost a year after it was turned into a ghost town.

Happy youngsters clambered over cars, waved Albanian flags and thronged the streets on Thursday evening, March 16, in celebration of the Islamic feast of Bajram.

"Last year we couldn't celebrate because the bombing had started," said an old man wiping tears of joy from his eyes. "We are free now from 'shkiet' (Serbs)."

Almost a year after a NATO bombs rained down on Kosovo, liberating the province from Milosevic's clutches, Albanians are relishing their new found freedom.

Over the last year lives have been transformed. People have taken advantage of opportunities previous denied them.

Most Albanians were fired from state-owned enterprises and institutions in the years leading up to last year's conflict, now thousands of them have got jobs back. The sense of pride often compensating for the low salaries paid them by the international authorities running the province.

Many though have found more lucrative work with the numerous international institutions based in Pristina, enabling them to enjoy a relatively high standard of living.

"I have prospects now, unlike under the Milosevic regime," says Fatma, a young economics student. "Before I could only apply to private Albanian companies for work. Things have changed an now. When I graduate I don't think I will be unemployed."

Around the capital business appears to be prospering, mainly because imported goods have yet to be taxed. The result is that you can find anything you want in the shops.

"Before we had to bribe or rely on Serb connections to import goods, " said one shop keeper. "Now we bring them in from anywhere and don't even pay taxes."

Even street traders are enjoying something of a boom. " If you don't have a regular job you can still make a living by going out in the street to sell small things Albanians love to buy - jewellery, sunglasses, make-up products, cheap CDs or books," said Agim a middle-aged man selling books from his car near Pristina's main hotel.

Bujar, a newspaper seller at the Café Monaco, says business has never been better. "I'm doing well because there are so many foreigners - but Albanians are regular customers too, " he said. " Before I sold only local weeklies and monthlies because it was not safe to been seen with international dailies critical of Milosevic. That's not a problem anymore."

With so much seemingly going right at the moment, few care to dwell on their problems. After a little prompting though, people soon complain.

One bugbear is something they say they never experienced in the past - the power cut. People are without electricity for many hours a day. The buzz of small generators can be heard in the shops and offices across the city.

Pristina's pot-holed streets, long neglected by Belgrade, are also constant source of complaint. So too is traffic congestion. Cars of every kind, from as far a field as Switzerland and Germany, cram the streets. This and the absence of working traffic lights make driving hazardous.

Security is the greatest preoccupations. Youngsters fill the local bars at night and walk home late. But girls say they would never do so unless accompanied by male friends. And while kidnapping cases may have decreased recently, prostitution continues to flourish, not least because of the high number of foreigners in the capital.

The teeming coffee bars and fast food outlets give the impression that life is returning to normal, but the occasional shooting provides constant reminders of the tensions simmering under the surface.

"Pristina's a lawless place, " said one young Albanian. " We have a police force but what do they do to prevent crime? They fine crazy drivers - but we've heard that only 40 have paid fines in the last month. They keep detainees for 72 hours and free them , even if they're murder suspects."

People say they are also worried about the troubles in northern Mitrovica and "eastern Kosovo" and the 2,000 Albanians languishing in Serbian jails.

But despite all these problems, no Albanian ever imagines they could live with the Serbs again. That will make life very difficult for the international community as it attempts to promote co-existence in post-war Kosovo.

Llazar Semini is IWPR's Project Manager in Pristina.

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