X’s and O’s from Kosovo

Darren D'Altorio

America, you are loved.

It’s touching, really, to walk down the street in Kosovo called Bill Clinton Boulevard and stare at the four-story photograph of Mr. Clinton plastered to the side of an apartment building. Some family gets to look out the window to the right and see Bill’s oversized nostril reminding them they are now part of a free nation.

This is just one instance of the symbolism I’ve encountered during my time in Kosovo that illustrates an immense adoration of Americans by the Kosovars. Other instances include hugs from strangers at pizza shops at 3 a.m., the reality that more American flags are flying here than Kosovo flags, the ridiculous amounts of free alcohol I’ve been given by bartenders and the fact that this country may be the only place in the world where the people celebrate George Bush’s presidency.

It’s mystifying. It’s sort of flattering. Above all, it’s confusing.

It’s all rooted in Mr. Clinton’s support of sending NATO into Kosovo in 1999 to execute a massive bombing campaign to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s attempt to pummel ethnic Albanians in Kosovo into submission. Other politicians – Tom Lantos, Joe DioGuardi, Bob Dole, Joe Biden – helped to raise awareness for Kosovo in Congress, too, and they are also celebrated like royalty here.

That was 10 years ago. But the demolished houses that eerily decorate streets in every city throughout the country serve as constant reminders of a past not so easily forgotten. Somewhere near every one of those skeletal structures is a poster that depicts smiling faces and reads “Thank you, USA.” It’s like Yin and Yang.

As an American, it’s hard for me to accept the compliments. I feel like an unethical traveler, receiving undue praise from people who see me as the representation of an image, a living testament to the land of the free.

I can understand the mindset to a certain extent. The people here, who are a majority ethnic Albanian, are thankful for America’s support when they needed it. But I’m afraid under the thanks is a notion of indebtedness. And some of the hawk-like capitalists who thrive in America have relocated to Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, to chomp the bit to a little nub.

Truthfully, Kosovo could not support itself without the aid of international organizations. Nearly every office building throughout Pristina is adorned with alphabet soup – OSCE, UNMIK, UNICEF, USAID, EULEX . it goes on and on. The problem with this is the mission statements of these organizations sound great, but the fundamental practices of them are questionable.

I have a source who works in Kosovo’s Ministry of Finance and Economy as the adviser to the minister. She knows the financial framework of this country like Ron Jeremy knows his way around a porn set. Because of the nature of the information she has given me, and her connections to government officials here, she will be known as the “girl with the golden bangs.”

She tells me international organizations hire American consultants to help establish businesses in Kosovo, offering their precious advice for the price of _800 to 1,000 a day. Mind you, the average monthly income for Kosovars is around _250. After their work is done, these consultants leave the country, taking all the accumulated wealth with them. It doesn’t help the economy here. It’s a fa‡ade. Americans aren’t the only people involved in this practice. But the “girl with the golden bangs” said there sure are a lot of them involved.

Beyond that, Kosovo’s government just donated five hectares (50,000 square meters) of land for the construction of a new U.S. embassy. The “donation” of that amount of land was met with some questioning, as it could have been used for other more economically sound purposes, local critics said.

What tears me apart most about Kosovo is that it’s a “newborn” country with the ability to progress on its own path. Instead, it’s being exploited in many ways by foreign entities with selfish interests. And the people here are blinded by an image, a belief that they know what America is from television and the Internet. They are aspiring to live with that image as a role model.

I want to say to the people here, “Stop. Don’t follow our footsteps completely. Don’t let America be your role model; a degenerate older brother who appears together but is ravished on the inside.” But I leave it at, “America isn’t as perfect as you think – there is crime, poverty and corruption that exceed even the worst cases here.”

And I don’t feel guilty for saying that because it’s true.

America is an admirable place for many reasons, but it hides its faults like baggy clothes hide new fat rolls during the depths of winter.

Darren D’Altorio is a senior newspaper journalism major and a columnist for the Summer Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].