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Wednesday, 20 October, 1999, 10:35 GMT
Feelings run high in post-war Kosovo
street with cars and buildings mountains and sky There is an almost palpable feeling of joie de vivre in the main street of Pristina of an evening

By Chris West

As I scuffed along the dusty, litter-strewn street heading south out of Pristina, I reflected on the offer I'd made after a bottle of wine in a restaurant just off Oxford Street a couple of weeks earlier.

I was on my way to Kosovo - it turned out that Besim, the affable young waiter, was born there - so, as you do, I promised I'd drop in and see his mother.

Kosovo: Special Report
Thus I found myself in a city only just teetering back from the edge of the abyss. I walked past one monolithic block of flats after another, amid a sea of raucous hustlers pushing pirated tapes, CDs, mobile phones, and the ubiquitous mountains of cigarettes.

I was looking for the Ulpiana estate, block C12, entrance 2, Flat number 15 - this is what passed for an address in Tito's long-gone Yugoslavia.

Besim's mother

Even after 25 years of knocking on people's doors, welcome or not, I have a very British sense of unease about calling on someone unannounced - I need not have worried.

Besim's mother Ermine opened the front door, and as I explained myself, her face radiated with a smile that almost filled the doorway, and her eyes grew moist as she enveloped me in a mother's hug.

She propelled me through the polished hallway, and into the living room. Out came sticky sweet coffee, a glass of sharp drinking yoghurt, a bunch of freshly-washed Muscat grapes, and a slice of pie - warm, fragrant leeks baked in layers of filo pastry.

How is Besim?

As I tucked in, she drew up a chair, and stared at me intently across the coffee table. So, how is my Besim, tell me everything.

I told her what I could - that he seemed happy and healthy enough, and he seemed to enjoy his job - and oh yes, he did say he'd like to come back to Kosovo one day.

At that point, Ermine's eyes fixed on a distant point far beyond me, and once again her eyes brightened and her cheeks flushed.

She didn't need to speak, I knew what she was thinking - she had not seen her only son for seven years. He was a qualified vet, but as an Albanian, he wasn't allowed to practise, so he left his home, to serve pizzas in a far-off country.

She had never seen her grand-daughter, born in England two years ago, but what was there in Kosovo for them to come back to?

Living in fear

man holding and pointing rifle on top of building Police: more frightened and upredictable by the day
She spoke of the years since he left, and of the final months before Nato and the UN arrived.

On the lower floors of her block, where police were billeted, heavily armed men were becoming more frightened and unpredictable by the day.

"We didn't leave our apartment for three months," Ermine said. "No one's telephone worked. It was impossible to call your neighbours to check whether they were alive - and always the fear that one day or night, the rifle butts would smash through the front door."

She told me she could still hear, even smell, the bullets when she tried to sleep.

Joie de vivre

I struggled to relate some of the positive moments I'd experienced - the crowds of Albanian students packing themselves into the reading rooms of the university library, recently reopened after nine years as a Serbian barracks.

The dean of the teaching faculty at Pristina hospital, beaming as he sat once more behind his grand oak desk, from which he'd been evicted nine years previously.

We spoke of the restaurants and pavement cafes bustling with business - conspiratorial groups of coffee-drinkers taking advantage of the warm late autumn evenings - almost oblivious to the burned-out shells of shops behind them - and the almost palpable feeling of joie de vivre in the main street of Pristina of an evening.

It seems that every young person in the capital is out to strut their stuff on the mile-long strip between the former government headquarters and the so-called Grand Hotel.

During those few hours, all motor vehicles are banned - the people are making a point of reclaiming the street. There is a cacophony of music from the makeshift record stalls - traditional Balkan tunes in a doleful minor key clash with Albanian techno, and pretty young girls flirt outrageously, even with middle-aged onlookers like me.

Getting better

So there were some rays of sunshine through the post-war gloom - Ermine smiled a smile that told me I didn't know the half of it - but yes, she agreed, things were getting better, if only slowly.

It was time to leave - as we hugged in the hallway, Besim's mother pressed a package into my hand - the unmistakably seductive smell of leek pie wafted up.

Ermine began to walk down the stairs with me - I protested that five flights down and back was too much for her, but she wouldn't hear a word.

"I'd like to walk with you out on to the street," she said, "because now I can."

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13 Oct 99 |  Europe
UN chief makes first Kosovo visit

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