In Kosovo, 'map politics' sends letters astray
The names of Pristina's streets have changed at least three times in the past decade, as Serbs and Albanians vie to honor their heroes.
Alban Isufi has just received his first letter in three years. "I was very surprised to get it," says Mr. Isufi. "I didn't know people knew my new address."
It's not that Isufi has moved recently - in fact, he has lived in the same apartment for the past 16 years. But though he has stayed in the same place, his address keeps changing.
Since 1990, Pristina's streets have gone by at least three different sets of names, in the continuation of a centuries-old tug of war between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Both groups claim Kosovo as their homeland, arguing over who came to Kosovo first and to whom the province belongs. In a place with such deeply rooted cultures and identities, the names of its streets and public spaces act as signposts of who's in charge.
In the Yugoslavia of longtime leader Marshal Tito, the interests and aspirations of Yugoslavia's various ethnic groups were kept in balance. The streets of Pristina memorialized a mix of Albanian and Serbian writers and historical figures, as well as World War II partisans and communist heroes. But soon after Tito's 35-year rule ended in 1980, Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic began his rise to power, starting his campaign in Kosovo, where the Serb minority believed its rights were being thwarted by the ethnic Albanian majority. He took away Kosovo's limited autonomy and kicked Albanians out of state jobs. He also changed the names of the streets to honor heroes from Serbian history - medieval kings, priests, and saints.
"This was not accepted by the local population," says Burim Doci, an ethnic Albanian who today works in the Spatial Planning department of the Post and Telecommunications of Kosovo (PTK). "We used the new names only for official documents, like passport and identity papers; otherwise they wouldn't give [the documents] to you. But we still called the streets by their old names."
Milosevic's policies eventually led to a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo Albanians by the Serb Army. In 1999, Western intervention, culminating in a NATO bombing campaign, broke his grip on the province. The former Yugoslav president is now on trial in The Hague on war crimes and other charges.
As Albanian refugees streamed back home to Kosovo and Serb civilians fled, it was expected that the street names would change again. But instead of returning to their original appellations, the streets and plazas were designated with a new crop of Albanian heroes - recent war martyrs and Kosovo Liberation Army fighters.
"The naming of streets is rolled up in too much passion and history," says Dragan Smiljanic, one of the few remaining Serb residents of Pristina. "I understand the wish of Albanians and Serbs to put a high priority on it - a street is a place where you live; it is part of you. But each side does it without compromise."
The result? Ethnic Albanian Gani Baj- rami has a typical dilemma: "I have three addresses today, and I really don't know which one is valid."
Amid all the confusion, Pristina's residents routinely describe where they live through hand gestures and references to nearby landmarks such as mosques or cafes. Although the old street signs have long been torn down, many of the new names have yet to appear.
Mr. Smiljanic says street maps should not make political statements. "I say we should start doing like the Americans and giving streets uncontroversial names like 107th Street, or Rose Boulevard. These sorts of names are brilliant because they don't inflame anybody's passions or fears."
One street has been renamed for an American, though some might not find the choice uncontroversial. The main road leading into Pristina from the airport has shed its previous designations of King Peter the First Liberator Street and Vladimir Lenin Street to become Bill Clinton Boulevard.