Paving the way: A Kosovo hero's path from rebel to road-builder
Fatmir Limaj builds hope with new roads.
There aren't many places in Europe where a minister of transport is a national hero whose name is sung in folk songs.Skip to next paragraph
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But Kosovo is not an ordinary place. The country, a year old last month, is where Fatmir Limaj is succeeding at a job everyone else here has failed at: building roads.
Mr. Limaj is in many ways a Kosovo story. In 1998, he took up the gun as a rebel leader, won the first real Kosovo Liberation Army battle against Serbs, and became known as "Commander Steel." He was arrested and later acquitted at The Hague for war crimes. Today, he wears dark suits and patent leather shoes, and cuts ribbons – and deals – over fresh concrete and macadam.
In 2007, when Limaj became transport minister, only five miles of four-lane highway existed in Kosovo. Last year, he built eight miles, instituted 24-hour work sites, and is now overseeing the construction of eight additional miles of four-lane roadway.
Kosovars love it. Limaj views the transport ministry almost as a personal ministry, a calling to build a country. He's read Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope," and seems to offer a "Yes, we can" message to cynical Kosovars weary of unmet promises and muddy roads. With rebel credentials in the majority-Albanian society, Limaj has knocked heads, found consensus with contractors, and mobilized a workforce. He regularly drops in on sites at midnight or later. Last year, a TV crew filmed him directing work at 3 a.m., showing the country that change was indeed under way.
"I'm restless by nature, just ask my wife," he says. "Building a country was a dream of my generation. Now, I'm living that dream, but there's a lot to do.
"Our people are hard workers, but they need a good manager to channel their energy."
Upgrading donkey paths to modern highways
An executive from a Western nongovernmental organization, who has lived in Kosovo for several years, describes Limaj as "one of the good ones.... His methods aren't typical, but they are practical, and probably what Kosovo needs right now."
Roads in this agricultural society have been so haphazard and poor that travelers from northern Europe routinely got lost, even in recent years. A 21st-century road infrastructure means development. Yet a decade after NATO intervened, and despite a highway budget, little was done. Village roads remained primitive, unpaved, and a nightmare in winter. The main "highway" from the airport to Pristina was two-laned, donkey-laden, and potholed.
Yet last year, Limaj's ministry paved or repaved nearly 500 miles of highway – adopting a strategy of connecting villages with one another and with key arteries.
"It was so much road that we all started to wonder why it hadn't happened before," says Artan Mustafa, political editor at the Express newspaper. "Obviously, one reason is because Limaj has power. No one can say to [Commander Steel] that the road won't go through here or there. He tells you, you don't tell him."
Speaking in his office near the new parliament building, Limaj explains his passion for his homeland. "I feel that 24 hours a day. It was a dream of my youth, to have a free country," he says. "If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that freedom was impossible. But God gave us the opportunity."
Fall of Wall a test of patience
Limaj's own story began when he was a student leader in the early 1990s. The Berlin Wall had fallen, but Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic had revoked Kosovo's special status in Yugoslavia. The Albanian, 90 percent of the population, lived a second-class existence under brutal police-state repression – checkpoints, arbitrary killing, torture – as Serbs revived a deeply felt national myth of Kosovo as their spiritual heartland, something disallowed under Yugoslavia's longtime leader, Marshal Tito.