From Refugee Camp To Concentration Camp: Escaping Conflict in Serbia and Kosovo

My adventures in Belgrade had to come to an end at some point, so when an NGO from the US arrived in town with more volunteer teachers than you could shake your flashcards at, I took it as my cue to pass the baton-like whiteboard marker and move on to the next chapter of my journey.

I said my goodbyes to the lovely friends I had made, especially my new housemates who had made living in Belgrade an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. Not that I would be allowed when they fill your camera with selfies!

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I caught a bus to Niš in Southern Serbia.

The goal was to get to Macedonia and spend a few weeks in the refugee camps there, but I had a few concerns. Volunteering in Macedonia had first appeared to be problematic a few months ago when this trip began. An organisation I contacted wanted me to present myself in person at the embassy in Dublin in order to process a visa to allow me to volunteer. Of course, that wasn’t possible and I’m not planning to go back to Dublin any time soon. It seemed a bit unusual considering none of the other organisations in Europe, even those outside the EU, required a visa.  I put it out of my mind at the time and decided that if it was an issue, I would just bypass Macedonia and move on to Greece.

In the days leading up to my departure I really noticed that there had been limited to no communication from charities and groups in Macedonia. I put it down to my having concentrated on France, Serbia and Greece mostly. Maybe I had neglected Macedonia a little. So, I gave myself a few days to discover a little more of the Balkans while I put a plan in place.

First stop, as I mentioned, was Niš. It’s a town in the south of Serbia with a bleak history of violence. This entire town was built around war, battle and conflict. I visited the skull tower, a structure built by the Ottomans from the skulls of rebel Serbs that they slaughtered. They skint their heads and sent some skulls, filled with cotton, as gifts to the Emperor as a reminder of his dominance in the region. The other skulls were used as ‘blocks’ in the walls of a tower constructed as a warning to remind others of the price of rebellion. Nice!

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Escaping the barbarism of the Ottomans, I went to visit a former WWII concentration camp. In a way, I wish I hadn’t. Stepping through the gates of the camp, I felt an instant chill.

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People weren’t gassed or incinerated here. They were transported to bigger camps elsewhere in Europe for that. This was mostly a holding camp for the socially unacceptable in Yugoslav society; the religious minorities, the politically ‘difficult’. Any deaths here were done by shooting when it was deemed necessary or happened during escape attempts. I’ve never been to Auschwitz or any of the well known camps scattered throughout Europe and I know now that I won’t ever go to them. There may not have been as many deaths here in Niš, but you could feel the ghosts of horrors past.

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This tiny little camp was one of three in the former Yugoslavia. The other two are hidden away and forgotten about in Belgrade. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between this camp and the refugee camps I had seen. I wondered if this might be what the military camps in Greece looked like. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

The heaviness of the concentration camp stayed with me as I walked to the city’s fortress. I love a good fortress. And this one was bigger than most of the others I’d visited in the Balkans and had a park within its walls. It almost made you forget that you were walking through a site that had been at the heart of wars through the Roman, Byzantine and Medieval eras and was more recently a site of torture under Bulgarian control.

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Battle-weary, I was ready to leave Serbia behind. Strange choice, then, to move on to Kosovo.

I loved it. Pristina is not like any other Balkan city. I was surprised to learn that they use the euro and that their Main Street was named Bill Clinton Boulevard. It was like a European neighbourhood in the US, with a few mosques thrown in for good measure. And it was so modern. Pristina reminded me that there are clothes in my backpack that are older than the State of Kosovo. I’m not joking. I have one top that is getting binned very soon for that simple reason.

I could have been anywhere in the world. Which is probably both a good and a bad thing, but after spending weeks volunteering with refugees and balancing that with my growing workload, I was quite happy to take some time to catch up with myself and take it easy in Pristina.

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I was lucky. The hostel I stayed in was probably one of the most chilled places in the world. I saw one other girl while I was there, but mostly it was just guys hanging out, drinking beers, eating group dinners (thanks Calum) and watching back to back episodes of Futurama. It reminded me of my student days and living in a flat with guys so relaxed they were almost horizontal. Fortunately, my stay was short enough for the relaxed attitudes to remain endearing.

Conversations were interesting and the guests were fascinating. There was a British journalist who was reporting on refugees and was able to fill in some blanks for me. There was the Aussie adventurist who was cycling a bmx around the world and shared his stories and photos of his journey through Iran and all the Stans, including getting locked up in Tajikistan (check out his blog here). There was the Norwegian/Scottish humanitarian who was living and working in Istanbul. There was the Peruvian who, well, was Peruvian. And then there were Beavis and Butthead, two live-in members of staff who laughed a lot and were the geniuses behind the Futuramathon. We were a diverse group, but we agreed on two things:

  1. Kosovo is pretty cool
  2. Monica Lewinsky probably performed the most important ‘job’ in recent Kosovan history.

The love for Bill Clinton here is undeniable. He’s got a Boulevard named after him. There’s a statue. He’s considered the father of Kosovan independence (Alongside Tony Blair whose name has become one of the most popular children’s names in Kosovo).

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But how humanitarian was Clinton’s involvement in liberating Kosovo? And how much of it was in his own self interests? After the Lewinsky scandal, poor old Bill had to repair his reputation somehow. He had to turn around the image of him portrayed in the global media. What better way to deflect attention from a sex scandal than to head up the political fight for freedom of the world’s most watched country in conflict.

So thanks Monica, from everyone in Kosovo!

(All joking aside, I’m actually an unapologetic huge fan of her and her activism in recent years, and think everyone who’s ever made a mistake should check out her amazing Ted Talks).

With the important topics discussed and settled, it was time to leave Pristina. So, saying goodbye to my new buddies and forsaking Futurama, I headed off to Prizren, one of Kosovo’s most beautiful towns. I was promised a fabulous fortress and a beautiful sunset. I wasn’t disappointed. If you love fortresses as much as I love fortresses, I would highly recommend a visit. It’s a nice little hike from the town, so wear your walking shoes. It’s well worth the climb.

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I spent four days in Kosovo and would have liked to visit some more places that were suggested along the way, but I had Macedonia on my mind. Throughout my visit, I still hadn’t received any responses to the messages I had sent to charities about volunteering and I was still perplexed. I wasn’t going to solve this mystery from Kosovo. So once more, I strapped on my backpack and I jumped on a bus, this time bound for Skopje, Macedonia.

7 Comment

  1. Beth says: Reply

    That’s left me hanging?! But a great read.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Haha… The good stuff is coming. Promise!!! 🙂

  2. Wow what an interesting trip you’re on! I have been fortunate to visit some of the places you mentioned, but only for like one day passing through – didn’t get to go nearly as into depth about history and stuff.
    And also, I listened to part of her talk and I agree – very powerful for anyone who’s ever made a mistake (i.e. everyone!). Thanks so much for sharing this! Safe travels! 🙂

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Ya, the poor girl. She could have had such a great life and career if it weren’t for a few silly choices.

  3. Haunting and beautiful, thank you for sharing such moving photos. I always like to glimpse places I will likely never see in person.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Never say never! Hopefully you’ll visit some day

  4. Sounds great! I’d love to see the former Yugoslav countries. And I love Monica Lewinsky too. That poor woman did something silly at 22 and it ruined her life.

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