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Pristina, a city densely populated by locals, wannabe-locals and internationals, recently marked its thirteenth anniversary of liberation from Serbian forces. But has that occupation not just been replaced by another, albeit less murderous, version?
Many remember the date of liberation, June 11, 1999, as the moment when urban and cultural life of the majority Albanian population returned to the city. This came after nearly a decade of segregation and discrimination from public institutions within the city.
This was a date which launched the clash of urban and rural values.
This is also the date when Pristina started to lose its Serbian population, who nowadays resides mainly in the outskirts of the capital.
Pristina, a city which has served as the crossroads for many conquering civilisations, has always struggled to preserve its identity and roots, dating back to ancient times. The struggle, of course, was and is directly linked to the community spirit within the city. There have been two factors in particular which have had a major impact on the extinction of many landmarks.
The first destructive factor relates to the Yugoslav regime of 1940s and 1950s, when most of the Ottoman heritage of the city was forsaken for concrete. This attempt to modernise led to the loss of most of the Old Carshia (bazaar). In addition, the mosques and churches located in today's Mother Theresa square were also sacrificed for the sake of implanting the socialist spirit among the citizens of the capital of the then-province.
With the change of regime in 1999, Pristina regained the spirit of a city. The capital opened itself to cultural life, albeit a modest one, and it very soon became a vibrant place, with a bustling nightlife and one of the best macchiatos in the world. But, this change also brought about the second destructive factor in the city.
Eager to leave behind every trace of the Yugoslav era, Pristina laid waste to its former identity. Many landmarks in the city have been subjected to a new generation of capitalist "modernisation", complete with shiny glass windows stubbornly hiding the concrete of the Yugoslav era. Newly constructed "skyscrapers" started to pop everywhere like mushrooms and successfully contributed to the urban genocide that had started since 1940s.
There are two buildings with unresolved statuses that have, and will, play a key role in the battle to preserve the city.
The first is the unfinished Orthodox Church, next to the National Library of Kosovo.
Construction started in 1995 and is deemed by many as illegal purely because it was erected on the university property under the orders of the leadership in Belgrade. The church was meant to be the biggest in Kosovo. For the Albanian citizens of Pristina, it became a glaring symbol of Serb occupation and oppression. Post-war attempts to destroy it have, thankfully, been unsuccessful. Once protected by KFOR peacekeepers, it remains unfinished today, awaiting a decision on its fate.
One of the ideas put forward has been to turn it into an art gallery while preserving all of its architectural elements. Considering its illegal construction and what it symbolises for Albanians, this would be a rational approach to its fate.
However, this proposal could still prove rather unacceptable for the Albanian population in Pristina, many of whom naively argue that anything pre-1999 should have no place in the capital. An example of this is the Hotel Union, opposite the Kosovo Government. Built in 1920 with a stunning Austro-Hungarian look, the hotel is one of the few buildings of this architecture in the city.
In 2008, the local authorities of the city decided that it held no real value and should be demolished to open the way for a new boulevard.
A petition was signed to preserve the building, but soon after it "accidentally" caught fire. This was a triumph for the ignorant locals, who were determined to ruin what was very dear to the others.
Pristina marked its anniversary of liberation last week by celebrating the fact that life had returned to the city. But, today it seems to suffer from provincialism, ignorance and a selfish mentality.
Today, the Orthodox Church may no longer symbolise occupation.
But the ruins of Hotel Union are a striking example of a new occupier who has settled in the city.
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