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FROM KOSOVO TO SERBIA: NOT As Simple As It Seems

Nancy Phelps shares her ordeal of being denied passage into Serbia from Kosovo and being left on the side of a dusty road.

By Nancy Phelps

When I last left you I was on a bus from Pristina, Kosovo headed to Belgrade, Serbia where I was planning to meet my old friend Rastko Ciric and attend the first edition of the Festival of European Student Animation that he had organized.  It was supposed to be a six hour trip.   I knew that Serbia did not recognize Kosovo as a country and people travelling on a Kosovo passport could not cross this border but I had been assured that I would not have a problem since I was travelling on a United States passport.

As the bus approached the border crossing which was in the middle of nowhere, a Kosovo border guard collected our passports and then we waited while the guard disappeared into a small building with them.  I always have a bit of a sinking feeling whenever I see my passport vanish into an official building, but after a few minutes the guard reboarded our bus, passports in hand.

Next our bus crawled to the Serbian border where our passports were collec, this time by a Serbian guard.  We were all ordered off the bus and told to bring our luggage and all personal possessions with us.  After our luggage, handbags and the bus were thoroughly searched, we were ordered back onto the bus.

The guard boarded the bus, passports in hand.  I had made it to Serbia, or so I thought!  He walked straight to my seat and told me to get my luggage and follow him.  When we reached the building an official was frowning down at my passport and pointing at the Kosovo entry stamp.  He informed me very politely that he was very sorry but he could not allow me to cross the border.  It didn’t make any difference what I said or that I had a plane ticket with me to fly out of Belgrade to China in a few days.  My pleas fell on deaf ears. All he would say was that I could not cross that border.  When I asked how I was supposed to get back to town he just shrugged his shoulders.

I watched my bus recede into the distance and then I turned and headed back to the Kosovo border station where my passport was stamped with another entry visa.  When I asked the guard where I could catch the bus back to town he said “No bus, no taxi”.

The Kosovo/Serbian border

There was nothing else to do but to set off back down the dusty highway in the direction I had just come from in the boiling 40 degree Centigrade (over 100 degree) heat trailing my suitcase behind me.  Two kilometres (about a mile and a half) down the road I came upon an umbrella with four chairs under it and a young man with a cooler of very cold beer.  What a very welcome sight on the roadside indeed.

As bothersome as being thrown off the bus was, I knew that the festival was not going to leave me sitting by the side of the road so it was now time to call Fiona Beqiti, director of guest services for Anibar.  While I was talking to Fiona the young man said to me in English “Don’t worry my uncle will drive you back to town”.

After a conversation between Fiona and the young man everything was settled for the ride back.  After another round of phone calls between Fiona and me, she assured me that if I retraced my steps to Pristina and then took a bus across Macedonia I would be able to cross into Serbia at the Macedonian/Serbian border.

I had been very worried about how much my two hour drive back to town was going to cost but Fiona and uncle had settled on a 25 Euro price.  25 Euros is a lot of money in Kosovo but for me it was money well spent; besides, I wasn’t in any position to quibble about the price.

Although uncle didn’t speak much English he was very nice.  He not only delivered me to the station but also carried my suitcase inside and made sure that I bought the correct bus ticket.

I enjoyed looking out the bus window at the landscape as I crossed Kosovo, and the Macedonian countryside was lovely with small villages nestled in the rolling hills.  Through both countries the buses stopped at cafes every two hours for a 15 minute rest stop, which seemed to make the hours fly by.

All along the way, through numerous bus changes, people were so helpful, making sure that I transferred onto the correct buses and sharing food and drink with me.  One thing my travel disasters always remind me is that there are good people everywhere that are willing to help you.  It never ceases to amaze me how well people can understand each other even if they don’t speak the same language if they try hard enough.

I felt great trepidation as the bus approached the Serbian border.  It was dark and I was trying to watch out the window for any place on the Macedonian side that I could walk back to for help if I was refused admittance to Serbia again.  For a second time my passport disappeared into the Serbian border control office but we weren’t ask to get off the bus and no one searched our luggage.

I heaved a big sigh of relief when my passport was finally handed back to me with a Serbian entry stamp in it.  The bus rolled across the border to begin our long trip to Belgrade which was very uneventful except that there was no toilet on the bus or rest stops during the 7 ½ hour trip.

I finally arrived in Belgrade at 4:30 in the morning and it was so wonderful to see Rastko there waiting for me.  After giving him a big hug all I could say was “I need a toilet desperately”.

Not only did Rastko meet me in the middle of the night, but when we got to his house he had a bottle of red wine and all sorts of goodies to nibble waiting for me. Sitting in Rastko’s kitchen, catching up on all the news since we had last seen each other, my 19 hour bus trip became a distant memory as the sun rose on a new day.

My account of the Festival of European Student Animation will follow soon . . .

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Nancy Phelps has produced music for animation for the past 16 years. She has written about animation and animation festivals for such publications as Animatoons, Film/Tape World, Reel World andthe ASIFA/San Francisco news magazine and is a member of the ASIFAInternational Board. In 2006, Nancy and her composer/musician husband Nik Phelps moved from San Francisco to Gent, Belgium, where they now have their home. Check out her blog here.