Nathan Coley's A Place Beyond Belief in Pristina, Kosovo. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian Martin Godwin/Guardian
Tonight, for the first time in many years, I intend to participate in a Christmas Eve Mass celebrated in English, with maybe a German carol or two thrown in for good measure. For the past six or so years I have prayed and sung in French, either of the Québécois or, more recently, the Vietnamese variety. Before that, it might have been Latin, or Flemish, or, one notable year, Albanian. Interestingly, I wasn't in Albania for the last, or at least I wasn't on Christmas Eve. I was in Kosovo- Pristina, the capital, to be exact- and the year was 2002. 

That wasn't a good year to be in Kosovo, although it wasn't as bad as it had been either. Technically, the Kosovo War had ended, and the territory was under the transitional authority of the United Nations and governed by a NATO peacekeeping operation known as KFOR. With all due respect to the many Minnesota National Guard soldiers who served in Kosovo (so many that one of the coffee shops in Pristina was named 'Cafe Minneapolis'), 'governed' might be a bit of a stretch. The Independent International Commission on Kosovo would eventually conclude that the KFOR peacekeepers were reluctant and/or did not have the capability to prevent violence against ethnic minorities (mainly Serbs and Roma) and that Kosovo was ethnically cleansed of these populations after the international presence was established just as it had been cleansed of Albanian Kosovars during the war

Murder, arson, and sexual violence also doubled or tripled in the years following the NATO intervention, and it was estimated that Kosovo was supplying up to 40% of the heroin sold in Europe and parts of North America. Landmines and residual unexploded ordnance remained a problem, meaning that straying from the paved roads could be deadly and was strongly discouraged. Honestly, though, just about any form of travel in Kosovo was discouraged. The roads could be just as dangerous as the fields or ubiquitous piles of rubble given that Kosovar motorists generally refused to use headlights after dark in an effort to conserve battery power, which was a highly valued commodity because the municipal electric system had been damaged to the extent that power was cycled in two hour shifts- two hours on, two hours off.

Not on Christmas Eve, however, which gave the city a festive feeling that may have struck some as odd given that more than 80% of the native population was thought to be Muslim. That didn't keep anyone from celebrating Christ's birth though. As I made my way to the Catholic Church for Midnight Mass (in a dress and wearing steel toed boots, the only time I can ever remember that happening) I simply followed the crowds. Catholic and Muslim Albanians alike were going to celebrate Christmas that December 24th and 25th, a nationalistic act that was intended as a raised middle finger to the few Serbs (Orthodox Christians who followed the Julian calendar) that remained in the disputed territory.

This was long before the construction of the new Cathedral dedicated to Mother Theresa (an ethnic Albanian), and rather than a diocese Kosovo was structured as an Apostolic Administration. In other words, I was in true mission territory, although one where the emphasis was placed more on survival than conversion. And survival was clearly on everyone's minds as they entered the church. With so many weapons in the hands of civilians, and revenge killings and ethnic violence a daily occurrence, nothing was being left to chance. KFOR forces lined the streets to the Church, which was itself surrounded by tanks, soldiers, and other military vehicles. 

The crowd at Mass included many high and middle ranking KFOR officers in uniform, along with UN staff members, Muslim and Catholic dignitaries, a television crew, and, arriving late probably for security reasons, members of the Kosovo Assembly and of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), at least one of whom (according to my neighbor in the pew) was named in a sealed indictment in the Hague for war crimes. The scene was prevented from being surreal only by the familiar rituals of the Mass and of the nun sitting in the row ahead of us, who periodically turned to tell one of the teenagers around me to get rid of their chewing gum (the latter, even more than the former, proof that we really do have a universal church).

Unlike most of the others in the church that night, I wasn't actively involved in the ongoing dispute over Kosovo's independence and was, in fact, just passing through. Early the next morning I was heading back to Macedonia, where I planned to catch the very long, slow train to Slovenia via Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Looking at my old passport just now, the only record of this journey I could find is the stamp marking my entrance to Slovenia on 26-12-2002. Kosovo was disputed territory, Serbia still under sanctions, and Bosnia (and Međugorje) largely closed to tourists, so rather than permanent records of travel those in transit were given temporary 'travel permits' that were confiscated on departure (if not before). Besides this stamp and a few photos the only remaining evidence of my time in Kosovo is probably the form I completed earlier that afternoon at the US Mission Office (no consulate or embassy, of course), granting the American government permission to negotiate for my release in the event of my kidnapping or capture and specifying the number of days that the negotiations could continue as well as the dollar amount to be offered as ransom (this was 2002, and such things were still allowed).  

That form, and my responses to those questions, would stay in my mind as I continued my travels, as less than a month later (January of 2003) I would be in the now infamous cities of Aleppo and Homs, Syria. I will think of the people that I met there, as well as those I left behind in Pristina, as the petitions are read at Mass tonight, and will hope and pray that they too will find peace this Christmas season. 


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    Jennifer Haselberger is a canon lawyer who served as the Chancellor for Canonical Affairs in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis until April of 2013, when she resigned in protest of the Archdiocese's handling of sexual misconduct by clergy.

    To receive notice when a new post is added, follow @jmhaselberger.


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