Nis, Serbia – It was a travel day, so I arrived at the railway station at 9am to load up on snacks. Peanuts, snickers, coke, and a loaf bread. I’d been to Serbia once already—exactly a month before—but had only visited the north. This visit would be very different. I wanted to see “Old Serbia.” The southern territory known throughout Serbia by this name is the spiritual heart of the Serbian nation and the setting for much of its early history. In the rest of world, we know it as Kosovo…
It was a long hot trudge from Bulgaria to Serbia. For hours our train crawled up the Sofia Valley, a warm depression south of the Balkan range. Around noon we crossed the Serbian border and the valley began to ripple with hills. The slopes steepened and crept in toward the tracks, and eventually the train was swallowed in the mouth of deep gorge. Sicevo Gorge is cut by a series of rough-hewn tunnels, dusty and unlit—the locomotive equivalent of a crawlspace. At each tunnel the carriage was blotted out in total darkness. Wind whipped through the car, the scent of oil mixed with damp flinty rock, and children hooted from the windows. Each time, I would clench my wallet in the dark, and feel silly afterward when sunlight flooded the empty car.
Not long after emerging from the gorge my train arrived at its destination. Nis (Nish) is Serbia’s third largest city and an important industrial center, but it’s also full of historical significance. Like Istanbul, Sarajevo, and countless other cities of Eastern Europe, Nis was once widely considered a meeting point of “East and West.” Around 272 A.D. it was the birthplace of Flavius Valerius Constantinus, who would later be known as Constantine the Great. As emperor of Rome, he is credited with converting the empire to Christianity and reorienting it to the east, with a new capitol at Byzantium (Istanbul).
I was only passing through Nis, but I had a few hours to kill and there was something I wanted to see. I hired a taxi and handed my driver a piece of paper. On it were the words “Cele Kula,” which I had copied carefully from a guide book.
* * * *
The taxi came to a pretty green garden where a crème-colored mausoleum sat shaded beneath trees. At the entrance a young woman prompted me to buy a ticket then walked me to the building. With a large key she unlocked the front door, and as it creaked open I glimpsed a gnarly mud heap and the open eyes of a human skull.
In 1809, Nis was the site of a famously violent battle. As the 19th century opened, political unrest was rippling through Serbia and other provinces of the moribund Ottoman Empire. Amidst a broad national awaking the people of the Balkans agitated for independence, and within a generation they would get it. But in the meantime, the Serbs suffered lots of brutal defeats. One of them occurred in Nis when an army of ten thousand Serbs was crushed by twice as many Ottoman soldiers. The battle is remembered for the nobility of a Serbian commander who, facing defeat, detonated his own ammunition reserves, killing himself along with scores of Ottomans.
But the victorious Ottomans were equally capable of great theatrics, and wary of the power of such legendary events they produced an even more extraordinary spectacle. After the battle, the heads of the fallen Serbian soldiers were removed and 952 skulls were mashed into a grotesque tower of mud brick. The ominous Cele Kula—“Skull Tower”—was constructed on the road to Constantinople as a warning to the Serbs of the punishment they would face for insurrection. The Cele Kula still stands today, although now it’s enclosed in a sort of mausoleum.
The tower is a gruesome thing. Jarring empty sockets peek out from skulls, terror-filled and expressionless. Other parts of the bleached mud heap bear a rash of pockmarks—the bulbous imprints of skulls gone missing, which give the tower an organic quality. The whole thing is a mesmerizing distortion of humanity; it’s a testament to inhumanity.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the first tower of skulls I’d seen, nor the last. I’d seen something similar a few years before at the Killing Fields Museum in Cambodia. That tower stands as a record of the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. In Delhi, India I saw the Chor Minar, one of multiple skull towers throughout the country. Like those towers, Serbia’s Cele Kula was preserved by a society which rejected the atrocities they represented. The Cele Kula in Nis was preserved so Serbs wouldn’t forget the wrongs they had suffered; for that reason, it was an appropriate stop on the road to Kosovo.
I caught an evening bus south and dozed off as we passed through Kosovo’s vineyards, hills made violet by the fading sun. Eventually we reached a line of trucks leading up to a military checkpoint. A soldier hopped aboard to check our IDs and soon were off again, cruising downhill into the small territory of Kosovo.
* * * *
Pristina is Kosovo’s awkward capitol city. It has old Ottoman lanes, aging hamams and mosques, as well as a modern center, rebuilt after the 1999 Kosovo War. At one end of the city’s main major artery—Bill Klinton Boulevard [sic]—a large bronze sculpture of the former U.S. President waves to an empty sidewalk. Since the end of the war, the popularity of the 42nd president has rocketed.
Photo: The Clinton status in Pristina. The graffiti behind him reads something like “No Negotiation. Self-determination!”
I stayed on a couple nights in Pristina before heading to Prizren, a city not far from the Macedonian border. There I found a family to host me for several days. The night I arrived was the night of the women’s soccer World Cup final. I was excited, and since the U.S. was competing my host asked his teenage son to take me into town to watch the match on TV. Imbrahim took me the long way—stopping often to show me off to his friends. It was a perfect summer night so I didn’t mind. In Prizren’s small downtown we dropped in at a café to buy a quart of delicious boza (juice made from fermented corn or wheat) and lugged the heavy drink around the corner to a small bar.
Inside, a barman stood behind a counter that held no liquor. Three bulky TV monitors affixed to the ceiling flickered with indiscernible 8-bit text on black screens. And a handful of small tables and chairs left the room feeling empty. Something else was different too. Seven or eight people lounged about the place, balanced on chairs or standing on tables–they were all children under fourteen.
Ibrahim pointed me to a chair and went over to ask the barman to call up my channel. A skinny ten-year-old kid sat down with me. “America,” he said.
“Yup,” I replied, inferring that he didn’t speak English. When traveling for long periods in countries where you don’t speak the language, you learn to rely a lot on unspoken gestures you might never use back home. I’d taken to winking, and so I winked.
Ibrahim came over with some cups and poured the boza. The kids began to gather around and chatter.
I found myself wondering what sort of odd bar this was. For starters, it didn’t sell liquor. One TV was running odds, and the other was playing a football match. As it turned out, the place was not a bar but a casino. Barca, Tottenham, Man U. The kids placed bets of a dollar or two on this or that game, spending some unknown allowance, and the barman ran the bets. I sat and scanned the place, feeling like an outsider amongst Lost Boys.
A chubby older kid of about fourteen with badly chapped lips sat down beside me. He spoke clear English and said there were 47 casinos in Prizren. I said that I thought that was pretty remarkable for a town of 180,000. He gestured at the other kids and frowned.
“Bad kids,” he said. “I go school. They don’t go school.”
One boy had spilled a handful of coins on the floor. He looked about ten, with a big smile and lots of energy. He was a handsome kid, but very filthy. As he collected the coins I asked Chapped Lips about him.
“Dirty,” he said. I said I could see that. “Mom is trouble. Trouble in town.” He smiled and licked his chapped lips. (I figured this must be his nonverbal.) The dirty blond kid picked up the coins and when he looked I nodded.
An American flag flickered across the screen and I shouted, calling over the barman. He handed me a small paper chit to fill out, and I gave him some coins—a respectable two-dollar bet on my U.S. team. Several of the kids followed suit.
“One-zero,” said Chapped Lips with a grin. “America,” he added, and I high-fived him.
The TV flickered, the Lost Boys chattered, and the barman stood close squinting at the screen. I took a long drink of boza and the game began. Then the kids fell silent.
I cheered a little support for the U.S. team and turned to the group, but the Lost Boys were all frowning. “What’s up guys,” I said. “Get into it. This is great.” Even after a year living in Europe I’m still that American who gets excited to watch soccer with people who actually cared about the sport. These kids clearly loved soccer, but they looked puzzled.
There were murmurs. They chattered earnestly amongst themselves, chattered with Ibrahim, and chattered with the barman. The barman shrugged and walked back to his empty bar. The kids scattered, giggling.
Ibrahim turned to me. “This is not football.” A dismissive hand wave toward the TV. “Girls,” he said. In Kosovo, he explained, “girls don’t play soccer.” It was women’s soccer, and they didn’t get it.
But I hunkered down to watch, and eventually they came around. A score was made and gradually the kids came back.
“Oh, so now chics can kick,” I asked Imbrahim, using words I knew he wouldn’t understand.
Bets were placed, boza was poured, and the room filled with cheers of “America!” Hours later when the U.S. had lost, I shuffled Ibrahim toward the door and waved to Chapped Lips as we left.
Outside, I asked Ibrahim for the scoop on the kids. Where they’re from, where they get the money they bet, whether they are his friends? He said they were not.
“Did you see I did not shake hands with the dirty boy,” Ibrahim asked. I had not. “He is bad. His mom is on the streets, always with men. She gives him money, keep busy. I will not shake his hand when the others can see.”
I glanced back down the dark alley at the warm light from the bar window. I thought about the happy blond kid inside, betting away his mom’s money, and tried to infer from this information whether his mother cared about him at all. It was hopeless. I changed the subject and we walked home.
Photo: Prizren’s Sinan Pasha Mosque, built in 1615.