Kiwi’s Kosovo stint comes to an end

by Jake Quinn

Me at work, at UNMIK's Office of the Spokesperson and Public Information

My 7 months in Kosovo have come to an end and with UK airport conditions permitting, I will be flying back to New Zealand arriving Christmas Eve.  Living here through summer, autumn and the first month of winter has been great and 2010 has been one hell of a year for me. Since June I’ve been a United Nations Volunteer (UNV) with the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), where I worked as a Public Information Officer with much of that time as Acting Mission Spokesperson. I edited local newspaper translations,  monitored and reported on media developments, briefed the press, drafted media response lines, made a daily news radio show and  drank delicious, reasonably priced Macchiatos Kosovo style.

I gorged on delicious Albanian (such as tender beef on rice with tasty cabbage and beetroot salad) and Serbian (pork medallions wrapped in bacon, tender chicken stuffed with white cheese and ham, or home made cornbread ‘proja’ with fresh ajvar) cuisine, most of which was washed down with fresh local beer (Kosovo’s pilsner, Peja or one of Serbia’s fine drops, Jelan Pivo) and the occasional nip of rakia (a strong white spirit often made by monks in the Monasteries). The weather has been hugely varied; in July and August it neared 40 degrees, while last night it was -12 and the snow had frozen to the ground making driving, walking or even standing up hazardous. The traffic was always terrible.

View of the glorious Grand Hotel Prishtina, through an UNMIK carpark

Overall, being here has been a very rewarding experience. I learned a great deal about the Balkans and its recent conflicts, the workings of UN and EU missions and what life is like for people ‘on the ground’ in this unique part of the world with its so recent and bloody past. Travelling regionally exposed me to a range of cultures and climates. Highlights included weekend excursions to Istanbul, Sarajevo, Lake Ohrid, Thessaloníki and Belgrade, not to mention frequent explorations within Kosovo’s at times gorgeous, and at times stark, south (largely populated by Albanians) and the divided and equally beautiful north (largely populated by Serbs). I came here with some uninformed opinions about this place and the people and groups who occupy it and hope to have left with some rather more mature ones.

The statue of US President Clinton in Pristina. Clinton and Blair are much loved by Kosovo Albanians for leading NATO bombings against the Serbs. In background the self-determination movement's slogan "No Negotiations" (with Serbia) is seen.

As I said, I was deployed to Kosovo as a UN Volunteer to the Peacekeeping (DPKO) part of the UN’s presence in Kosovo, not the agency part (Which includes UNDP, UNICEF, UN HABITAT, UNOPS etc). The UNV program, actually administered by UNDP (the UN Development Program) is an interesting one. On the one hand, some participants view it as ‘cheap labour’ as Volunteers are paid a living allowance which equates to a reasonable grad salary back home, but is much less than the salaries of professional international staff often doing similar jobs, whereas others see it as a chance to give something back to the global community through the ‘spirit of volunteerism’, while hopefully building capacity amongst local institutions and other volunteer organisations. I subscribe to neither view wholeheartedly. In a Peacekeeping context, such as the one I worked in, interaction with other volunteer organisations is minimal if not non-existant, which is not necessarily the case if your UNV post is within an agency.

For me, only through the UNV system would I have had the opportunity to have worked in Kosovo, to have been a UN Spokesperson (at this stage in my career), and to have explored this amazing part of Europe, all without going through a lengthy recruitment procedure. You see, the UN has a stringent recruitment system for its fully fledged professional staff. It often takes a year or more from advertisement and application to appointment. The UNV system however, is more nimble and can see Volunteers recruited in mere weeks (naturally this has its pros and cons). This also makes it attractive for hiring-managers as posts can be filled much faster than would otherwise be the case. Anyway, suffice to say I was immensely pleased with what I got out of my time as a UN Volunteer, the quite surprising opportunities that were afforded to me during this time, and the support I got from friends and colleagues. Pleasingly, the mission also seemed happy with the contribution they got from me.

The NEWBORN scuplture was installed just ahead of Kosovo's declaration of independence on February 17, 2008. It became the focal point for celebrations in the capital city.

To conclude, I would highly recommend the UNV program and the notion of living and working in Kosovo – a duty station that when compared to many others is positively luxurious (think about living in a container in the Sudan…). But I would also premise this by saying that being a UNV is not something people should see as a long term career option (some Volunteers do it for the maximum 8 years which I see as contradictory to the notion of volunteerism, as well as being counter productive for their own career – no superannuation or ability to adequately pay down student loan dept for instance). It’s been an incredible experience and a real privilege and I made some truly great friends along the way. Now bring on Southern Hemisphere summer and the next (perhaps pacific island based) adventure!

(*Photography by Thomas Vanke)