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May Books 15) Kosova Express

15) Kosova Express: A Journey in Wartime, by James Pettifer

I've met James Pettifer half a dozen times on the Balkans conference circuit, and corresponded with him occasionally; he was kind enough to send me a copy of this book shortly after its publication in 2005, since when it has sat accusingly on my bookshelves. But I was planning to go to Kosovo next week (in the event, my plans have changed and I will go only to Montenegro and Albania) and so picked it up a few days ago.

It is an autobiographical account of what it is like to be a reporter of conflict; the physical difficulties of transport and communication in the field, the problems of getting copy into the paper, convincing sceptical editors, and overcoming opposition and interference from the British foreign policy apparatus. It is also the political story of the movement of Kosovo from miserable subjection to the verge of independence, and I don't think I have read a better account of the 1991-99 period; I really regretted that apart from a couple of vignettes from 2001, he does not take the story further.

Pettifer is a romantic. His story is full of geography, both human and physical; his Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia are steeped in history. This is both good and bad. I found myself in roughly equal measure deeply impressed by his insights into the interconnections between key figures and events across the region, and frustrated by his paranoia about continental western Europe (the "Euroids") and the British intelligence services (though if even a quarter of what he alleges is true, there are some very serious questions to answer, for instance about the Macedonian arms plot of 1993). His sympathies, like Rebecca West's, are absolutely clear, but that certainly does not make this a bad book. (I do wish someone had proof-read the Slavic names for him, though.)

Pettifer can be a difficult personality. I have seen him walk out of a conference before it began in protest at the presence of another participant. One wonders to what extent his difficulties with his various editors in London and elsewhere were personality clashes as much as professional issues. Having said that, I am impressed by the nice things he says about many people who I also count as friends, both in the region and among the foreign correspondents.

Anyway, if you want an insight into Kosovo that gives a very different perspective than the usual diplomatic histories, you could do a lot worse than start here.

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