My happy day trip spot becomes a riot zone

The street where I bought my map of Skopje. Photo: AP 

I am having a rather unpleasant re-occurring experience here in the balkans. I visit a place on a calm sightseeing tourist adventure taking in the history and the overall scene, come home and go back to normal life, then soon after see the place mentioned in the news as the scene of violence. The first time it happened was after traveling to the town of Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo (I wrote about it here), and I had the experience after traveling several years ago to Syria, but to have it happen again really surprised me. 

Several weeks back I took myself on a little mini-break adventure to Skopje the capital of Macedonia. It was really lovely! I took pictures of impressive mosques, ate pastries, sampled the Macedonian wine, stood back to take in the incredible collection of huge outdoor communist style statues, and just in general enjoyed the city. I saw families strolling in the streets, friends having coffee, older gentlemen playing chess, and absolutely no sign that this same city could be the scene of a violent protest just three weeks later.  

This morning, while having some tea getting settled in to the office I check balkaninsight.com to see what I missed over the weekend and discover that the town I recently visited as a gawking tourist has erupted with violence after the controversial appointment of former ethnic Albanian guerrilla commander Talat Xhaferi as the country’s defence minister.

As I understand, the root of the issue is that Xhaferi is a former rebel commander in the 2001 conflict that pitted Macedonia’s two main ethnic groups against one another. Ethnic Albanians staged a counter-protest in the capital on March 2. Both protests turned violent, with Macedonians and Albanians clashing with police. Current police counts state that 22 people have been injured.

More information is available here: Unrest Grips Macedonia Capital For Second Day :: Balkan Insight.

As a frequent traveler, I know I keep my eyes out for the big potential hot button issues ie. elections, but I think I underestimated in the balkan’s how much something like a minister appointment that seems small to an outsider can rally intense emotional feelings in the population. Despite my best attempts to try to understand the complex issues of ethnic identity and the deep memories in the balkan people as a result of historical conflict, I still feel like I still don’t get it, and maybe as an American here for only a few months I may never be able to understand.

Even if I am never going to be able to understand the impact of the history and ethnic identity in the balkans I am not going to stop trying, but I think I will be extra careful to keep my eye on the news before planning any trips.

I think what strikes me the most is how normal and calm these places seem when I travel there and how quickly the mood can change. Has anyone else had a similar experience?