Karl Oestreich:

A Visit with an Albanian Chieftain

The German geographer Karl Oestreich (1873-1947), from Frankfurt am Main, travelled through Ottoman Kosovo in the late summer of 1898 to prepare a scholarly report for the Royal and Imperial Geographical Society in Vienna. While sojourning in Mitrovica, he wrote the following entry in his diary about his visit to the home of the subsequently well-known Kosovo nationalist figure and guerilla fighter, Isa Boletini (1864- 1916). Mitrovica, 25 September [1898] Today we organised a visit to Isa. As we were getting up, the “blind” Fejzi entered our room with a shotgun over his shoulder. He was a tall, thin figure, somewhat bent over his knees, with a small, roundish face that always seemed drawn in, frowning eyebrows, and a moustache that was slowly turning grey. He was gentle and paternal towards us, but could be vehement and ruthless if needs be. That was the way he had been at the plant, the evening before, when he suddenly drew his pistol and chased a fellow at the factory to shoot and kill him. It was an employee who had not come to work for a while but had been given his job back at his own request. Now, once again on the job, he had dared to insult the owner of the steam-powered sawmill, Mr Mito. From Fejzi we learned that Isa and an armed retinue had been to the factory on horseback the night before, and were expecting our visit. It took quite some time to come up with horses for all of our party: Mr Mosel, the Papatheodosi brothers, Caramico and Noc, my cavass. We only got started around nine o’clock, led by Fejzi and Isa’s deputy, a young lad, and several other armed men, whom he had sent to accompany us. We had curiously jittery horses this time. The kulla of Isa Boletini near Mitrovica in Kosovo (photo: Robert Elsie, April 2009). We crossed the Ibar River (499 m.) just above the town. I noticed that the terraced tertiary formations soon ceased and were replaced by cone-shaped hills, the last of which was in Zveçan, that descended to the valley floor and interrupted the trail. We wanted to visit the Sokolica, a forested mountain on the eastern side of the valley. On the side of the valley, near the village of Rudari that belonged to Isa, we climbed a slope of bush oak to a second terrace with the village of Lozishta on the left. It is also called Lipa because it is inhabited by people who settled there from Lipa near Ipek [Peja]. We continued northwards up the broad, cultivated valley, on the other side of which was the wooded Maidan. We had not gone far when we glimpsed a stone house, devoid of windows, on the gentle hillside. There was a little tower on it in the middle of the steep roof, all of heavy stonework. Out of the low vaulted doorway, the only thing we had time to notice aside from the embrasures on the front side of the building, emerged several men in Albanian costumes, with rifles in their hands. These were Isa and his men. They embraced Fejzi twice and then shook our hands, and we followed them into the house. We were in a veritable castle, like the fortress of an outlaw. The two-storey building, with a stable for the horses on the main floor, had been constructed in 1898 almost within sight of the town and the garrison. Leading upstairs was a steep wooden staircase. The upper floor consisted of a hallway and a main room. From the hallway, there was a low staircase leading to the attic which contained various storage and other rooms which, in turn, led up to the tower. The lower floor was dark, as was the hallway upstairs since light only penetrated the rooms through the embrasures and two drains. The main room, on the contrary, was exceedingly bright and cleanly. The boarding on the two sides of the stone floor, the ceiling of quarter-saw hornbeam wood, and the mouldings bordering the raised carpet floors were all made of fresh wood, and the walls had been recently whitewashed. The fireplace across from the doorway was well laid, with small cupboards on both sides. Everything was much cleaner than anything I had seen for quite some time. We took our seats on the carpet, with Isa, Fejzi and some of Isa’s men on one side, and we Europeans on the other. Isa welcomed us, saying that he was delighted we had come. We responded accordingly. Now the official part of the ceremony began – coffee, that took quite some time to make. As such, we had enough time to look around and see where we were and who was in the room with us. Isa was the master of the house – there was no doubt about that. He was a tall, good-looking fellow, still in his youth. He had brown hair and a fine face. The expression in his eyes betrayed more pain than cruelty. Some of his companions were good-looking men, too. Their costumes made them all look taller, so I initially overestimated their height. They wore northern Albanian dress: thick white woollen costumes with black trimmings, small white fezzes, a sleeveless doublet of colourful quilt under their short open jackets, and under this, some of them wore a big sleeved shirt. Their trousers, that extended tight-fitting down to their ankles, were borne by a belt over which they wrapped a long sash. In it was a revolver, a tobacco pouch, a pipe and a watch. The more distinguished among them, like Isa, wore the watch and pistol with a chain of Prizren silverwork that hung from the shoulder. Isa Boletini and his men, ca. 1912. There were about twelve of them, and others joined them later. They spoke passionately and we drank one cup of coffee after the other, and had a good look at our surroundings. There were three windows in the room with heavy stone slabs used as shutters. They looked upon the valley, but were too high for anyone to shoot into. Aside from these, there were no windows anywhere in the house. However, in all directions on the upper floor there were embrasures for shooting, even with small mortar. One of them looked sideways down at the doorway so that anyone trying to penetrate the house could be dealt with swiftly. The stone blocks of which the house was constructed this year by masons from Dibra are 2 m. long and 1 or 1½ m. wide. A solid fortress, indeed. Here sat Isa, lying in wait for the Turks or families of hostile Albanians. He is said to have shot and killed twenty men. When his brother was shot, he shot the murderer and two other men. And a couple of years ago, he or his men (the one in command is always responsible) shot five zaptiehs and an officer. Since that time, he had been fighting on two fronts. His Albanian foes lived nearby, and the garrison in Mitrovica was less than two hours away. When he killed the zaptiehs, his house in Boletin was burnt to the ground. For this reason, he built a new one in an open spot on top of the old one, not far from the church of the village of Sokolica. It cost him 200 gold pounds, as far as he could remember. His native home is the settlement of Boletin. His family, including that of his brother, lives in Bagna [Banja] near Peja, where he possesses another such house. He stays there from time to time, always travelling in the dark. Some of his men are here, some there, and others in the villages. He is said to be a good friend and protector of those with whom he is not in a feud. Should someone be robbed and the perpetrator not be caught, Isa compensates the victim from his own money. He lives in very good neighbourly relations with the Orthodox priest. At least, that was what I was told. He introduced me to his two sons and a nephew, to whom he was very attached. There was much love and kindness in his man. This was evident from the way he treated his subordinates, the round-headed, loud-mouthed young men around him, and his blood relatives. To put it briefly, he is a nobleman, not a bandit chief. When Fejzi told the story of the factory employee he had tried to shoot, Isa admonished him and told him he was wrong. The fellow was not an Albanian and therefore it was not proper to shoot him. A good beating was quite enough. We were made welcome without any sense of mistrust. They showed us everything and then took us to the church (at 828 m. in altitude), a modest stable-like building exceeded by far in size by the nearby two-storey parsonage. As Muslims, the Albanians left us here. We had a look inside the vaulted room with its badly conserved paintings and, in particular, a marble statue of the Virgin and child. The Orthodox priest was absent, but Isa took care of us and roasted a ram on a spit in the courtyard. On the valley side, the courtyard had a wooden verandah that provided us with a tremendous view as we waited for the meal. We could see the successive waves of hillocks descending into broad green valley and the Maidan, the forested mountain with its exposed reddish top. We were all in a very good mood by the time the food was ready – the said ram and a huge bowl of pita (a bread cake made of butter and flour). After we had eaten, we climbed through rock and bushes up the southeastern peak of the Sokolica (904 m.) and all of us sat down on a huge boulder. The view was tremendous, especially with the approaching rainclouds. But the clouds were high and we could even see Mount Žljeb near Peja, visible almost to the summit. Right in front of us, leading steeply down to the Ibar River were the hills of Zveçan and, below them, the Ibar valley opening out at Mitrovica. We could see all the houses in the town. Beyond it was the plain of Kosovo, the flatland leading to Prishtina in the far distance. To the left was the valley of Boletin. On a promontory on the other side of the valley was an Albanian wedding party celebrating with lots of shouting and shooting. The colours were rich and in the humidity, the mountains looked more dramatic than they really were. It was up here that Isa told us of his sufferings, because of the many men after him. He was tired of it all and longed for a peaceful life at home with his family. He was frustrated at having to live in the eternal fear of being ambushed and caught. The feuds of the other Albanians had been amnestied and pacified, the ones in Prishtina, in Vuçitrn [Vushtrria], and even the ones in Peja where they refused to accept peace. He alone had received no reply to his request for amnesty. The killing of five zaptiehs and the officer had not been forgotten. He longed to be able to go down to Mitrovica unarmed, as the other men did, even his own people. He had been caught up in a state of affairs and, as an Albanian, had had to play his role in the blood feuding. When the authorities tried to catch him, he put up resistance. There he was now, surrounded by foes and a small number of loyal followers (about 30 in number) who were completely devoted to him. He appealed to us, wondering if we could ask our legation to put a good word in for him. He added that it was in German interest, in the interest of the German factory in Mitrovica, for there to be peace and order in the country. We said we would, although we had little hope of achieving anything. As such, it was on a sombre note that we depart. We felt very sorry for this ‘knight in shining armour’ and were relieved when our horses were on their way down through the heath. Later, when I got back from my first excursion to Novi Pazar, I heard that Isa’s conflict with the authorities had been brought to a conclusion. In fact, the next day, I saw him playing cards at the factory with my zaptieh. With the mediation of Aydin Bey, a well-respected Albanian, a compromise had been reached and Isa was pardoned after having paid blood money to the victims’ families.   [Karl Oestreich: Reiseeindrücke aus dem Vilajet Kosovo. in: Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, Berlin, 26 (1899), p. 366-370. Translated from the German by Robert Elsie.]
Robert Elsie Texts and Documents of Albanian History