Road leading to Mokermal, Kosovo. Photo by Dea Gjinovci.
Waiting to interview a distant cousin for a documentary project in one of Prishtina’s swanky new post-war cafes last April, I sat and wondered what I would discover about my family’s heritage in the next six weeks.
It’s the first time I’d ever met Avni - we connected on Facebook - the diaspora’s digital index for family trees. He is about forty-years-old - deep brown eyes, a similarly aquiline nose to mine and showing the distinctive baldness that characterises most men in my father’s family. We greet each other with the undefinable familiarity people in Kosovo share with every other Albanian - be they relatives or not. What strikes me first is his reserved demeanour.
My broken Albanian does not make for a great start. Haltingly, I explain to him the purpose of my visit in Kosovo. Having grown up in Geneva - not visiting Kosovo until now- I want to reconnect with my father’s side of the family. I only know Kosovo from war footage and my father’s nostalgic retelling of childhood memories. I specifically wanted to meet him because he was a young recruit in the Kosovo Liberation Army; experiencing action in the Drenica hills near my father’s village, Mokermal.
“Why did you join the KLA?”, I enquire awkwardly - looking at me attentively, he says, “ We were not recruited. Our villages were attacked so we took up arms. Young and old - the war first started in Drenica. We were there to defend our houses, our families and our land.”
Having already spent a few days around my Kosovar family - recording several interviews about their memory of the war - I quickly understand this would be no easy feat. Most interviewees start recounting facts that I would have heard on the BBC or Swiss TV growing up - focusing on the collective experience of the nation, rather than their own personal experience of the war.
Telling me what happened, not how it felt. So I timidly ask him how he dealt with the suffering then. “Whilst you’re fighting you’re blinded by the idea of nationhood, that you’re fighting to protect your country - it covers up the pain. But once the war ends, this is when you start to feel deep pain. And the pain is lonely. You feel it on your own, no one is there to care for your pain like they cared for the nation.”
In Mokermal, the pain came from discovering the bodies of fathers, sons and daughters in a locked-up barn that Serbian militias had set ablaze. The pain crystallised when they had to bury the dead and build new brick homes on the charred remnants.
The pain came from the desperate search for the missing ones; some would be located in a refugee camp in Macedonia or worse, found in Serbia’s mass graves ten years later. For my father, the pain came from being away in Switzerland when he learned his mother was kicked off a train by Serbian police who left her dying on the platform.
The old family house in Mokermal. Photo by Dea Gjinovci.
Before we part ways, my cousin gives me one more insight; “the war was a long time coming” he says, “The final blow.”
The war was the last tragedy Kosovo had to endure before it finally set itself free. Kosovo lived under Serbian subjugation for the majority of the 20th Century. My father exactly remembers the late-night military raids in his village in the 1950s: “We knew what it was like to live under Serbian rule. I was seven years-old when they came in our village searching for guns.
Coming at night when snow was piling up, you had to come out of bed and sit in the snow whilst they were looking for arms. They would use these to make it clear we were living under occupation.”
Indeed, the war was a long time coming. The first student uprising in Prishtina, in November 1968, demanded the autonomy of Kosovo, before the protests of 1987 - the independence of Kosovo and the freedom of its people was decades in the making.
So when the 17th of February 2008 came about - the excitement in my house was palpable. My parents’ friends from the Kosovar community in Geneva gathered in the living room in front of the television with a celebratory glass in hand - waiting for the imminent moment when Kosovo would be declared an independent nation. I was fifteen and, sizing up the room, I caught my father’s stare as solace made home in his teary eyes - freedom, at last.
Nine years later, this initial Obama-esque ray of hope highlights the work that is needed to build a nation with a functioning administration and democracy. Today, we contemplate how the sheer brutality of war can still affect a young population burdened by inter-generational trauma.
The government and civil society seek to support the collective healing process. Celebrating national heroes and constructing war monuments cannot be the unique fixture of post-war societies in the name of national pride. It dutifully honours heroes but healing the pain that capsized the hearts and minds of Kosovars in and out of Kosovo is a lifetime endeavour.
Focus on pain twenty years after the war might seem obsolete. Most people in Kosovo will tell you they moved on, that they had to. Rebuilding a nation was more pressing than dwelling on the suffering. The motto from even our closest allies was to “forgive and forget”.
The fear of another outburst in the region meant that populations had to look ahead and respect diplomatic imperatives. Instead of feeling and processing grief - people maintained a sorrowing state of mourning. Those that have been muted by pain for so long need to be given a voice. It must be recognised that there are still women, survivors of violence who live unheard in a confinement of shame. Families plagued by the memory of massacres and who almost two decades later still live with the fact that numerous mass graves are yet to be found.
The trauma brought about by war and decades of oppression has instilled a collective sense of responsibility within Kosovars to see the country thrive. Cinema, in particular, has become a way for a younger generation to express a yearning for some sort of reparation.
It is a way to transcend borders, but more importantly, it is an outlet for emotional healing. New art collectives and projects have created venues for people to open up about their own personal experiences of war and post-war society.
As a small nation, Kosovo can only feel free if it is allowed to share and exchange experiences with the rest of the world. It is the responsibility of the EU not to keep Kosovo isolated. And it is Kosovars’ responsibility to allow themselves to heal.
The generation that came up after the war, conscientious young adults from Kosovo and the diaspora have risen up to broaden Kosovo’s horizons in sports, sciences, arts and activism. Productions such as the Oscar-nominated Shok, Bafta-awarded Home and Dokufest Film Festival, amongst many others, have created a cultural visa for movement and is allowing Kosovo to exist in the international cultural arena.
Kosovo is home to a flourishing and progressive youth, that is forging a new path for the state to follow. People must acknowledge the power they have to choose their own path to independence. This should not be forgotten.