Kosovo, thirteen years after a fresh start

Kosovo's independence is still waiting to be accepted by dozens of nations around the world
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 -   A boy holding an Albanian flag during a celebration in Pristina

It has recently been thirteen years since Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed its independence from Serbia. An independence that is still waiting to be accepted by dozens of countries around the world, and which had to face more than a year of armed conflict, 78 days of continuous bombing by NATO and almost ten years of military occupation by the same organisation. 

"There is no one in Kosovo who has not suffered or who does not have a family member who has been a victim of the war", is one of the phrases you hear most often in every corner of the country. Twenty-two years have passed since the end of the war between what was then the province of Kosovo and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. 

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Entrance gate to a chess club in Pristina

Más de veinte años después de que la OTAN acabase con la guerra entre, los ahora, Kosovo y Serbia, el conflicto entre ambos está, aún, lejos de acabar. Sus sociedades siguen lidiando con las tensiones entre ambas partes en su día a día, “yo nunca he estado en Serbia, no tengo un amigo serbio, no tengo ninguna conexión […] Serbia tiene una arquitectura, unos edificios preciosos que me gustaría ver, pero no me sentiría… no sé, hay muchos sentimientos involucrados ahí. Entro en las redes sociales y es brutal, hay mucho odio entre serbios y albanos”, intenta explicar Urtina, joven diseñadora gráfica. Uno de esos miles de jóvenes que no recuerdan el conflicto ya que eran demasiado pequeños como para poder recordarlo, pero que han escuchado sus historias muchas veces. Tantas que ha podido elaborar una película animada sobre el papel que desempañaron las mujeres en este. “Cuando escuchas las entrevistas de las mujeres, te das cuenta de que lo que experimentan durante la guerra es diferente. Los hombres estaban en peligro si salían porque la Policía y los militares los arrestaban o mataban. Las mujeres podían salir no sin peligro, pero si se arreglaban y parecían de una clase superior podían evitar los controles policiales. Entonces, ellas se hicieron cargo de todo, de todas las tareas diarias. Yo pensé que había que reflejar eso, esa solidaridad; como ellas se pusieron en peligro diariamente para ir a comprar los bienes básicos y que sus familias e hijos no tuviesen que experimentar la guerra al máximo”, narra la joven.

More than twenty years after NATO ended the war between the now Kosovo and Serbia, the conflict between the two is far from being over. Both societies continue to deal with the tensions between the two sides on a daily basis, "I have never been to Serbia, I don't have a Serbian friend, I don't have any connection [...] Serbia has beautiful architecture, beautiful buildings that I would like to see, but I wouldn't feel... I don't know, there are a lot of feelings involved there. I go on social media and it's brutal, there's a lot of hatred between Serbs and Albanians", Urtina, a young graphic designer, tries to explain. One of those thousands of young people who don't remember the conflict as they were too young to remember it, but who have heard their stories many times. So many that she has been able to make an animated film about the role women played in it. "When you listen to women's interviews, you realise that their experience during the war is different. Men were in danger if they went out because the police and military would arrest them or even kill them. Women could go out not without danger, but if they dressed up and looked like they belonged to a higher class they could avoid police controls. So they took over everything, all the daily chores. I thought I had to reflect that, that solidarity; how they put themselves in daily danger to go and buy basic goods so that their families and children wouldn't have to experience the war to the fullest", the young woman recounts. 

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Krushe e Vogel cemetery in memory of the massacre victims
A generation gap reflected in election results

Kosovo had to fight to become one, and when you walk through its streets it is easy to see the remnants of that resistance in its people. Its buildings are full of graffiti calling for justice for the activists who died, remembering the first feminists in its history, shouting for equality and justice. These graffiti demand compensation for war crimes committed by the neighbouring country, but also 'gender equality in labour and property institutions'. 

Thirteen years after independence, not everyone is fighting for the same thing. The scar of the conflict, far from healing, has created a gap between generations that is reflected in the reality of the country. Europe's youngest country, where the average age of the population is 28, held its third elections in two years this week, which were won by Vetevendosje, a nationalist party that has focused its campaign on the "fight against corruption and nepotism". This party, mostly supported by these very young new voters, does not prioritise negotiations with Serbia or the EU. Such measures were the promises of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) or the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), who ruled the country since independence, to those who fought for their freedom thirteen years ago. 

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Krushe e Vogel cemetery in memory of the massacre victims

Now, "young people don't think about that, their problems are different", Urtina explains. The results are true to this generational change, "we (young people) go to study abroad and then we come back and hope that our city has improved. We try to improve our life for ourselves and for ourselves as a society, as a family. We have that optimism". 

Pristina does not look like a city still suffering from post-war trauma. Its streets are full of children driving the remote-controlled cars available in its squares, of restaurants and advertisements where families discuss politics or football, of bars with craft beers where 'Tinder dates' are commonplace. Rarely does anyone talk about the war, the occupation or independence. "We've put it behind us. We are a new generation of 20 or 21 years old who have not experienced war. Who think about it through the stories of their families. We have done a great job looking forward," explains Erëmirë, director of Kosovo Oral History, an organisation that tries to document all the testimonies of those Kosovars who want to tell their story after the war. Thirteen years after the end of the occupation, Erëmirë considers it essential to "enter into the process of reconstructing the past: documenting the crimes committed and thus clarifying what happened. Basically, when you don't recognise the damage you've caused, obviously, it's going to take more time to overcome it and that's going to affect the soul of the population because it's a respect that has not been given to us. All stories heal, that's how they see it in Kosovo Oral History and that's how Urtina saw it in making her film, "they were really proud that someone had passed on those details because that's what their mothers went through". 

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Victims of the massacre in Krushe e Vogel by Serb troops

Now, more than ten years after their parents achieved what Urtina, Erëmirë and the Kosovo youth fought for, they prioritise other issues over memories of that conflict. The country is one of the world's smallest economies, has a youth unemployment rate of over 54 per cent, its GDP per capita is still the third lowest in Europe, and the country's perceived corruption index is 64 out of 100. There have been elections and things are going far. A new generation of politicians has arrived, and they are promising to fight corruption and to achieve what they promised in a legal way," says the association's director.

"Not talking about it in order to move on"

In a bookshop café in the centre of Pristina that could remind one of a Christmas story, Xhorxhina, a correspondent for BalkanInsight, and Ernera, a researcher with the Kosova Women's Network explain that "now people prefer not to talk about the war. Everyone has experienced it, but no one talks about it" and both say that "the way for people to move on is not to talk about it". Urtina recalls that as she grew older they stopped telling her, "we went on with our lives without hearing any more stories". 

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View of Pristina from a downtown hotel

Xhorxhina continues to live with the aftermath of the conflict by having to cover the political context of the country, Ernera is daily talking to women who suffer or have suffered some kind of discrimination and Urtina, for her part, is the daughter of an Albanian refugee family whose father was a political prisoner and who was shot at the age of three. Despite this, the concerns of these three young women are the renewal of their contracts, the country's poor professional infrastructure and gender inequalities. These concerns are a far cry from those of their elders. "They were not free, they did not have basic human rights: they could not speak their own language, they were forced not to show their symbols", says the young graphic designer, "my parents could not even have a wedding celebration". Instead, these girls can talk about "how amazing nightlife in Kosovo is (before Covid-19)" or about their upcoming holidays, as they strive to make Kosovo a better country. "I think we have done a great job looking forward, we still have a lot to do, but we have worked to have more dignity than you have been given. People are looking to have a future for themselves" declares Erëmirë who, having heard hundreds of stories and experiences, is clear that "people are not stuck in the war or connected only to those stories, because independence was possible and it was a new beginning for all of us".

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Painting for gender equality "in labour and heritage institutions"
Kosovo's living story

Kosovo cannot forget its experience. It cannot forget its history. One thing you see the moment you cross its land border and enter this small Balkan country, driving through its small rural villages, is that the country's own blue flag is in the minority, instead a tsunami of red Albanian flags dominates the facades of houses. "We are Albanians, but we identify ourselves in another direction, which is Kosovo. We have worked for this political state that is Kosovo, and we have paid the price for it. I am not going to remove any of that, neither from my personality nor from my nationality. Being a Kosovo Albanian means having that whole suitcase on your back. This is the story of living here," Erëmirë claims. 

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Poster against the sentencing of Kosovars accused of war crimes

Thirteen years after Kosovo proclaimed independence, 33 countries, including Spain, still do not recognise it. Borders with Serbia are closed and talks with Serbia are at a standstill. Many war crimes remain unpunished. Nearly 10,000 victims of the conflict remain in untraced mass graves. Yet Kosovo has risen from the ashes. It has shown itself to be a fighting community that has "created its new beginning", carved out a place for itself in the international community, bidding for EU membership or participating in the European Football Championship. And Urtina, Erëmirë, Xhorxhina and Ernera are a reflection of this resilient spirit that seeks to renew and improve things without forgetting its history.