Albanian and Serbian students reflect on conflict in Kosovo

    Immediately after Albanian American Anisa Myzaferi, a McCormick senior, learned about Kosovo’s independence from Serbia last February, she called all her friends and updated her Facebook status. Her skin prickled as she watched YouTube videos of thousands of ebullient ethnic Albanians streaming through the streets of Kosovo and New York. “My country being given what it deserves. “It’s history fixing itself. I felt amazing! I would remember this for the rest of my life,” she says.

    But to Serbian American Bojan Manojlovic, a Weinberg junior, the news was a surprise that stirred up his emotions over an old painful problem. He joined about 5,000 demonstrators in downtown Chicago as they fluttered Serbian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Romanian, Irish and Mexican flags in opposition to Kosovo’s independence.

    Serbian-Americans in Chicago protesting Kosovo’s independence in February, 2008. Photo by Julija Djordjevic.

    On the streets of the city in Feb. 2008, hundreds of Albanian immigrants and American-Albanians waved their country’s red-and-black flag; Serbs gathered at Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral to mourn the loss of Kosovo, which they consider the birthplace of Serbian culture and identity. Later, a crowd at an Elmhurst hotel toasted the American recognition of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, while Chicago-area Serbs shouting “Kosovo je Srbija!” (“Kosovo is Serbia!”) flooded Federal Plaza to protest the secession and the American support for it. With more than 200,000 residents of Serbian descent -– the largest population outside Serbia’s capital, Belgrade –- and more than 20,000 residents of Albanian origin, Chicago awoke in a verbal tug-of-war.

    Albanian-Americans in New York City celebrate Kosovo’s independence. Photo by Swifty on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons.

    Five thousand miles away in the Balkans, when Kosovo declared independence, the Albanian majority in the new capital, Pristina, danced and enjoyed fireworks while the Serb enclaves protested for days on end. After more than 70 years as a Serbian province, Kosovo – a small region in the central Balkans with a population of just under two million, split between an Albanian majority and a Serb minority – seceded from Serbia in the style of the American declaration of independence. The piece of land just half the size of New Jersey is the Balkan Pandora’s Box and Tower of Babel, its black sheep and, recently, its newborn child. Serbs and Albanians have disputed the territory for centuries on a thin edge of compromise, hate, simmering conflict and ethnic cleansing. But in Chicago, first-generation Serbian and Albanian immigrants also work together, study together and can even make friends with one other.


    Maps: United Nations. Production by Tom Giratikanon / North by Northwestern.

    Nine years ago, Myzaferi and her parents moved to Chicago from Albania. Manojlovic, a native of Kosovo, has been living here since 2002. They partnered in the debate team at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago, and they have remained friends at Northwestern. Deep inside, they also share memories of a conflict that has divided their countries for centuries. In the spring of 1997, when Myzaferi was huddling in her apartment’s storage closet during Albania’s civil conflict, Manojlovic was still playing with his Serbian and Albanian neighbors in Goraždevac, Kosovo. A year later, she watched as thousands of Albanian refugees from Kosovo thronged to her city of Vlorë — the meeting point of the Adriatic and the Ionian Seas — while Manojlovic himself escaped Kosovo for Lazarevac, in the outskirts of Belgrade.

    No children’s tale could teach Myzaferi the moral of these stories. “There are no more dolls at that point when you see stuff like that happening. But it gave me a real understanding of what the world could be and what war is. War is very real,” says Myzaferi, who was 11 when the collapse of the pyramid investment schemes in Albania unleashed a bloody conflict between armed civilians and the military on the streets of Vlorë before spreading to the rest of the country.

    “I can now differentiate between Russian-made guns by their sound. I can differentiate between grenades and RPGs. I can differentiate a Kalashnikov from an Albanian rifle,” Myzaferi says. She remembers having an AK-47 beside her bed while shooting, bombing and anarchy were reigning outside on the streets.

    Meanwhile, in neighboring Kosovo, a conflict was creeping into the lives of its two ethnic groups after centuries of tense but peaceful coexistence, Manojlovic says in retrospect. By 1998, in Goraždevac – a small pocket of about 2,000 Serbs amid Albanian villages in western Kosovo – the atmosphere had irreversibly changed as he stopped playing on the street with his Albanian neighbors. At 11, Manojlovic finally sobered up when his family packed their entire house into one tractor trailer and set out for Belgrade because they “didn’t feel safe anymore.” But out of those who stayed in Kosovo, thousands have been killed and exhumed from mass graves. About 2,000 Albanians, Serbs and Roma are still missing, according to the Office on Missing Persons and Forensics in Kosovo.


    A peace wall in Pristina, Kosovo. Photo by Anna Zangrosi

    Once only a geographical region, Kosovo has been disputed between its two major ethnicities for centuries. Serbs call Kosovo the cradle of their civilization, pointing to the remnants of Serbian medieval culture. Albanians go as far back as the Bronze Age, when the land was occupied by the ancient Illyrian tribes with whom they identify. For decades Kosovo’s history has depended on which historian you ask.

    Andrew Wachtel, dean of the Graduate Program at Northwestern University and Director of the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, says it is wrong to judge contemporary political affairs in the context of distant past events. “People from both sides have perfectly good things to say. The precise problem is that the stories from both sides are perfectly coherent. But you have two incompatible sets of stories,” Wachtel says.

    After the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, the Kosovo province passed to the newly-formed Yugoslav Federation. According to the Serbian constitution of 1974, Kosovo was an autonomous province of Serbia, but it also maintained an ambiguous “dual status” as a federal unit of Yugoslavia. The province entertained its own parliament and government but did not have the power to secede. When President Slobodan Milošević came to power in 1989 in pursuit of a “Greater Serbia,” a group of Kosovo Albanians began to demand more political rights.

    Tensions culminated in 1998 in a confrontation between the Serbian military and the Albanian guerrilla formation known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Serbia’s attempt to suppress the provocation led to state-organized ethnic cleansing. In 1999, as an American-led NATO coalition began air strikes over military and civilian targets in Serbia, Yugoslav and Serbian forces drove out hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, who took refuge in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Most Serbs also escaped the region, but KLA and Kosovo Albanians organized occasional reprisals against the remaining Serbian population. The rest of the timeline has been on our TV screens for years – sporadic violence, thousands of refugees, peacekeeping operations, international criminal trials and political disputes paved the way for Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence on Feb. 17, 2008.

    For Myzaferi, independence put history back into place. It brought the “small reparation” that “made [the Kosovo War] worthwhile for those who died.” For Manojlovic, it created a sense of loss as “the core” of Kosovo has historically always been “part of Serbia.” But the events in 1998-1999 opened a wedge between the two groups that transcended historical claims.

    “[They] elevated hatred to a new level to the point that people had to flee from both sides,” Manojlovic says. “And you only hear about the Albanian people who had to flee because the Serbs were so awful to them. But you have people like me and countless other people who had to move out of Kosovo. Sometimes the media portray the Serbs as the Ubermonsters who are just trying to wreak havoc to everyone around them.”

    After the war, many refugees returned to their homes within months. Milošević, whom both Myzaferi and Manojlovic compared to Hitler, died in prison at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in March 2006 in the middle of his trial. Many other Serbian military and political figures, as well as KLA members, have been tried by the Hague Tribunal, and trials continue to this day. Kosovo lived in limbo for nearly a decade, while the unraveling Yugoslavian Federation became the federated union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003. It once and for all disappeared from the political map when Montenegro separated from Serbia three years later.


    Sometimes people get involved in a conflict only because of their birthplace or nationality. To succeed, each side has to create a strong group identity, often by demonizing a common antagonist. Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić, who lived through the Serbo-Croatian conflict in the early 1990s, wrote in 1994 that war reduces people to one dimension – their nationality. Animosity in Kosovo created the generalizations of “we” versus “they,” the “Serbs” versus the “Albanians,” regardless of personalities and social backgrounds.

    “Kosovo reminds me of two lions fighting over the same carcass. One of the lions caught the carcass, and there’s another one praying on it, and they are both ripping on it.” – Bojan Manojlovic

    “It’s like oil and water. The two don’t mix very well,” says Myzaferi, who makes no distinction between Albanians in Kosovo and Albanians in Albania.

    “Kosovo reminds me of two lions fighting over the same carcass,” Manojlovic says. “One of the lions caught the carcass, and there’s another one praying on it, and they are both ripping on it. Two strong lions are battling for a carcass that’s too small for them.”

    This story conjures up associations with old Balkan wrangling. “Everybody is the best, everybody was there first, everybody has the greatest history,” Myzaferi says. “The Balkans are not united. It’s like a wolf – it doesn’t know its own strength.” As the conversation digresses into Albanians’ proud, “strong-headed” and “stubborn” nature, it sounds remarkably similar to the way Manojlovic describes Serbs: “stubborn, smart, cunning, stubborn,” he says, pausing for a second before continuing, “stubborn, religious, devoted, loyal.” He stops to think again. “Stubborn,” he finally says and smiles.


    After years in the focus of international media, however, visually powerful metaphors tend to oversimplify the Balkan dynamics. Myzaferi and Manojlovic’s generation – the generation that grew up with the Kosovo conflict – must cope with what they both think is now an irreversible process. While traditionally Kosovo has aroused notions of suspicion, radicalism and open confrontations, among educated, middle class immigrants in Chicago, conflict might be the exception.

    Keli and Aida Fera arrived in Chicago from Albania in 2001. Back at home, she was a high school teacher, and he worked as an electrical engineer. Now Aida, a housewife, looks after her two young children, while Keli is a truck driver for FedEx Ground. When refugees from Kosovo arrived in her town in 1998, “every single Albanian house” opened its door, Aida remembers. The Fera family gave shelter to five people for a month and a half. Their neighbors on the second floor hosted three Kosovars, while other neighbors accommodated 12 newcomers for five months.

    An old house in Pristina, Kosovo. Photo by Anna Zangrosi.

    “They were in tears because even they didn’t expect that we as a nation could do such a thing for them,” says Aida, for whom “50 years of separation” between Albanians and Albanian Kosovars could not whitewash their “historical relationship” as one nation.

    In Chicago, Keli has many Serbian colleagues but they never discuss Kosovo at work. No tension arises like it did “back there,” in the Balkans, he says.

    “I’m just tired of all this hate and all this killing, and all of this devaluation of human life. You are going to die anyway, so just let people be.” – Anisa Myzaferi

    “You have to distance the Serbian people from the Serbian politicians. These are two different things,” says Aida, who now feels estranged from “those politics” and much closer to the daily grind. “Maybe this has softened this anger. It is in the blood, this anger between Serbians and Kosovo. People don’t care so much here.”


    Manojlovic and Myzaferi discuss Kosovo with conviction and calm. The two are buddies and classmates, though they have not talked much since the independence a year ago because of their busy schedules. Manojlovic would often see Albanians and Serbs sitting at adjacent tables in Eastern European cafes in Chicago, though Myzaferi would not expect one group to visit the other’s places.

    Manojlovic says the relationship is strange, but not hostile. “I am an idealist and I want to say that I can be friends with anyone, but if I try to hang out or talk to an Albanian person right now … it would somehow always be hitting me at the back of my head. I can be an acquaintance with an Albanian person, but when you have an emotional connection with someone, it’s different.”

    For Myzaferi, simply avoiding the issue already affects her friendship. “It’s almost a fake relationship. It’s impossible to forget that. It’s always there at the back of your mind,” she says. For her, Kosovo means hope and restoration. For Manojlovic it evokes a sense of loss. He sees it as a dangerous precedent, she as a promising beginning. “It’s either one way or the other. And, sadly, one side is always going to lose,” Manojlovic says.

    Today – a year after its independence – the world’s youngest state looks into its own backyard of uncertain identity, soaring expectations, old infrastructure, corruption and unemployment rate of about 50 percent. In the past year, 54 countries recognized Kosovo’s independence. While the United States and most of the European Union members welcomed The Republic of Kosovo as a sovereign state, the United Nations Security Council remains undecided on its status.

    Ethnic Albanians comprise 90 percent of the country’s population. The remaining Serbian minority mainly populates the Serb enclaves in the north, close to the border with Serbia. While reluctant to make concessions as far as Kosovo is concerned, the Serbian government has also demonstrated pro-European, rather than nationalist, politics. But while the dire predictions for a new round of violence and Serb exodus did not come true, it will take more than a generation before the century-old tensions die away, according to Myzaferi and Manojlovic.

    The old questions of this disputed land still hang over the new Kosovo republic. In the final sequence of the 1995 film Underground, director Emir Kusturica creates a metaphor of the Balkan people. As wedding guests celebrate on the shores of a river, the piece of ground on which they stand breaks apart from the mainland and slowly floats away, but guests are too engrossed in dancing to notice as the water carries them off into an unknown destination. Kusturica’s imagery of the failures to make sense of history has kept coming back from a revolving door through the centuries, as division, nationalism and uncertainty have persisted in one of Europe’s most diverse lands.

    But among immigrants in Chicago, there is space for the moderate voices as well. “I’m just tired of all this hate and all this killing, and all of this devaluation of human life,” Myzaferi says. “You are going to die anyway, so just let people be.”

    A note from the editor: Comments have been closed on this post due to an abundance of comments of a defamatory nature.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.