Thursday, June 22, 2017

I am sick and tired (of scripted answers)

Okay so we are on the final stretch here, and gosh is it one heck of a final stretch. Currently, all the boys are at Enver's house waking up and putting on their collared shirts and cologne before we head out to meet the good people from the Foreign Affairs branch of Kosovar government. 
Now lets backtrack for a bit...

Yes, it is true, my stomach has been killing me for three days now and as a result sleep is hard to come by. Surprisingly, the thing bothering me most has nothing to do with my tummy or getting in a healthy 8 hours. Rather, it is the preprepared, scripted, safe, censored, and tripple-checked answers that some of the organisations have been giving us. 

The typical situation would be as follows: someone from our group asks a slightly edgy question, person from organisation pretends to play it cool but their body language shows their level of discomfort, person from organisation glances sideways at colleagues or superior, person from organisation responds with a scripted textbook answer that offers little to nothing to our inquisitive group

The main culprits, in my opinion, have been the UNDP, OSCE, UNMIK, and IOM. Keep in mind we are yet to meet with the the government and the Vetevendosje political party that definitely have the capacity to "out script" the above mentioned organisations.

As someone who is here trying to make a documentary (with Tom and Giacomo) that is of some value, the main challenge seems to be digging through these robotic answers and finding the truth nestled underneath. 


Just got back from visiting Vetevendosje and the Foreign Affairs branch of the government and the game has officially been changed. I felt like I was watching the Grand Slalom event at the Olympics; that's how good they were at dodging questions and spinning responses in their favour. 

In one situation, the party leader of Vetevendosje was directly asked about his opinion on LGBTI+ rights in Kosovo and somehow he managed to begin a rant about how the political left can also be effective at running the economy, contrary to the rhetoric that the right side has been spewing. You will notice that this is a topic that has nothing to do with LGBTI+ rights, and without a critical ear one might be in awe of his silver tongue and miss the fact that this guy avoided answering one of the contentious hot topics his party is often criticised on. Thankfully, Anne (#bless) was there to press him properly on this issue and we were finally able to get something out of him. 

How to overcome this you ask? Well I am no expert, but from what I have experienced here my suggestion would be to keep asking questions, and preferably open questions such as why? and how? Furthermore, in order to counteract the layered metaphors that politicians use to paint idyllic pictures, ask for concrete examples and keep pushing till they name some. If they don't, well that says something too doesn't it? 

The art of interviewing and searching for meaningful answers in others is one that takes years (ask Anne!), but I am proud to say that everyone here has definitely begun that process. By the end of this trip we will have all gained skills and experiences that we will take with us and share with others for many years to come.

[Stay tuned for Tom, Giacomo, and Ilen's world exclusive documentary that will be coming to an AUC projector near you!]

Thank you all!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Uncage Team Panda

By Robbert Muller

"There is no such thing as an illegal immigrant. Illegality is just a matter of paperwork." With this perspective provided by Anne in mind, we went to an early morning meeting with the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This organization was founded in 1951 and plays a prominent role in numerous migration issues, such as return and reintegration. While writing this blog post at one of the numerous cozy cafes on the main boulevard of Pristina, my nostrils are (again) rewarded the wonderful privilege of inhaling large amounts of cigarette smoke.

Back to the IOM. Another interesting topic they addressed were the multiethnic trainings, in which they bring Serbian Kosovars and Albanian Kosovars together via issues. What are the difficulties you face in the south? What are your difficulties in the north? What can you learn from each other? And how to make these two communities who so often live in parallel worlds more (economically) interdependent? Of course, this is more easily said than done. The young Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians do no longer speak each other’s language. Thus, the communication usually goes in English, which effectively excludes less educated segments of the population. Nevertheless, a recently organized sports competition involving one Albanian speaking school and one Serbian speaking speaking school in which the school children were placed in mixed teams filled my heart with joy. No longer were the kids Albanian Kosovar or Serbian Kosovar, but they were all members of "team Panda".

Once the formal part of the meeting was over some other students and I talked with one of the persons of the IOM. She told us about the relatively high amount of Kosovars becoming foreign fighters in Iraq or Syria. Although Kosovo has quite strong economic ties with Saudi Arabia and has seen a spread of Wahhabism, it often is not religion which pushes people into radicalization. Rather, socioeconomic challenges drive these people into the hands of extremists. I do not want to sensationalize this topic - since we are still talking about a few hundred people in a country in which the vast majority rejects these extremist interpretations -  but it brings me to the issue of borders. Kosovars are the only people in Europe who cannot travel freely to other European countries. Many are automatically rejected a visa, just because they happened to be born in Kosovo. It is so frustrating to meet all these bright, energetic, funny, kind and young people who are so much like "us" , yet are faced with extremely high unemployment rates and are trapped within Kosovo. The ones that do get a visa – for instance for study or work activities – often leave the country since they see no future here (brain drain), even though they are needed more in Kosovo than in Germany and Switzerland. 

I want to end this blog post on a positive note. Despite the challenges the people of Kosovo face, I have never encountered a single person whose heart was filled with resentment and anger. A few days ago, we met two students from Mitrovica who took us to their mensa and shared their stories and moments of happiness with us. Even though we were officially not allowed to eat there, the people working at the canteen said “they came all the way from Amsterdam, we cannot let them leave without a meal!” Just yesterday, we (Dania, Sanne, and I) wanted to ask to two students in the library about our project. Our short interview turned out to become a wonderful conversation, in which we received a tour through the library and shared lots of stories and jokes together. Although I understand the ‘stick-and-carrot approach’ of the EU when it comes to visa liberalization, all these individuals living in the ‘heart of Europe’ would benefit greatly from and deserve to move and travel freely.  

Picture of Sanne and Dania in the wonderful library of Kosovo, which deserves a blog post on its own since it is filled with symbolism and interesting mixtures of architecture. 

Crossing borders or crossing boundaries?

Crossing borders or crossing boundaries?  

Today is the 8th day of our trip, which means the trip is almost over. Even though I am sad to leave, I can say this trip has been successful. Not only did we enjoy ourselves, we also met amazing new people, learned about new cultures and had some eye opening experiences.

One of the amazing people we met was Ego, she is the leader of the woman’s network and has done an incredible job in promoting woman’s rights in Kosovo, before, during and after the war. Yesterday started out as usual, the sound of alarm’s going of on 4 phones’ at the same time, multiple people wanting to shower at the same time, Enver telling us to hurry up and making sure we get to the meeting with Ego on time (sort of). She gave one of the most inspiring talks we had during this trip, and she is one of the persons that actually made change happen.

After meeting with Ego, we went to Kosovo 2.0, a magazine that strives to bring professional and neutral journalism to Kosovo. They publish about topics such as corruption, sex, and general history of Kosovo in a neutral way. They have much less funding than main stream media in Kosovo, yet they are able to write about important topics without bias, and make sure the public engages in these topics as well. They have an online platform, as well as a printed magazine which is released every few months in English, Serbian and Albanian. The whole day was filled with positive meetings for once!

Nonetheless, there are still many problems Kosovo is dealing with, one of these issues is recognition. Kosovo is not internationally recognized by many countries and organizations, including the EU and the UN. And then there is Serbia, who claim Kosovo is part of Serbia, and should not be an independent country. Not being recognized brings a whole bunch of major and minor problems. One of these issues is crossing borders, or visa liberalization. This means that people in Kosovo have trouble crossing borders, especially with Serbia. This problem is best explained through our attempt to cross from Kosovo into Serbia on foot.

(Serbian Flags on the Kosovar side of the border show how the people in the north of Kosovo think of recognition)

At the start of the week we visited a lake near the Serbian border. After having refreshed ourselves and after having some beers, we decided we wanted to try to cross the borer, just to be able to say that we have been in Serbia. On we went, walking in a general direction towards Serbia.

 ‘The hard part about walking from Kosovo to Serbia is that you cannot ask directions, since Serbs will tell you you are in Serbia already’ Ilen Madhavji.

(Abandoned gas station near the Serbian border/boundary)

Luckily we managed to find the border without directions. However, once at the border control, or as Serbs call it, boundary control, we engaged in a conversation with the border/boundary police. Anne had already told us we could not cross into Serbia with our passports, only with our ID’s. Yet, at the border this grey area of politics became even more dark grey. The border control told us that we could cross into Serbia, but could not come back to Kosovo with our passports. Once we told him that we had ID cards, the guard said we could cross the border, and most importantly, come back. It al seemed fine, until he asked us if we also had our passports.

(Border sign saying welcome to a particular area of Serbia, not the country itself)

 As we thought it was normal question at a border we gave him our passports, this is where the whole business became shady. At this point he was holding my passport and ID card, as well as Ilen’s passport and ID card. With a suspicious laugh he told us we could go. Both me and Ilen realized he still had our passports and ID, and were never going to leave either in the possession of the shadiest border police I have ever seen. Wisely, we asked our passports and ID’s back, and decide our journey into Serbia ended there.

As we were walking back to restaurant at the lake, some random guy in a tiny restaurant next to the road which was heading towards the border asked us a ‘simple’ question. ‘In which country are you now?’ This is probably the most loaded question one could ask in the Northern part of Kosovo where there is a majority Serbian population, and where most people agree Kosovo should be part of Serbia. We told him that we would leave that up to him to decide, and walked onwards. Even though our mission to cross into Serbia failed, we did get hands on experience with the crooked politics behind the issue of recognition ourselves, and now have a good story to tell when we get back.

In Our Time, In Our Way

By Sanne de Schipper

After an intense evening Sunday night with the broken bus, there was a little blessing in disguise, since our 09.00 am meeting no Monday got rescheduled. So we were able to sleep in and catch up on some sleep. Around noon we met again at the university for a meeting with the director of the Kosovo Women's Network. (The Kosovo Women's network is a network with 121 associated organizations that work to promote women's and LGTBQ rights and tries to empower women such that men and women have equal opportunities in Kosovo.)

Anne immediately set the bar high by saying that Igballe Rugova, the director, gave the best and most interesting presentation during the previous trip. But she most definitely lived up to this expectation. So instead of telling my story, I'd like to tell one of her stories, because I believe that the work Igballe does, is exactly what we are here for.

Almost right after the war, in the earlier 2000s Igballe (she identifies as a Albanian Kosovar) was asked to help a Serbian Kosovar woman in setting up an organization. After a while (and a lot of effort) she also became friends with the husband of this Serbian Kosovar woman. So one day he called Igballe and told her about a Serbian deaf boy who was in desperate need of a hearing aid. In the spur of the moment Igballe told him: “you get half of the money from the Serbian community and I will collect the other half in the Albanian community.”

After she hung up the phone she was thinking to herself: “What did I just say? How will I collect money for a SERBIAN kid?” So she started to explain the situation to her family and friends and asked them if they would like to contribute some money for the hearing aid. After she asked everyone in her community, Igballe turned to the Kosovo Women's Network. There she talked with the different organizations and explained in a 10-minute speech what the situation was, and why the network should help. And then right at the end of her speech she said: “Oh, and by the way, the deaf boy is Serbian.” Igballe expected that the Network would respond with outrage, since the war was still fresh in everyone's mind. But instead something happened, that she did not expect; all the women reached under the table and got their purses out and contributed money for the boy's hearing aid.

Even though horrible things had happened in the war, people were able to set aside there differences and come together to help a child in need. Both communities saw that contributing to this cause was more important than politics, ethnic differences or (historical) grievances. In my opinion this is peace building at its finest. There was no interference from international organizations, no one forced another to help; it were just people who wanted to help other people. I learned today that reconciliation can't be forced, it is something that needs to come from within a community and as Igballe said, it needs to be done “in our time and in our way.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sunday's adventure

By Ellen Ackroyd

After a Saturday night of celebrations and dancing, we met up at the newborn statue, somewhat ready for a new day and a new adventure. A much needed coffee later and we were on our way to Prizren. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by the sound of the beautiful River Marash, the sight of Turkish flags and their smiling white moon crescents waving at us from windows, as well as the iconic Albanian eagle flag, soaring high up in the air.

Then began our trek up the cobbled winding strets. With our "I've-only-slept-5-hours" faces, we climbed up to our first stop: an Orthodox church, partly finished but partly still roofless. Our guide informed us that this site had been subject to vandalism in recent years which explains the presence of KFOR officers.

The church itself overlooks Prizren's blushing rooftops and I was suprised by the amount of minerets rooted between the houses of the city. As I stood there, I became very aware of the location of the crumbling church; somewhat isolated and out of reach whilst the mosques stood strong, carved into the urban layers of Prizren and its people.

With Peppi's professional hiking skills and seemingly never-ending energy leading us, we continued our journey up until we reached the stone wally of the fortress of Prizren, built some 3000 years ago. The cooler air and greenery was a refreshing change from the bustling roads of Pristina. Our guide pointed out some of Prizren's famous landmarks as well as certain military bases, primarily used by Turkish and German peacekeeping forces. To me, this highlighted the ongoing political issues of Kosovo, that continue to affect even the most charming of cities.

With great care, we walked back down (although the term "landslided" is perhaps more appropriate here) to the heart of the city. There, we visited the Sinen Pasha mosque, one of the oldest in the Balkans and listened to a Quranic reading that echoed throughout the Ottoman inspired architecture. A few moments later, and we were in a newly renovated Orthodox Church situated just a few metres away from the mosque. Freedom of religion and particularly the freedom to chose a belief system, appears to be the pillars of Prizren's society.

But why is this city such an exception? Here bridges connect and don't divide, here inter-faith dialogue takes place both visually and symbolically and above all here, multiculturalism seems to have worked. The answers to this question are complex but as our tour guide explained, relate to the Ottoman legacy. Under the Sultan's rule, a millet system was created in which each region or community was allowed to conserve its religion whilst ensuring its "non-imposed" status. This meant that religions could flourish and develop equally and harmoniously. I believe Prizren also benefited from this system as it presents a diversity of religions.

This visit also made me question the notion of secularism. To me, it is similar to democracy in that many believe it is the only and most ideal way in which a society must be structured. Having lived in France all my life, I can easily say that I too have been a victim of "secularist" thinking.
But here, I saw an alternative: the presence of religion in the public sphere as a way to encourage coexistence and respect and remove the censorship of religiosity that we find in certain Western countries.

However, all these thoughts need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The term "perspectives", coined by Ilen as the "word of the trip", is also applicable here. Whilst religion is an open topic in Prizren, our guide mentioned the need for recent laws to be implemented, sentencing fighters who leave Kosovo to join extremist groups in the Middle East. There is still thus a tendency for religion to be distorted and misused.

But on the whole, our trip to Prizren gave me a fresh sense of hope that there is in fact such a thing as "successful multicultarism" and it does not automatically lead to the creation of parallel societies in which different group are completely polarized. The day ended with a warm dinner, some interesting "never have I ever" questions and a perfectly timed breakdown of our bus, when fatigue and the desire to sleep had reached its climax. Thankfully, we were assured that a bus would come in 20 minutes which in Balkan language, translates to 50 minutes (a lesson I will remember from now on). Our quest for understanding of this region seems to never stop, no matter the time or place.

Prizren: an example to follow for Kosovo?

By Giacomo Castorina Cali

It has been seven days since we arrived in Kosovo but it feels like it’s been closer to a month due to all the experiences we've had, all the people and institutions we met, and all the information we have processed.

On Sunday morning, after waking up from the second night of clubbing in Pristina, we got on the bus to head to Prizren, a city in the south of Kosovo close to the border with Albania. Prizren is the second largest city in Kosovo with 180.000 inhabitants and is considered to be the most multi-ethnic with Albanians, Turks, Bosnians, Serbs, and Roma people all living and co-existing within the city. After one hour and a half on the bus, we arrived in Prizren where we met our guide for the day. The city looked very different from all other cities we have seen so far and in my opinion it has been the most beautiful city we have seen so far. Prizren is immersed in the nature and the mountains, it has very nice architecture and city structure, it hosts 34 mosques and a number of Serbian Orthodox churches, and is crossed by a small river.

After meeting the guide, we started a long and very steep walk towards a castle on top of the hill which rises above the city. The walk was very tiring, but once we got to the top the view was breath-taking as it was possible to see the whole city from there and it was incredible to see the amount of churches and mosques present there. While there I talked to the guide for a bit and he explained that interfaith relations are very good in Prizren, which is proved by the co-existence of both churches and mosques in the city. To give an example of this he mentioned how Muslims during these days (Ramadan) invite Christians at night to break fast together with them and enjoy some nice food in company. We asked the guide why he thought that there in Prizren interfaith relations were better than in other areas and cities of Kosovo. According to him, that is because people in Prizren have been living together and coexisting for many centuries and because of that they are used to living in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. This was very interesting to hear as it resonated with what one of the officials from the organizations we met previously said to us. When asked what he believed Kosovo as a country could bring to the EU, he said that in his opinion Kosovo could bring true multiculturalism to Europe if they managed to resolve their issues. According to him, since various nationalities, ethnicities, and religions had been living in Kosovo for over a millennium, if Kosovars managed to overcome their troubles and all learn to coexist in peace, they could teach true multiculturalism to Europe, where migration is a more recent phenomenon but is still causing troubles and disagreements within national political discourses due to the othering of migrants.

After visiting the castle, we visited a church and a mosque in the city which were both interesting to see. We then had lunch at a Greek restaurant, after which we were given some time to visit and explore Prizren, which was nice to do as the city is very pretty. In the evening, we went to have dinner in a restaurant close to the Albanian border and then set off on the bus on the way to our homes in Pristina to get some sleep. We were however not done with the adventures for the day as on the way to Pristina we started smelling something strange and then saw smoke coming from the motor of the bus. The engine had some kind of malfunctioning and we therefore had to wait over 40 minutes for another bus in the middle of Kosovo. After the long wait the new bus finally arrived, but our troubles were still not finished as on the way to Pristina we were pulled over by the police and our bus driver was fined for speeding. Following this last hiccup we were finally able to get home and get some much needed rest.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The other side

By Alessia Ulfe

When I started thinking about peace lab, my mind was focused on the many meetings, appointments and visits these 10 days included. For me, the most important thing was understanding this wonderful and sometimes chaotic nation. In the now 5 days we have been here I feel as if we have seen it all. We saw Mitrovica, we saw the Roma community and Pristina. Yet as I remember how Anne used to say in class that we would feel at home in Pristina and she was one thousand percent correct. It is hard to explain to someone outside this trip how much these days have changed us, and how Amsterdam feels like a far away memory.

Yet outside the multiple meetings, appointments and visit we have had the chance to visit the city and enjoy the many wonders it offers at nighttime. After getting a free evening on Saturday, and the chance to have dinner wherever we wanted, we had the opportunity to share Iftar with Bardha and her family. Her mom treated us to a lovely homemade flia dinner which was delicious and incredibly filling. Having the chance to break the fast with our host family meant a lot to all of us since the chances we had to share time together have been few and this felt like being welcome into their lives. 

Sharing Iftar

On Saturday, after the dinner, we finished getting ready and went to Lulu’s coffee and wine to watch one of Chiara’s friend perform. Since we live in a very central area, we arrived quite early and found a comfortable spot on the terrace whilst sharing a drink or two (and sometimes even three) with each other. Little by little people started arriving and the music started. Vala’s voice resonated throughout all the areas of the cafe and as a group, the energy was being lifted. Inside the establishment, people were dancing to the live music and having a very good time. 

ZoneClub night #1
Since it was Chiara’s birthday at midnight, we decided to celebrate in style by going to one of the best clubs in Pristina. Located nearby the airport, Club Zone has an inside and outside area as well as many, many square meters. Unlike yesterday, we arrived fashionably late and went to our ‘spot’ right below the DJ. As per our understanding of the Pristina club culture, dancing is not the usual fashion at the club. The night before we had gone to the same club in a lovely cab ride, where our driver was so determined to make sure we had a good time, he bought a CD of Kosovar rap in order to make sure we enjoyed it. Yet after all the amazing energy in the taxi, the club was something different since people were just standing around their tables not really dancing, while we were giving it our all. 


However, after coming in a group of easily 15 people we were ready to have a celebration. Maybe Chiara’s birthday was an excuse, maybe we just need to not think for a while, maybe all the feelings that have been accumulated over the past few days have overreached their limit but these past two nights have been a breath of fresh air for all of us. We let our hair and inhibitions down (partially thanks to the €3 gin and tonics) but the music and the people and our dancing to music in languages we don't understand yet feel in our hearts have been an essential part of the process. Being in a group and having altogether gone through the process of the week of classes, the meeting and now the going out have helped us see a completely different side of Kosovo. A side of Kosovo for which we can relate without having a dark cloud hanging over our heads plagued with more questions than we had when we began this journey back in November. By going out and especially tonight with the ever lovely Enver, we have released the stress and emotions we have been carrying for the past days and even at the cafe, you could see the relief in people’s faces and the sound of laughter that will forever be engraved in this trip.