Tuesday, June 28, 2016

listening to stories

By Andrea Haefner

While we like to present ourselves as AUC as thinking 'outside' of the box, in a way, everyone still thinks in terms of boxes: We are making sense of the world by attaching categories, labels, theories. I guess, somehow, this is what academics do?

For our field of studies, International Relations, we have plenty of theories to describe what is happening in the world. We talk about Liberalism, Realism, Constructivism. We argue that relative deprivation, greed, or grievances is what motivates rebellion. We analyse the importance of identity in a conflict. We think in terms of theoretical boxes.

And when thinking in these theoretical boxes, it can be quite easy to lose perspective. We deconstruct, and deconstruct, and deconstruct until it is difficult to see the whole picture anymore.

Finally, in Kosovo, I felt like I was for once able to see the whole picture. We talked to so many different organizations, institutions, diplomats, politicians, activists, our host families and people on the street that the theoretical framework we had studied in Amsterdam was becoming a reality. With the many perspectives that we heard, I felt like I was not only trying to understand, but was even getting to an understanding. An incredibly powerful feeling, I thought.

Thus, Kosovo really taught me how important it is to go see, listen, and experience rather than only to study. A lesson which is likely to guide me also in my future. A lesson I am very thankful for.

Please Kosovo: challenge your thoughts

By Roos Hogerzeil

Eleven days ago we came back in Amsterdam. Since then I have been trying to process all the information we received. I realize we were privileged to have heard so many different perspectives and countless inspiring stories that we could try to understand. Although I know all of this, at the moment I actually do not know where to start. What did I learn? How did I change? What would I advice our cherished Kosovo?

I think Kosovo has, most of all, taught me personally how complicated the situation in post-conflict societies can be. We have seen the countless problems that all play in to each other, so development is not just opposed by political tensions (between the North vs. South and international recognition) but also ethnic tensions (Albanians/Serbians/Kosovars), and economic tensions (unemployment/corruption/visa liberalisation). We have visited organizations, such as the Red Cross and Unicef, that try to work with principles of neutrality that are often thwarted in their efforts to help others. Although it could be very frustrated to see this, this trip changed me as I learned that 1) it is extremely important to never underestimate the difficulties in post-conflict societies 2) there are many organizations that in their own way all try to improve the situation and can also improve the situation further by working together 3) very important: although the problems might seem to form a cycle that maintains itself, it is also possible to perceive the situation as a puzzle of which the pieces are not put in the good spot yet.

Moreover, the trip has transformed me, as I feel more open-minded right now. Most of us are brought up with a set of beliefs and values and, throughout our lives, tend to surround ourselves with people who share similar values and beliefs. Therefore, it can be difficult when we are faced with ideas that challenge our own and, though we may wish to be open-minded, we may struggle with the act of it from time to time. However, our trip to Kosovo taught me that societies flourish when the people free their minds from limiting thoughts. It showed me that sometimes people only see black and white, while many shades of colour exist. Opening up means your pallet is expanded from only having two possibilities to having hundreds of options. The selection is more plentiful as you are not so boxed in with minimal selections.

I think for Kosovo it would be advantageous if more people would open up as well. Of course this process takes time, as the traces of the war can still be seen everywhere, but the process of improvement probably develops faster when different communities would realize there are many more stories than their own. Although it can be terrifying and exhilarating to admit that you do not know everything, being vulnerable can help to think beyond the boundaries where you normally would have been stopped. This mind-set offers new possible solutions or outcomes, and Kosovo should change its thoughts and beliefs. Only then they can expect behaviours and actions to change as well. Although many people try to do it the other way and modify their behaviours in an effort to change, true change happens from the inside out.

By Marie Smit


By Béibhin Gallagher

So, we have been home from Kosovo for more than a week now, and I really think that everyone really needed that time to just digest what we took in there.
I've been thinking a little bit about what I really wanted to say in this last blog post, with the idea of offering something back to Kosovo; based on what the trip and everyone we met there has given to us.
For my project I tried to reflect on what the trip had meant for me in terms of identifying and facing up to my own biases and what Kosovo has helped me to recognise about my own identity.
I realised that it was too much to ask of society in Kosovo to try and out their differences behind them and get on board with building the new Kosovar identity, when it was something that I myself was sceptical about in my home country:

"Now, I am acknowledging the fact that in Kosovo and in Northern Ireland, there is no one correct take on identity. Just as there is no one story of the nation around which to form it. Identity is a subject, personal, malleable thing; formed by personal experiences, which is what makes it so tender in a post-conflict area." 

One thing being in Kosovo has taught me is that these societies need time. The Kosovo War is, which I think we often overlooked when we were there, so painfully recent. But time is the one thing that the international community is not able to throw at it to try and make the problem go away. Kosovo needs time to heal and to grow, and reconciliation will come as the process plays out; just like falling asleep, very slowly and then all at once you will realise it has happened and you missed it. 

Albanians, Serbs, Roma, Egyptian, Ashkali - Kosovo wants to open its arms to all of you. War divided your country, in ways that we as outsiders can only try and understand, but that experience comes with a choice - to let the legacy and memory of war continue to divide; or to take the opportunity to recognise that war is something that everyone has in common - Something tried and tested in Northern Ireland where the country simply got so sick of violence that peace became the last available option. This is one thing that everyone in Kosovo, even the Balkans, can relate to.

Kosovo, you and only you have the power to emulate this example; and perhaps, in making an attempt to emulate a real example of peace-building, a real peace and nation can begin to be built. In time. Real peace, in time, will come. 

Looking back...

By Thomas Litan

It's been almost two weeks since we returned from Kosovo. I still vividly remember the stunning nature, the vibrant cities, the delicious food, and perhaps most importantly, the warm and hospitable people. It's been almost two weeks since I concluded my first journey into a new world, a world I had never ventured into before. A world where people are optimistic about their future, where they build a new society from the ashes of a bloody conflict, where they find small ways to make a change in the lives of people and connect groups that have grown to despise each other. But also a world which still faces many problems, which leaves certain groups marginalised and excluded from the path forward, which still bears the scars of the past.

We've talked to many inspirational people, who have each found their own way to contribute to the betterment of Kosovo and its citizens. Government officials who believe in a democratic Kosovo, but also local community leaders who bring together opposing groups or advocate for more recognition of the human rights of minorities. I've spoken to people on the street, many of whom are eager to do their bit to help Kosovo, but many of whom are also frustrated at the rates of poverty and unemployment or the rejection by society.

As I said during our last meeting at the lake, Kosovo was - for me at least - just another word on paper. I had read very little about it before the course, although I did know where it was (and found out that many of my friends still do not). In that sense, I can truly say that Peace Lab has changed me forever. I will now associate Kosovo with all I have seen, heard and felt in the 10 days we were there. Perhaps I will return one day, to observe the changes and see whether some ideals have become reality in the newborn state. I do know that I will follow developments in Kosovo with a critical view, but also with all the perspectives I've taken in. First up is visa liberalisation, which I hope will give the Kosovar people their long-desired freedom and opportunities to venture out into the world and see all the places they have until now only heard of.

If I should give Kosovo one message, it's that they should not forget to stop, take a moment and look to themselves. Something I heard at The Ideas Partnership keeps running through my mind: European integration should not be followed by improvements in Kosovo, but should follow those improvements. In other words, instead of focusing on joining the EU (and NATO and the UN) as an ultimately goal, politicians and government leaders should consider improving Kosovo first. There is still widespread corruption, unemployment rates are soaring through the roof in some areas and there is a huge gap between minority protection in the Constitution and the everyday practice these groups face in the streets.
Improving the living conditions of all groups in Kosovo, even (and perhaps especially) the ones that at this moment feel left behind, may ultimately yield better results than the current relentless push for membership of international organisations. The EU is no paradise, and last Thursday has shown what the consequences can be if the critical voice of a minority is ignored long enough and there are media and influences present which exploit this disappointment. I have seen how hard Kosovars work for their future and the future of their young next generation, For their sake, I wish Kosovar leaders would always remember to look behind them and see what is happening. A strong internal Kosovo may lead to a strong external Kosovo and thus adequate membership.

All in all, a life-changing experience. Thanks to everyone who came along and shared in this adventure with me!

Don't Underestimate the Power of Youth

By Maria Gayed

When you’re a student at AUC, just like students at any other institution, you sometimes question what you do it all for. At least, that’s what I did when I typed away at 3 am two nights before the Capstone deadline. That deadline became one of many deadlines, piling up – one after another. With each new paper submitted, you ask yourself, “What am I doing?”. Surely I’m not the only one who has felt like this, but even if I was, it still would be a legitimate question. Not to be too existential here, but what is everyone doing? And why? I can safely say for myself that I was getting stuck in a rut. Though you know the reasons you studied for, with each new deadline or presentation, those reasons became fuzzier and fuzzier. Perhaps this sounds dramatic, but that is the intent, because who wouldn’t be dramatic after such little sleep in such stressful times?

And now you’re back in Amsterdam, and it’s day 10 since being back. Like all your other Peacelab people (read: friends), you answer each question about how Kosovo was with a, “nice” or a “great”. However, later, you spoke to people outside of AUC, who literally have no idea about anything. And they ask you, “So, how was your holiday?”. Holiday? Holiday? And then a “nice” or a “great” doesn’t suffice at all. You opt for launching into some sort of objective explanation of what you did in Kosovo and why you went for a course, and the reaction is so minimal. “Oh, that’s interesting.” Interesting doesn’t even cover it, but that’s okay. Because the less I have to tell you about it, the less I have to explain, the more I can keep in my heart.

Every time I speak about it Peacelab, I feel I don’t do it justice. Words like amazing, inspiring, transformative – they don’t make a dent in the people I’ve spoken to. They don’t know how much I mean those words. Still, it’s okay. It’s okay, because one way or another, I’ll have to show them how it has changed me. It won’t be noticeable right away, and it won’t be so visible like a tattoo on my head, but slowly the changes will come trickling in. Like many, we haven’t learned only about Kosovo or the Balkans, but we’ve learned about mankind – about ourselves. When I see the warmth and care of Bardha and her family, and their super honest but well-meaning ways, I learn. I learn to incorporate parts of their ways into my ways. I don’t know if it will last, but even small changes make a difference, no? You know, this blog post was supposed to be about how we had changed after the trip, and though I feel like I have already, I don’t think I can pinpoint in what ways, yet. But I am aware of some things that I’ve learnt. I learned from Nienke’s enthusiasm, no matter what time it is or who she’s with and I want to try to bring that back with me. I learned from Thomas’ constant hugs and smiles, and try to give that love back to others no matter how tired I am, just like him. I learned from Anne’s patience, the endless patience she gives us. When we’re late, she says that it’s more important that we’re here and safe. She makes it seem so easy, and then I witness a moment in which she gathers her patience for just two seconds, and then she sighs and proceeds to give us more patience. Though she might not have liked me seeing that moment (I don’t know), it was good for me to see. It showed me that it is something to continuously work at, that it doesn’t just come like that, and I learn from it. The next step is incorporating all those lessons, all those traits within yourself to truly change.

However, the biggest thing that has been given to me is to see the power of youth. The youth in Kosovo had been imperative to the protests in the 1990s, and are imperative for the changes made today and tomorrow. After this trip, I can say that I’ve seen young people around me change from students into people who will change the world without a doubt. When we had our last check-out that night at the lake, we listened to what was on each other’s mind. During those moments, and those check-outs, I realized that I’m seeing transformation happen before my eyes. I’ll share two moments with you, but I assure you that I’ve seen transformation in every individual there. When Shelby stood up and gave her check-out, you could see how baffled, and how touched she was by the entire trip. One thing stood out for me: when she explained that she had never been aware of how corruption in Suriname really is and how it’s really not okay to let that continue, she says, “That just means I have a lot of work to do.” And when you heard her say that, you can’t argue with that: you just know that she does have a lot of work to do indeed, but more so, that she really will do all of that work. I think we all listened in awe to our friend who was angry, determined and full of heart to change Suriname. Never underestimate the power of youth.

This is also the advice I’d like to give to the politicians and the officers at big international we visited. When we visited Vetëvendosje, some of us (including me), were impressed by the words of its president. We were swayed by his rhetoric and explanations. Later, we visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of European Integration and again, charming politicians make their way into our ‘little brains’. But it’s okay to sway, as long as you look back on it later and realize what has happened. Though, I don’t think these politicians had any idea of what they have shown us. When Vetëvendosje’s president tells us that the idea of ‘Greater Albania’ “is stupid”, although it was their own rhetoric only two years ago, and he informs us that joining with Albania is a form of national unification, he shows us how politics work. By showing us the exact same idea in a different jacket and how much better it sounds, he has given us the tools to spot such decorations of ideas in other politicians back here in the Netherlands, in Europe, in the world. When a deputy minister of foreign affairs is sitting in his seat, relaxed, laid back, charming and seemingly so open and honest, he shows us once more a form of decoration. This time the decoration is placed around him and not necessarily his ideas. By showing his youth, his humour, his relaxed demeanour and a sarcastic but honest sounding tone; he has decorated himself in such a way that we believe everything he says. I describe this, not to tell you that everything that is being said is a lie, but that it shows us how our own politicians sometimes play the same games. And I thank all of them for being the way they are, whether some found it a positive or negative experience, because by seeing the way these politicians and officers operate, they showed us much more than we could’ve hoped for.

I would tell these politicians, don’t underestimate the waves your making around the world when you meet with youth. Those waves could be felt in the Netherlands, Suriname, Ireland, Norway, Italy, you name it. There is such potential here, and that should not be taken lightly.

Monday, June 27, 2016

This is not the end

By Lisa Maya-Angulo

Back in Amsterdam, shifting gears. It is a strange feeling trying to adjust to my ‘normal life’ after this extraordinary trip. Although my ‘normal life’ is changing rapidly. Graduation is coming up, I will be moving out of the dorms soon, and AUC will be a memory sooner than I might wish. And so, here I am reflecting not only on Kosovo, but on three years of AUC. The first year, the first Kosovo trip. It seems a very long time ago. What a different person I am now in comparison to who I was then. What a different experience was Kosovo this time. It’s an indication of what AUC’s education has done for me. Not only in terms of classes and knowledge, but also in terms of personal growth. Where I used to take much of what I was told for granted, I have become much more of a critical thinker. Still, this Kosovo trip has made my head spin several times. I might have learned a lot over the years, but to truly grasp what’s happening in Kosovo there is so much left to understand. 

For me, one of the most formative experiences of this trip was our meeting with the Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN). Here, I heard from one passionate woman, Igballe (Igo) Rogova, the challenges and victories of female peacebuilders that I have written about in my capstone this year. After researching and writing about these issues for months and month on end, it was so deeply rewarding to see that these issues are addressed in Kosovo. And how! Igo is a woman with a real hands-on attitude, with loads of experience and true dedication to women’s issues. She runs the KWN with vision, staying true to their core principles of inclusiveness, solidarity and transparency. She told us stories of her own life, which illustrate courage, commitment, and everyday peace building.

This meeting changed me, because it shook awake a mind-set of doing, rather than only writing and speaking. If you really want to make a change, do it! If you don’t, there’s no way that progress can be made. What I’ve seen during some of the meetings we had, although certainly not during all, is people who are doing their job, because that’s what they are paid to do. They certainly believe in the cause and work hard, but the real passion and drive to act did not always become clear. A lot of aspects of Kosovo’s faith are outside of the hands of ‘regular Kosovars’ and even of the people working for the organizations we visited. Visa liberalization, international recognition, EU and UN membership, etc. And so, there is a lot of hope, but it is combined with frustration. Progress is made, but even more and quicker progress is demanded. What Igo taught me is that an effective way to use that frustration is turning it into action. This attitude was also very present at Kosovo 2.0 and at the Ideas Partnership, among others. 

So, I guess what I would like to tell Kosovo is to nurture that attitude. Use your hope and frustration as the fuel for change. Continue your struggle as gloriously as you have been doing up till now. And do not forget to take representatives from all corners of society with you on the way. Lastly, listen to the expertise within your own country, rather than taking lessons from (inexperienced) outsiders, including myself. You are the ones that know what you want, what you need, and how to do that. And if you wish, I, and countless others with me, are here to cooperate.

I will see you again, Kosovo

By Clara Bikoumou

Leaving Kosovo was harder this time. I do not know when I will see Bardha and Enver again. It is somehow very difficult to realize that it depends on me. Bardha cannot get a visa yet to travel out of Kosovo. I know she is angry, and frustrated and I am as well. Actually, it is also something else. Is it pressure that I feel? Or maybe anxiety? When would I be able to come back and how? It is the second time I feel this way. Last year I went to Uganda and I also met amazing people that are unable to travel out of their country, for economical reasons. Circumstances differ but the situation remains the same: I met wonderful people that do not have the means or the ability to travel. Their freedom of movement is limited, but mine is not and the responsibility that I think I have has grown. It is my responsibility because we care about each other and I know they would do the same for me. It is incredible how you can connect with people in various parts of the world, we are all so similar and it feels so good to know you have sisters and brothers all over the world. More than that, and quite similarly, the people I met in Kosovo and Uganda are game changers in their own way, and I admire them. I do not have advice for them, rather encouragements and they are the same for all the great people we met as a group. We visited incredible organizations and these local initiatives are having such a positive impact on society. They should trust their instinct and always try to stay as independent as they can be from any other donor or organization that would not understand what is really needed. Take Community Building Mitrovica (CMB), they are doing such a good work yet some of their actions were/are hampered by some of their donors that do not understand the complexity of certain situation. I know it is easy to say but all that I can say is that people should believe in the rightness of their actions. I have seen that in Uganda for example, people could start doubting of their actions only because they were questioned by what they believe to be the ‘European’ or ‘Western’ truth. People in Kosovo do not need external entities to tell them what to do; only they know what will bring peace to their hearts. I will see you again Kosovo, and I am sure you will be even more beautiful thanks to your people.