Makeshift graves, topless tanks, demitasse cups, unnoticed soldiers, elbow patches, landlocked republics, shared values, theoretical treatises, hostile tones, long memories & Kosovo.
The Messenger of Allah said: “Shall I not tell you something that is better than the status of (voluntary) fasting, prayer and charity?” They said yes. He said: “Reconciling in a case of discord…”
—From Hadith, a collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: Abu Dawood 4273
I landed in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, in April 2000. Kosovo is a small, landlocked republic that was part of the former Republic of Yugoslavia and part of the Serbian massacre of Muslims, as was Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the 1998 to 1999 Balkan War. Trudging down the metal steps onto the tarmac in the spring of 2000, I see at least fifty UN and NATO soldiers in brown and camouflage uniforms, loaded down with ammunition belts and automatic weapons. They scurry around, guarding a few commercial and military planes and tanks and several white Red Cross ambulances.
Entering a temporary metal shack that serves as an arrival area, a bald, middle-aged man is eyeing each passenger. Below his faded black-leather jacket is a slightly wrinkled white shirt that resembles his pale, drawn face. I am one of the few women, and my bewildered look must have identified me. He asks my name and introduces himself as Mustafa, vice president of Riinvest, the economic think tank I am to consult with on behalf of a Washington, DC, nonprofit.
Below his faded black-leather jacket is a slightly wrinkled white shirt that resembles his pale, drawn face.
Grabbing my luggage, Mustafa shepherds me to his car, an older-model Mercedes with several indentations that could be bullet holes. We pass skeletons of burnt planes and topless twisted tanks, remnants of both Serbian and Coalition bombings. Hollowed-out buildings look like scaffolding. At several checkpoints, we show our passports to very serious-looking UN Coalition soldiers. They search the car for weapons at each stop. I did not expect this kind of welcome and I fight back, questioning myself as to what I am doing here.
We don’t talk very much in the car. Unfortunately, I am not the consultant Riinvest wanted. They had previously worked with a male economics professor and colleague from the Netherlands, whom they liked very much. But the funder was not happy with his report. He had delivered a theoretical treatise that could not be implemented. My task is to help develop a plan that outlines steps Riinvest can take to achieve their mission of helping to develop entrepreneurialism as the basis of a new economy after years under socialism.
In addition to not wanting a new consultant, everyone at Riinvest is Muslim. I am Jewish. My expertise is in organizational development, and I do not have a PhD in economics. I am a woman; the leaders at Reiinvest are all men. The funder sent me despite Riinvest’s initial concerns. So, I have several hurdles to jump to build trust and find common ground.
Photos are stapled to straight sticks and have phone numbers on them. They stand as mini-billboards pleading for the missing to call home.
As we drive to town, pictures of children, husbands, wives, mothers and fathers are mounted on wooden crosses, identifying makeshift graves on each side of the road. Altars composed of candles in glass containers and bunches of wilting spring flowers in vases or lying on the bare ground consecrate the sacred ground. Photos are stapled to straight sticks and have phone numbers on them. They stand as mini-billboards pleading for the missing to call home. It has been documented that 13,517 people were killed or went missing, and more than a million people were displaced, in the Kosovo conflict between early 1998 and June 1999. I hold back tears as mile after mile of these shrines humanize individual tragedies.
In contrast to the solemn memorials along the road, in downtown Pristina people sit in outdoor cafés under red, yellow and blue umbrellas. Drinking demitasse cups of Turkish coffee, small groups of suited men are in conversations at outdoor tables. Three-generation families are huddled together, eating sandwiches and drinking tea. Young mothers run after toddlers, and kids play soccer on the dusty pedestrian-only main street. Shapely young women in knockoff designer jeans and T-shirts flirt with tall, darkly handsome men standing on the broken sidewalks.
Mopeds zoom and cars honk on the narrow side streets. UN and NATO soldiers go unnoticed as they patrol the streets with machine guns in hand. The buzz of life in the city is juxtaposed against several roofless buildings and piles of rubble surrounding the gray ash- and dust-covered streets.
Two blue ceramic lamps sit on round carved side tables covered in a grandmother’s crocheted white doilies. I sense this must be one of the best rooms they have.
I check into the only “five-star” hotel in Pristina, which has bullet holes scarring the concrete-block entryway of its 1950s Soviet façade. My room is just a few steps up from many of the lodgings I had frequented in my backpacking days. The paper-thin walls are painted nondescript beige; the carved-wood-framed bed sinks in the middle. Two blue ceramic lamps sit on round carved side tables covered in a grandmother’s crocheted white doilies. I sense this must be one of the best rooms they have. It will be my home for the next three weeks.
After a brief rest, I prepare to meet Mohamed, the president of Reiinvest, for dinner. I change into a “power” black pantsuit, red blouse, and higher-heeled shoes to increase my short height. I try to tame my dark, curly hair swirled around my head from the flight. Hands shaking a bit, I tramp down tattered carpeted steps to the lobby decorated with a red couch edged in mahogany and matching armchairs, a few wooden tables, and chairs with nubby red-patterned seat covers. A tall man with slicked-back, gray-streaked hair is entertaining four other men. An easy smile spreads over the man’s face as he sees me and nods. His deep, contagious laugh fills the lobby as he finishes his story and says his good-byes. The other men are still laughing as their eyes follow Mohamed across the room.
He walks with the confidence of a man sure of his steps on the ground and in his life.
In his fifties, Mohamed is solidly built. He wears a blue-checked shirt and brown corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches and looks like the economics professor he is now. But before Milošević purged all Kosovars from government positions, Mohamed had been the minister of economics for Yugoslavia. I notice his dark eyes are bloodshot and droop a little, betraying a hint of sadness and exhaustion beneath his smiling exterior. He towers over me as he greets me and introduces himself. The smell of musk and cloves surrounds him as we shake hands.
Following his lead to a restaurant around the corner, I double my steps to keep up with him. He walks with the confidence of a man sure of his steps on the ground and in his life. The owner of the cozy, dark-wood-paneled restaurant gives him a bear-hug welcome. He seats us at a back-corner table adorned with a votive candle, white dishes and a white tablecloth.
“How was your trip?” Mohamed asks.
“Excellent. I did not expect to be sent in business class for the very long trip from California,” I reply. “I was also surprised at the large military presence at the airport.”
Mustafa ignores that comment, so I think best to change the subject to establish rapport.
“Tell me about your family,” I say.
“Everyone is fine. I have a son in high school and a daughter in law school. We are all getting on with our lives after the trauma of war.”
We order salad and the night’s special, lamb stew. Mohamed asks me about my background. Although I know he knows it, I give him a brief summary of my résumé. His face tightens and a momentary flash of anger flickers in his eyes.
“I am not pleased that the funder rejected our first plan. We are the experts on our economy and worked with a respected economist who is a colleague.”
I worry my first dinner in Kosovo might also be my farewell dinner. Although I am apprehensive of the consequences, I decide to address the issue upfront.
“Mohamed, I understand that you may be frustrated and perhaps even resent my coming. I am not an economist, but I have the planning skills you need to satisfy the funder. They thought the first plan was an academic treatise, not realistic and not action oriented.”
Mohamed’s face turns into a ripe plum. I’m not sure if he is angry or embarrassed. His hostile tone answers my question. “That is why our plan was rejected? It was too theoretical and academic? We are academics. They knew that when they funded us.”
“I assure you that your expertise, vision and ideas will make up the plan. I can help you turn those ideas into a road map you can take to help develop economic growth. Please keep an open mind. Judge the process by our results.”
Lost in thought for an eternity of a minute, Mohamed softens his tone. “Trust must be earned. I will give you a chance because we must. Come to the office in the morning to meet with the senior team members to explain how you will proceed.”
I breathe again. At least this elephant in the room has been put to bed for the night. As we eat our dinner, I ask about the folk music playing and the Albanian heritage of the Muslims of Kosovo. Over Turkish coffee, we discuss my love of Turkey and my frequent visits to see friends I had made working there.
Out of nowhere, he asks, “Are you Jewish?” My name probably gave him a clue.
Fear of rejection again overtakes me as I hesitate to answer. “Yes. Does it matter?”
“Well, maybe you can better understand what we have been through. Milošević’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims was somewhat like the persecution and killing of the Jews in the Holocaust, although on a much smaller scale and less methodical than the Nazis.”
They were left at the Macedonian border and crossed into exile there, where they began a resistance movement against Serbian atrocities.
He tells me his family was awakened in the middle of the night and told to pack a bag while armed guards watched. They marched to the railroad station where other Kosovar leaders and their families were assembled.
Mohamed’s eyes moisten a bit. “It was like the railroad scene in Schindler’s List,” he says. “I thought we being transported to a concentration camp or, worse, to a deserted spot to be shot.” Luckily, they were left at the Macedonian border and crossed into exile there, where they began a resistance movement against Serbian atrocities.
I did not expect that my being Jewish might a basis for common ground. We discuss the senselessness of ethnic discrimination. As the conversation goes on, we both relax a little as we discuss the shared values between Islam and Judaism: our traditions of helping strangers, social justice, generosity to and compassion for the less fortunate.
The restaurant owner comes over and says he wants to go home; we have not realized the time. I feel a sliver of mutual respect starting to develop between Mohamed and myself. Building trust begins with finding common goals, interests and values, not focusing on differences.
In the morning, I ascend the creaky wooden stairs to the office, not sure what will happen next. I enter a large room filled with a mishmash of desks and card tables and the smell of fragrant tea brewing. Glued to their computers are six young, clean-shaven men in ties, sweaters, and leather and fleece jackets. There are four women, also in their twenties, wearing dark skirts and jackets with colorful wool shawls wrapped around them for warmth. A few middle-aged men in suits are interspersed within the group, and everyone looks up as I enter. Over to the side, Mohamed is sitting in his office, meeting with Mustafa and two other men.
I have the urge to go back out the door just as a tall young man gets up, smiles widely and says, “Dobra jutro. Good morning.” He escorts me to Mohamed’s office. Mustafa and Mohamed greet me and introduce me to Sedji, the administrative director, who gives me his chair. Another man in his forties, Illias, is a lawyer who had briefly been the president of Kosovo when they first broke off from Yugoslavia after Tito’s death. He had to flee Kosovo because a death warrant was issued for him by the Serbian-led government and he had been hunted all over Europe during the war.
A young woman serves us glasses of tea. I ask about the young people in the other room. Mohamed explains that they are all advanced economic students working with Riinvest. “They are the future,” he says, “and we must teach and develop them.”
Mohamed must have talked with the other leaders about our discussion, as he asks me to present the planning framework to the senior group. I describe a participatory process, which would include all members of the think tank, including students, not just the leadership.
“Together, we will revise your plan to include specific actions and results over the next year. You will be involved in every stage of the planning process. We also will involve Kosovar business owners.”
They agree to give it a try. I’m sure they’ve figured out they have no choice.
As I talk, the economists exchange looks with eyebrows raised and eyes slightly squinting. This is a totally different approach from what was used by the previous consultant, who interviewed only the senior leaders and went off to write his report on his own. In both traditional academia and the previous socialist model of Yugoslavia, all information flowed from the top down, and was not so inclusive and participatory. They agree to give it a try. I’m sure they’ve figured out they have no choice.
First we must identify the current business situation: how many, where and what kind of businesses are operating in Kosovo. Mohammed appoints a small task force to research this, and another to help me develop interviews for business owners. I then will train the teams on how to conduct interviews, and we will practice with each other.
T hree days into my work, I drag myself up the steps of the ramshackle office of Riinvest as darkness surrenders to light. I park myself in front of my huge, aged computer. It is quiet, but I see Mustafa is already at his desk in his office.
An explosion that sounds like a sonic boom erupts outside the building, and the room shakes with the force of an earthquake. Plunging under my desk, I am not sure which is trembling more, the desk or me. Chairs tumble over. Papers fly around the room. I hear windows crack and burst. The smell of tar assaults my nose as smoke seeps into the room. My eyes water and, coughing, my throat feels like sandpaper.
Chairs tumble over. Papers fly around the room. I hear windows crack and burst.
After several minutes, Mustafa emerges from his office, goes to a window and calls my name. Failing to gracefully extricate myself from under the desk, I bump my head as I crawl out. Hiding under my desk during the explosion probably did not increase my credibility.
“What was that?” I ask, trying not to sound hysterical.
With a slight smile below his clipped silver mustache, Mustafa replies sarcastically, “In Kosovo, we call it ‘reconciliation.’”
I go to the shattered window and look down the street at twisted metal and waves of smoke creating a thick haze. Pebbles and shards of glass cover the ground. The smell of burning rubber permeates the air. People begin to come out to the street, examining the damage. Mustafa, who returns from assessing the destruction below, tells me a bomb had been planted in a car owned by a Serb.
Damn, what have I gotten myself into? This country is still reeling from a violent war. Centuries-old ethnic resentments are smoldering under a shaky peace. I had read that conflict between Christian Serbs and Muslim Albanians dates back to 1389, when Turks brought Islam to Kosovo, the sacred home of Serbian Christianity. Christians and Muslims lived as neighbors in Kosovo until Slobodan Milošević became president of the Republic of Yugoslavia in 1989. Memories are long in the Balkans. Six hundred years to the day that the Turks conquered Kosovo, Milošević invaded Kosovo and ethnic cleansing began. A year later, a USA-led NATO coalition defeated him. I thought the war was over, but as I lift up overturned chairs and pick up papers strewn around the floor, I wonder if it is still going on.
I am happy to leave the office that afternoon. I accompany a team of leaders and students to conduct interviews with business owners. We approach a thirty-something Serbian corner grocer, his arm tattooed with a cross. Sedji, who looks like a sage with his thin, tall stature, rimless glasses and gray hair, explains who we are and that we want to explore what he needs for his grocery to prosper again. The owner turns crimson and yells in Serbian, which is translated for me. “You Muslims looted my store during the war. Why should I speak to you? Get out!” he screams, waving his arms for us to leave.
A student, Tarik, responds in Serbian. I am told he says, “I know your nephew Igor; we were friends at school before the war. I deeply regret your store was looted. But the war is now over and we must rebuild our country.”
The shop owner turns to look at Tarik as he continues, “Your opinions are necessary to identify what our businesses need. Perhaps we can even provide resources to help you.”
The man’s face lightens a bit as they stare at each other for a minute or two. The owner then allows Tarik to interview him. Tarik reports that there are no consistent suppliers and that the owner must pay exorbitant prices on the black market. I note that consistent flow of goods is an issue for Riinvest to address. I am sure this encounter doesn’t take away the shopkeeper’s anger. But an apology from Tarik, a dose of empathy and the possibility we might provide resources for his business seem to lessen the man’s rage.
The next interview is with Mehmet, an old Albanian Kosovar who owns a cleaners and laundromat on the other end of town. He talks about needing new washers and dryers, and how people who have no jobs now wash their own clothes. I note that we need to identify how to get low-cost equipment and brainstorm job-development strategies so people can start to have disposable income to help these businesses.
We move on to meet a young entrepreneur, Hussein, who just opened an eight-table restaurant. He says he needs business and accounting training. Business training is a service Reiinvest could make available to help build the economy.
Building trust starts with listening and empathy. Through these meetings, I see tiny pinholes of understanding start to pierce the walls of hate and suspicion. Whether Albanian or Serbian Kosovars, the hopes and needs of these business owners are the same. They want a decent chance to make a living to support their families.
During the second week of work, I pull all-nighters and draft recommendations for Riinvest to consider based on the data, which now has the human faces of business owners. I discuss my recommendations and validate or change them, making the process as transparent as possible. The more we engage with each other, the more trust and commitment builds.
They are the lucky ones; their homes are intact.
During my stay, several students invite me to dinner at their respective homes. They are the lucky ones; their homes are intact. Many of the students’ families are displaced and living with friends or relatives. Each family prepares a traditional meal that I suspect is beyond their limited financial means. At Ibrahim’s house, he excitedly tells his mother, father and grandmother of the interviews he has conducted and the skills he is developing. Ayse announces to her family that she wants to earn her PhD so she can do international work. Hassan expresses to his parents how honored he is to work as equals with the heroic leaders of Riinvest.
The parents listen with smiles of pride, but their eyes betray varying degrees of skepticism. They have lived through oppression and war. Hope can be a casualty of those experiences.
After three weeks, the plan is finished. Riinvest surprises me with a party. Illias presents me with a gift of a velvet-lined heart-shaped silver box and says how I “have touched their hearts.” Mohamed gives a speech, infused with jokes about the dread they felt to have an unknown woman, not an economist, coming to check up on them. Sedji tells the group he first felt the new methods could never work. “Now,” he says, “I’m pleased we have defined responsibilities and priorities.”
My heart is so full I can barely speak. I thank them for their trust and acceptance. Mohammed announces that the funder has agreed to send me back in six months to see the progress on the plan and make adjustments as needed. The room explodes with applause and I realize I am leading it. We then all hug each other and celebrate with tea and cake.
The next day, Mustafa drives me to the airport. We pass many of the same roadside pictures and memorial shrines as when I arrived. The same bombed-out tanks and buildings stand as sculptures depicting wartime death and destruction. As we pass the heavily armed soldiers at the airport entrance, I ask Mustafa how long the UN Coalition troops will have to be here. “Oh, about a hundred years,” he cynically replies.
Centuries-old ethnic resentments are smoldering under a shaky peace.
“I hope that’s not true,” I reply with some frustration. But I really can’t blame Mustafa for his views. They are based on history, his life experience rooted in ethnic conflict, war and repression. Reconciliation doesn’t automatically follow war without strong intentions and actions to come to terms with painful memories.
In Kosovo, perhaps not enough time has passed for reconciliation. On February 15, 2018, in the New York Times, Andrew Testa wrote about the ten-year anniversary of Kosovar independence. A few days earlier, the moderate Serbian politician Oliver Ivanović was assassinated in Mitrovica, the place where the most brutal killings of Kosovar Albanian Muslims by Christian Serbs occurred. Testa writes,
“In the rest of Kosovo, [many] Albanian and Serb communities cooperate more. But [in Mitrovica] psychic scars are everywhere. Even if the landscape has been transformed by gleaming highways, giant gas stations, and shopping malls. The road from the border with Albania…is itself like a scar, a poignant reminder of wartime massacres.”
According to the World Bank, Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe: seventy percent of its people are under age thirty-five. Perhaps the younger generation can learn different tools for conflict resolution, just as Riinvest learned new ways to work together.
In the Old Testament, God let the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years so the old generation that knew slavery could die off and a free generation could build a new, liberated nation. This new generation would not remember bondage, or share the cynicism that the older generation had developed in their wanderings. Hopefully, the same will happen in Kosovo. Then, perhaps authentic reconciliation will replace explosions of retribution.
Rosie Cohan, a multiple-award-winning writer, has traveled to more than sixty countries, including sixteen trips to Turkey, her “home away from home.” Her stories include descriptions of interesting characters, beautiful landscapes and different cultural traditions while connecting the reader to the universality of the human experience. Her stories have been published with Geographic Expeditions, Travelers’ Tales, Solas Awards’ Best Travel Writing and About Place Journal and in the anthologies Stories that Need to Be Told and Travel Stories of Wonder and Change. Rosie lives and writes in Berkeley, California, a world unto itself. This story was first published by About Place Journal and was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2021 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Besmir Kryeziu