Happy New Year dear friends and readers! We have a lot to catch up on.
The past few weeks in Kosovo have been full of meetings, interviews, concerts, and events. The big celebration here was the 100 Year Anniversary of Albanian Independence on November 28th, locally known as Pavarsija, pronounced (pa-var-si-ya). There were fireworks, dancing on the streets, cultural presentations, parties all over town, and probably the most amount of Albanian flags I have ever seen. To say the least, it was a pretty big deal! That same week I interviewed the lead singer of Jericho, an alternative rock band that uses traditional influences. I first learned about Jericho at a peace protest organized by the Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN). Jericho’s music uses very traditional Albanian elements and is a powerful testimony of the struggle that Albanian people have endured the past 100 years, with particular emphasis on the tragedies and missing loved ones of the war. I think it is much easier for outsiders understand the hype around Pavarsija when juxtaposed alongside a history of struggle that people here strongly identify with. You can view footage of the festivities, featuring a song by Jericho titled “Kur do te pushoj kjo kenge (When Will this Song Rest)” at the end of this post.
For now, I want to focus on Igballe Rogova, the executive director of KWN.
Rogova is the first lesbian in Kosovo to come out publicly. She has been a human rights and peace activist for decades. She used music to work with women in refugee camps during the war, and continues to use music as a tool for creating mutual understanding and healing. I am thankful to know her, endearingly as Igo. I am writing this post in honor of her and the lives of Kosovar women she has impacted and been impacted by. I recently attended The Kosovo Women’s Network Annual Assembly where Eurovision star and Kosovo native, Rona Nishliu, performed her song, “Vetem Zemra Flet Sakt, (Only Your Heart Can Speak the Truth)”. There’s more to come about Rona in future posts. For now, check her out here.
Please continue reading more about my experiences in Kosovo, Igo, KWN, the Independence Celebration, local rock band Jericho, and recent freedom of speech and human rights violations on the LGBT community in Prishtina.
I had two big realizations during the Independence Day celebration.
First, I realized that women’s stories are missing from the dominant historical narrative of Albanian history. The most famous narrative about a woman is that of Shote Galica, the first woman to fight in war, and the first to be declared a national hero. Other Albanian heroes are mainly men, and mainly war heroes. Even Mother Teresa, one of the most famous Albanians globally, often gets left on the sidelines. The big question for me during Pavarsija festivities was, “how can Albanians embrace a healthy and positive identity while also promoting peace and mutual understanding?” I think this is a very important question to be asked by all people in the Balkans because the region is still characterized by hyper-nationalism and ethnic tension. Though I can’t claim to have any answers, I believe any healthy society needs healthy women. I think women in Kosovo need more safe spaces where they can share their experiences with one another and find a sense of validation and self worth through their stories. I think the arts play an important role in this process.
I heard about Igballe Rrugova a few months before I left for Kosovo, though I was already familiar with KWN.
Her cousin in Milwaukee told me that I needed to schedule an appointment with Rrugova and introduce myself as Dijana’s friend. At our first meeting I told her about my project and that I wanted to focus on the healing process since the war. I told her that I wanted to document songs and stories of everyday women in Kosovo. She listened patiently with a stoic look on her face. The work she has done to promote women’s rights, peace, justice, and dignity for all people is more than just inspiring, it’s an example, the type of example that is necessary to build a healthy identity. After I finished talking, Igo still didn’t say much. Instead, she showed me footage of her work with women in refugee camps following the war. She knew then that women needed to sing because music heals.
In the camps, women who had just escaped genocide, some of whom had recently been violated, sang together with Igo, their conductor. I couldn’t help but cry when I saw footage of this featuring the song, “Oj Kosovo, Nana Ime, (Oh Kosovo, My Mother)”, a song that was also played extensively during the Pavarsija festivities. Igo then shared a story of one young girl who had stopped speaking completely after a group of Serbian soldiers raped her in front of her family. This girl’s mother had heard about the music workshops. After a few weeks in attendance, the girl slowly found her voice. First, she picked up the def (a tambourine used in traditional music), and after a while, even started singing. She eventually spoke her first words after months of silence.
The Kosovo Government has yet to formally acknowledge that sexual violence was used as a weapon of war. Very little has been done to help survivors.
A few days after my meeting with Igo, I was invited to take footage at a peace protest organized by the Kosovo Women’s Network as a call for the Serbian government to formally ask the people of Kosovo for forgiveness of war crimes. This is where I first heard of Jericho, who’s music was blaring at the beginning of the event.
In my first blog post, I attempted to dissect the reason people here believe they are “100 % Albanian”. I was surprised to find myself exploring the extent patriarchal lineages play in the myths of purity. Just last weekend, however, I was surprised again to learn even the strongest ethnic identities can be subdued by religious fundamentalism. Property was vandalized and people were beat at the launch of local magazine, Kosovo 2.0’s edition on sexuality. Igballe Rugova was to read a public letter correspondence with Serbian friend and fellow activist Lepa Mladjenovic. The two women have known one another since 1995 and remained friends during the war. Mladjenovic even visited Rugova while she was organizing in refugee camps in Macedonia. Though it is unclear who was responsible for these acts, it is clear that they were there to, “get the ‘pederat’ (the fagots)”.
I attended this event still unaware of what had happened just minutes before my arrival. There were police officers there, but I assumed they were just a precaution. Something didn’t feel right. The smashed figures on the floor weren’t exactly conceptual art. Besa Luci, the editor of the magazine, was shaking during her introduction. That week I had been warned by my friend’s at Libertas, a local LGBT group I am connected to through my affiliate Nita Luci, coincidentally Besa Luci’s sister, to keep a low profile. I participated as a model for Libertas in the first ad campaign launched to support LGBT rights in Kosovo. I knew that this campaign would have resistance, but I had not imagined people would go to the extent that they have. The day following Kosovo 2.0’s event, the offices’ of Libertas were broken into, their property vandalized, members of the group beaten, and one girl critically injured and hospitalized. Although these events have been condemned by local and international authorities, no one has been reprimanded for their actions.
I feel very disheartened by what has passed. I am questioning how can people fear and hate so easily, and do so in the name of religion? Albanians have historically aligned themselves on ethnic grounds regardless of faith, yet angry mobs of men here chanted, “Out with the gays, out with the whores,” and, “Allah is the greatest”. Did they know they were directing these words to their Albanian brothers and sisters? How did this happen here, and in the wake of the 100 Year Anniversary of Albanian Independence, no less? Is this particular to the Balkans as a region? Or, are there underlying issues in Kosovo specifically? My guess is that the lack of infrastructure, the fact that Kosovo is not always recognized as a nation, combined with a poor education system, new religious institutions, and ramped political corruption have a lot to do with happened. I also think that the Kosovo people as a whole have not had enough access or education about LGBT issues, or sexuality for that matter, to stand in solidarity with those under attack.
I came to Kosovo to create a safe space for women, particularly survivors, to come together and sing as a form of healing. Since my arrival I’ve discovered that Kosovo is not the easiest place to be a woman. It is even harder to be a woman that experienced the traumas of war, or a woman that identifies as a lesbian. Many survivors, for instance, are seen as “turp”, a word meaning “shame” or “disgrace”. Out of the survivors that didn’t commit suicide off the bat, many were abandoned by their husbands, but most remain silent to this day. Women who identify as lesbians also remain silent and hidden.
It has taken me a while to realize that my original idea for an open mic series is going to be much harder to organize than I had expected (if it can be organized at all). When I can, I attend practices held by LIRA, my initial affiliate organization, a women’s choir, who meets on Tuesday evenings. In the near future, I hope to work with The Mitrovica School of Rock in the north and an arts organization in Prishtina called Artpolis. Meanwhile, I am working on my film about women and the healing process and building a stronger relationship with Igo and KWN. In future blog posts I hope to focus more on stories about the musicians that I meet on my journey here, and how their music is connected to the themes in my project.
I leave you with “Kur Do Te Pushoj Kjo Kenge, (When WIll This Song Rest”, by Jericho. I have translated the text and included footage from the 100 Year Anniversary of Albanian Independence. The second half of the video includes part of my interview with Petrit, the lead singer.