As a student of nationalism, I was excited to visit a country younger than my teenage daughter. And so, in May 2018 I found myself in Kosovo to deliver a series of lectures at the University of Pristina.
Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia on February 17, 2008 following a brutal war between 1998 and 1999. Thousands of Kosovar Albanians were forced to flee the ethnic cleansing pursued by Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosovic, and seek refuge in the rain-soaked camps along the border with Macedonia. Milosovic’s actions led to a NATO intervention in the late spring of 1998 that forced Serbia to withdraw its forces. I remember my feelings during this war, horrified by Milosovic’s violent directives but suspicious of NATO’s intentions at the same time.
With these memories vaguely in my mind, I had before me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — to discover a nation in the state of creation. How would it be to live in a country seeking the institutions of nationhood?
The taxi driver, however, was more interested in showing me the signs of modernity on the way from the airport: the large twenty-four-hour supermarket, opulent shopping centers, and the new KFC. His eagerness reminded me of my cousin, Yanni, who rushed to take me to the new Athens metro upon my arrival in Athens many years ago. Rather than visiting the Acropolis, I found myself sitting in the subway car with Yanni grinning at Greece’s modernity. And in my mind, I tried to create a new T-Shirt for sale in the Greek capital: “I came all the way to Athens but all I got was a subway ride.”
That was the message of the Kosovar taxi driver: You will feel at home in Kosovo because we are European. Societies, seeing themselves belated, sprint forward to adopt and then show off their newly developed western institutions.
It was in the National Museum that I got a taste of nationalism in action. History has shown that, after independence, a country seeks the cultural institutions of nationhood. In addition to forming an army, bureaucracy, education system, embassies abroad and so on, nations strive to develop a national literature, museums, and theaters to showcase their new national identity.
And so, visiting the National Museum after my last lecture, I was able to observe how this institution documented the history of Kosovo from prehistoric times to the present. I witnessed there what I had seen elsewhere: an attempt to provide a seamless history from antiquity to the present. Nations may be new but they claim an ancient pedigree, justifying their existence by weaving a story of continuity from an earlier time.
But it was on the second floor, devoted to the Kosovo War and independence from Serbia, that I faced the utter contemporaneity of Kosovar nationalism. For it’s not every day that the artefacts from a battle of independence are motorcycles, hand-grenades, police uniforms, and computers, rather than rifles, swords, pens, banners, and trumpets, as I had seen in countless other museums.
Most disturbing was the display of photographs by a Kosovar journalist who had documented his family’s violent deportation to Macedonia. Looking at the black-and-white images of refugees, corpses, and camps, I remembered my conversation earlier with Mirlind, the journalist who had invited me to Kosovo.
During the war he and his family had taken a bus voluntarily to Macedonia but were stopped by Serb irregular forces and made to go home. Mirlind wondered how his life would have changed, had those soldiers let them cross the border where they would have claimed political asylum and been allowed to live somewhere in western Europe — a heady thought for someone in his mid-twenties.
How did he feel now, I asked? What did it mean to him that his uncle was a soldier in the Kosovar Liberation Army? More importantly, how did he look at those Serbian soldiers that had prevented him from escaping the war?
I wanted to know how a person deals with trauma. Do they try to reconcile with their former oppressors or continue to punish them with loathing? Do they, in other words, go on hating hate?
I found myself posing these questions at lunch with three colleagues after my first lecture. Perhaps it was impertinent of me to ask, especially as I never had to face these issues. But I noticed the consternation on their faces, the pain perhaps of recalling sorrowful events. One colleague described how her hand had been broken during a demonstration many years earlier as a student. Others mentioned the steady disenchantment with the federalism in Yugoslavia. All three were grateful not to have lost any relatives in the war. As a guest, I became caught up with the contradictions of nationalism, paradoxes that I had otherwise only had to confront intellectually in my work.
These tensions became palpable the day earlier when Mirlind took us to the fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Gracanica, located in a Kosovar Serbian town 20 minutes outside of Pristina. Clearly there was nervousness when we arrived in one of the few Serbian enclaves left after independence. I felt this very anxiety two days later in the lovely city of Prizren, when we visited the Serbian church of St. George, the Great Martyr that had been set alight in 2004. Later in the day, when we stopped at the abandoned monastery of the Holy Archangels on the way to the Ottoman castle atop the hill, the guard had asked us if we were Orthodox. We were the only ones stopped of the hundreds of visitors climbing up to the castle.
Standing later on the walls of this castle and marveling at the view below of the Bistrica River, the stone bridges, the Sinan Pasha Mosque, all splendid in the afternoon sun, I wondered how people rebuild a society after war. How do Kosovar Serbs themselves feel now about living in an independent state they never sought, constituting a minority in one of the youngest countries in the world? Where is home? How many Serbs fled Kosovo after the war? What about the Kosovar Albanian woman Mirlind told me about, who still sets the table for her long-lost family? Does every nationalism lead to a dispossession?
Undoubtedly nationalism has its ugly side: Slobodan Milosovic’s ethnic cleansing, Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant crusade, Victor Orban’s Islamophobia, Benjamin Netanyahu’s violence against Gazans, Nikolás Maduro’s destructive populism. When I hear the rants of these leaders about walls, enemies, criminals, foreigners, national carnage and national humiliation, I fear how their followers might respond.
At the same time, I realize it’s easy to criticize the abuses of nationalism if you already have a nation. But things look different to a Palestinian or a Kurd or even a Catalonian. Given the cultural and political oppression the Kosovar Albanians faced, how could they not seek their own nationhood. Nationalism, after all, offers safety and succor to the nation.
On the ruined walls of an old empire I felt the push and pull of the modern age, the tension between violence, repression, death, on the one hand, and peace, freedom, and hope, on the other.