I bet you liked the seesaw when you were a kid. Remember the pleasure of riding up and down, up and down, but only enjoying it if your friend on the other side was of similar size and weight? Well, the seesaw in relationships between Albanian and Serb communities has never been much fun because one party always had the upper hand at one time or another. Pent-up emotions and inter-ethnic tensions have been a reality in Serbia’s (ex-) southern province of Kosovo for as long as I can remember.
Fast backward. The late 1960s witnessed first protests by the Albanians who felt downtrodden as Islam had been repressed and the government, security forces, and industrial employment largely dominated by Serbs and Montenegrins. After a demand that Kosovo be made a republic, it gained major autonomy by the mid 70s, that is ‘its own administration, assembly, and judiciary, along with the membership in the collective presidency and the Yugoslav parliament’ and recognition of a Muslim Yugoslav nationality in Yugoslavia. As a result, ‘there was a massive overhaul of Kosovo’s nomenclature and police that shifted from being Serb-dominated to ethnic Albanian-dominated,’ which now meant harassing and firing Serbs big time. Our parents slept tight, sleepwalking without waking up.
The turning point in the relationship between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo occurred in March 1981 when Albanian students organized protests seeking that Kosovo become a republic within Yugoslavia. The University of Priština, in Kosovo’s capital of Priština, was the starting point of the protests. Kosovo’s cultural isolation within Yugoslavia and its endemic poverty resulted in the province having the highest ratio of illiterates in the country. What’s more, university education was no guarantee of getting a job and the prospects of a promising future remained bleak. Unemployment grew and so did nationalist sentiment. The demands of the Albanian students were both nationalist and egalitarianist. They wanted a different kind of socialism than the Yugoslav one, marked by semi-confederalism and workers’ self-management. However, the unrest was brutally suppressed by the police and army, with many protesters arrested and killed, which was followed by a period of political repression. As many as 226 people were put on trial, including students, convicted of ‘separatism’ and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Many Albanians, including deans, were fired, our parents stuck between illusion and denial. Politically speaking, the demand that Kosovo become the seventh republic of Yugoslavia was unacceptable to Serbia and Macedonia that saw a ‘Greater Albania’ in the making, encompassing parts of Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo itself.
Repression was present on both sides in 1981. Some 4,000 Serbs were reported to have moved from the province to central Serbia after the riots that resulted in several Serb deaths and the desecration of Serbian Orthodox architecture and graveyards. In short, the demonstrations in Kosovo were the beginning of a deep crisis in Yugoslavia that led to its dissolution a decade later. The government’s response to the protests sure changed the political discourse in the country in a way that significantly impaired its ability to sustain itself in the future. By the 1980s, the Kosovo Albanians constituted a majority in Kosovo and ethnic tensions continued with frequent violent outbreaks against Yugoslav state authorities. During the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of Serbs and Montenegrins left Kosovo, largely due to unfavorable economic conditions, and ethnic discrimination by the Kosovo Albanian government and population. ’57,000 Serbs have left Kosovo in the last decade,’ wrote the New York Times in 1982. According to Noam Chomsky (source: A Review of NATO’s War over Kosovo), “after the death of Tito, nationalist forces undertook to create an ‘ethnically clean Albanian republic,’ taking over Serb lands, attacking churches, and engaging in ‘protracted violence’ to attain the goal of an ‘ethnically pure’ Albanian region, with ‘almost weekly incidents of rape, arson, pillage and industrial sabotage, most seemingly designed to drive Kosovo’s remaining indigenous Slavs out of the province.” At the same time, an atmosphere that Serbs were the only jeopardized ones was being created in the rest of Serbia. We were panned out, snoring.
My generation was growing up and didn’t know or understand much of what was going on there in the 80s. We were sleepwalking through the Kosovo crisis, at least those who didn’t know anybody affected by it. We were busy putting out fires at home, looking for four-leaf clovers, and chasing the rainbow, busy blowing out candles on birthday cakes, busy being footloose, busy jumping rope, playing with marbles, building a house of cards and sandcastles, throwing snowballs at each other and eggs and sticky coal tar pitch on passers-by from the terrace, busy flying kites, riding bikes, roller skating, discovering and exploring caves, busy climbing cherry trees, writing to pen pals, sledding, organizing tennis tournaments, putting stars on top of Christmas trees, collecting napkins, badges, shells and memories. The whole country was busy leading its life, sleeping like a baby and dreaming. Nobody heard or wanted to hear the nightmares of those deprived of sleep.
With his visits to Kosovo, Serbian President Milošević will ‘upset the delicate balance that Tito so carefully sought.’ The incapacity to control Albanian separatist unrest in the province will prove detrimental in the long run, ending in a massacre on both sides, and the mass desertion of Kosovo. Under Tito, Kosovars had had a considerable measure of self-rule until 1989 when Milošević, who gained political power by pledging to discontinue the repression, responded brutally by abolishing Kosovo’s autonomy and establishing direct Serbian rule. ‘With his rise to power, the Albanians started boycotting state institutions and ignoring the laws of the Republic of Serbia, culminating in the creation of the Republic of Kosova, a self-declared proto-state in 1992, which received diplomatic recognition from neighboring Albania. Kosovo Albanians organized a separatist movement, creating what Chomsky calls ‘a parallel civil society,’ that is a number of parallel structures in education, medical care, and taxation (source: Crisis in the Balkans). Needless to say, they had all the encouragement from Western governments they needed. The ultimate goal of such civil disobedience was achieving the independence of Kosovo. It’s as if we had been sleeping all along and suddenly woken to find ourselves among a jaw-dropping horror film.
Like Serbia, I had always been a sound sleeper and used to fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Sleepless nights and restlessness set in when I moved away from my parents and swallowing sleeping pills became customary when reality knocked on the door. I used to be a sleepwalker and the memories of this phase, which lasted throughout my childhood and ended at some point in high school, are pretty vivid. When it comes to sleep talking, my recollections are mostly non-existent. Those who had a chance to peek at the workings of my brain in the middle of the night reacted differently. My mom had an awful time with me sleepwalking, often glancing into my sister’s and my room to check everything was alright. She used to picture me falling down the stairs, unknowingly hurting myself or leaving the house, though not always through the front door. Although I had the habit of saying I was going for a walk, luckily for everybody, I didn’t hallucinate of being Batman and kicking ass. I never did anything terribly wrong while walking in my sleep, but, now that I think of it, it might have been a solid defense if I had. Anyway, my mom was worried shitless, my dad mostly slept through the night and sis got a kick out of chatting with me and asking me questions. Interestingly, when I mumbled something nonsensically, I wouldn’t remember anything the following day. When you talk gibberish like that, rarely anyone in your proximity is able to make out what you’re saying so there’s no worry about accidentally revealing any dark secret while you snooze. But then, on and off, I’d talk in coherent sentences, answering questions, and actually having a dialogue. Most of the time, I’d just sit up, babble for a few seconds and then go back to sleep when told to. Sometimes, I’d wander around the house for a bit, open and close doors and closets or rearrange things before being walked back to bed. I recall waking everyone up in a hotel room in Slovenia, after colliding with the closet. I was scared, confused and disoriented as I couldn’t find the door, thinking we were at home. No wonder everything seemed uncomfortably unfamiliar.
Serbia, in union with Montenegro as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as of 1992, was groping in the dark, trying to maintain its political control over the province. With the formation of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), ‘an ethnic Albanian paramilitary organization,’ receiving large funds from Albanian Diaspora, and including many foreign volunteers from West Europe and ethnic Albanians from the U.S., a great number of the Kosovo Albanians became radicalized. Needless to say, the States informally backed the guerrilla KLA in order to destabilize Milošević. In 1997, the organization acquired a large amount of arms through weapons smuggling from Albania, following a rebellion which saw large numbers of weapons looted from the country’s police and army posts.’ The Serbian police and Yugoslav army response was brutal. In ‘97, international sanctions were once again imposed on FR Yugoslavia, this time because of the persecution of Kosovo’s Albanians by Yugoslav security forces. The whole nation had been sleepless and restless after years of crisis.
I was 20, and my sleep had been broken by my ‘night shifts,’ that is burning the midnight oil before exams. My favorite sleep talking story occurred around this time. My sister namely woke me up in the middle of the night during one of my monologues and I began to scream since I thought she was a wolf. Go figure. When I realized she wasn’t, I flopped back down and returned to sleep as if nothing had happened. I must have dreamed of being chased by wolves. In case you’re wondering, I sleep-pissed in bed once only while at university (you heard me right!) apparently while dreaming of taking a leak. They said my eyes were commonly open, or half open, whether I was sleepwalking or sleep talking, and my glassy ‘look right through you’ appearance must have seemed as if I had been haunted by a spooky ghost. Had my family made a video with a shaky cam (with me as the actress in a leading role) and added some special effects, post-production modifications and creepy music to it, we might have had a decent trailer for a genuinely disturbing horror film. No advancement in technology and quality though could have helped make a scarier movie than the one we were about to watch.