A Brave Step for Peace

 

In the early post-war days of 1999, tensions remained high in Kosovo, wounds were raw, suspicion permeated daily transactions and boundaries were deeply drawn between Albanian, Serb and Roma. I ran the Training Unit for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

A and L were two young men hired as Training Assistants. A came from Pec/Peje, deep in Kosovo Liberation Army heartland, close on the border with Albania and devastated by the war. The fires still smouldered amidst ruined walls scrawled in defiant Serbian graffiti by departing troops, the market reduced to charred rubble and ruin. The Pej monastery was the core of Serbian Orthodoxy in the old lands of Kosove/Metohija and a source of Albanian resentment.

A’s father was well-known and respected, the family name a pillar of Albanian culture. A, his education interrupted by the war, came to Pristina where he impressed with his enthusiasm, knowledge of computers and wonderfully warm, cheerful personality. He was hired to teach computing skills to eager colleagues, until so recently deprived of such opportunities.

L came from a long-established Pristina family that spoke Albanian, Serbian and Turkish. His grandmother was Turkish, and his parents had helped a Jewish family emigrate to Palestine after WW2. The family had fled to Macedonia with thousands of others during the height of the fighting in Kosovo. They later re-established themselves in their former home. L had worked with the earlier OSCE Verification Mission in Kosovo, knew his way around and was a born politician.

Early in 2000, the Training Unit was mandated to provide “Land Mine Awareness Training” to all OSCE field offices throughout the territory. This included the Serbian enclaves where much of the remaining Serbian population had retreated. We had held such sessions occasionally on request, in partnership with the Swedish De-mining Company attached to the NATO forces. This was different.

Above having the Swedish soldiers give information and do the demonstration, it required A and L, representing the OSCE, to give both Albanian and Serbian translation to ensure that all the staff, national and international were made aware of the continuing risk from land-mines, many poorly or not mapped. It felt irresponsible to require these two young men to take such a risk but lacking a Serbian staff member, we felt we had no choice. Still we debated. The Swedes already had a good working relationship with A and L.

Yet there was hesitancy on their part, given the intensity of feeling between the two ethnic groups, with language paramount in the mutual distrust and animosity. An international OSCE staff member had been killed on Pristina’s main street for using the wrong language. Serbian homes were still sometimes set alight, an old woman killed in her bath-tub, a funeral attacked. Reconciliation was still a dirty word on both sides. The decision was A and L’s.

So it happened. Two bright young men would stand up in front of Albanian and Serbian audiences together. They claimed to feel safe with the military, that they loved each other as brothers and that the job had to be done. This was not a huge gesture of peace, it lacked glamour and public attention. Small by the measure of diplomatic efforts, it brought no awards or clever papers, it was not publicly blessed by our head of mission.

We do not know if lives were saved because of the mine awareness training. For all that, it was a grand gesture of courage and peace. In their way A and L signalled the steps to be taken to create a future of acceptance and inclusion for their families and ultimately, their country. I see them still, courtesy of the wonders of social media, with growing families and flourishing careers.

Their brave step for peace remains unforgettable.

 

By: Angela Mackay

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