In Pristina, Survivor’s Guilt as Ukraine Fights

From her home in Kosovo, a former diplomat shares her admiration for the struggle for freedom against Russian aggression despite the fear of spillover conflict

In Pristina, Survivor’s Guilt as Ukraine Fights
Kosovo Albanians hold Ukraine’s national flags during a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Pristina on March 7, 2022 / Armend Nimani / AFP via Getty Images

In this newsletter, a Kosovar-Albanian politician and former diplomat shares her thoughts, including her feelings of survivor’s guilt, while watching the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sign up for our newsletters here.

I have never been to Ukraine.

Yet during the past two weeks, while watching so many heartbreaking photos that have gone viral on social media, it has felt like I’ve been to every city, walked every street and met all the people.

It feels as if I’ve had coffee with the beautiful old lady saying farewell to her husband at the train station. As if I’ve wiped the tears of the mother who just lost her son. As if I was the godmother of every baby who was born under the deafening sound of the shelling of Kyiv. Such extraordinary circumstances and sad moments of unwanted partings trigger familiar memories from my own life.

I have never been to Ukraine, but I have lived through a war. And I was fortunate enough to survive.

On Sunday, March 6, I found myself sitting at the dinner table in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, as my little sister passed around the plates and served the food for our weekly family gathering. Unprompted, she remarked, “Isn’t it striking that we are having this hot meal while people in Ukraine are fighting for their lives?” It was a rare melancholy statement by a woman who is usually upbeat.

If you knew my sister, you would understand the gravity of the silence that followed.

At first after hearing her words, I felt blessed to be alive, to live in a free country, in a country free of war. Then, I became paralyzed by guilt. I felt guilty that not everyone was as fortunate.

During the war in the late ’90s, Kosovo was fortunate to be on the receiving end of overwhelming international solidarity and compassion. And yes, a successful humanitarian NATO intervention. Kosovo has borne witness to the worst and the best of humanity. Our people have endured decades of discrimination and state-sponsored repression, unspeakable suffering and horrors carried out by the Serbian regime, culminating with the war in 1999.

To the casual observer, it may seem that wars erupt as if they were natural disasters. However, survivors know that wars don’t begin with bullets. War is not limited to armed conflict. Kosovo experienced years of systematic oppression as the world stood idly by and hesitated to react. I remember when the Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milošević stripped Kosovo’s autonomy within Yugoslavia in 1989; when in the following years it segregated schools, then closed the ones we opened on our own; when our teachers were beaten; when our parents were fired from their jobs simply because they were ethnic Albanians and when thousands were killed and a million of us were ultimately forced to leave our homes.

When the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide in Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, some thought that would be the tipping point. The Dayton Peace Accords that ended that armed conflict were meant to put an end to the terror of the Serbian regime in the former Yugoslavia. However, Kosovo was left out of the agreement. The oppression in Kosovo continued, discrimination against ethnic Albanians intensified, and violence escalated to a full-scale war. Just like Ukraine, we had no way out. We had to fight.

There is nothing romantic about fighting for your life. It is brutal, and it is painful. But sometimes, it is the only way to survive.

Kosovars took up arms and fought for their freedom on their own for years before the international community realized that the Serbian regime was prepared to purge our country, even if it meant that they had to kill us all. This is why NATO decided to carry out a humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, for which our people will be eternally grateful.

All these years later, the shadows of war continue to chase us. Each time there is another conflict, whether in Syria, Afghanistan or elsewhere, the remorse recurs regardless of where the news of human suffering arrives from.

As survivors, we do not follow the war in Ukraine because of curiosity, geopolitical wagering or some twisted fandom. We watch because we ache for the human lives on the line. When we look at Ukrainians, we see ourselves. We are offended by the Kremlin’s revisionist, abhorrent attempts to draw parallels between the invasion of Ukraine and NATO’s humanitarian intervention in Kosovo. Unfortunately, this kind of propaganda is not new to us. However, the correct parallel to draw is between Russia and Serbia. Much like Russia’s efforts to portray Ukrainians as a nation devoid of identity or history, Serbia has long endeavored to do the same to Kosovo.

The brave women and men fighting for Ukraine, whom some are reducing to sensational headlines and catchy memes, are familiar to us. Not too long ago, we encountered their kind in Kosovo. One of them was my uncle. He was a historian whose most valuable possessions were his books. My uncle died fighting for what he believed in. His dream of a free, independent and sovereign country came to fruition because Kosovo had help.

The extraordinary Ukrainians from all walks of life who are now taking up arms to fend off unprovoked aggression also remind us of the Bytyqi brothers. They were three Kosovar-Americans who had never seen Kosovo, but once the war broke out, chose to leave the comfort of their home in the United States and fight alongside their countrymen in Kosovo. The Bytyqi brothers also died for what they believed in – a better future for the generations to come.

I am a hostage of a worldview that was forged in 1999. Though I am all too keenly aware of my warped vision and I know that the world has changed since, I cannot help but wonder: What if it’s not over?

War is never over for those who survive it. Dying is not the worst thing that can happen.

In Kosovo, we live in the debt of the dead, the wounded, the raped, and the missing. We long to honor their memory by creating a better future. That is why, witnessing what is happening in Ukraine takes us back in time and makes us worried for what might come. Putin bears an undeniable resemblance to Milošević. The only difference is that Putin is incomparably more powerful. And Kosovo knows what it’s like to have an obnoxious neighbor. We can only imagine what it is like to deal with one that has a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council, enormous gas supplies under its control and a nuclear arsenal at its disposal. If Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will not stop at all. That is why we feel that Ukraine is fighting for all of us.

So when Kosovars see Serbia making moves to align with Russia, they wonder if our country is up next. Russia has always played a destructive role in our region. They have used their veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block Kosovo at every turn, impair Bosnia and prop up their proxies, namely Serbia. Russia has also actively engaged in attempts to overthrow pro-NATO governments in Montenegro and North Macedonia.

Because of our shared experience of unfathomable terror, Kosovars always try to be of help to others. We’ve welcomed refugees from Afghanistan and we’ve opened the doors to Ukrainians. We are among the few who have immediately adopted twofold sanctions on Russia, those of both the EU and the U.S. We’ve marched on the streets and protested on social media. Yet it never feels enough.

It doesn’t, because we know what it takes. We have seen a miracle happen, and we wish the same for Ukraine.

As Kosovars, we are defined by our fight for freedom and independence.

As Europeans, we know that our future will be defined by our collective response to the developments in Ukraine. However, more needs to be done.

When you are at war, everything matters. Every seemingly small act of kindness makes a difference. Of course, some are more effective than others. A hashtag will not stop a war, but it can tilt the scales. As a refugee, I remember being as thrilled by articulations of support from friendly nations as I was by concerts of famous artists who reminded us that we were not alone.

Being a survivor means that the war will never end. But freedom, even while not sufficient, is a precondition for the creation of any other value. In 2008, on the day that I signed Kosovo’s declaration of independence, after nearly a decade of international supervision and U.N.-led negotiations with Serbia, my mother told me, “We are independent now, but the future is in your hands.”

I do not know how long this war in Ukraine will continue to rage, but I know that it must come to an end one day. While the world grapples to understand Putin’s endgame, one thing has become clear, which is that Ukrainians are not backing down. For as long as there are Ukrainians to fight for it, there will be a Ukraine.

During the past two weeks, Ukrainians have inspired the world with their courage. It is up to the rest of us to match it. In what way? Match their courage with our courage, by taking action to help.

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