Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Talk football, talk IR

Let me start by introducing myself: I am Martijn Gerritsen, an 18-year-old AUC student, probably (as you can never be too sure about these kinds of things) majoring in Environmental Economics & Policy and International Relations.

When Anne told us about the trip to Kosovo she had organized, I was – to be honest – not so sure what to think of it. Kosovo. All I knew from this country was, basically, part of distant stories I had read or encountered somewhere, sometime. To me, Kosovo was a part of former Yugoslavia, known for its disputes and conflicts over its borders, its people, and its authority; I could possibly have distilled all that from a newspaper article dealing with one of the issues in the country. To me, Kosovo was also this dark-yellow spot, less than half the size of the Netherlands, on the world map on my room’s wall; a more tangible conceptualization. To me, above all, Kosovo was a ‘fairly blank spot’, an unknown and hard-to-imagine place – but not for long.

Some of the most intriguing thoughts that have colored my view of Kosovo during our week-long trip can be identified in the following short story from Salih Zogiani’s Albanian Anecdotes (2011), the book that each of us received as a present from Anne and Erik:

“Rifat Kukaj had a son that was getting married. Before the wedding-goers went to take the bride they decided not to take along the Albanian flag as customary as the Serb police would ill-treat them. When the wedding-goers reached the bride’s house they asked Rifat:
- Where is the flag?
- What flag? – Rifat asks.
- The national flag, - the bride’s father says.
- Well – Rifat said – my son is being married, not the entire nation, - Rifat Kukaj replied.”

-          79. MY SON IS BEING MARRIED, NOT MY NATION (p. 80)

First of all, this anecdote touches upon an age-old wedding tradition, which we have been lucky enough to witness ourselves during our visit to the Roma, Askhali, and Egyptian communities in Fushë Kosova: that of the bride being ‘taken away’ by a group of wedding-goers, accompanied by traditional music, singing, and dancing. Personally, the fact that I have been able to see – and predominantly hear – a ritual as such,  makes me kind of proud. Proud in the sense that I have been able to ‘partake’ – passively, but still – in a practice that has been there for years and years, allowing me to, shortly, become part of the cultural tradition of a minority group in the Kosovar society. Who would have thought this could have overcome me beforehand? I would certainly not.

Secondly, Rifat Kukaj’s story exemplifies how troublesome the current relationships between Albanians and Serbians can still be; an “ill-treatment” as a result of the displaying of either an Albanian or a Serbian flag is not at all unthinkable in some contemporary cases. This quite shocking realization came to me after having heard stories of and having seen Mitrovica’s barricaded bridge, which blocks the way, and, in some way, creates a ‘wall’ between the Serbian north and the Albanian Kosovar south of the city. It seems unreal to me that a teacher at the International Business College is afraid to cross this bridge from north to south on her own, and, hence, prefers to go together with her students. It also seems unreal to me that in a generation as young as my own, some Albanians and some Serbians need to communicate with each other in English, unable to understand the other sufficiently well to set up a dialogue in either of their native languages. It seems, to me, equally hard to understand how there can be so little empathy for each other’s grievances at times. I would not have thought to learn such upsetting stories as I did in Mitrovica – its bridge is still far from being crossed.

This situation is also reflected in Kukaj’s anecdote: the entire Kosovar nation is not – and, effectively, cannot be – married. From what I have seen and from what I have learned during our stay in Kosovo, it is extremely difficult, and maybe even impossible, to unite Kosovo’s ethnic groups under a single Kosovar identity or framework. Key to this understanding are, in my opinion, two notions that were righteously put forward by Lulzin Peci, founder and senior fellow of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED). The first is that “ethnicities have to understand diversity of belonging”; the second is the realization that “people make history”. If groups of people are able to reflect on their own diversity with respect to other groups, this inherently implies that they, at least partly, understand these other groups. And, I think, mutual understanding of each other’s good and bad qualities serves as the foundation upon which a sustainable and peaceful relationship can be built. In addition to that, I have come to believe that the people involved in ongoing conflicts or issues, such as in Mitrovica, for example, will have to come to realize that it is people who make history. From this, it follows that it is also people only that can influence the history that is being made; through their acts and deeds of today one is able to ‘change’ history. If awareness of this notion can be promoted amongst the arguing people, we will come closer – if not halfway, already – to crossing the bridge.

Teamphoto with the players from O.F.K. As.
Thanks for the photo, Lisa Maza!
Most significantly, however, is that I have seen people actually crossing the bridge and coming closer to their neighbors during this trip. In particular these stories have attended me to the great prospective there is for the people of Kosovo. To clarify this, I would like to share with you the story of the futsal team which I encountered during the Albanian festivities in Tupalle, Serbia, on May 1: O.F.K. As, based in Bujanovac, Serbia. Although this team plays in a Serbian futsal league, the majority of the players are Albanian.  Interestingly, however, as I played along with them for some time, I noticed that there were no tensions to be felt between these guys at all: they were friends. For me personally, being able to see such true comradeship between Albanians and Serbians, where mutual respect is paid to each other’s culture, language, and tradition, was by far the greatest part of this trip. Who would have thought I would be able to be part of this kind of relationship, too, after the devastating stories of Mitrovica’s divide? I would have hoped for it, for sure, but did I also think of it, for real? What I certainly do know now is that we, people, are able to take care of our own history, and, more importantly, that we are able to build – and cross – bridges.

I am grateful for the great opportunities this trip to Kosovo has offered me, and I would like to wholeheartedly thank our ‘teachers’ Anne, Monika, and Erik, our guides Bardha and Enver (who also was an incredible host, by the way), and all of the other students for their contribution to our ‘bridge-building’. Faleminderit shumë! You all have been amazing ‘engineers’, each in your own way!

PS: I have noticed that talking football to some guys can bring you closer to matters you have been looking for than you would have dared to think. So my advice would be: if appropriate - talk football, talk IR.


  1. Martijn Gerritsen i dont need to speak much, about this subject becouse u sad everything and plz continue what u do. I hope u get it that not only u, all people can across their own bridge. PS: Nice to meet such people in my life , young , smart , brave and most important soulful.

    1. Thank you very much Milos! I am glad to hear you can relate to what I have said in the blog, and thanks for letting me be part of your team for a while (: