Personal Essay

How five intense years in Kosovo changed my rosy view of Canada

In 2012, Hana Marku returned to her birthplace full of passion and idealism. Now she's come back to Canada with a more complicated view.

"Resistance expands freedom. It demands that we ask who gets to be ‘free.’"

Hana Marku, right, protests in Prishtina, Kosovo in 2012. The writer returned to her birthplace full of passion and idealism. She's since come back to Canada with a more complicated view. (Isotta Ricci Bitti)

In 2008, Kosovo seemed to me like the centre of the universe.

Following decades of protests, political arrests, war, ethnic cleansing and a NATO intervention, my birthplace became the last part of the former Yugoslavia to declare independence. On February 17, 2008, Kosovo became a country.

The years that followed were incredibly exciting. Everything was a first: first parliament, first flag, first passports.

Meanwhile, I was working in a cubicle in Toronto, writing email blasts and helping organize recycling campaigns. History was happening in Kosovo; I was watching a new country take shape —  an independence people had died for —  and I was missing out.

So in 2012, I took the plunge. I quit my job, packed my belongings into three big suitcases and moved to Kosovo.

To Prishtina, with passion

My parents and I moved to Canada in 1993, as wars in neighbouring Bosnia and Croatia erupted.

Hana Marku poses in Victoria, B.C., two years after immigrating to Canada. (Photo courtesy of Hana Marku)

As Kosovar Albanians in the Serb-dominated Yugoslavia of the 90s, we faced segregation along ethnic lines. Albanian language education was banned, Albanian political representation was forbidden, and public institutions were ordered to fire all their Albanian staff — including my parents.

I don't think they could have imagined back then that, at 25 years old, I'd be returning to Prishtina, Kosovo's capital, in the middle of a particularly harsh winter.

I started out working for Kosovo 2.0, a nonprofit media organization run by a diverse and deeply passionate group of 20-somethings.

Our print magazine was based out of a tiny apartment converted into an office space. We published unfiltered opinions and stories by young people in Albanian, Serbian and English. We also ran Kosovo's first blogging platform.

We spent a lot of late nights looking over copy while drinking cheap beer, and many mornings watching comment threads discussing feminism, corruption, urban planning and government policy. I was beyond excited to be shaping this new progressive space.

I had no idea how quickly the honeymoon would come to an end.

The pendulum swings both ways

In the years that followed, my idealism about "building the new Kosovo" got tempered really fast.

Last year's independence day in Kosovo was marked by a massive anti-corruption protest. The sign at centre reads 'No State With Thieves'. (Hana Marku)

In 2012, my colleagues and I were escorted out of our own magazine launch by a throng of riot police. A group of nearly 100 thugs gathered outside the venue, calling our pro-LGBT staff "fags and perverts". They trashed our venue and beat up one of our writers.

In 2013, I was supposed to profile a political activist standing up for wartime rape survivors, but the night before our interview, she was viciously attacked in her apartment building.

In 2014, I watched in disbelief as the European Union's Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo was rocked with accusations of bribery, directed at the very Westerners who were supposed to teach Kosovars about law and order.

In 2015, thousands of desperate and poverty-stricken Kosovars streamed across the border to Serbia, seeking asylum in the EU (including the Prime Minister's own brother).

In 2016, Kosovo's Speaker of Parliament had opposition MPs dragged out of parliament, and strong-armed a vote to elect the ruling party's choice for president.

In 2017, an opposition activist was found dead in his prison cell with a plastic bottle shoved down his throat.

The lesson from Kosovo is that former liberators can become current oppressors and "freedom" can become just another way to ensure that the powerless remain so.- Hana Marku

But the pendulum swings both ways. In the same span of time, Kosovo's LGBT movement emerged publicly, fighting hate crimes and advocating for the police to step up and do their jobs.

In deeply homophobic Kosovo, LGBT support groups, discussion circles and legal representation began to sprout up in the capital.

In sexist Kosovo, feminists and feminism have taken up new space in media and online discussion, finally shedding light on the ugly reality of domestic violence, sexual violence and women's disenfranchisement.

Hana Marku, far left, with friends at a Kosovo protest camp in February 2016. (Hana Marku)

I joined protests against everything from corruption in the energy sector to the denial of Kosovo war crimes.

The fledgling country had become an autocracy, run by political leaders who spun a fine tale about their status as national liberators and war heroes. But an increasing number of Kosovo youth marched and occupied the streets to demonstrate, simply, that they didn't buy that story.

A heavy-hearted return

There's a deep feeling of mourning that comes with realizing your "homeland" has turned its back on its young people in favour of warlords in suits. After my fiance and I got married last summer, we felt spent. We were ready to move.

I came back to Toronto in November with, quite frankly, exhaustion and frustration at the slow pace of change in Kosovo — and tremendous guilt for leaving. Some of my dearest friends live in Kosovo, while I chose the easy way out.

Truth is: now that I'm back, I've developed mixed feelings about Canada, my "safe space" of the past five years.

On the one hand, I love what Canada represents to the world: compassion for immigrants and refugees, civil rights and a longstanding tradition of social welfare. I deeply appreciate Toronto, a city where half of the inhabitants are immigrants.

I've told my stories to horrified Canadian friends, but I'm also aware that they aren't that different from struggles taking place in Canada.

Every act of resistance is meaningful, necessary and an act of solidarity with others fighting the same fight.- Hana Marku

Indigenous communities have long been fighting for self-determination, a fight familiar to most Kosovar Albanians, despite the hostile presence of colonizers who have infantilized, neglected and attempted to annihilate them.

Canada has practiced racial segregation, ethnic discrimination and cultural genocide, in ways reminiscent of how the "wrong" ethnic groups were treated during the collapse of Yugoslavia.

This didn't change because of the inherent goodness of Canada, but because of the struggles of progressive Canadians who believe that a set of values and principles should govern our rights and freedoms as citizens, and nothing else.

Hana Marku mingles at a 2014 event for Kosovo 2.0. (Majlinda Hoxha)

This way of thinking about citizenship is a sharp break from the historical norm. In fact, it's radically different from the way most countries on earth are governed.

Those who hold power, for the most part, derive their authority through the narratives of national superiority and martyrdom, clans and bloodlines — and of course, "freedom."

Freedom is an excellent word to justify the oppression of others; it has a funny way of changing its meaning over time.

Who is allowed to be free?

The lesson from Kosovo is that former liberators can become current oppressors and "freedom" can become just another way to ensure that the powerless remain so.

Resistance expands freedom. It demands that we ask who gets to be "free."

Will we expand freedom to include refugees and asylum seekers that have risked everything to enter Canada? Does our freedom also include Muslims and their freedom to practice their religion without fear?

These questions are too important to leave up to politicians.

Activists in Kosovo and Canada understand this, and at the core their struggles are not that different.

The struggle with power always begins with the marginalized demanding recognition of their status as human beings. Power responds with lies about ethnic purity, racial superiority, divine rights, national security, and family values.

The struggle depends on dismantling those lies.

I now understand that, no matter where I am, the power of that shared struggle connects us. Every act of resistance is meaningful, necessary and an act of solidarity with others fighting the same fight.

That is what gives me hope, in Canada and Kosovo, and makes me proud to belong to both countries.

Hana and her husband Nate in December 2016, visiting family in California. Nate is moving to Toronto at the end of this month. (Hana Marku)

About the Author

Hana Marku

Hana Marku is an Albanian-Canadian writer, editor and researcher. Her work has been published on openDemocracy, Prishtina Insight, Kosovo 2.0, Sbunker, and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. She's reported and commented on feminism, social movements, transitional justice, and the politics of resistance.

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