…what if we were in the shoes of the other side?

When I was younger, my biggest fear was to sit with Serbs and hear them talking in their language. After the war, every time I would hear them talk, my eyes would fill with tears and my mind would be overrun with images from the war. I thought that as I got older, I would be able to escape these thoughts about the past and the interrupted childhood I had, like many of my peers around me seemed to. In fact, I could not. Instead, the more time that passes, the clearer I am about the moments of that dark time. I thought to myself: how is it possible that the other side does not accept that my childhood was interrupted? Don’t they know that my school was closed, that my first-grade schoolbook was left behind on a bench? I never reflected that my reality could differ fundamentally from theirs, and I found it very difficult to admit that they might not even know what has happened in Kosovo.

Born in a city that is now divided into two groups of people, who share the same biological features, but who happen to have been dressed in different ethnic costumes at birth, my life became a difficult paradox to live and understand! The whole post-war period was spent talking, not about our development or wellbeing, but rather about our “differences” and opposing attitudes, as appears to be the case in all war-torn countries. Of course, it couldn’t have been any different, since, at that time, it was merely a dream to be able to step away from your “own kind”, out of fear of both physical harm and social stigmatization. Too often, a cry of accusation would resound in my mind: you took my city! Without considering that, apart from the administrative sense of a ‘city’, a city can also be just a feeling. After all, what right do I have to say to whom a city belongs…?

At an age when I should have been talking about ballet, theatre and other activities, I talked about missing persons, burnt houses, curfews, massacres, rapes and other topics; terms which children of the other side were not exposed to. When I first met with other children and youth from the Serb community at joint activities, I took ‘Albanianness’ on my shoulders as if I was sitting to discuss the future status of Kosovo! The burden of doing that was extremely heavy. It was painful and traumatic, especially since I was only a child. Resistance to accepting what happened is more painful than the pain of trauma itself. And on a human level, I worried about the reality of being stabbed with a knife, about psychological-physical ostracism and isolation.

I thought I would never be able to forgive them.

The first meetings with Serbs were very rejecting, both in body and verbal language – I refused to engage. Persevering with other meetings, dealing with common topics and problems, I began to listen more and to thus break down my walls and give more chances to those who were speaking. I began to see a change occur within me. Throughout the years, I viewed this transformation in the sense that I was more relaxed in experiencing attitudes that contradicted with my own. In such cases, as you reflect on the social context, you realize that the war is not a personal experience and the suffering that has brewed begins to soften.

By opening my eyes to the situation, I began to ask myself: what would I think if I had been in the position of the other community!? When you reach another personal dimension that is hard to describe in words, the views of others and their rejections of your truth no longer have an impact on your rationalization. You realize you have come to a level of liberation within yourself and you understand all sides beyond what even they can imagine. You need neither acceptance nor forgiveness – you just recognize that these people have their views because their circumstances were different, and those circumstances are their truth!

I find that facing a bitter past like ours, is one of the most difficult processes in life, one that requires energy, time, dedication, and a transcendence of yourself. It is, however, also the key to finding peace, firstly within yourself, and then within the public environments where you interact. Overcoming the fear of knowing the reality of the ‘other’ is, I think, central to preventing a conflict from recurring. We can only do this by facing each-other, articulating ourselves, reconciling and actively working on causes that commonly concern us as human beings, causes that are far more pressing than the cloak of ethnic difference – this dry concept.

Saying that, the memory of the body, social norms, the burden of the myth of protecting our “own kind”, and stigma have all engulfed me beyond limits, as they have many others. We are all afraid of change. I have experienced this fear. We are afraid to admit that, were we in the shoes of the other side, we would likely think the same. The thought of this terrifies us. This is totally normal, and we should not be judged for it, because it is understandable that the consequence, depth and smell of fear are different for every individual, and therefore cannot be expected to manifest the same way in everyone. But if we manage to accept this, then we are liberated! By creating opportunities to push past the zone of fear, we can manage to deconstruct our fear. Reason then defeats fear and we have an opportunity to form rational thoughts based on factual evidence and make judgements based on that. Anything that is not factual leads you to prejudice, and imprisonment of the mind, and no one suffers more for this than the self. 

This article reflects the personal experience of the author and does not represent the position of any institution, organization or other interest group.

BIO: As chance had it, Selvije Kurti was born in Mitrovice, in north Kosovo. She is a critical person, who is passionate about questioning social structures and norms, and reflecting on how helpful or oppressive they are. Kurti is interested in how humans interact beyond identity, with her main area of interest being conflict resolution in post-war countries. She wonders what the state of the world would be if, instead of focusing on identities and geographical borders, it stood up for humanity. For the last ten years, she has been actively participating in programs on human rights, conflict resolution and peace building. Without overlooking the impact of the past on her own formation and beliefs, she is committed to enjoying the present moment and the people she holds dear, preferring to not be too locked into plans or dwell on what was or will be.