Besa Shahini is part of an increasing number of well-educated and widely-travelled young Kosovo women. But Besa is one of a relatively few of them who return home to live permanently in Kosovo. She has co-founded a new think tank in Kosovo, IKS: the Kosovar Stability Initiative, or in Albanian, Iniciativa Kosovare per Stabilitet. It is an independent, not-for-profit research centre doing empirical research and analysis of the social and economic situation in Kosovo: "I was convinced that in a place where no reliable data can be found, the only way to really change policy and have an impact was through detailed empirical research."
Like hundreds of thousands of Kosovars, Besa had to flee Kosovo during the 1999 war. She was then 16. She found permanent refuge with cousins living in Canada. She studied there and graduated in Political Science and Public Administration at the York University in Toronto, in 2004.
For Besa, growing up in Kosovo, during the Milosevic era, was a period of great change:
"I remember being very confused about who I am and what I believe in. Confused about my heroes and my enemies, and most importantly about who I was: a Yugoslav, a proud Pioneer an Albanian, a Kosovar? On Christmas Day 1989, at age 7, my brothers and I proudly sang Pioneer songs in Serbian and Albanian at my mother's workplace before we received our New Year's presents. Then, in 1990, my mother lost her job, like thousands of Albanians, who did not accept the revocation of Kosovo's autonomy and the new Serb rule. No more presents at mom's work. I also stopped being a Pioneer".
"In autumn 1990, at the start of the new school year, when I was nine, I and the rest of the Albanians attending my primary school were prevented from going back to school. It was one day that autumn, on my way home, I saw my 1st grade Serbian language teacher, with whom I got along with so well, in soldier's uniform walking to the Yugoslav Army base east of Pristina. We looked at each other sadly and said nothing. Not even 'hello'."
From 1990, for the next nine years, a parallel system of schooling was organized by Kosovo Albanians, using a different curriculum to that of Serbia. Classes were organized in private houses for high school and university students. Most primary school children were allowed back to their schools, which were assigned separately to Albanian and Serb school students.
Besa says"In 1993, I was now 11, history lessons changed drastically: Partisan 'heroes' from WWII turned into Serb enemies, and Albanian 'traitors' who cooperated with the Germans in WWII turned into heroes for enabling the first Albanian schools to be founded in Kosovo since it fell under the rule of what became Yugoslavia in 1913.
In 1997, at the age of 15, Besa was listening, like many teenagers, to Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana and the like, and she was reading Herman Hesse in Serbian translation, because the Albanian versions had been removed from the National Library and destroyed by the Serb authorities. She tried to live a normal teenage life, while trying to avoid the Serb checkpoints that kept springing up around town. Besa was also a regular at demonstrations organized by Albin Kurti,(LINK) against the discrimination of Albanian students.
It was that year that Besa's brother, first cousin and two best male friends went abroad to study and work, in Slovenia, the UK and Germany, respectively."Boys from my school, aged 15 to 17, would emigrate illegally to Europe in groups of 2 to 3 in hope of employment, better schooling and to be away from police harassment".
In Pristina, the situation worsened, Besa remembers: in 1998, when I was 16, I was woken up in the morning by the Serb bombings of the villages around Pristina. I was rebelling against my parents and against anything that went on in Kosovo. I dreamed of joining the Kosovo Liberation Army and peeling potatoes for them, thinking that fighting for human rights in Kosovo was the only way I could give some meaning to my teenage life."
Even after having studied and lived in Canada for many years Besa dreamed of coming back: "I always planned to go back to Kosovo. I felt constantly guilty for having had the opportunity to live a better life abroad compared to the rest of the people of my age who remained in Kosovo."
In 2003, Besa joined as a researcher, working on in the municipalities of Viti and Gjilan, as well as assisting in the making of ESI's documentary about Mitrovica. In 2004 Besa set up IKS with two colleagues; "I wanted to set up Kosovar equivalent of ESI, as an organization that will use sources in Kosovo to come to information which will strengthen the arguments that we were presenting to start policy debates".
IKS has focused on the problems of urban planning and development in Pristina. Besa says:"Through IKS I learned a lot about Kosovo. Finding out that despite popular belief, the city of Pristina did not have more than 250,000 inhabitants was a shocking discovery. The official figures ranged from 300,000 to 650,000. After months of detailed research, looking at all indicators of data we could find, from school enrolments, to old and new municipal household surveys, to voting lists, we kept coming back to 250,000 people. What this meant was that the municipal policy directed toward accommodating up to 650,000 people was based on wrong data!
It was a battle to get the conclusions accepted, Besa says; "in 2006, I attended a conference on 'good governance and urban planning' with over 150 participants working on urban and spatial planning in Kosovo, both internationals and Kosovars. I gave a short presentation...The then Director of Urban Planning of Pristina Municipality, furious that I was criticising the planning process in the city, and even more furious about the positive responses I was getting from the audience, got up and accused me with falsifying data, being paid by the UN Habitat Office (which is a sworn enemy of his Planning Department), and saying that he would take me to court for disrupting the urban planning process in Pristina. I knew then that our report on Pristina had had some impact!"
So did it matter then that she, a young foreign-educated woman, was challenging authorities in Kosovo, nearly all of whom were men? Besa says: "This did matter – it made my job both harder and easier at the same time. At first I would not be taken seriously by any government official I had to work with or interview, but this was mostly because of my age. I had to prepare well for meetings for people to see me as being on the same level as they. Later, when I had to present some of our findings which opened up quite uncomfortable debates (on population numbers in the capital, municipal budget expenditures, mismanagements in municipal governments etc) it actually proved beneficial to be a young woman. I have been told that I did not look too threatening for officials whom I would debate on television …
Besa also started to encourage IKS researchers to look at the position of women across Kosovo: "Women cannot be empowered in a society that is poor and where they have to cling to traditional patriarchal structures in order to survive economic difficulties. From our research in villages in Kosovo, a common answer we came across to the question on why not all girls are sent to high school was that 'educating children costs money and girls, when they grow up, marry into another family, which makes them a dead investment; their education which could lead to future employment, will only bring benefits to the family into which they marry'. When financial resourses are scarce, the family decides to educate the boy".
What this calls for, Besa says, is publicly funded education – not only tuition, as it is now, but also material resources;"books and the provision of transport, which are not affordable for poor families."
Currently, Besa is in Berlin studying at the Hertie School of Governance. She says:
"A masters degree in public policy brings added perspective to my work. Being reminded of all the actors involved in policy making and the challenges they all face; this makes it so much clearer for me how important the work of an independent think tank is in ensuring that policy making is a well-informed and transparent process."