Besa Shahini is one of an increasing number of well-educated and widely-travelled young Kosovar women. But Besa is also one of the few who’ve returned from abroad. She is the co-founder of IKS, the Kosovar Stability Initiative (in Albanian: Iniciativa Kosovare per Stabilitet), an independent, non-profit think tank, which conducts empirical research on the social and economic situation in Kosovo. "I was convinced,” says Besa, “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 16 at the time. She found permanent refuge with cousins living in Canada, entered school and graduated from the York University in Toronto in 2004 with a major in Political Science and Public Administration.
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 – just like thousands of other 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, all the Albanians at my primary school, myself included, were prevented from going back to school. It was one day that autumn, on my way home, that I saw my 1st grade Serbian language teacher, with whom I got along with so well, dressed in a soldier's uniform – and walking to the Yugoslav Army base east of Pristina. We looked at each other sadly and said nothing. Not even 'hello'."
For the next nine years – from 1990 to 1999 – Kosovo Albanians ran a parallel education system, using a curriculum different from that of Serbia. Classes for high school and university students were organized in private houses. Most primary school children were allowed back into their schools, where Albanian and Serb students attended different classes.
"In 1993, when I was 11, our history lessons changed drastically,” says Besa. “Partisan 'heroes' from WWII turned into Serb enemies, and Albanian 'traitors' who cooperated with the Germans in WWII turned into heroes – this, for having helped found Albanian schools in Kosovo, the first of their kind since Kosovo fell under the rule of what became Yugoslavia in 1913.
In 1997, at the age of 15, Besa was listening to bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana, and – since Serb authorities had destroyed the Albanian editions or removed them from the National Library – reading Herman Hesse in Serbian. She was trying to live a normal teenage life, all while trying to avoid the Serb checkpoints that kept springing up around town. She was also a regular at demonstrations organized by Albin Kurti 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 – to Slovenia, the UK, and Germany, respectively."Boys from my school, 15 to 17 years old, would emigrate illegally to Europe in groups of 2 to 3 in hopes of finding employment and better schooling – and to escape police harassment".
In Pristina, Besa remembers, the situation worsened. “In 1998, when I was 16, I was woken up one morning by the sound of Serb bombs in the villages around Pristina. I was rebelling against my parents and against everything that was happening 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 constantly felt 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 ESI as a researcher, and begun working in the municipalities of Viti and Gjilan, as well as contributing to ESI's documentary on Mitrovica. In 2004 Besa and two of her colleagues set up IKS . "I wanted to set up a Kosovar equivalent of ESI, an organization that would use its sources in Kosovo to access information, to strengthen the arguments that we were presenting, to start policy debates.”
IKS has focused on the problems of urban planning and development in Pristina. "Through IKS I learned a lot about Kosovo,” says Besa. “Finding out that – contrary to 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 the data indicators we could find, from school enrolments to old and new municipal household surveys to voting lists, we kept coming up with a figure of 250,000. […] The municipal policy geared 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 feedback I was getting from the audience, stood up and accused me of falsifying data, of being paid by the UN Habitat Office (a sworn enemy of his Planning Department), and [threatened] to 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 the authorities in Kosovo, nearly all of whom were run by men? Besa says: "This did matter – it made my job both harder and easier at the same time. At first, no government official I had to work with or interview would take me seriously, but this was mostly because of my age. I had to prepare well for meetings in order for people to see me as being on the same level as they. Later, when I had to present our findings, some of which provoked 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 to the 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. During our research in villages in Kosovo, a common [explanation for] 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."
Besa is currently living in Berlin, enrolled 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."