Learning to Fly: Kosovo’s Young Get By With a Little Help From the West

By IVOR HANSON

Published: February 11, 2001

THE NEW YORK TIMES

PRISTINA, Kosovo­— STANDING on a barren plaza, dressed in an Oakland Raiders parka and Nike sneakers, 16-year-old Luan Sherifi takes a drag on his Lucky Strike cigarette and assesses how Western culture has influenced his hometown, his native land, and his generation.

”It’s good, good, good,” he says. ”Before, we could only get it on TV and the stereo, but now we have it here, live!”

The West has been hard to ignore in Kosovo since NATO bombing halted Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian campaign to subjugate Kosovar Albanians 18 months ago. Between the NATO peacekeeping troops, the United Nations-run government and police force and the numerous non-governmental agencies at work in this Yugoslav province, about 60,000 foreigners live here now.

But beyond providing a chance to meet people from countries Kosovo’s youth could once only experience by tuning in the BBC, the Voice of America or German satellite television, the Western presence has given young people an unprecedented amount of freedom. Before the war, during a 10-year crackdown on the culture of this overwhelmingly Albanian province, teenagers would generally stay in at night because there wasn’t much to do, and the Serbian police would harass them if they did venture out. Now, however, young people are asserting their independence.

The concourse frequented by Luan is a case in point. Even though the teenagers who hang out there are bundled up now, during the summer the area was host to what seemed a nightly fashion show, with girls parading in halter tops and tight jeans, and boys in track suits and T-shirts, many emblazoned with images of the rapper Tupac Shakur or the rock group Metallica.

Teenagers and 20-somethings are also producing plays, publishing magazines and mounting art shows. But music seems to be their main passion. Western rap and rock music — readily available on counterfeit CD’s for about $2.30 a pop — has inspired a homegrown music scene drenched in a kind of American street sensibility.

The star local rappers Ritmi i Rruges, or Rhythm of the Streets, perform aggressively political songs like ”The World is Ours” and ”Young Lost Population,” but their music is rather laid-back and lite-rockish. While the duo peppers its English-language tune ”It’s a Shame” with lines like ”Keep the faith, homeys” and ‘We’re down with you all,” such amusingly derivative moments are offset by declarations like ”May the wrath of almighty Allah be upon all haters of peace.”

Many young people flock to Pristina’s discos and bars, where there are no age restrictions. Alcohol and drug use has increased, according to those who work with Kosovar youth. Greater availability accounts for part of the upsurge, as does the sheer number of young people in Kosovo: 50 percent of Kosovo’s population of 2.3 million is under the age of 25. ”Like young people most anywhere, drugs and alcohol remain a favorite form of rebellion,” says Jetemir Balaj, 24, the co-founder of a youth advocacy group called the Forum. ”Unfortunately there’s an innocence here that allows them to get totally lost or sucked in. We don’t have enough cautionary tales.”

Nita Luci, 24, a leader of Post-Pessimists, another youth advocacy group that provides activities and counseling, agrees. ”Drugs are ‘in’ right now,” she says, estimating that up to 80 percent of the young people she deals with have experimented with illegal substances (mostly marijuana), a much higher figure than a few years ago. ”The sex and drug revolutions of the 60’s and 70’s that took place in America didn’t happen here.”

GLYTEM ILAZI, 16, sees a new form of peer pressure. ”You have to be cool now,” he says. ”You have to be like somebody from somewhere else.”

But why the West? ”Because the West made us free,” he said.

Ilazi said watching German video shows inspired him to dye his hair orange and pierce his ears, as well as start his own break-dancing group. ”What I like, I like,” he says. ”Nobody can stop me.”

Impending changes in education, work and politics — all reflecting Western approaches — have young people keenly aware that their homeland is in transition. Among the measures taken to help Kosovo’s youth recover from the war are the creation of nearly 300 youth centers and youth associations since the war. Much of the funding — an estimated $6 million — has come from the United Nations and such organizations as the International Rescue Committee and the International Medical Corps.

Kosovo’s education system still reflects the rigid curriculum favored in the rest of Yugoslavia, a system that, according to the Ministry of Education, rewards memorization, recitation and ideology, not creativity or imagination. But the World Bank estimates that nearly 29,000 teachers need to be retrained and nearly half of the 800 school buildings need reconstruction and repairs.

Kosovo’s economy remains at a near standstill. With an unemployment rate estimated by the Ministry of Labor and Employment to fluctuate between 60 percent and 80 percent, young people are wondering what to do with their lives while such industries as textiles, agriculture and mining recover from the war or long-term neglect, even as they are bracing themselves for the introduction of a market economy. The fear is that before jobs appear, many youths will be recruited by organized crime, or leave for work in the West and not return.

”Kids here now want instant gratification,” says Mr. Belaj of the Forum. ”We have the makings of a materialistic society without the means to support it.”

The longer the region’s economic and political prospects remain unsettled, the greater the chances that young Kosovars will turn to resentment and disenchantment. ”When you are young and you don’t have a job, and you don’t have money for pizza with your friends,” says Paolo Lembo, the United Nations development coordinator in Kosovo, ”it’s much easier to be seduced by radicalism and nationalism.”

As for how Kosovo’s youth will face the future, perhaps a concert poster pasted up all over Pristina a few months ago provided a clue — or at least a wish. Alongside the show’s date and location were the words: ”Love Your Present, Create Your Future.”

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