Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kurti's Long Night

The sentencing in Serbia of a former student activist from Kosovo highlights the West's failure to support nonviolent protesters before the war, and civil development now.
By IWPR

Of all the coffee conversations one has in the Balkans, some stick in the memory, floating above the haze of sugar and smoke.


Such was my chat in 1997 with Xhevat, an ethnic Albanian and former political prisoner from Kosovo. The meeting took place in Tetovo, Macedonia, but the topic was Pristina.


The Kosovo students were holding nonviolent demonstrations to support education in the Albanian language. Pacifist observers with white armbands were beaten and detained by the police. Even Kosovo Albanian politicians favoured by the West for their passive resistance to Serbian government oppression were imploring the students to stop their provocations.


Xhevat sipped his coffee, sat back, and uttered a memorable phrase. "There is no question," he said. "After the students, comes the night."


I appreciated his concern and the importance of the students' peaceful attempts to shake the scene. After a decade of continued repression, Kosovo Albanians' patience with nonviolent resistance was thin, and this youthful activism needed support. But if the status quo was broken, one had to fear the events that might follow - Xhevat's "night".


Still, unlike Xhevat, I didn't know how dark that night could be.


Nothing illustrates his point better than this week's conviction of Albin Kurti, the Kosovo Albanian student who led those demonstrations and then joined the Albanian insurgency, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), serving as a political representative.


Now he has been sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Serbian court for sedition, separatism, and terrorism against the state. From devoted pacifist with long rock-star hair to defiant KLA activist with a prisoner's shave. Very dark indeed.


Kurti embodies the spirit of Kosovo youth who craved a better life - grasping for a way to make a contribution in a complex play. He also reveals the radicalisation of an oppressed society that was left to fend for itself.


Kurti's imprisonment represents the failure of the West to address the incendiary issues in Kosovo before they burst into flame. It is presumably easier to bomb a dictator's cities than to support a student protest.


When the demonstrations failed in early 1998, it was only a matter of time before Albanians, denied education or jobs, turned to a more forceful approach. Nothing illustrates this predictable evolution better than the intelligent Kurti, who became an assistant to the KLA's political representative in August 1998.


A pacifist himself, Albin was thrust into a situation requiring other means of resistance.


How could you tell students, workers, intellectuals to endure more abuse without offering any way out? How could you sell nonviolence while government forces were cracking down on the growing insurgency with excessive and indiscriminate force? How could you talk of peaceful resistance when the student union's books on Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. were burned by the police?


Now Albin will spend time behind bars. Notably, the court found him guilty of "terrorist activities" for his political work with the KLA and role in "illegal" student demonstrations in 1997-98, that historical moment of dusk. In the court's eyes, there was no distinction between the two.


He is one of at least 1,200 Kosovo Albanians still in Serbian prisons on charges of terrorism. Their detentions, and the more than 1,500 missing persons from the war, poison Kosovo's political scene, and further incite the current round of Albanian anger and revenge against Serbs still in the province.


The international community is struggling to break the cycle of violence. It has failed to provide adequate electricity or water, let alone provide the police or judicial system that would help stop the violence. As with the students in 1997, there is not enough attention to preventative measures, and the tension in Kosovo and the region is rising.


A hundred miles away in Pozarevac, Serbia, Kurti will have time to think and read. To consider pacifism and the realities that surround it. Might he have been more effective then and now as an independent defender of human rights? Did KLA violence achieve its intended aims? What ideals will guide him when freedom returns?


Fred Abrahams is a senior researcher on the Balkans at Human Rights Watch. He is writing a book on Albania since the fall of communism.