The Holy See
back up

 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move - N° 93,  December 2003, pp. 303-306

Reconciliation in the Balkans


I.C.M.C. Project Director in the Balkans


Your Excellencies, members of the clergy, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this, the 5th world congress.

Introduce Self

I am Zenel Elshani. I come from Prizren, in South West Kosovo. For the past four years I have worked with the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in programs designed to reconcile inter-ethnic conflict and to foster tolerance.

Overview of presentation

Today I will talk as a witness of:

  1. my years growing up in an intolerant and divided society,
  2. my personal experience in 1999 after this intolerance had become a full-blown conflict,
  3. and the work I have done with ICMC to build reconciliation.

A. Formative years

Removal of Human Rights and Demonstrations

My formative years were spent in a country rife with intolerance. When the big demonstrations took place in 1981 I was trying to study philosophy at Pristina University. Human Rights were being removed. I wasn’t able to study in my own language. I didn’t have a right to vote. I felt like I didn’t have a name or an identity. I felt like I didn’t exist.

Work as a director of pedagogy

In 1989 I found employment in a school as the Director of Pedagogy ensuring that lessons were appropriate. In 1990 the Serbian Government changed the school curriculum, they changed the history, geography and even the music we taught. It felt as if they were trying to erase us.

Refusal to adopt curriculum changes and the consequences

The ethnic Albanian teachers refused to adopt these curriculum changes so the high schools were closed . The Serbian Government were obliged to keep the primary schools open but they stopped paying the salaries of the Albanian teachers. Over time, the Albanians opened a parallel education system, opening schools in the community and volunteering in the primary schools. This resulted in confusion and a complicated systems, and, above all, it increased the conflict.

“Making ends meet”

I worked for two years on a voluntary basis, working 8 hours at the school subsidized by pupils’ parents and then on the land, side-by-side with my wife. My eldest son was 6 then and understood that food was scarce, but it was harder to explain to my 2 year old that we did not have enough bread when he was hungry.

B. Deportation/ Flight

The political situation continued to deteriorate and in 1998 open warfare broke out. In 1999 the Serbian militia came to my village, burnt down our house then forced us from our refuge in a nearby village. The militia separated me from my wife and children. We were put in trucks and transported to the Albanian border. By luck, on the second day my wife’s truck and my truck came to the same village and we were together again. When we came to cross the border the militia took all of our identification. At this point I really did feel like I had no identity, I was a zero. On the other side I had to keep introducing and explaining myself, as if I didn’t exist.

In Albania

Over 800,000 ethnic Albanians were forced to leave Kosovo and suffered similar experiences. Reunited with my family, I spent 3 days in a border town before being moved to a collective center in Tirana with 3500 other refugees. At this point I really felt nothing – my only focus was providing my family with food and ensuring that we survived.

Assisting others in Albania

I started to work in the collective center placing other refugees and organising schooling. This work sustained me. By helping another refugee it was like helping myself – if I gave a man a blanket it felt like I also got the warmth from it.

Return to Kosovo

I returned to Kosovo 3 days after the war ended, and my family followed me the next day – it took me 3 months to pay for the taxi that brought them back! I knew I didn’t have a house but I was happy just to be back in my own country.

C. Work with ICMC

Starting work with ICMC

9 days after NATO entered Kosovo , ICMC started work and I was employed by them a week later. I went home to tell my wife that I had a job, and with an organization that I thought worked with refugees – at that time I did not speak English and so I didn’t know anything more than that!

Work with EVIs

I worked as a caseworker on the Program for Extremely Vulnerable Individuals which helped the most desperate cases: the elderly, the chronically sick, and the mentally ill, both returnees and remainees. It was often risky for me to help minorities. Whenever people questioned why I was somewhere to see a minority I would answer that I was there to help a human being.

Work as a tolerance trainer

Later I became a trainer in the Tolerance Building Program. ICMC taught us how to deal with conflict and with group dynamics when different ethnicities are brought together. First we had to feel that we were tolerant ourselves. I believe that to understand someone you have to imagine how they feel – easy for me as I had been in their shoes.

Stakeholder analysis

When we first visited different communities to conduct stakeholder analyses, people responded that is was too early to talk about tolerance and reconciliation. I answered that if a baby is born and cannot breath it will suffer brain damage or death, and that it was now time for us all to take a deep breath to keep our country alive.

The first training

The first training we conducted was in the village of Dragash where we worked with Albanians, Gorani and Bosniacs. It was difficult for most participants to share their feelings and talk amongst each other but the methodology helped them to express themselves and open up, and on the second day all the participants were having coffee together. By the end of the third day there was a common understanding that they needed a vision for the future.

We conducted further trainings with the same communities on topics such as mediation and reconciliation, as well as training trainers so that we could build a network of people to help us build tolerance.

This program didn’t necessarily bring about wholesale reconciliation but it started a process.

ICMC’s work today

ICMC’s work in Kosovo now appears more practical in nature, offering returnees and remainees, ethnic Albanians and minorities, assistance such as income generation inputs and minor shelter repair, as well as continuing to assist the most vulnerable members of society, but this work is still underpinned by the ethos of tolerance; it has built on the foundation of reconciliation built by the tolerance building program.

My current work

I now work in the community projects team, promoting dialogue and fostering inter-ethnic cooperation and reconciliation through community projects, which offer everyone the opportunity to contribute to the stabilization of their communities. The projects are developed through co-ordination with members of the community and NGOs with the aim of facilitating inter-ethnic dialogue and encouraging community participation in areas where return is occurring.  

Summary and Thanks

I brought much to the work that I have spoken of, but ICMC helped me to clarify who I am and enabled me to perform it.

Thank you for this opportunity to tell you a little of “my story” of intolerance and reconciliation.