Memory and Dealing with the Past:  Reflections from Kosovo – Sabina Kaqinari, Class XIX

Photo: Sabina Kaqinari, (Mural in Prishtina, Kosovo, 2018)

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined house once stood.
Poem by Yehuda Amichai

Memory has always been an essential dimension of human existence’s individual and collective history and identity. Memory means the present ideas people hold about past events of what happened, who did it, who intended what, who suffered what, and what it was like. But memories are not just cold facts; they involve meaning and interpretation. This I learned during my journey of applied field experience as a Rotary Peace Fellow at the International Christian Univesity, which led me to get deeply involved in memory and dealing with the past process in Kosovo.

During my applied field experience, I got involved as a researcher and methodology expert for the Virtual Museum of Refugees Project with Youth Initiative for Human Rights, a regional organization active in the Balkans. The memory museum project is creating digital archives that help preserve memory, provide a basis for understanding the past in Kosovo, enrich and challenge the narratives by adding experiences of people from different ethnicities, gender, religions, and cultural backgrounds, prevent war recurrence, build a sense of sustainable peace, and enable a shared vision and vision process future reconciliation. Through my work, I developed the conceptual framework for the museum, defined the target groups and audience, developed a research methodology guide for volunteers and researchers adaptable to the regional context, and further recommendations and conceptual notes for the museum website.

Inter-ethnic relations between the two major ethnic groups Kosovo Albanians and Serbs continue to be tense and delicate after the war and consequently the independence of Kosovo in 2008. Changes in ethnic composition structure, war atrocities, the missing, and many refugees (over 1 million according to data) have left a legacy of deep mistrust and hostilities between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs. Moreover, the Serbia government has rejected Kosovo’s independence and has rigorously refused any governance by Kosovo authorities. To this day, there has not been an official acknowledgment of the past nor an official apology, or a proper accountability process.
As a result, Kosovo’s postwar society remains deeply affected and divided when understanding and interpreting its recent past. While dealing with the past is a necessary precondition for the pursuit of peace and reconciliation in practice and theory; however, the word “reconciliation” has been used in scenarios or practices that need a deeper understanding of what it means not just for the academia and civil society involved but day to day lives of Kosovo citizens.

The role of memory in peace and reconciliation

There are many dimensions where memory can contribute to and drive peace, such as the recovery of memories, correction of the distortions of the past, re-envisioning of the conflict itself, development of new narratives, and development of new forms of commemoration that celebrate peace and cultural diversity. Additionally, promoting a pluralist approach to memory enables incorporating other groups’ memories, continually remembering to forget what needs to be discarded socially and recollect what needs to be remembered.
However, the loss of memory and space to remember inhibits meaningful participation in democracy and politics. In other words, missing narratives means ‘missing people’ or non-representation in seeking peace, justice, and reconciliation.

The process of time and the space in memorialization

In any memory initiative, identifying the “space” that exists for memorialization is crucial. Specifically, the continuity in the political area, factors that will influence the open space includes the nature of the continuous discourse about the past violence, determining the parameters of ‘acceptable narratives.’.

The past is not something that can be forgotten or ignored nor expected not to have consequences at the individual, social and political levels. The psychological wounds that have resulted from the violence and fear, mistrust, or hate may interfere with building better relations and lead to renewed violence. Psychological rehabilitation and healing can only occur through providing the space for survivors of violence to feel listened to and for every detail of the traumatic event to be re-told in a safe environment. Memorialization must be recognized as a long-term process that changes with time and is also subject to how memories evolve.

The political and social dimensions of dealing with the past

While there are clear reasons why memory is such a complex dimension in reconciliation and peace, at the same time, it is crucial to understand and integrate it along the process. Memories in the past and present are connected, but the shifts or transformations can also change what they mean to individuals and societies over time, such examples can be studied beyond the Kosovo war such as in the contexts of Colombia, BiH, Cambodia, Rwanda, Israel-Palestina, etc. This complexity drew me to acquire further and explore how memories are linked to the present context in Kosovo:

Critical Self-reflection: why should we remember, and if so, how?

Photo: Julian Ruiz (Gjakova, Kosovo, 2021)

These questions followed me not just in my academic interests but also personally and close to my own culture and identity. In one of the workshops on memory and storytelling in Kosovo, I was overheard by people outside of the workshop who became interested. One day after my working hours were done, they were waiting for me in the hotel hall. They came to see me because they had heard I was talking about the “past” in Kosovo and wanted to know what past I was talking about? Who was included, and who was not? Was I mindful of all the losses, and missing people, and that there is still no official apology or recognition from the state of Serbia towards Kosovo? What is a pluralist or inclusive memory? Who was the perpetrator, and who was the victim in these narratives? Why reconcile? These questions were points to reflect on throughout my entire stay in Kosovo. The persistent inability to acknowledge harm-doing at the individual, community, and political level interferes with the reconciliation process. Hence, many scholars and practitioners agree that in order for a genuine societal process of reconciliation to happen requires changes not only among individuals or communities but also in systems, institutions, policies, and approaches that can promote change in the population’s attitudes and help maintain change.
Moreover, this encounter had an impact on reflecting on how important is the connection between theory and practice and the ethical and power dynamics that, as a researcher but also a practitioner, we need to reflect on and grow with. In addition to being a researcher, I am a Kosovo Albanian woman with an accent and own memories from the war.
How the past is remembered, omitted, or quieted is a highly controversial issue that concerns memory workers at risk of keeping social tensions alive. It is not easy to do memory work, particularly in contexts of ongoing, frozen conflict and or a post-conflict context; therefore, it is also important to support memory workers’ understanding to recognize and acknowledge the challenges of doing this work. Moreover, direct grassroots participation can ensure that local needs, cultures, human rights, and socio-cultural sensitivity are respected to ensure local ownership, meaningful engagement, and context-sensitive memorialization. In the context of healing, the act of telling, for all sides of a conflict, is a critical action in the process of reconciliation, building understanding and empathy for the other, and hopefully non-recurrence of violence.

Multiple Narratives: so, who should remember?

Photo: Julian Ruiz (exhibition of city photos from 1970-90’, Mitrovica bridge, 2021)

Volf (2006) argues that there are differences between (individual or collective)” narratives from “historical narratives.” by pointing out the “double-edged” purposes of memory, which he called a “shield and a sword,” arguing that memory can have positive roles in protecting and healing victims but also negative if not remembered “rightly,” which can make people into perpetrators. This leads to an important aspect that needs attention—the “who” is remembering and why. The influence narrators have on the group recounting also shapes the content of post-group collective memories. To the degree that dominant narrators are present, post-group collective memories reflect their unique rendering of the past. This negative function is described as a process where the victim groups act as forms of political mobilization, either as political alternatives to conventional groups or, more likely, as surrogates on behalf of political parties.

For memorialization initiatives in Kosovo, active participation is a unique opportunity to ensure that the societies and governments in Kosovo and Serbia acknowledge the injustices caused to them, which often have their roots in historical marginalization, violence, and discrimination, and takes action accordingly; active participation is a powerful tool to have their justice claims met and their rights and dignity upheld. It is part of a political process with the potential to transform victims’ lives and the lives of those in their communities. 

Photo: Julian Ruiz (An orthodox, catholic, and mosque stand together, Ferizaj, Kosovo, 2021)

Realities after the conflict cannot be adequately understood without understanding post-conflict identities and how they are constructed through violence, transition, and (possible) reconstruction. Identity politics and the collective memories associated with the inherent subjectiveness of memory affect memorialization in every context, but in different ways according to each context’s specifics. Enabling collective memories, in other words, understood as group memories and shared by a community, helps to bind that community together; hence, collective memories are thus shared images and representations of the past that assist in constructing social solidarity.

Gender and ethical considerations

Including gender perspective (often referred to as using a gender lens) is the process of considering how women, men, girls, and boys experience and are affected by conflict differently. Gender involves the expectations and characteristics a society places on women, men, girls, and boys and is one of the most important aspects of an individual’s identity. In Kosovo, similarly to other countries in Balkan, the post-war narratives are flooded with mostly heroic men, victory, and the military nature of memorialization of war events. Gender often determines how an individual experiences other aspects of identity, including ethnicity, class, race, and religion. In one of my interview prospects for the museum of refugees, a woman from a village in Gjakova (my hometown) did not think her story mattered, and there was “really nothing there interesting for people to hear.” I wanted to know why she thought her story did not matter, and after a conversation over a Turkish coffee, she revealed she had sheltered in her small house many Albanian refugee families fleeing from the war zones in Kosovo. She cooked, cleaned, worked on the field, and helped them for months during the war in 1999. Some would stay for the day and continue crossing the border to Albania; some would stay for months. Now for her, all this work was something she, as a stay home mother and woman, had done all her life, so she did not consider it a big deal whatsoever. It is stories like this that do not prevail in the post-war narrative.

Photo: Julian Ruiz (Mitrovica, Kosovo, 2021)

Moreover, despite the fact that the Liberation Army of Kosovo had women members, nowadays, they are not mentioned nor praised as their male colleagues are. The victims of sexual violence were not spared either; it took over two decades for them to become visible and have a proper space for seeking accountability and voicing their experiences. Therefore, to understand the complexities of a particular context and memory work, consideration of gender is critical.

Recognizing the power of memory in healing and truth-seeking seems to go beyond just reconstructing what happened in the past. It is important to consider contentious coexistence and local narratives when dealing with narratives of division and dissent within the local communities, regions, or nations. Trust and trust-building is key for negotiating and establishing ownership and autonomy of narratives and exploring ways to tell stories within polarized communities. However, it is important to remember that memory work cannot function as a way to replace transitional and social justice, truth recovery, persistent inequalities, recognition, or accountability, among others.

It is also important to envision a reconciled future and prevent possible conflicts and violence. More importantly, reconciliation and memory such as in the case of Kosovo require specific and adequate attention to past and current political dynamics, and local context narratives to understand and dialogue a specific memory, historical events, or peace and reconciliation projects carried out in the country and region.

References and further readings on memorialization and reconciliation:

Bloomfield, D., 2006. On good terms: Clarifying reconciliation.
Brewer, J.D., 2006. Memory, truth, and victimhood in post-trauma societies. Sage Handb. Nations Natl. 1, 214–224.
CAIN: Issues: Violence: “We Will Remember Them”: Report of the Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, April 1998 [WWW Document], n.d. URL (accessed 1.9.21).
Conway, B., 2003. Active remembering, selective forgetting, and collective identity: The case of Bloody Sunday. Identity Int. J. Theory Res. 3, 305–323.
Courtney, C., 2016. ‘Memory is the strength of our resistance’: an ‘other politics’ through embodied and material commemoration in the San José Peace Community, Colombia. Soc. Cult. Geogr. 17, 933–958.
Cuc, A., Ozuru, Y., Manier, D., Hirst, W., 2006. On the formation of collective memories: The role of a dominant narrator. Mem. Cognit. 34, 752–762.
Dajani, M.S., 2015. Israelis and Palestinians: Contested Narratives.
Fundación Gaia Amazonas, 2020. Recorrido mujeres por el río Tiquié (AATIZOT).
Hamber, B., 1998. How Should We Remember?: Issues to Consider when Establishing Commissions and Structures for Dealing with the Past. Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
McEwan, C. (2003). Building a postcolonial archive? Gender, collective memory, and citizenship in post-apartheid South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies, 29(3), 739-757.
Philpott, D., 2015. Just and unjust peace: An ethic of political reconciliation. Oxford University Press.
Ray, L., 1999. Memory, trauma and genocidal nationalism. Sociol. Res. Online 4, 125–132.
Remembrance and Forgetting – Building a Peace in Northern Ireland [WWW Document], 2017. . Community Relat. Counc. URL (accessed 1.6.21).
Ricoeur, P., 2004. Memory, history, forgetting. University of Chicago Press.
Shnabel, N., & Nadler, A. (2008). A needs-based model of reconciliation: Satisfying the differential emotional needs of victim and perpetrator as a key to promoting reconciliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 116.
Volf, M., 2006. The end of memory: Remembering rightly in a violent world. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Volkan, V., 2014. Killing in the name of identity: A study of bloody conflicts. Pitchstone Publishing (US&CA).