A ‘different’ narrative of the war

Public reaction to Shkelzen Gashi’s comments on the KLA and his subsequent dismissal as an adviser to Albin Kurti demonstrate that even 21 years after the Kosovo war, it is still dangerous to open discussions on war crimes in a society where a culture of impunity has taken root.

Kosovo human rights activist Shkelzen Gashi, who until Saturday was an adviser to acting Prime Minister Albin Kurti, found himself at the centre of controversy following an interview for television channel T7 on Friday. 

Gashi was being interviewed the day after police summoned him for questioning over a Facebook post appealing for resistance to Kosovo’s partition after plans were announced for the formation of the country’s new government. However, he was also asked about historic comments made on crimes allegedly committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA. 

“It is much better to punish those who have committed crimes, so that the KLA can be cleansed of them,” Gashi said. “I say members of the KLA, as I am not saying that the KLA committed crimes.” 

He went on to reference the alleged murder of members of Kosovo’s ethnic minority communities by members of the KLA, both during and after the war, as well as the alleged political eliminations of activists from the Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK.

The comments soon sparked an extreme response, including calls for Gashi’s “physical elimination.” 

On Saturday evening, public broadcaster RTK reported that car horns blared throughout a number of Kosovo cities in protest, with some citizens blasting KLA-related songs. Some were arrested for breaching the restrictions on movement in place due to the coronavirus pandemic in order to protest.

Less than 24 hours after his interview Gashi lost his position as adviser to acting prime minister Albin Kurti. “I thank him for his contribution, I appreciate his critical opinion,” Kurti said. “There are so many things on which we agree right now, but there are also things we don’t agree on from the past.” 

Kurti added that he did not want the “good work of the government in office” to be put in jeopardy due to statements made by an adviser of his while the country is trying to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Although the acting prime minister did not explicitly condemn the comments, the incredibly public dismissal of Gashi, just 35 days after his appointment, has only exacerbated his vilification in the court of public opinion.

Gashi has often sparked fierce debate among the public during his career as an activist. He has spent years researching aspects of that war that have been left unspoken or overlooked, often engaging in interviews with key figures from the time. 

His atypical questions have often been met with rebuke from prominent former members of the KLA. In an interview with Xhavit Haliti published in Gashi’s book “Kosovo – War and Peace”, the former PDK MP and founder of the KLA dismissed his questioning with typical robustness. “Are you being beaten by Serbian policemen?” Haliti retorted. “Of course not, because there are no more Serbian policemen [in Kosovo].”

Regardless, Gashi’s recent comments pale in comparison to similar admissions from former KLA leading figures, including Hashim Thaci, the current President of Kosovo. 

One recent example came during a UN Security Council session on Kosovo in December 2018. “I do not dispute that there may have been fighters that have deviated from the nobility of the war for freedom,” Thaci said at the meeting, the transcript of which – unlike Gashi’s statement, which is just fodder for domestic political consumption – will be immortalised through references by diplomats and researchers in the future.

The court of public opinion has also failed to acknowledge Gashi’s comments on Friday in full. “I never said that the KLA had a plan to kill, massacre and execute Serb civilians,” Gashi said, a caveat that renders his statement almost identical to comments made by former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj in an interview given to Albanian TV program ‘Opinion.’

Airing suspicions that crimes were committed by KLA members during the war has always been a taboo subject in Kosovo, and there have been efforts to keep it that way. However, MPs symbolically broke this taboo (albeit under significant international pressure) by voting in favor of a constitutional amendment five years ago, allowing for the creation of the specialist court in the Hague. 

The court is tasked with investigating and prosecuting KLA members for crimes committed during and after the war, against both Kosovo Albanians and minority populations in Kosovo. Five years later, prosecutors in The Hague have conducted interviews with approximately 200 KLA members, both as witnesses and suspects related to these allegations.

Gashi, who is desperately seeking institutional support to establish a museum that would showcase evidence of the crimes committed during the war, is one of the few voices trying to shed light on parts of Kosovo’s history that remain obscured. Due to both a failure to preserve evidence and the ongoing loss of witnesses year after year, his monumental task is becoming harder and harder to achieve.

Meanwhile, the reactions to his statement indicate that Kosovo, like Serbia, will remain in a hermetically sealed spiral of truth. 

Even 21 years after the war, the heated response shows how dangerous it can be to even try talking about war crimes in a society where a culture of impunity has taken root. Any attempt to build a ‘different’ narrative of the events during and after the war will encounter a wave of denial, one that remains steadfast more than two decades later.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

27 April 2020 - 13:55

Perparim Isufi

27/04/2020 - 13:55

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.