A letter from Spain

Our columnist sends us a letter from Barcelona — as she wanders through the streets of the Catalonian capital, she wonders what life would be like free of the weight of travel restrictions that come with her Kosovo passport.

I seldom write about my adventures; my travel memories tend to be recorded superficially with borderline kitschy Instagram and Facebook posts from museums, historic landmarks and a personal collection of city maps and used metro tickets.

I am a low budget traveler, a thrill seeker, eager to meet new people and experience new cultures. I have traveled solo through 40 countries and lived in four before I turned 30. For those with first-world passports, this might not be even considered an achievement. But for a person who holds one of the least recognized passports in the world, allowing me to travel visa-free to only 15 countries – some of which even a geography guru like myself cannot locate on a map – it means breaking free from isolation.  

Clutching my weak Kosovo passport tight to my chest, the third I’ve filled to the brim with visas and stamps in the past ten years, I made my way to Spain. This trip would mark my 40th visit to a different country, and would also be the most challenging one yet.

My destination was Barcelona. The decision to travel to there – above all other beautiful places in Spain – was purely a political one. Triggered by the many debates surrounding independence movements, having read so many articles comparing the cases of Kosovo and Catalonia, I decided to go there myself. At the end of the day, the best way to learn is to see it for yourself, right?

My anxiety levels marked a historic high as I was boarding the plane from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to El Prat Airport in Barcelona. I was headed to the only country in European Union that is excluded from every Schengen visa issued in Kosovo. I wasn’t just visiting a place that strongly opposes my country’s existence, but also strongly refuses to accept my passport, denies my existence and my identity. I was visiting a region that is indirectly responsible for my country’s future in the EU.

My mind was doing somersaults, and I could not help but wonder: how does it really feel to be free? I was pondering how and where would I go if I did not have to think about my passport, the visa, the political stance of the country toward Kosovo. How does it feel to travel to feed your curiosity and adventurous spirit without having to think politically?

One turbulent low-cost flight later, there I was in Spain, eager to chase traces of history – what remained to be visited from World War I and II, the Spanish Civil War, I could not wait to drink in everything the city has to offer. At the same time, I too was being chased by the war I experienced myself, both personal memories and political consequences weighing heavily on my shoulders.

Holding my map as I walked along the buzzing streets, watching the Columbus Monument looking overseas out to the wide horizon, I was thinking about the Albanians who decided to join the Spanish Civil War. I could not avoid thinking about Petro Marko’s novel “Hasta la Vista’, a mandatory read for primary school pupils back in the day, which gave me insights from the war beyond history lessons, a love story between a young Albanian boy and a Spanish girl during the war. An age-old tale of romance in times of war, it fit the trend of books published at that time, probably.

My thoughts were interrupted looking up at the sea of Catalan flags hanging in almost every window, even the window of a sex museum with a girl dressed like Marilyn Monroe waving at the tourists. I decided to sit in a cafe and digest everything over sangria and tapas. There I was in the middle of the “Placa de Catalunya”, a square that was often clogged with protestors. The slogan “Freedom for the political prisoners” was still stamped in the pavements and the crossroads, the modest remains of a massive protest. Then, I started doing what many have tried before, and compare the case of Kosovo and Catalonia. This time I did so differently from other stories I have read before, which are mostly written by people who did not spend a single day in Kosovo during the war, and go to Spain for summer holidays only.

For a person who was 10 years old and remembers the war in Kosovo, I felt the struggles for independence, experienced hard times of persecution, poverty, and isolation. That there is a tendency to compare the two movements for independence enrages me. The fact that there are not only Spanish leaders, but also some scholars, who do not hesitate to equate Kosovo and Catalonia, reveals that they are unable to make a distinction between cases of legitimate aspirations and separatism.

Putting things in a comparative perspective, I thought of the repression against Albanians in the 1990s during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the war that killed more than 10,000 Kosovo Albanians, left 1600 people missing that we still search for today in  every corner of Kosovo and Serbia, and almost half-million people expelled, including my husband, who as a 10 year-old walked barefoot from Peja to Rozaje in the freezing cold. I am certainly not going to leave unmentioned the basements we used for classrooms to study in Albanian.

Now to the case of Catalonia, where university courses are delivered in Catalan and Spanish, an economically prosperous region that represents 20% of Spain’s total GDP, a place where indeed there are political grievances due to Madrid’s approach toward the region, the social inequality, and the violence and the use of force during the protests. All legitimate issues to protest about, but by no means comparable to Kosovo.

Yet, as a researcher I thought this wasn’t enough, so I decided to put myself out there, talked to people, tried to explain why the fate of Kosovo depends on Catalonia. As expected, the new generation had never heard about Kosovo, some only knew it through the Euro News stories about war, some were unable to draw any parallels at all between the two cases, and some even laughed when I shared the story of my passport.

Hearing these opinions from people sent me back in time once again, I was recalling my parents stories of pride during the Kosovo referendum in 1991, in which 87% of voters took part, and 99% voted in favor of Kosovo as a sovereign and independent republic, with the 10 percent of Serbs boycotted the referendum. The referendum was, as my father explains, the best and proudest day of his life. On the other hand, the referendum in 2017 in Catalonia has a turnout of 43% of population of which 90% supported independence, and many of those opposing independence choosing to boycott the poll. In Catalonia being Catalan does not make you a supporter of the independence, whereas in Kosovo, all Albanians were in favor unanimously supporting independence.

And so once again I started walking through the bustling neighborhoods, my mind  preoccupied by politics and EU integration, the protests of the Spanish government against Kosovo and its participation in the EU-Western Balkans Summit, vocal against Kosovo’s inclusion in the Western Balkan Strategy, and the political statements opposing recognition, even if Serbia and Kosovo reach an agreement in Brussels.

My adventure answered at least some basic research questions, but by the end of my trip I ended up being even more confused with the Spanish government’s naive approach toward the case of Kosovo, and a new wave of skepticism hit me as I was packing to return to Paris. I took my faded passport and my EU residence permit, holding the two documents in my hands: one almost useless, and the other giving me a taste of the privilege of having a single document that swiftly opens doors to all sorts of opportunities. Opportunities that a young person living in Kosovo cannot even dare to dream of.

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