The day Kosovo declared independence: An oral history

To mark the 10th anniversary of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, we asked 15 people to recount their memories of that day. These are their stories.

It got as cold -11 degrees Celsius on the day that Kosovo declared ‘unilateral independence from Serbia’–a catchphrase that would make it to the front pages of international press.

It was a Sunday. The streets of Kosovo had already been full of people celebrating all weekend,  waving Albanian, American, European, and all kinds of flags, honking their cars, and dancing valle  on the streets as the sound of çifteli became ubiquitous. The air was pregnant with expectation.

On February 14, the then-Prime Minister—current President—Hashim Thaci had quizzically declared “people are celebrating, the people know the date.” But nobody knew for certain when Kosovo would declare independence until February 16, and some could not believe it until the next day, when people watched Thaci reading the declaration live on television before their very own eyes.

Later, the three leaders of the state—President Fatmir Sejdiu, Assembly Speaker Jakup Krasniqi and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci—would walk in front of the Boro and Ramizi hall, squeeze through the packed crowds, and sign the Newborn monument, then called “the Obelisk of Independence.” Appearing once again together, they addressed the crowds in front of the government building as what seemed like thousands of fireworks lit the Prishtina sky.

It was a joyful day of celebration: finally, Gazeta Express wrote in its February 18 edition, whoever wrote “Kosova Republike” would not be penalized with prison sentences. That phrase had finally become a reality.

We talked to 15 people from across a variety of backgrounds, genders, and ages about how they remember Independence Day. Some recalled the joys of celebrating in the freezing temperatures, how surreal it all felt, while others recounted feelings of trepidation of what would happen to their communities since they were not Albanian. Many had to deal with the complicated emotions of feeling both sadness and joy, as independence had come at a steep human price. Another recounted how not everyone could enjoy that day because the north of Kosovo was, de facto, separated.

We chose to intertwine their stories, as they represent an unfinished chorus of the narrative of that day: one of commonalities and, especially, differences.

The following interviews are abbreviated and edited, as is the video that accompanies them. For the full video interviews and transcripts, visit Oral History Initiative’s website.

When did you find out that Kosovo would declare its independence?

Bardh Salihu, project manager,  31,  Prishtina

I remember that it was a strange period because for four-five days, or I don’t know how many days, maybe a week, you know, the whole thing was being dragged… I think it was even February 15 when literally we all thought that this is the day, it’s happening today. But it didn’t happen.

Nita Salihu Hoxha, graphic designer & member of Newborn creative team, 33, Prishtina

Nita Salihu, 33.

From 2004 until 2009, I was part of Karrota [Marketing Agency] and more or less every year we thought, what should we come out with, like, what is something interesting that we would do for ourselves, with what, what promotion should we do for ourselves?

Shkenca, who was our lead, the leader of the creative team, she started writing [on the board before a brainstorm] “March, March 8.” And she said, “Hey more,” she said, “I think independence will be declared  in February.” No one knew the exact date, we only knew it was in February. She said, “My dad told me so,” or someone told her so. And she wrote it down: “February.”  We didn’t know the date.

Dardan Hoti, 29.

Dardan Hoti, journalist, 29, Krushe e Madhe

I was in a dance group and we were informed a month or two before. We got some information that we should be prepared to have a show when Kosovo would declare independence in the framework of the Rahovec municipality.  And in a way we started to get used to the term independence, and how it’s like to have… Kosovo be independent… But we did not focus on that part, we focused more on preparing that choreography.

Hana Bajrami, civil servant, 30, Prishtina

It just so happened that I found out the date of independence on my first day at work, on February 4, 2008, when I started working at  the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office [who was] at the time professor Hajredin Kuci. That day I found out the date when independence would be declared. I told my [twin] brother that I knew the date, but I didn’t tell him [the date], and to this day he still mentions it.

Where were you on February 17, 2008?

Shqipdona Ademi, student, 21  Skenderaj

Shqipdona Ademi, 21.

On the day of the declaration of independence we were at home. It was a Sunday. I was with my family. As soon as we woke up in the morning we sat in front of the television, I don’t know, I don’t remember if we ate. I think we didn’t, we just stood there until two, when the session of the declaration was held. None of us moved from there.

Abdyl Gashi, educator, 73, Prishtina

The city was seething, the temperature was something like freezing. Then, I guess there was a funeral that day too, I guess Musa Sopi had died and his funeral was that day, I remember we were freezing at the cemetery. I mean, an emotional and happy situation, but also icy cold.

Abdyl Gashi, 73.

…We were happy, wandering up and down and going inside coffee shops to warm up because it was cold. Meeting, greeting and hugging friends and people. To be honest, looking at the nation celebrating, playing, dancing, honored the atmosphere, the setting, even more.

We ended up in cafes, in bars, with people from the international community, with ministers, nobody could tell who was who.

Atdhe Mulla, photographer, 32, Prishtina

It was very cold [laughs]… Everyone begins with, “It was very cold” [laughs]…

On Independence Day I woke up at 9:30, the night before I went to bed at 7:30 am [laughs]. Since we did not know the day when it would happen, we also went out that night, people went out in cars, with flags, we still didn’t know the Kosovo flag, so the national flag was there, of course … and so we went out to take pictures, more or less, we knew that something was cooking the next day… and we ended up in cafes, in bars, with people from the international community, with ministers, nobody could tell who was who.

Atdhe Mulla, 31.

I woke up in the morning that day and we went out to take pictures, I had to finish my graduation project [laughs].

Hana Bajrami, civil servant, 30, Prishtina

On the 17th at 8:00 am, I was at the office. It was cold, extremely cold. I have never been that cold in my life. And since, since I happened to be at the Prime Minister’s Office, people were coming and going, famous personalities, up and down the deputy Prime Minister’s Office. And I would see people from the windows, our office was on the third floor and the square started getting crowded with people, they started celebrating, even though it was really cold. And I know I had a small camera, if only we had these phones then, you know, but I had a Nokia at the time, it was like those sneakers with lights, it  didn’t have a camera….

Hana Bajrami, 30.

…I went to the Assembly and they gave me a protocol badge… [But] I [had only] worked for 13 days, less than two weeks. I didn’t know many people and I was 20 years old, inexperienced.

…And I know that I went to the second floor, it was the Office of the President of the Assembly, at the time Jakup Krasniqi. And I sat there in an armchair like a little kid and I was just watching, people would come in and out…. Then I ended up in the Assembly Hall as a member of the protocol team and I helped the deputies of the Kosovo Assembly sign the Declaration of Independence.

Ebru Suleyman, consultant, 27, Prishtina

I was at home but we didn’t celebrate… I remember watching it on television, the declaration, it showed the parliament, Hashim Thaci read the declaration, everyone applauded and stood up and we were declared independent. But on one side, perhaps because I had never felt that nationalism or states or borders represented anything important to me, and perhaps because people seemed to be on edge at the time… a relaxed atmosphere didn’t exist.

Ebru Suleyman, 27.

There was a bit of turmoil, some uneasiness in the air and it wasn’t leading anyone in the direction that you could clearly feel what would happen after this declaration. And for me it’s more important to know what’s going to happen with my life and with the lives of people around me whom I care about.

So you would move forward 50 meters, would stop, got out and dance valle in the middle of the street, kissed and hugged whomever was there, got back in the car and continued to find another party.

Petrit Bejdoni, social worker, 30, Prishtina

Petrit Bejdoni, 30.

I am from Gjakova, but I was in Prishtina that day because I live and work here. But that day I was here and watched it on television. I was young during the war and being from a city such as Gjakova, which was very destroyed and which was greatly impacted by the war, it was really a mixed feeling. We honestly weren’t happy, we knew it wouldn’t be all flowers the next day.

Bardh Salihu, project manager, 31, Prishtina

That day I remember we were all watching television, more or less… it was such a quiet day because nobody was really out, nothing was happening. And… because, what I’m saying is that that thing was a development, it wasn’t just that day. It wasn’t like we got up and said, “Hey, today we will declare independence.” It was something like five days, or I don’t know how many days that we were glued to the television waiting… that day we were watching television, it happened sometime in the afternoon if I’m not mistaken. And when it was all over, then I literally remember that not a single person stayed home, we were all out, you couldn’t park your car anywhere, and I went out with the car…

Bardh Salihu, 31.

I had taken my father’s X5 [vehicle], you know…we cruised in the X5 like idiots, and you couldn’t really drive anywhere because all the streets were blocked. So you would move forward 50 meters, would stop, got out and dance valle in the middle of the street, kissed and hugged whomever was there, got back in the car and continued to find another party.

Saranda Bogujevci, Member of Parliment, 32, Toronto

It was a big celebration, I mean it was immediately organized in the center of Toronto, Albanians gathered. I remember, it was an honor for me, they asked me to talk, so to address all the compatriots that were gathered  in Toronto. I remember I had… with the family I had, the friends I had in Toronto, I drew the eagle like the one in the pictures on the cheeks of all the kids and the younger generations. It was a huge celebration.

Sardana Bogujevci, 32.

Jelena Bjelica, journalist, 40, Prishtina

Jelena Bjelica, 40.

On the 17th of February I was in Prishtina in my apartment, and the funny thing was that my best friend from Belgrade came, and I’d been actually inviting her for like two years to come to Prishtina, and then she kind of totally randomly picked that weekend… without actually knowing it’s going to happen on that very weekend… It was a big party, and a lot of people came, a lot of different friends who actually were not based in Prishtina at that time, they all came, it was a big party on the street and my friend from Belgrade had a great time, she was like “Oh my God! I didn’t realize Kosovo is so cool!” and I was like, “Yeah but it’s not everyday like this, you know.” [laughs]  And then we had this standing joke with my friends, with my Kosovo Albanian friends on the streets. So I was coming and saying this is my friend from Belgrade, and then they were saying, “Hey, hi, bye-bye Serbia,” and my friend replied to them “See you in EU,” so there was this rhyming, a standing joke, or rhyme.

Shqipdona Ademi, student, 21

After the declaration of independence, my father with, they were mostly the men of the neighborhood, they went to Skenderaj, to our city, to celebrate and they did not come back until late at night… all of those who could not go with a car or something walked. So most of the people of the village where we live walked there, and they walked back, you know, at 10 at night.

I wasn’t in the city that day but my father tells us that nobody went home without eating the independence cake and that the independence cake had a special flavor, and my father says he has never tasted that kind of cake, but maybe it all depended on that day.

We were happy but afraid at the same time.

Valdete Idrizi, civil society activists, 43  Mitrovica

One can feel every possible feeling on Independence Day. Starting from happiness, first of all, Kosovo became a state. Starting from fear, because it became a state without the north, and we lost that part. Starting from fear of what would happen, because we knew that the north wouldn’t accept our independence that easily, and there are still Albanians there and they will suffer from it, and one day they will also be expelled again.…

Valdete Idrizi, 43.

I drove around with my car all day, together with my friend and colleague, through the crowd, seeing flags and shouting. And, we were happy but afraid at the same time… and constantly on the phone with those in the north. I mean, not only with Serbian colleagues, but also Albanians who were there, because we didn’t dare to be fully happy. On the other side, we said, “Is it normal for us not to be as happy as those in the other cities?”

Milica Andric, civil society activist, 26, Zubin Potok

Milica Andric, 26.

We in Zubin Potok were especially isolated… So, to me it was like… it was happening elsewhere, so I didn’t really know what the independence or declaration, the act itself of the declaration of independence meant at the time that it happened.

And I actually don’t remember absolutely anything about the day when the declaration happened because it just wasn’t something that interested me. However, the day after the declaration, I do remember this part where one of the teachers in school told us that this was not the first time Kosovo declared independence.

Adrian Bytyqi, political scientist, 25, Prizren

On the day of the declaration of independence I was at home. My house is at Shadërvan [in Prizren], behind the Orthodox Church, and I remember the road I took to the Sinan Pasha Mosque and when I saw the flags, the national flags, specifically the back and red flag. There were a lot of people, a lot of plis, a lot of euphoria, a lot of joy, a lot of Hashim Thaci declaring independence on every possible screen, 15:30 pm, that was engraved in that reality even today for those who remember it better.

Fatlum Kryeziu, student, 22  Prizren

Fatlum Kryeziu, 22.

I know that it was very, very noisy, I know that they were celebrating. I didn’t have any, any strong emotion about this. I did not understand what independence means, I didn’t know what it was, I just knew from others that it was good….I know there was a lot of music…I mean, as every kid, you remembered songs, for example, those songs that we have, that we celebrate with, “Oj Kosovë, oj nëna ime” [O Kosovo, o my mother] and others. You know, and I tried to sing them.

Nita Salihu Hoxha, graphic designer & member of NEWBORN team, 34, Prishtina

On that day, you know, since it was very cold in the morning, very, very cold, we had to stick together. We went to that cafe, there was one in the corner next to the fountain, I don’t recall the name. There in the corridor we had all our stuff [to prepare to unveil Newborn]. There was also the balloon guy, he filled them up with helium. The whole day we put [balloons] around  until around noon or 1:00, I remember that by that time we were frozen. Then we had to place the balloons under the sheet with our hands, but they lifted the sheet, more or less the work of five-six hours went to nothing. Then, let’s quickly tie-up the sheet, bring the barricades, place them on the side, the security… now everyone was involved, we were a group of thirty and if someone knew someone, for example, I invited Vigan, everyone invited their boyfriends, friends, girlfriends to come and help finish it.…

The mass of people was all over, excited, as if, yes, everything depended on the fact if they signed the letters and it was done!

You know we left a path open, so that people slowly could come in and sign there, you know, quite beautiful. The Prime Minister, the President at that time came… they were followed by the security. I, you know, at that point we divided the work, Shkenca, Jeton, Fis and I had our teams and we had buckets with markers and at one point I realized I was in the middle of the crowd and that people ran toward [Newborn], they jumped over the barricades. And the security had to remove the barricades, there was no space left to say, “Now it is your turn to sign.” The mass of people was all over, excited, as if, yes, everything depended on the fact if they signed the letters and it was done! You know, as if the whole process depended on that. People, as it seems, were so excited that I really thought, I said it, “They will crush me!”

Hana Bajrami, civil servant, 30, Prishtina

We went again to the government building because it was time for the concert and where the three leaders greeted, so the President of the Assembly… the Prime Minister and the President, greeted the people. And I remember, at that time the Chief of Staff, Mr. Bekim Collaku, today the President’s Chief of Staff, was sitting behind me and he called someone on the phone and said, “Light them.” And I know that Prishtina’s sky lit  up, when they lit the fireworks. And that stayed with me, you know, just like in the movies, “Wow,” because,  you know, we had never seen that many fireworks until then.

“Wow,” because, you know, we had never seen that many fireworks until then.

Nita Salihu

It became, I don’t know, this euphoria, tensed, people pierced through, they passed me, the only thing that was missing was for [the people] to get on my back and ask me, “Can you get me higher because I seem to be unable to reach the  letter?” You know, I was squeezed a bit there. But again it was, everyone started hugging, and loving one another. It was like, I don’t know, a breaking point, you know, like before and after the war, that how it was before Newborn and after Newborn for me.

Bardh Salihu

It is very interesting that every year we celebrate “February 17, February 17” or any independence day… but we were all there that day, and that is what makes it very special. How many people can say that they were there, on that day when independence was declared?

The interviews were conducted and prepared by Prishtina Insight and Kosovo Oral History Initiative staff: Faith Bailey, Donjete Berisha, Anna Di Lellio, Ermal Gashi, Plator Gashi, Valerie Hopkins, Aurela Kadriu, Eremire Krasniqi, Lura Limani, Astrit Perani,  and Dafina Tahiri. 

Illustrations by Jeta Dobranja/ Trembelat. 

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