The colors that divide

On the 11th anniversary of Kosovo’s independence, how do our children now view their own national and ethnic identities?

Symbols and images can act as powerful markers of identity. They are an important element of the way that a group, in a certain context, becomes ‘one.

National flags, language signs, traditional ethnic and religious clothing, and important statues or sites are some of the ways children come to recognize social groups. This awareness has important implications for resolution after conflict.

How and when children recognize names, symbols and social markers influences how they understand and identify with relevant social groups. More importantly, how children identify with one group also affects their attitudes and behaviours toward ‘others’ that belong to the other groups particularly after conflict.

But what is the story of symbols common among Kosovo children? In particular, how do young generations born and raised after the Kosovo war and the 2008 declaration of independence respond to these symbols? How do they understand the symbols and markers associated with the new Kosovar national identity compared with those from ethnic Albanian and Serbian identities?

More importantly, are these national icons able to help foster a shared identity instead of perpetuating exiting division between ethnic groups?

Developing the Kosovo identity

Generally, the development of the Kosovo flag and national anthem following the country’s independence has shown that people feel strongly about the icons that represent them nationally. Creating these national categories and symbols in inclusive terms is often engineered to help repair intergroup relations.

Their neutrality can provide new ways to reconsider and redefine the groups’ picture by moving away from an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ view, to a new common ‘we’.

Inclusiveness can develop more positive attitudes towards previously antagonistic ethnic groups. Yet, creating inclusive national symbols does not necessarily erase group distinctions rooted in the history of intergroup conflict.

It takes time to make them meaningful and functional. It is a hard process, especially for people who identify strongly with other group categories or those that belong to ethnic minorities. To them, identifying with the new national symbols feels like a loss of identity       

National and ethnic symbols in the eyes of children

Recent work by a team of social, cognitive and developmental psychologists shows that even at early ages, children are aware of the icons around them and what they represent.

The study, called ‘Helping Kids! Promoting positive intergroup relations and peacebuilding in                                  divided societies,’ found that six to eleven-year-olds in Kosovo can readily and accurately perceive common social markers – such as icons or images – associated with conflict-related groups (i.e. either as being Albanian or as being Serb.)

In a series of interactive games, Albanian (119) and Serb (101) children were shown 13 pairs of images (26 in total) anticipated as either Albanian or Serbian. As early as six, children could categorize a church, a street sign for Gracanica and the Serbian National football jersey as Serbian, and not Albanian.

By age seven, children could associate 20 of the images and symbols with each ethnic group. By age 10, children were able to categorize all 26 images with their respective ethnic group label.

Kosovo Albanian and Serb children not only readily categorized all images, but their recognition also increased with age. This suggests that as children of these ethnic groups grow older, their awareness of group markers and group differences becomes more and more evident.

Growing older is not the only reason for this ability to identify and categorize these symbols and images.

A Kosovo Albanian representative of a local educational NGO said that “There is no cooperation between different groups mainly due to the separation of classes and schools, and lack of common spaces.”

Given that these children are brought up in divided schools, with minimal or no inter-ethnic contact, the system feeds on these ethnic polarizations very early on. It strips children away from the possibility to interact with children from the other ethnic group and witness first-hand how the ‘other’ really is.

The practice of separation of classes and schools based on ethnicity has been cemented by decades of segregation, and has its roots in the ‘90s when different schools for children of different ethnicities became the norm.

“It is among children that things are the worst,” said a Kosovo Serb teacher in the study. “If children do not have a chance to engage with other children from different backgrounds, they will not develop a sense of tolerance.”

When asked to choose which flag they preferred, children from both groups showed a higher preference for own ethnic flag, Albanian or Serbian (68 per cent) over the Kosovo flag (32 per cent) the older they got. And, if children preferred the Albanian or Serbian flag over the Kosovo flag, they also wanted more social distance between the respective ethnic groups.  

This preference for one’s own ethnic group over what is envisioned to be an inclusive Kosovo national flag may indicate children’s preference for ethnic separation in schools, neighborhoods or the cities they live in. This is most probably affected by the narratives that adults – primarily parents and teachers  – use with children.

“Parents’ biased attitudes are reflected upon children  – therefore ensuing that lack of contact and interaction between them continues even more,” said one Kosovo Albanian education official.

A Kosovo Serb teacher who participated in the study echoed these sentiments.

“When it comes to conflict and how children perceive it, the children that I teach know about the conflict based on the stories their parents or grandparents told them. However, they only know one side of the story – one where Serbs are victims. They don’t actually know the causes of the war, and they are afraid that something similar could happen again.”

According to a Kosovo Serb community activist that participated in the study, the consequences of the past reflect in the the present and the future.

“Our youngest children… of Serbian ethnicity tend to see Kosovo as having been taken from them by Albanians – or at least attempted to be taken away.”“Those from the Albanian side see Kosovo as an independent country, which Serbs refuse to let go of.”

The bright side of the story

It is clear that previous experiences can help children counteract this pattern. First, children with more contact with children from the other ethnic group preferred the national Kosovo flag alongside their own Albanian or Serbian flags.

When they were shown an integrated picture that included an Albanian or Serbian flag flying alongside the Kosovo flag, 48 per cent of children preferred the integrated flags,  almost as much as their ethnic ones standing on their own (52 per cent). This suggests stronger preferences for symbols that convey dual identities (ethnic and national together) compared to those where children have to make a preferential choice of either ethnic or national (Kosovar) identity.    

Understanding how symbols as group identity markers unfold for Kosovar children has important implications for the future. These generations can serve as an important catalyst for promoting peace in the years ahead and safeguard possible future conflicts.

“Exposure to children from each ethnic group is crucial. My personal desire would be to see an integrated, dual-language education system. Until that is possible, education policy makers should prioritize learning English to enable dialogue, and running mixed ethnic youth groups and children’s activities,” said the Kosovo Serb community activist.

The Serbian language is an official language alongside the Albanian one.

“It would be great to see a history curriculum in all schools which reflects a balanced account of the conflict,” she continued.

Although the conflict in Kosovo ended twenty years ago, it has had lasting effects on the post-conflict generation, especially the young born and raised after the country’s independence.

Long-term peacebuilding must start early. Children must have the chance to interact with and become friends with those from other ethnic groups as well as engage in meaningful intergroup experiences.

Fostering more positive attitudes and opportunities may have promising, long-term implications from more constructive intergroup relations. At the same time, supporting the creation of an inclusive overarching national identity, by use of shared symbols and icons on Kosovo, can support a healthy society for generations to come.

Working on these antecedents of peacebuilding with primary school children may hold promise for Kosovo’s future anniversaries in the years to come.

Edona Maloku is a social psychologist specializing in identity and intergroup relations. She is a research member of Utrecht Groups and Identity Lab in The Netherlands and a lecturer of Psychology at RIT Kosovo (A.U.K).

Laura K. Taylor, Jocelyn Dautel, Risa Rylander and Ana Tomovska-Misoska from the Helping Kids! Project co-authored the study on which this article reports.

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

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