UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies Plays Role in Multi-National Efforts to Restore Afghan Educational System
As unlikely as it may seem, the University of Nebraska at Omaha of all places is home to a major archival and training resource having to do with Afghanistan. UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has been actively engaged in Afghan matters in educational, expert and consulting capacities, alone or as part of U.S. and United Nations efforts, that have gone on before, during, and after the Soviet invasion and the more recent U.S. war on terror waged there. Many Afghan leaders have participated in UNO programs. Even though UNO was unable to operate in Afghanistan itself during the Soviet occupation and during the Taliban’s rule, the university’s Afghan support programs continued in Pakistan and in Nebraska, where Afghan exiles and refugees accessed various services. Since the Taliban’s overthrow the Center has ramped up its programs. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is one of a series of pieces I did on the Center’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You can find the other stories I did about the Center under the Afghanistan heading in the category roll on the right, including a profile of Thomas Gouttierre, who directs the Center and whose deep ties to that country go back to the 1960s. You will also find a more recent story about an exchange between UNO School of Communication faculty and students and peer communucation faculty and students from Kabul, a subject I will be revisiting in 2012.
UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies Plays Role in Multi-National Efforts to Restore Afghan Educational System
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It seems as soon as one plague leaves Afghanistan, a new scourge surfaces in its place. In a constant state of upheaval since the early 1970s this ill-fated central Asian nation has variously fended off foreign invaders, waged civil war, chafed at restrictive measures imposed by harsh rulers, suffered under international boycotts and dug-out from the rubble of both man-made and natural disasters.
Now, in the aftermath of decades-long warfare that wreaked such widespread havoc that not a single school was left unscathed, the country’s fragile interim government is struggling to find its way out of the abyss with the aid of an Omaha institution with deep ties to Afghanistan. Just as it has been involved in past revival efforts there, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies is right in the thick of United States-led rebuilding efforts aimed at shoring-up that nation’s gutted infrastructure, including restoring a ravaged educational base.
The new Afghan ruling class UNO is working with includes many American-educated, including UNO-trained, leaders from the Northern Alliance that helped depose the repressive Taliban regime and assisted U.S. forces in the war on terrorism. Before the Taliban instituted stifling cultural decrees that all but snuffed-out formal education in the country, the UNO center operated a program in the 1980s and early ‘90s that focused on developing leadership and nation-building skills among Afghans, whose training took place in Nebraska, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
With the Taliban now relegated to the fringes of power in the wake of the recent U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, the UNO center is implementing a new education program funded by a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Called America’s Rapid Response to Education Needs in Afghanistan, the program is helping jump start the nation’s dormant education system by, most visibly, printing and distributing millions of textbooks for students of all ages now attending school in makeshift sites across the country. Throughout the Afghan civil war and the more recent U.S. campaign to root out Taliban and al-Qaida elements, UNO maintained long-held offices and printing presses in Peshawar, Pakistan, where it also stored textbooks and other educational resources in warehouses. UNO kept more than a symbolic presence in Peshawar, where Afghan refugee camps are located and where UNO education programs train teachers. When the interim government’s Ministry of Education announced plans to reopen schools in March, UNO emptied warehouses and geared-up presses for an unprecedented run of textbooks and materials that continues today. UNO also stepped-up its ongoing training of teachers, many of whom lack any rigorous secondary education.
Thomas Gouttierre, director of the UNO center, recently returned from a weeks-long visit to the war-torn nation. Gouttierre, who’s served as a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, oversaw the Rapid Response program’s startup phase and met with Afghan leaders to assess educational needs and how UNO may play a lasting role in helping meet some of those needs. “The task is somewhat monumental. We’ve lost three generations of students who have not had the chance to go to school in many parts of the country. There may have been some parts of the country where there was some sporadic education but, for the most part, there was very little and, for women, almost nothing. And because there’s been no census, we don’t really know how many students there are. We’re probably going to find out by taking a count of the books we’ve distributed and subtracting that number from the total we publish,” Gouttierre said from his office on the UNO campus.
In addition to elementary and secondary education, he said, “there is a real need in vocational-technical education and in trying to wean people away from the culture of the gun, where they get paid to bear weapons, to some other kind of work where they get paid” to weld a joint or repair a car engine or drive a nail or fix a leaky faucet. “Also, there was a lot of literacy lost during these last three decades and so each of the major urban centers in Afghanistan needs to have literacy programs for adults in those regions. Afghanistan’s literacy level has dropped to the level it was at when Afghanistan was emerging right after the Second World War. After that, education went through boom lets — developing rapidly enough at times to reach a significant part of the non-educated population. In the last three decades, however, that underserved segment has been missing out on any educational opportunities.”
According to Gouttierre, the rebuilding process must encompass both soft and hard infrastructure features. “In terms of teaching and administration, there are many, many people assuming roles today both in teaching and management of education whose primary qualification for those tasks has been experience and not actual higher education or, if they do have some higher education, it is one of not any real substance. So, there has to be training of what I describe as ‘the barefoot teachers’ — the people who are essentially teaching the ninth grade because they’ve had an 11th grade education or are teaching the third grade because they’ve had a seventh grade education. It’s not realistic for them to go back to school and start the whole process over at age 50 or whatever. So, in-service education is the thing for them. It has to focus on making these teachers better teachers. We’re doing that right now, and that’ll go on for a long time.”
“In terms of schools, I did not see one that isn’t in need of major rehabilitation. I saw schools in the neighborhoods in which I used to live in the capital city of Kabul where there were three walls or two walls up and no roofs,” said Gouttierre, whose own experience in Afghanistan extends back some 40 years as a former Peace Corps volunteer, Fulbright scholar and Fulbright administrator. He has appeared before the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament and the French National Assembly to discuss Afghan matters. Despite the many challenges there, by the end of April UNO was expecting to have printed and, hopefully, distributed 10 million textbooks in a little more than two months time. But even getting textbooks into the hands of children is equal parts adventure, faith and improvisation.
“The actual distribution of books and materials is a problem. The roads are bad. The Ministry of Education doesn’t have the money for trucks to take books from, say, Kabul to some outlying area, where they then need to be distributed by smaller trucks to villages and schools and from there to even more remote sites.” To facilitate the books’ delivery, UNO has formed a “cooperative” network enlisting facilities, vehicles and workers of many agencies.
There are also constant security concerns in a country rife with tribal animosity and terrorist-extremist threats. “We were told while we were there that there had been a threat uncovered from al-Qaida against our education program,” he said. “We increased our security, but nothing came of that” threat.
Even with all the problems, he added, there “are some upsides. First of all, there is this curriculum created by Afghans that students have in-hand in the books” UNO is making available. He said the curriculum is one that has been “developing over the last several decades through the help of USAID, Columbia University and UNO. That curriculum is a resource for them and one they can decide to do with as they wish.” Regarding criticism leveled against the curriculum by officials with UNICEF and other agencies who allege it relies heavily on rote learning and contains inappropriate militaristic and religious references, Gouttierre said the content in question was long ago removed or revised. Besides, he said, critics fail to take into account that symbols of, for example, dead Russian soldiers used in math problems came in the context of the nation’s bloody war with the Soviet Union.
When Gouttierre considers Afghanistan’s plight, he sees a country desperate for normalcy but unsure how to get there. He said the road ahead will need to be an entirely new one for a country reeling from more than a generation of violence — a period that saw it fracture along fault lines of both internal and external origin. A succession of disruptions destabilized Afghanistan to the point where war became an every day reality. The chaos began with the ouster of former King Mohammad Zaher Shah in 1973, quickly followed by the Soviet Union’s installation of a puppet communist government. When civil unrest threatened Soviet interests, the Red Army invaded in 1979. A bloody 10-year war ensued. By the time the Afghan rebels – the mujahideen — defeated and drove out the Soviets, most of the country lay in ruins and millions of Afghans were dead, wounded, politically exiled, dispossessed as refugees or long-since fled to the safety of other countries. Then, in this still largely feudal land where ethnic and religious rivalries viciously compete for the hearts and minds of its beleaguered people, civil war erupted between factions loyal to opposing tribal warlords and to opposing forms of Islam. In the midst of this power struggle, the extremist Islamic movement known as the Taliban allied itself with the Pashtun minority in the southern part of the country and engaged in civil war against the more moderate Tashik majority in the north, whose forces came to be known as the Northern Alliance.
Today, even with the Taliban and al-Qaida removed from power, outbreaks of violence continue, countless thousands of civilians remain homeless and millions of mines litter the landscape. It is an embittered populace with virtually no family left untouched by the carnage. In a society bereft of much of its pre-war leadership and still divided along ethnic-religious lines, the pervasive culture of the gun looms over the scene, with the threat of coups, insurgences and feuds never far away.
As Gouttierre sees it, Afghan leaders and their international partners must look beyond cultural-political differences and focus instead on forging a common vision for public programs like education that operate at the national level. Because he estimates about “80 percent of the real brain trust of Afghanistan has been drained,” the country is starving for human and material resources and is being flooded by NGOs (non-government organizations) trying to corner the market in relief or aid programs, including education programs. He said the country is so desperate for help that it feels obliged to accept any aid, regardless of whether it conforms to or helps further national education aims.
“What’s needed but what is lacking is an emphasis on the national nature of the educational mission. Programs are needed that have a cohesive nation-building content. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge now. That’s one of the reasons why Afghans’ new leadership chose the curriculum we were safeguarding. It was their curriculum. It was comprehensive. It was cohesive. And it was, more than anything, theirs.”
He said the U.S. has a major part to play in any process that makes Afghan education a source of unification rather than division. “We have to do whatever we can to increase the capacity of the Ministry of Education. The infrastructure of the ministry is somewhat skeletal right now. There are people filling a lot of positions who are now faced for the first time with a national mandate. All the mandates up till now have been somewhat regional or else lacking totally. But education in Afghanistan is now a national program. It’s not divided up into regional school districts or local school districts or anything like that. It’s national. So, we have to increase the capacity of the ministry to call the shots for what should be done in that country.”
What is being done now, he said, is “an immense” reclamation project that seeks to not only revive but reinvent an education process interrupted and largely destroyed by the hostilities of the past 23 years. He said as more Afghans migrate to urban centers from rural provinces, where the traditional practice of agriculture has been rendered next to impossible by the presence of land mines, adult vocational education will become paramount. He added that education for women will need to be a primary focus in a country where “female empowerment” is a new but crucial concept. “Women have been unable to work for so long but there are so many of them who are eligible for the workforce, age wise and need wise, if not skill wise.”
Even as conditions remain difficult and dangerous throughout the country, the wish of the Afghan people to resume education is so strong that weeks before the official start date for schools to reopen on March 23 students began gathering in all manner of impromptu settings to attend class. School was to begin in two phases over a several month period, but citizens’ interest in seeing school start NOW was overwhelming enough that the government opted to open all schools at once. “People had been deprived of education for so long they all started at the same time,” Gouttierre said. “They are just so eager. They’re really embracing this concept, especially the girls.”
The deluge of students has been such that no real attempt is being made now to place individuals according to ability or age. “Nobody’s making a challenge,” he said. “I think everybody feels that if someone says he should be in the fourth grade then let’s put him there and let’s work with him because, bottom line, we’ve got to get this thing going rather than wading through endless challenges. Besides, there’s not the means to find out for sure where people should be placed.”
While attending the launching day ceremonies for the new education initiatives at a ramshackle school in Kabul on March 23, Gouttierre said it was apparent to him and the Afghan nationals present that a historical milestone was being witnessed. “Everybody understood they were marking time,” he said. “That they were marking a major departure from the way life had been for the last decades in Afghanistan and that they were trying to relaunch modernization, development and progressive movement.”
The festive ceremonies included not only Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and other high-ranking Afghan officials, but a parade of peasant families, including parents accompanying young children who had never attended school before. The scene left Gouttierre with some lasting impressions. “I have two very vivid images in my mind from that. One is of all the mothers and fathers coming to register their children for school. And to see the excitement and enthusiasm and hope and desire on their faces was just very, very meaningful. The other thing was seeing this parade of boys and girls in uniforms and of teachers and administrators in suits and dresses enter the school. Watching that, one recognized something happening there that hadn’t been going on for nearly three decades. People were crying, as was I and as was Hamid Karzai. We were thinking about the sacrifices and losses and the new opportunities.”
Securing a stable education system in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said, demands two things. “One is establishing universal security. The second is making sure the international communities really do provide what they’re promising to provide and haven’t yet — namely, the kinds of money and in the right forms” Afghanistan requires. “There’s a lot of money being spent on putting the elements into place and that’s mostly in management and administration. The actual programming money, I think, is still to come. Whether or not there’s going to be that delivery of funds is the important thing.”
He said the symbolic return in mid-Aprilc of long-exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah may bolster the rebuilding efforts underway. “It could mean a lot. It might mean more credibility to the current process if he’s supportive of all this and I think he should be and will be. He is highly popular and, again, if he is part of all this it will give it a historical-traditional foundation that would help. Now, he’s 87-years-old, so he’s not going to be dynamic. He’s going to be symbolic. He’s going to be presiding. He’s going to be a great-grandfather kind of figure. But that’s an important thing for Afghanistan, which has lost out on so much of its traditions and history.”
If nothing else, Gouttierre said, the rebirth of education in Afghanistan expresses the will of the people and represents the first national program sponsored by the interim government. “This action is the first comprehensive program initiated and sustained by this government that has national reach in Afghanistan. Everything else may not reach beyond the confines of Kabul. I think there is a consensus behind it. The only place there would be a lack of consensus would be among the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida and those of like-mind.”
Whether the present leadership remains in office to carry out its educational mission will be determined by a congress of Afghan elders convening in June. The loya jirga or grand assembly will decide if Karzai and his ministers retain power or are replaced in a new transitional government until democratic general elections are held in two years.
UNO’s efforts in rebuilding the educational system in Afghanistan were honored by President and Mrs. Bush during a March 20 event in Alexandria. Va. The university’s current grant through USAID ends at the end of 2002. In the meantime, Gouttierre said, “we’ll look at what other areas we might be able to do and do well for Afghanistan. We think the one that might be most down our line would be something like vocational education.”
Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less. I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees. The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.
War and Peace, Bosnian Refugees Purge War’s Horror’s in Song and Dance that Make Plea for Peace
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band
The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.
The refugees are amend a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.
“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”
Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now worlds odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. SWe only care what kind of person you are.”
Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.
The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.
War Hits Home
Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 199, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.
Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.
At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” he immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.
The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Sebian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.
The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung in until they were aboard.
From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.
While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana sats she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”
“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family too similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic kids eventually fled to Croatia.
In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.
Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.
With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.
Omaha – A New Home, A New Life
Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”
Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, and attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made drink her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.
Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice
Meanwhile, Rusmirm who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms we improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.
As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmier’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.
“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.
Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.
Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.
“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”
Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.
Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.
By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly”: says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping ion 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.
The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.
Music – Celebration and Mourning
Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.
It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.
Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away i knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”
After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.
During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.
Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.
A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapt from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.
“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”
Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.
He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”
As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.
Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.
Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”
Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”
Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”
Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never spell good again.”
With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen’s Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long, Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.
“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.
The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream contort” for its warm reception.
Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”
Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”
America is, after all, the land of opportunity.
“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”
- A Long Way from Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Mladic could face two trials for alleged Bosnian war crimes (cnn.com)
- Serbia alert over Mladic protests (bbc.co.uk)
- Bosnia tensions live on despite Mladic capture (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Key dates and events in the Bosnia war (zokstersomething.wordpress.com)
- No closure (bbc.co.uk)
This story from a decade ago or so is one of two I have done that try to paint a human, intimate portrait of the late 20th century European wars that erupted in the aftermath of the end of Communist rule, when generations of long-simmering ethnic hatred spilled over in the power grabs that ensued. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) portrays the journey of two Kosovo Albanian families escaping the chaos and horror of war in their homeland to starting new lives in America. The second story along these lines, which I will be posting soon, tells a similar journey, only of a Bosnian family. There were numerous atrocities to go around in these wars, and on both sides, but the sad truth of the matter is that every day men, women, and children like the people I write about got caught up in the carnage. The result: untold hundreds of thousands dead and injured; broken societies and families; hatred that perpetuates from one generation to the next; retaliation attacks; refugee cultures; and the recipe for ongoing tensions that will only continue flaring until there is true reconciliation. The related articles below indicate the region is still a cauldron of unrest.
A Long Way from Home, Two Kosovo Albanian Families Escape Hell to Start Over in America
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Among the mass exodus of ethnic Albanians fleeing their embattled native Kosovo last year were two young couples who met in a refugee camp and ended up starting new lives together in Omaha. Gazmend and Fortesa Ademi and Basri and Valbona Jashari left Kosovo during the March-May 1999 NATO bombing campaign targeting Serbian military strongholds.
With Serb troops ousted and NATO peacekeepers in their place, many refugees returned to the ravaged province. The couples, however, opted for asylum in America. After arriving here July 1 under the auspices of a humanitarian agency, they lived five weeks with their Bellevue sponsors, the Theresa and Richard Guinan family, whose parish — St. Bernadette Catholic Church — lent aid. The Kosovars, who today share a unit in the Applewood Pointe Apartments near 96th & Q Streets, are now first-time parents: the Ademis of a 5-month-old boy, Eduard, and the Jasharis of a 3-month-old girl, Elita.
Last August, Basri Jashari’s sister, Elfeti, her husband and their five children moved to Omaha (sponsored by Kountze Memorial Church). Another 59 Kosovars settled in Lincoln. The U.S. State Department reports some 14,000 Kosovars found asylum in America. Of the more than 800,000 refugees who fled the province, most have gone home, including some who came to Nebraska.
War may have been the catalyst for Kosovo Albanians’ leaving their homeland, but the events prompting their expulsion are rooted in long-standing ethnic conflict. During a recent interview at their apartment, Gazmend Ademi and Basri Jashari told, in broken English, their personal odyssey into exile. As the men spoke, sometimes animatedly, their wives listened while tending to their babies.
Only in their early 20s, the Kosovars exhibit a heavy, world-weary demeanor beyond their years. They carry the burden of any refugee: being apart from the people and culture they love. With a patriotic Albanian song playing in the background (“the music, it gives us power to live…to go on,” Ademi said) and defiance burning in their eyes, the men lamented all they have lost and left behind and expressed enmity for Serb aggressors who threw their lives into turmoil.
“We never wanted what happened. We never wanted this. THEY wanted the war. It’s like old Albanian men used to say, ‘Don’t ever trust the Serbs. They don’t keep their word,’” Ademi said. Do the refugees hate the Serbs? “No, I just don’t like them,” Jashari said, adding, “I know not every Serbian was guilty. But I still hate the cops.”
Aside from bitterness, sadness consumes them. Ademi said, “Sometimes I stop and think, Why do I have to go through all these things? It’s just too much. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss everything in Kosovo. That’s why I’ll go back. But, for now, things are still bad there. Many people have no work, no homes. What the Serbs couldn’t take they destroyed. When I speak to my friends by phone they all tell me to stay where I am.” Or, as Jashari simply put it, “It’s better here.”
Watch Out for the Dark
Conflicts between ethnic Albanians and Serbs were part of the uneasy landscape Ademi and Jashari grew up in. Born and raised in southeastern Kosovo cities 40 kilometers apart, the two came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the ugly rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb nationalism turned openly hostile. Serb aggression in Bosnia erupted into full-scale war that United Nations forces helped quell. Although ethnic Albanians comprised the vast majority of Kosovo, Serbs controlled key institutions, most tellingly the police and military, which became oppressive occupying forces.
Ademi and Jashari say police routinely interrogated and arrested people without cause, extorting payment in return for safe passage or release. The harassment didn’t always end there. “For just a little thing they could arrest you or beat you or kill you. If they stopped you and demanded money, and you didn’t pay, your car was gone or you were gone,” Jashari said. “You had to pay,” Ademi said.
As Milosevic pressed for a Greater Serbia, life became more restrictive for ethnic Albanians (schools were closed and the display and teaching of Albanian heritage banned), whose Muslim culture contrasted with Serb Orthodox Christianity. The Ademis and Jasharis received much of their education in makeshift schools housed in basements and cellars. When young ethnic Albanians began fleeing Kosovo to avoid military service in the raging Balkans War, a moratorium on passports was enacted. Freedom could be bought, with a bribe, but most Kosovars could not afford it. Ademi, a bartender, and Jashari, a university student, faced bleak prospects. Jobs were scarce and those available paid low wages, yet prices for goods and services remained high. Bartering and blackmarket trading prevailed.
The start of the Kosovo War is generally agreed upon as March 23, 1998, when a Serb police action ended in the massacre of some 50 civilians and ignited the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to escalate its armed resistance. However, for rank and file ethnic Albanians “the war started much earlier,” Jashari said. As early as 1989 the Serb political-military machine tightened its noose around Kosovo. Ademi and Jashari say they witnessed friends beaten by cops. Ademi said a cousin was held and tortured for days in a police station without legal counsel.
At mass demonstrations he recalls police firing tear-gas, even bullets, into crowds. Once, he said, a cop guarding a train load of tanks drew his weapon on he and some friends taking a short cut through a rail yard. In such a climate, once carefree days spent playing soccer or shopping in open air markets were replaced by caution. Nights were most ominous, with the Black Hand, a secret police/paramilitary force, roaming the streets. “After the dark would come, people who were out on the streets were taken away. Many were killed. Everybody was afraid from here,” Ademi said, clutching his chest. “Walking home every night I was afraid what might happen. I didn’t know if I was going to make it back. If you saw a car coming you turned back into the road and stayed until it passed. When they passed, you were like, ‘Whew, I made it okay.’”
Amid brutal police tactics and outright terrorist acts, the KLA began striking back with savage retaliatory attacks of its own, which led to Serb reprisals. When entreaties and threats by the U.N., the European Union and the West failed to get Milosevic to back down, a controversial U.S.-led NATO military response followed.
A Taste of Freedom
The night of the first air strikes prompted celebrations.
“We were very happy. We were waiting for this day,” Jashari said. “Some people started to shout, “NATO, NATO” and “Clinton, Clinton.” Everybody was cheering and shaking hands.” Any sign of air power brought hope, even though the concussion from bombs and missiles shook and even shattered windows. “Every time I saw the planes in the air I could feel myself a little bit more…free,” Ademi said. “I prayed for the noise of those planes.”
The revelry soon gave way to dread.
“The Serbs were really mad. They didn’t know what else to do, so they started to burn out everything,” said Ademi, referring to the systematic ethnic cleansing that ensued.
The Ademis and Jasharis joined a flood of refugees streaming into villages, where they presumed it was safe. They were wrong. The villages, some housing KLA bases, were burned or pillaged. Houses that once served as quarters for OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitors were torched or trashed. Pundits criticized the fact that, for a time, the air strikes only intensified the Serb raids and further destabilized the region. While Ademi and Jashari confirm “that’s how it was,” they contend what happened “was not NATO’s fault,” As Jashari said, “We didn’t flee because of NATO bombs. We fled because the Serbs started to attack us.”
With no where to hide, ethnic Albanians became a displaced people, moving from village to village and house to house in a desperate bid to stay ahead of marauding Serb troops. The Jasharis managed to remain at home until Serb forces closed in. Once a house was vacated, a next wave of refugees moved in and consumed whatever stores were left. “
People didn’t know where to go,” Ademi said. “They would stay a couple days and move again, helping themselves to food. People would take from all over just to stay alive.”
Ademi’s family found long-term shelter at the home of an uncle in a nearby village. Soon, they were joined by a caravan of refugees from a ransacked village, their dead and injured carted on tractors and trucks. “I carried in a young woman who was wounded in the leg. An old woman who’d been shot died later,” said Ademi, whose family took in dozens of new arrivals, swelling the house’s occupants to 50.
When, weeks into the bombing, there seemed no end in sight to the war, the Albanian Kosovars decided to cross the border into Macedonia. “Everything was going bad. Supplies were low. We thought it better to move because maybe later we could not get out. If Milosevic won, we could not live in Kosovo,” Jashari said.
While there was little choice but to flee, leaving was hard. The refugees brought only bread and the clothes on their back, “My family cried. They knew that maybe we were not coming back,” said Jashari, who left with Valbona and his family in May and made it across the border in a motorized convoy. Weeks earlier, the Ademis set-off, in two groups, for the border. Gazmend and a younger brother went ahead first, traveling on foot with a band of young men along a mountain road. A guide helped them skirt Serb patrols and checkpoints.
The men crossed the border after a 15-hour hike. Two days later Fortesa got out with Ademi’s family, enduring rain and snow on a trek along the same path. Upon reaching northern Macedonia the refugees were housed and fed by ethnic Albanians who led them to a camp, Stenkovec #2. It was there the Ademis and Jasharis, who were still single, married as insurance against being separated later. The couples befriended each other and after six weeks sleeping 10 to 20 to a tent, their applications for asylum were granted. Their shared destination: Omaha. Neither couple had American relatives.
Meanwhile, half-a-world away in Bellevue, Theresa and Richard Guinan followed the unfolding refugee odyssey via media reports. Moved by what they saw, the couple contacted Sen. Chuck Hagel’s office and were put in touch with Heartland Refugee Resettlement, an affiliate of the ecumenical Church World Service. The Guinans volunteered as a host family and the Ademis and Jasharis were matched with them.
Why agree to take in a four refugees? “We wanted to do more than just send money. That’s too easy. We have so much to offer here (in America) and this was our way to help,” Theresa Guinan said. After an 18-hour journey (by plane from Macedonia to Greece to New York to St. Louis to Omaha), the refugees arrived here exhausted. Fortesa Ademi, then pregnant, was sick for much of the trip. They were overwhelmed by the greeting party awaiting them at the Eppley Airfield terminal, including the Guinans, members of their church and reporters.
Within a week Richard Guinan found jobs for the men, as cold storage construction laborers, and they’ve been employed ever since. “They’re hard workers and their employers love them,” Theresa Guinan said. Living under one roof, the Americans and Kosovars forged deep bonds that remain strong a year later. “We love them like our own. We call them ‘our kids,’” Theresa Guinan said.
Ademi said, “Our sponsors helped us a lot. They made us feel like we were in our own home. Everything was just perfect. We call Theresa and Dick our American parents.” Still, adjusting to American life has posed many challenges, not the least of which is Omaha’s nearly non-existent Albanian community, which Ademi said has left he and the others feeling isolated. “We really haven’t had a chance to make any friends. We don’t go out too much. When we came here we meant to stay five or six years, but now I don’t how we’re going to make it. It’s really hard.” He and the others would like to meet members of the ethnic Albanian refugee colony in Lincoln.
Should the Ademis and Jasharis return to Kosovo any time soon, they know what awaits them: few prospects, a devastated infrastructure and a region littered with land mines and ethnic tensions. As efforts to form a new democracy proceed under NATO’s Joint Interim Administration, the men dream of an independent Kosovo. “That’s the best way to be. That’s what we deserve,” Ademi said.
In the wake of human rights investigations confirming Serb atrocities and of international tribunals naming Serb war criminals, the split between ethnic Albanians and their adversaries is greater than ever. Ironically and tragically, some ethnic Albanians have been engaging in ethnic cleansing reprisals against average Serb citizens. As the cycle of bigotry and violence winds on, the possibility of peaceful co-existence seems remote. Jashari described the gulf this way, “Albanian and Serbian culture is very different. That’s why the conflict is so deep.” Ademi said blood will continue to be shed “until the Serbs are out of Kosovo.” After all that has happened, he said, an ethnic Albanian like himself cannot abide living, drinking or working beside a Serb: “He’s going to be in my way. I’m going to be in his way. There’s no escaping that.”
Like the lyrics of the song playing that night at the apartment, Ademi said one thing is clear. “If you are Albanian, you are my friend. We want the same thing. If you are Serbian, then living together is too hard.” And the jingoistic beat goes on.
- New trial for Kosovo ex-premier (bbc.co.uk)
- Kosovo: Nato sends in reinforcements (independent.co.uk)
- New Violence in Kosovo Could Pose a Quandary for an Overstretched NATO (globalspin.blogs.time.com)
- Unlikely matchup: Albanian women wed Serbs (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Kosovo launches Serbia border crossings take over (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Violence in north Kosovo draws EU warning – Reuters (news.google.com)
- NATO Takes Control at Kosovo Borders (nytimes.com)
- Fear and exodus: ethnic Serbs squeezed out of Kosovo (rt.com)
- War and Peace (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The article below is the latest of several I have written over the last decade or so about the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This story concerns a UNO-Kabul University journalism collaborative or partnership being overseen by the center, which received a $1.3 million grant to fund the endeavor. The center is a nearly 40 year-old institution dedicated , just as it name states, to Afghanistan studies and as such it is a unique operation and certainly one you would not expect to find in the Midwest. Its director, Thomas Gouttierre, has been a profile subject of mine (you’ll find my piece on hin on this blog). He and his assistant Raheem Yaseer and their UNO colleague John Shroder are among America’s foremost experts on Afghanistan. The center has been involved in all manner of training and support there and its expertise is often tapped by U.S. government sources. Much of the center’s efforts have been directed at helping train Afghan nationals in order to rebuild that nation’s infrastructure. My new article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) lays out the recently formed journalism partnership program involving faculty exchanges and Afghan journalism educators and students coming here to shadow their American counterparts as well as working journalists. I hope to be one of those journalists they meet with and follow around. Look for more of my work covering this unfolding story in the months ahead.
An Old Partnership Takes a New Turn: UNO-Kabul University Renew Ties with Journalism Program
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
UNO communication professor Chris Allen recently returned from a two-week needs assessment trip to Afghanistan. His journey was part of a federally-funded journalism faculty-student development program between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Kabul University.
As Afghanistan attempts normalization in this post-Taliban era, the nation’s indigenous media uneasily co-exist with Islamic law and government ambivalence. Yet, flush with freedom and peace for the first time in decades. Allen says “a surprisingly vigorous and developing media system” exists there.
Consider two vastly different television shows: the incendiary Niqab has masked women detail abuse they’ve suffered; the popular Afghan Star is an American Idol riff.
Training the next generation of Afghan journalists requires access to resources and modern practices. That’s why UNO and Kabul University are connecting aspiring and working journalists in academic, professional and cultural exchanges. Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. State Department‘s Fulbright program, this three-year partnership renews old ties between the two institutions and is the latest example of UNO’s decades-long work with Afghanistan.
UNO’s School of Communication and its Center for Afghanistan Studies are collaborating on the program. Allen was accompanied by CAS director and dean of International Studies and Programs Tom Gouttierre and CAS assistant director Raheem Yaseer.
The university’s relationship with the nation goes back to 1972, when two campus geography professors began research collaboratives. A donated collection of Afghanistan materials has grown to 12,000-plus items. In 1975 a linkage with Kabul University began.
To date, the center’s received some $60 million in grants and contracts for technical assistance programs, training and educational exchanges. Hundreds of Afghans have come to UNO for training to help rebuild their nation’s infrastructure. Hundreds of Americans come here to train as liaisons in reconstruction efforts.
The center maintains a Kabul field office and Team House, where Allen stayed. It also operates the UNO Education Press, which printed the new Afghan constitution and the ballots for the first democratic elections there in decades.
Even during the Soviet occupation and war, the Taliban reign of terror and the U.S.-led invasion to oust terrorists, Gouttierre says the center remained in contact with various education and government officials in Afghanistan or in exile in Pakistan.
He says a model for this new collaborative is the center’s 2002-2005 teacher education project, which brought Afghan women educators for an immersion experience as part of reopening the nation’s schools. Just as those visitors did, Afghan journalists will stay with Nebraska host families.
Plans call for a group of Afghan professors to arrive in late spring, with additional contingents of faculty and some students arriving later this year. More UNO School of Communication faculty are to visit Afghanistan in the coming months. Program visitors on each side will observe best practices and shadow their peers.
Chris Allen, second from left, with Kabul journalism faculty
Because UNO’s Chris Allen was in Kabul during finals week he didn’t observe classes, but he did speak with faculty.
“I really didn’t know anything about them and they really didn’t know anything about me and to sort of start off on an even footing was a really good thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to go in with preconceived notions that might prejudice the questions I would ask. I could ask really naive questions, and I did that, and I think that served as an ice breaker to say, I need to understand what you guys are doing and what your media are doing as much as you need to understand what we’re doing.
“It enabled me to go in and do a needs assessment from the ground up.”
Allen says the Afghans expressed a need for assistance on both teaching and practical levels. He says many expressed a desire to improve teaching techniques by moving away from lecture-oriented approaches to more hands-on student participation. He says Afghan educators are hampered by limited facilities and resources, such as teaching television without a studio or cameras or editing equipment. However, he says a new media center is in the works.
The most glaring need Allen saw was for more classroom computers. He says the basic reporting class has 10 computers serving 50 students.
“I’m not sure how they’re getting that done.”
He also marvels at how working media, faculty and students brave forbidding conditions, including security and transportation issues.
He’s told that journalism graduates readily find jobs in the Afghan media, which many call “a growth industry.”
Admittedly, he says, his lack of Persian language skills limited him but it didn’t prevent his noting some arcane story structure problems in print and broadcast reports. Despite shortcomings, he and Gouttierre say the media is a vital presence. Dozens of independent print publications have launched. Saad Mohseni, chairman of the largest independent media company there, MOBY Group, is Afghanistan’s first media mogul. The government-run media enterprise RTA is ubiquitous. Radio is the most pervasive medium, says Allen, because it’s accessible and doesn’t require high literacy.
Gouttierre says the UNO-KU project comes at a transformational time.
“Now we have this situation for UNO faculty and students to be engaged right up close with a country’s media that is trying to leap frog in a sense. It kind of reminds me of when I first went to Afghanistan in the early ‘60s as a Peace Corps volunteer and the country was just emerging as a constitutional, parliamentary democratic process. The press was becoming independent at that same time.”
He anticipates each side will learn much from the other, though he suspects Americans may have the most to gain.
“It’s surprising how far Afghans have taken themselves with few resources and how much we can learn from their creativity and initiative in very trying circumstances. its shocking to see how much they’ve accomplished with so many obstacles.”
- You: Kidnapped professors from Kabul University released in Khyber Agency (nation.com.pk)
- Graffiti art brightens war-torn Afghan capital (reuters.com)
- Behind the mask: Afghan TV program exposes the horror of abuse against women (nationalpost.com)
- More Afghan Eagles depart Kabul for America (waronterrornews.typepad.com)