Picture of two women walking in front a many men sitting on a concrete ledge in a crowded park.

Kosovo wants to decide its future—but will history hold it back?

This small Balkan country won its independence from Serbia 15 years ago, but still waits for justice for wartime victims and global recognition as a new nation.

As the time for Friday prayer approaches, a crowd gathers outside the Bajram Pasha Mosque in the city of Mitrovicë. It was built on the site of a mosque damaged in the 1998-99 war with Serbia and is the largest in Kosovo. The country’s ethnic Albanians are overwhelmingly Muslim.

In Kosovo, a very young country of war-scarred survivors, everyone has a story that is almost too painful to recount—except here they are, alive to tell it, and insistent that the world listen. So it is that in the parliament building in the capital city of Pristina, I step into the office of the National Assembly’s 36-year-old deputy speaker, Saranda Bogujevci, whose warm smile and firm handshake do not altogether succeed in deflecting attention from the deep, pale scars on her forearm above her disfigured left hand. Nor does Bogujevci shy from describing the origins of those wounds. 

She was 13 on March 28, 1999, when a Serbian paramilitary unit descended on the town of Podujevë where Saranda and her family lived. The soldiers herded the 21 Bogujevcis into a garden, pushed them up against a wall, and opened fire. Then they departed, leaving a heap of lifeless bodies. Among them were a two-year-old boy, the family’s matriarch, and Saranda’s best friend and cousin, Nora. But five of the 21 were still breathing, including Saranda, who somehow survived 16 bullet wounds.

Bogujevci tells me she and Nora wore matching boots and she still has hers. “I learned with time that the memories are really important, and that I have to keep them, and I have to cherish them, and I have to save them,” she says. Without these happier recollections, there is only damage to survey. “I did not ask for the past they gave me,” she says of the Serbs. Casually glancing at her left arm and hand, she adds, “I have to live with it for the rest of my life. The past is not just the past.”

Before she died, Nora had been joyful, imagining she would celebrate her upcoming 15th birthday in a liberated Kosovo. Four days earlier, NATO had launched its first air strikes, the culmination of a bloody conflict between Kosovar Albanians like the Bogujevcis, and Serbs, who had controlled the territory since the end of World War II. In 1989, the Serbian government began a “soft” ethnic cleansing, before long dismissing ethnic Albanian state workers like Bogujevci’s father, an electrical engineer, and forbidding ethnic Albanian children like Saranda from attending public schools. Kosovar Albanians resisted, peacefully at first but eventually waging an insurgency to seek independence. In the summer of 1998, Serbian authorities forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians. After NATO’s intervention, they unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing, killing thousands of civilians and burying many in hidden mass graves. 

Bogujevci tells me about a group of women she met while visiting her family’s grave site in Podujevë. The women, some quite young, told Bogujevci that their families had been apprehended by Serbian authorities and never seen since. The women had gathered there, they said, because they had no memorial of their own. Families like theirs hold out hope the graves of more than 1,600 victims still missing will someday be found. 

Today the deputy speaker of Kosovo’s parliament helps oversee a Balkan country that, a decade and a half after it declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, remains beset by economic, cultural, and geopolitical challenges. Such hurdles are imposing but also surmountable. What has proved more vexing is Kosovo’s yearning to be Kosovo.

What Kosovo wants are things other nations have wanted and received in the past. It wants resolution of the myriad war crimes committed by Serbian forces. It wants to be acknowledged as an independent nation by the entire world. Of the 193 United Nations member states, over a hundred have at one time or another recognized Kosovo as a country. Among those that do not, for geopolitical reasons of their own, are Serbia, Russia, Spain, Greece, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, and China. Kosovo also wants to control the entirety of its territory. Serbian-majority regions in the north remain effectively governed by its neighbor. And yes, it wants a self-sufficient economy, a better educational system, and greater job opportunities for its youth and its women. 

But Albanian Kosovars insist that they cannot fully face these challenges while demons of the past loom over the country unexorcised. As Vjosa Osmani, the president of Kosovo, told me when we met in her office: “For these past 20 years, the international community has asked Kosovo to just swallow the pain, not talk about the past, not talk about the crimes that were committed against us. They promised us a much better and brighter future if we only look forward and don’t ever seek justice for what was done against our people. But when you don’t tell the truth about your own country’s history, then someone else will twist the truth. They will revise that history for their own purposes.” 

Kosovo’s challenges would be formidable enough without its regional difficulties. A small country about the size of Lebanon, it is a landlocked, diamond-shaped territory bordered by larger countries (Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro). Though Kosovo’s status as having the youngest population in Europe augurs a promising future, at present its unemployment rate is the highest on the continent and its economy has a negative balance of trade. 

To be sure, the infant country has made progress. When NATO troops landed in Kosovo in June 1999, one of the eyewitnesses to the country’s liberation from Serbian control was an 18-year-old war refugee named Vlora Çitaku, who served as an interpreter for the international media. Nine years later, after serving in parliament, as Çitaku tells it, “I was literally handed a piece of paper and told, ‘You’re deputy foreign minister.’ I literally had nothing: no computer, no staff, no office. There was no foreign ministry! We had to build everything from scratch.” 

In 2015, Çitaku became Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States, a witty, stylish, and driven diplomat who spent her five years in Washington seeking to impress upon the Obama and Trump administrations that Kosovo should be regarded by the allies who midwifed it into being as “unfinished business,” a country not yet fully capable of charting its own destiny.

At the time that Kosovo formally declared its independence, its government’s operating budget was just $933 million. Today that figure has quintupled. Still, the government’s grip on its sovereignty remains precarious. Among Kosovo’s 38 municipalities, 10 are under some form of Serbian control, with mayors who are widely seen as proxies for the neighboring government. 

The capital city of Pristina is urbane and European, its cafés teeming at all hours. But a little more than six miles away lies Gračanica, seemingly in another country altogether, where the common currency is not the euro but the Serbian dinar. The town’s centerpiece is a magnificent 700-year-old Serbian Orthodox church a short walk from a statue commemorating a 14th-century Serbian hero, a knight named Miloš Obilić. Serbian flags predominate, as well, along the road to the border town of Zubin Potok—a thoroughfare that is sometimes barricaded by Serbian forces several miles inside Kosovo.

To be a citizen of a country like Kosovo that is not universally recognized means an inability to travel freely, even to other European countries, without a special visa. But Kosovo’s fraught relations with Serbia hamper its progress in more insidious ways. As Berat Rukiqi, the president of Kosovo’s chamber of commerce, explained to me, “The key for investors is predictability, which is related to political risk. Here, we fail. Because for them, Kosovo is an unfinished story. The story is, ‘Kosovo belongs to Serbia.’ ”

As Çitaku puts it: “Why would someone serious come and invest in a no-man’s-land? Kosovo, for me, it is a state. But if you google it, it’s a contested territory. And each time we try to privatize a company and each time a bidder would come in, two days later they would receive a note from Serbia saying, ‘We will sue you if you buy that property, because it’s ours.’

“It complicates the business climate,” the former ambassador sighed. “It complicates the political climate. It complicates everything.”

To learn more about the region’s tumultuous history, I went to Gazimestan, a memorial near Pristina commemorating the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. A security guard and his two dogs greeted us. No one else was there to view the structure. Built in 1953 to look like a medieval tower, it rises above an otherwise vacant field. When I commented jokingly to the guard that he was lucky to have the dogs to keep him company, he assured me that it was crowded on holidays, when busloads of tourists drove in from Serbia to pay homage. The monument, designed by a Serbian architect, is dedicated to the enduring significance of Serbian martyrdom.

Serbia’s identity of valor and sacrifice is as bound up with the Battle of Kosovo as is that of Texas with the Battle of the Alamo. The oddity of the bloody one-day battle is that the losing effort against Ottoman Empire troops was waged not just by Serbs but also by a coalition that included Bulgarians, Albanians, and several other Christian nationalities. Furthermore, the singular significance of the Battle of Kosovo to the Serbian population did not take on such intense geopolitical overtones until June 28, 1989, when Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milošević, stood before the Gazimestan monument and declared: “The Kosovo heroism has been inspiring our creativity for six centuries and has been feeding our pride and does not allow us to forget that at one time we were an army great, brave, and proud, one of the few that remained undefeated when losing.” Kosovo’s centrality to the Serbian collective consciousness has remained fixed ever since. Indeed, on the way from Belgrade’s airport to my hotel in the regal capital city, among my first sights was graffiti on an overpass that read: KOSOVO IS SERBIA.

The complication with this Serbian narrative, then and now, is that Kosovo was and is populated overwhelmingly by ethnic Albanians. Their distinct language, culture, and Islamic faith made them an awkward fit in the otherwise Slavic and largely Christian composition of Yugoslavia during its communist years. “In the beginning of that era, it wasn’t so important whether you were Serb or Albanian,” says Bojan Popović, a director of the National Museum in Belgrade. “And by the end, it was the only thing that mattered.”

Milošević’s speech at Gazimestan inaugurated a decade-long effort to impose a Serbian identity on the Kosovo population by force. Albanian-language newspapers were shut down, municipal governments dissolved, and ethnic Albanians banished from civic life. 

“I grew up with Serbian employees coming to our house, destroying everything,” Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman, a 39-year-old woman with elegantly angular Balkan features, told me one evening while wearily smoking a cigarette in a Pristina restaurant. The authorities, she recalled, were looking for her father, whom they suspected of having an unlicensed gun, and for her brother, who had gone AWOL from the army. In April 1999, when she was 16, the Serbs came for her. Two men, one a police officer, raped her—first in the back of a car, then in an empty house.

She and her family fled to the mountains. But even after NATO liberated Kosovo, the girl felt marked by what had happened to her. She married a UN peacekeeper and returned with him to Arkansas. She had two children, divorced, moved to Dallas, and while waiting tables, met a shy engineer named Shawn Goodman who had no idea where Kosovo was, much less what a young woman like her would have experienced there. They married. Still, the past remained with her. She decided to embrace that reality. 

In 2018 she returned to Pristina and appeared before a nationally televised audience. Though it was well known that some 20,000 ethnic Albanians—most but not all of them women—had been sexually assaulted during the war, no survivors had openly told their story in a public forum, until then. Vasfije Krasniqi-Goodman became widely recognized in Kosovo. Two years later she ran for parliament. At home in Texas, she learned she’d won.

A medical condition that made international travel unbearable would force Krasniqi to vacate her seat 19 months later. But as a lawmaker, she had assigned herself an unusual though fitting portfolio. “I meet with survivors,” she told me while she was still in parliament. “It’s one of the most important things I do.” Since the Kosovo government did not have the resources to provide her with an office, she would meet with them in coffee shops and listen to their stories. Their refrain was hauntingly familiar.

“All of them,” she said, then amended herself: “We. We want justice.” The odds of that are bleak, as Krasniqi-Goodman well knows. Many Serbians suspected of war crimes, including some prominent officials, have never been prosecuted. Milošević was tried by a UN tribunal for war crimes, but in 2006 he died of a heart attack in a prison cell before the trial’s conclusion. One of the killers of Bogujevci’s family was sentenced to 20 years but was let out several years early for “good behavior,” only to be arrested later for running a drug cartel. Krasniqi-Goodman’s attackers were convicted, but the verdicts were later overturned. 

In June 2021, Nenad Čanak, a former member of Serbia’s National Assembly and now an opposition party leader, crossed the border to meet with Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti. What Čanak also did across the border would arouse more controversy back home than his dialogue with the hated Kurti: He visited the village of Mejë and laid flowers on the site where in 1999 Serbian soldiers and police massacred more than 370 Kosovar Albanians, transported their bodies to the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica, and buried them en masse.

“I saw these things with my own eyes,” Čanak said when we met in his office in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city. He added dryly, “Now we have this peculiar situation: If you don’t believe the Serbian government, but instead believe your own eyes, you’re a national traitor.” 

I tried unsuccessfully to secure permission to visit the Batajnica site, which was discovered in 2001 on the grounds of a Serbian police compound. The fact that the Serbian government refuses to allow unfettered access or publicly mark the mass graves tends to complicate the country’s assertion that it has turned the page from the belligerence of the Milošević era. 

Its president, Aleksandar Vučić, was Milošević’s propaganda minister and in 2018 hailed the former president as “a great Serbian leader.” Its first deputy prime minister, Ivica Dačić, was Milošević’s spokesman. More insidiously, the current unofficial Serbian policy known as passivation of residential addresses—in which authorities have reportedly forced thousands of Albanian residents to leave Serbia after being unable to show their registration records on demand—would seem to resemble, as the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia put it in a scathing report, “a form of ethnic cleansing through administrative means.”

It happens that both Serbia and Kosovo wish to enter the European Union, but neither can do so without a “normalization” accord. Despite years of talks, such an eventuality seems light-years away. While in Belgrade, I met with Dušan Milenković, a political consultant. He told me, “The NATO bombing remains the most important event for the Serbian people.” The damage done by the shelling was above all psychological, he explained, because the Serbs were proud people who had fought on the right side during the two World Wars, a legacy now buried under a global narrative that casts Serbs as villains. “This creates a kind of defensive position that can distort the rational mind,” Milenković said, adding that most Serbs were eager to normalize relations—but not if it required further wallowing in the past. “The Kosovo government is pushing the narrative of accountability,” he said. “If there’s ever an agreement, that’ll first have to fall off the table.”

The stalemate between the countries sparks flare-ups with alarming regularity. During my three weeks in the region in late 2021, the Kosovo government retaliated against the long-standing Serbian policy of not permitting cars bearing Kosovo license plates to come into the country since this would amount to de facto recognition of the latter’s sovereignty. Suddenly, it was decreed, Serbian-plated cars could not enter Kosovo either. The license-plate imbroglio meant that my Serbian driver had to let me out a hundred yards from the border checkpoint, which I had to walk through to meet a Kosovar driver waiting to ferry me to Pristina. 

Nearly a year later, in September 2022, Kosovo’s government added a new wrinkle: Its resident Serbs, less than 5 percent of the population, would have to forsake their Serbian license plates to keep driving in Kosovo. The edict was met with vehement resistance, including barricaded streets, before international pressure compelled Kosovo officials two months later to turn down the temperature by simply issuing warnings to drivers. Even so, Vučić ordered Serbian troops to the border. In December the Serbian leader, responding to pressure from the West, persuaded protesters to remove the barricades. 

The many Kosovars with whom I spoke seemed well aware that the outside world views the ongoing Kosovo-Serbia impasse warily. That apprehensiveness certainly extends to America, which was instrumental in Kosovo’s liberation. The latter country’s appreciation for the former is obvious to anyone who strolls through Pristina and sees the statues of Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Bob Dole. Still, that Kosovo is in every meaningful way dependent on the U.S. government—which in March 2022 announced it would commit an additional $31.9 million in assistance to the billion dollars spent in Kosovo since 1999—is a double-edged sword. Preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, U.S. policymakers do not wish to be drawn into a proxy war in the Balkans, where Serbia maintains a strong alliance with Russia. The desire not to inflame tensions has meant, for example, that Kosovo acquiesced to the Serbian government’s demand that its war-era paramilitary group, the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, be investigated for war crimes. The country’s former president, who was a KLA official, faces trial in a special court in The Hague. Last year the court convicted a former KLA commander.

Still, an ethos of self-determined resilience pervades the 15-year-old country. Its parliament, after all, includes Saranda Bogujevci, a survivor of unfathomable violence. Its president, Vjosa Osmani, was marched at gunpoint across the border to Albania as a teenage girl. A former president, Atifete Jahjaga, now head of a pro-democracy NGO, spent five months hiding in a darkened Pristina apartment before NATO troops freed her and her family. Its prime minister, Albin Kurti, was confined with 30 other men in a tiny cell before being dragged out and used as a human shield during the NATO bombardment. In Kosovo the survivors are now the leaders. They have not succumbed to their wounds. 

Of all the inspiring figures I met in Kosovo, the most unassuming was Fahrije Hoti, a 52-year-old businesswoman with keen eyes and a preoccupied air. She lives in the agricultural village of Krushë e Madhe, a peaceful place until the Milošević era, when, as she told me, “Every morning we would wake up and say, ‘Whose turn is it to get arrested or killed today?’ ”

Before dawn on March 25, 1999, Serbian tanks advanced on the village. Hoti urged her husband to run, and she fled with their two children to the forest. They returned the next day to find that Serbian police had taken over. The women, children, and elderly men were marched 13 miles to the city of Gjakovë where, they were told, mass graves awaited them. Hoti slipped away from the throng while carrying her all-but-lifeless infant son. She found her daughter, whose feet were caked with blood from marching on broken glass, as well as her father-in-law. They escaped to Albania, where they lived in tents with thousands of other refugees. On June 22, 1999, Hoti, her children, and her father-in-law returned to find Krushë e Madhe had been reduced to ashes. All its young men had disappeared. Her husband’s body has never been found.

But that is only where her story begins. For in this ghost village, Hoti said, “I had to play the role of a man.” More precisely, she rallied the other women to form a cooperative. First they had an apiary. In 2005 a better idea emerged: They would buy the ubiquitous red bell peppers from farmers and make ajvar, a traditional sauce. 

Some men ridiculed her for not finding a more feminine occupation. “It just made me more determined not to stop,” she recalled.

Today Hoti’s company processes more than 1,300 tons of red peppers a year. She employs more than 70 women and young men. She is still looking for her husband. She is still waiting for an apology.

When I asked whether she could imagine that Serbia would ever recognize Kosovo, the pepper entrepreneur of Krushë e Madhe replied in a flat, even voice: “They have no choice. We are still here.” 

Robert Draper, a reporter for the New York Times, is a longtime National Geographic contributor. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photographer from Poland who’s based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

This story appears in the May 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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