For Teuta Hadri, Kosovo’s declaration of independence on February 17, 2008 was “a century’s long dream”.
Hailing from a family actively involved in the national movement of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, she believed it was “a dream of three generations” to achieve this collective goal, she told Al Jazeera from her home in Pristina, the country’s capital.
A 66-year-old Albanian Kosovar political activist and physician, Hadri is the granddaughter of Avdullah Hadri, one of the first intellectuals to open Albanian language schools across the country – the first one in 1915 – at a time when Serbian was the language used in education.
During the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo, Hadri as a physician and a member of the Council for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms risked her life providing medical services to those in need and helping shelter families.
She recalled breaking into tears as former Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci declared independence, himself trembling as he read the declaration.
“It was such a great act, a dream of our fathers that this generation managed to declare independence with all that war and all those crimes and genocide – a declaration supported by Europe,” Hadri said.
‘Death or freedom’
Hadri was imprisoned by Serbian authorities for her political activism from 1983 to 1986 in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo.
Later, she was arrested twice again in shorter stints in the 90s.
Kosovo’s independence granted personal freedom for Albanians, she said.
The 1980s in Kosovo were marked by the heavy presence of the secret police, which cracked down on nationalist manifestations.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions of ethnic Albanians escalated rapidly throughout 1998, according to Human Rights Watch.
Safety wasn’t guaranteed abroad, either. Human rights activist Enver Hadri – not a close relative of Teuta – was shot dead in Brussels in 1990 by Serbian assassins, days before he was to present a report detailing the deaths of dozens of ethnic Albanians killed by the Yugoslav police, to the United Nations Human Rights Council in New York.
Living under Belgrade’s rule, there was a constant “feeling of uncertainty”, Hadri said.
“We had those constraints even in our homes… to always be ready for any inspector or intelligence agent that might show up… we had quite an unsafe life.”
If one was organizing a protest, for instance, it was risky to tell even a family member, out of fear that they might slip up and disclose information, she said.
“There was a fear and a conspiracy that Yugoslavia [officials] had placed secret surveillance [devices] in our homes. So, our goal was to reach victory, which led us to the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) war and the liberation for a national cause.”
As head of the Municipal Council for Healthcare, Hadri visited the affected communities in Drenica in March 1998, after Serbian special police forces killed families in summary executionsat a time when few dared to enter the area.
The Drenica region was a stronghold of the separatist guerrilla KLA, but women and children were among the civilians killed indiscriminately in the attacks.
Hadri said that as a former political prisoner, it was a huge risk to be interviewed by CNN from Drenica about the situation there. If Serbian authorities had pulled over her car, she could have been arrested and handed 15 years in prison, she said.
“My life was at risk and I didn’t know how I would get out alive from Drenica after giving that interview.
“There was nothing else – death or freedom, because [the people] gave an oath to take the process [of liberation] to the end; nobody among us knew whether we would make it out alive,” Hadri said.
‘A partial independence’
But 15 years after the declaration of independence, Hadri said Kosovo still only has “partial independence”, as its decision-making continues to be directed by the international community, hindering progress.
For instance, adopting the Law on Maternity Leave is a painful and lengthy process. A ready-made law on healthcare was not approved for four years. And the country still has no law on health insurance, she said.
“We just changed the invaders, from one to many,” Hadri said. “And when I say many, I mean UNMIK [United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo] forces, which came with many agencies.
“We didn’t have a Germany or an England to guide us, but we had many agencies coming here and you didn’t know who to trust. Each and every one of them came with their policies which had a negative impact on our state building,” Hadri said, adding that members of parliament did not draft laws themselves, rather they were adapted based on the laws of France.
“We are being directed, instructed by the international community… and that is painful.”
Kosovo nationals are the only people in Europe – aside from those in Russia and Belarus – who cannot freely travel to Europe’s Schengen area without a visa, whether it’s for work, education or leisure.
By November 2010, the rest of the Western Balkans including Serbia had already achieved visa-free status to the European Union.
Getting the green light requires unanimous approval from all 27 EU member states, and five of them – Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Romania, and Slovakia – still do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.
It’s an issue that affects many, including Erise Hajrizi, 23, a sociology student from Pristina who is currently unemployed.
She has never traveled outside the Balkans, where she does not require a visa to enter, a stark contrast from the prewar days when her parents freely visited relatives in Sweden and Finland.
“I remember at the age of 16, I felt the biggest despair of my life, because you had it all over the news that everywhere you go in the country, there is corruption and nepotism,” Hajrizi told Al Jazeera from Pristina.
“You don’t have a chance to get out of this country and move freely within Europe or make your dreams come true, and this just makes you so depressed. It’s becoming darker and darker.”
She recalled watching the assembly session on TV when independence was declared.
She was nine then, and watched as her parents embraced each other in tears, “celebrating victory and liberation”.
But her vision, that Kosovars would be able to improve their country, was not realized.
“We may have achieved to build some Hollywood-style buildings here, but everything is so unorganized, it’s such a chaos,” she said.
Simple tasks such as applying for a passport are challenging.
She lost the opportunity to apply for a foreign scholarship because the passport she sought last September still hasn’t arrived.
“We’re talking about basic needs here,” Hajrizi said. “I am very sure that not only me, but every young person at the first opportunity will seek a way out of this country… It is taking us so long to build the future we’ve been dreaming of.”
To address the problem of corruption and nepotism, Hadri said one needs to look to the past, when society chose “the best people, the most honest people” to carry out political activities.
As older generations are dying and a “poorly established youth” is left, it becomes easier for the international community to play with appointed officials, “because they lack intellectual power, they lack resistance”, she said.
“The government should be honest with itself in the first place, and then it should appoint [the most competent and patriotic] people,” Hadri said. “When your heart is in the right place you also choose good people, and if you are corrupt, you will choose the corrupt ones.”