Kosovars are used to their public figures being old men in suits; Hava Shala is anything but. Eloquent, sharp and expressive, and patriotic in a refreshingly earnest and humane way, Shala is a woman whose past is rich with rebellion, protest and political action. Although her current home is Switzerland, her life is a microcosm of Kosovo’s recent history of struggle for independence, spanning involvement in underground movements, political imprisonment, organizing demonstrations against the Serbian state, and taking part in the great blood feud reconciliations of the early 1990s.
Hava Shala: Freedom from within
Kosovar native fought for reconciliation as a way of gaining a nation's freedom.
Shala was only 17 years old when she was sentenced to seven years in prison for distributing a political pamphlet.
One of Shala’s more recent public appearances was at last year’s TEDxPrishtina Women event, where she spoke of her time as an activist, demonstrator and community organizer, working to reconcile numerous Kosovar Albanian families who were trapped in traditional blood feuds in the midst of Kosovo’s struggle for independence from Serbia. A standing ovation followed her speech — no small feat, considering the not-easily-impressed, often cynical front that young Kosovars know how to put up.
Shala’s likeability resides in her straightforward and compassionate brand of patriotism and in the continuity of her political engagement with Kosovo. Her time as a political prisoner occurred at the later end of the period known as the Ilegalitet — a movement made up of a loose organization of secret cells that wrote political tracts, painted slogans in public spaces and distributed pamphlets calling for Kosovo’s independence from Yugoslavia — under the constant threat of long stretches of imprisonment and police brutality. Shala was only 17 years old when she was sentenced to seven years in prison for distributing a political pamphlet. “Anyone who took on that kind of work had to account for the fact that their actions would initially result in arrest and punishment,” Shala explains.
Thanks to a reduced sentence, she was released after four years, in 1988 — in the midst of Kosovo’s struggle for autonomy and outright independence. Kosovo’s protests for the status of a republic within the Yugoslavian Federation were met with harsh repression by police and state security forces. A year after Shala’s release, Kosovo’s autonomous status would be revoked, when the region was absorbed into the Republic of Serbia.
Soon after, Shala and other young people part of the growing movement for independence began working on eliminating blood feuds amongst Kosovar Albanians. Blood feuds — a remnant of the traditional Albanian Kanun, a codex of laws dating from the 15th century — called for men to “pay the blood” of murdered family members. The movement for blood reconciliations required visits to the homes of the deceased, speaking to the men of the house in their odas and listening to the pain of the children and women struggling with their loss and fear — under constant police surveillance.
“Because of its humanitarian character, it was difficult for the authorities to find a pretext to disrupt the reconciliation movement, but due to its sheer size, and the messages they gave, those gatherings became a real thorn in their side,” Shala says. “They very clearly observed everything, and found reasons to try to stop it. At the same time, demonstrations and protests were held against the continued repression of Albanians, and many leaders of the reconciliation movement actively took part in them and led them.”
Reconciling blood feuds was an urgent part of the greater struggle for Kosovo’s independence, and the movement called upon Albanians to forgive one another, in order to be unified in the fight against their external enemy. An estimated 17,000 men were threatened by the practice of blood feuds in Kosovo during the late 1980s, when the blood feud reconciliation movement began. Reconciliation involved redefining the traditional logic of the Kanun, from one that seeks honor in blood, to one that seeks honor in forgiveness — a process that was painful, and one that involved the participation of the families involved, their communities and the young activists that did the bulk of the legwork in making the movement a success.
“It wasn’t a ‘campaign’ that we were dealing with, but a collective act, one that consisted of great work and dedication,” says Shala. “Reconciling two families was a very emotionally charged process. The family that had to forgive had many reasons to be wounded. It was clear that they couldn’t simply reconcile with the fact that their family member was lost. That inherited feeling of revenge — that blood could only be washed with blood — dominated. One had to find another value, stronger than that of revenge, that would transcend the blood of their family member, and that was freedom for the homeland.
“That was the key of a successful reconciliation: acknowledging the pain of the family, and emphasizing the higher values we were aspiring to. It required a lot of caution, a lot of dedication, energy and concentration, and also the ability to say the right words at the right time. One careless expression or gesture could reset the entire process, especially at the beginning, when the movement for blood reconciliation didn’t have the popularity it needed,” she adds.
The reconciliation movement culminated at the massive gathering on a plain in Decan called Verrat e Llukes on May 1, 1990, where an estimated 500,000 people gathered to witness, to forgive and to be forgiven. Approximately 2,000 feuds were resolved between 1990 and 1992 through a combination of mediation, discussion and appeals to the “greater cause.” The movement also had the unique ability to bring women directly into decisions that were commonly left strictly in the hands of men — both as mediators and as family members.
I imagined a Kosovo with justice, with social equality, definitely without corruption; and pure, with leaders dedicated and ready to sacrifice for the protection of our freedom, and the advancement of the country’s well-being,
“A woman’s opinion was very important in certain cases, even decisive, especially when the blood of a husband or son had to be avenged,” Shala says. “I think that the participation of women in the movement itself further reinforced the role of women in reconciliation — there were also cases when a family didn’t have any men in the family and forgiveness was granted by the surviving mother or sisters.”
Asked if she was taken seriously while mediating blood feuds as a woman, Shala says “in order for people to not perceive you as a stereotype, you have to perceive of yourself differently. And I saw myself as different, meaning I saw myself as an equal. Maybe this is why women’s participation in the reconciliation movement was successful.”
“The ‘seriousness’ of men was about giving firm orders, reaching decisions and showing strength,” she adds. “The word of a woman in the oda brought more life and less orders into the process, more love, and less decisions. This is why the word of a woman was taken more seriously.”
One of her fellow male activists has also jokingly said that it didn’t hurt that the presence of women curbed the tongues of men prone to swearing — the last thing needed in discussions on reconciling blood feuds.
In 1991, Shala emigrated to Switzerland with her husband — unwillingly. “Our continued stay in Kosovo, when we were publicly identifiable, and when our every step was followed, was very dangerous. The possibility of a half-hidden life in Kosovo was impossible,” she says. She currently works as an intercultural mediator for the city of Winterthur.
Shala’s feelings about post-independence Kosovo are complicated and bittersweet. “I never thought Kosovo would be what it is today — exploited and trampled upon, even by those who made personal sacrifices for her freedom. I imagined a Kosovo with justice, with social equality, definitely without corruption; and pure, with leaders dedicated and ready to sacrifice for the protection of our freedom, and the advancement of the country’s well-being,” she says.
“Living with dignity remains my mission. Living with dignity in Kosovo today has become almost impossible. To live a good and straight life has become really difficult,” Shala adds.
Shala’s apparent disappointment comes from a place of idealism, and a place of love, perhaps best encapsulated by the closing line of the speech she gave in Kosovo’s independent capital last year. Shala describes internal freedom found during the movement for reconciliation as a precondition for external freedom won for Kosovo as a whole, and, perhaps unwittingly, leaves hope for the rediscovery of the freedom with us as citizens:
“The movement for reconciliation created a new self-awareness, and that self-awareness told us that we needed to feel freedom within us before we could win it externally. We won our internal freedom from then, and today we have our freedom from without.”