On the night of February 9, a large group of police officers gathered in the heart of Prishtina’s Ulpiana district, preparing a raid on an event organized at the Sabota Social Center. They were heavily armed.
The event wasn’t being shut down because of suspicions surrounding drug use, or even complaints of a disturbance to the peace in the largely residential neighborhood. For the team behind the event, it was the origin of the music emanating from the social center that landed them in trouble — the Kurdish sounds Sabota had chosen to celebrate were met with what they feel was a politically motivated intervention.
The police officially stated that “they got information that raised suspicion that certain persons may try to hamper in different ways the development of an activity that could result in an incident that would have led to consequences.”
More coherently, they also stated that two persons were accompanied to the police station; one in possession of a sharp knife and another who failed to provide identification documents. Up to today it remains unclear if the two persons were proven to have intentions to harass or attack people attending the Kurdish music night, or if anybody’s life was in danger.
In response to the Kosovo Police’s official statement, the collective behind Sabota published the following on their Facebook page: “We, as a collective of the Social Center, see this police intervention as a politically motivated intervention from the installed establishment in Kosovo, from the elements of the Turkish state within these institutions and the Turkish Embassy. We call on the police to free the two young people who were supposedly caught planning an attack on Social Center.”
The music night was part of a week’s activities organized at Sabota, in order to raise awareness and develop discussions on the Kurdish issue. This January saw one of the deadliest attacks in Afrin, a northern province of Syria, where as a result of exchanges between Turkish led forces and Kurdistan fighters, hundreds of Kurds were killed and thousands more displaced. For the collective behind Sabota, this was reason enough to organize an event with Kurdish music, as a sign of empathy with the Kurds.
But one thing became clear, the support for the Kurdish struggle shown by Sabota wasn’t shared by everyone. In addition to the police raid, when the event was posted on Facebook it was met with many comments containing hate speech and threats. However, the events of early February have not dampened the inspiration the collective behind Sabota find in the Kurdish cause.
Defiance to hierarchy
During the raid on the Sabota, the police hit a stumbling block when attempting to speak to the person in charge. “Who is the boss here?” an officer asked. The answer was not what he was looking for.
“We don’t have a boss.”
As with many social centers across the world running on the basis of non-hierarchical consensus decision-making, the reply tells a lot about Sabota’s philosophy.
Rinor, Driton, Glauk, Dren and Ardit are a group of a friends and a five member collective that have linked their efforts together in order to give Prishtina a different kind of space. With some of them describing themselves as anarchists with an entrenched belief that institutional power is fundamentally unjust, defiance to hierarchy stands at Sabota’s core.
As such, police officers are one of the less welcome persons at the social center. But that list extends to millionaires, fascists, right wing groups, the military and anybody else that either gets rich off the backs of others or protects those that do.
The young men want do be identified only with their first names, partly due to the way they envisage Sabota, and partly due to their ideological stances.
“We don’t want the collective to be identified with individuals, but to be regarded as a collective, as a group of people with common interests and aims,” Rinor says. “The other reason is that… I think there is still this mindset that doesn’t understand leftism. If you are a communist they link you with Serbia, if you are an anarchist they link you with violence and terrorism. I mean it is not such a problem in day-to-day life, but you have idiots in high positions who say ‘there are these idiots, communists or anarchists — let’s raid them.’”
Rinor, together with Dren and Driton are part of a Prishtina based group whose ideology is rooted in Anarcho-Syndicalism (a branch of anarchism that focuses on the labour movement that was created as a response to the politicization of unions) and aims to highlight violations of workers’ rights. They have addressed a number of different issues in the workplace, from better conditions for those working in dangerous environments to the ongoing exploitation of employees in supermarkets.
It takes two minutes to sit down with Rinor and Driton before they express their frustration over structural inequities. “First, it is not in the interest of the state or capital to make better conditions for you, because they will lose out,” Rinor begins. “The moment there is inequality in society and class divisions, a relationship of conflict will be created immediately.”
Driton interrupts to express his own outrage: “Ramush Haradinaj wants to increase his salary to 3,000 [euros per month] and when workers demand an increase of the minimum wage he doesn’t do it!”
For a long time, the Anarcho-Syndicalist group had been lacking a space for their activities. Previously, they would organize interventions and actions in cafes and bars, keeping materials in their cars.
Glauk and Ardit had similar struggles. They are members of the Platypus association’s Kosovo branch. The world-wide association organizes reading groups, public forums, research and journalism on leftist ideology, which as a coordinator Glauk also attempted to do in Prishtina — usually in university halls or cafe spaces. Acknowledging each others’ needs, the search to find a common space became only a matter of time.
“I always wanted something similar, in order to develop social activities. I said yes to the guys, without even seeing the place,” Glauk says.
“A free space for space for free people”
Googling the word Sabota, it is quite difficult to find an exact definition, but Rinor and Driton, have two explanations for it. One is that the sabota was the ‘key’ workers used to stop the machines during the labour movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which grew in response to degradations of workers during the rise of industrial capitalism.
“It comes from when workers asked for the shorter working hours which we have today, and used a kind of key in order to sabotage the machines,” Rinor says, while pointing towards a photo with a sabota on the wall. “We have it as the logo there — the hand holding the key.”
Driton has a different anecdote. As an animal rights activist he prefers the story of Sabota the cat. “There was a workers’ strike, and there was a hungry cat, which the workers, as a sign of solidarity, started to feed, and continued to do so after the strike,” he says. “After becoming very close they named the cat Sabota.”
Driton’s affection towards animals is on show as soon as one opens the big iron door to the social center, when each guest is greeted by Jara and Bella, Sabota’s two loyal guard dogs. Driton adopted the pair after a crackdown on removing street dogs from Prishtina last year, and had been struggling for a long time to find a place for them.
If ever a place was an expression of its inhabitants’ political philosophy then it is Sabota, as the five young men made sure the interior was a reflection of their ideological stances.
The decor, which includes portraits featuring people like Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Rosa Parks, is not just a reminder of the intellectuals and philosophers that have shaped their radical leftist philosophy, it also includes references to workers and civil rights movements and people who have defied repressive authorities.
Even a trip to the bathroom is a reminder of an episode of police brutality. On the back of the door is the poster of Berkin Elvan, the 15 year old Turkish boy who was hit on the head by a tear-gas canister fired by a police officer in Istanbul after going out to buy bread during the June 2013 anti-government protests in Turkey. Another poster features Alexis Grigoropoulos, another 15 year old, killed by Greek police officers in Athens.
As a collective center for work, discussions and activities, the five friends behind Sabota’s motto is “a free space for free people.” Since its opening, in addition to the Kurdish night, the collective have also offered the space to a member of the LGBTI community to organize a party, something which would be a struggle with many venues in the city. “There is no place for sexism, racism, homophobia or xenophobes,” Rinor says.
The social center has an explicit manifesto for what it wants to become: a place that fights anybody who imposes discrimination, makes windows where walls are, feeds solidarity where indifference is, values content over marketing, activism over solitude, and resistance over oppression.
Sabota’s activities run in the spirit of cooperation and solidarity, with the five men themselves helping out at the center depending on each others’ availability. The collective has also made it clear that, in order to maintain their independence, they will accept donations and allow the usage of the space only from independent people.
“A person representing an organization or institution is free to visit Sabota, but not to offer financial help or use the space for organizing activities,” Glauk explains. “But any independent citizen can use the space, and offer help voluntarily.”
The collective also have a firm stance on activism stemming from NGOs, and the center’s cooperation with any such organizations. “As an NGO, donors will put their nose into how you want you to organize things,” Driton says. “There might be an NGO with the good cause of environmental issues but when you look closely, most of the donors are capitalists, institutions that contribute to damaging the environment.”
People that expect to receive the classical treatment on entering a Prishtina bar might be surprised when visiting Sabota. Upon entry, guests go by themselves to the modest bar built from pallets to get a drink and sit wherever there is a free chair. Everyone is free to borrow book from Sabota’s small library, which consists mainly of philosophical and political literature.
For Driton, the idea of mingling with each other, contrary to other spaces for socialising can make people discuss common ideas. “Sabota will build the base for a different kind of activism — a more horizontal activism,” Driton says.
In regard to the people that visit the center, Rinor insists that there is a range of different perspectives. “One can see that it leans more towards leftism,” he admits. “But for instance, it has people that support Vetëvendosje, it has people against Vetëvendosje, there are people who think that anarchism is stupid, there are people who favor different branches of communism — and there are many that don’t want to be linked with any ideology or party. But that is the pleasure, because now there is the space to discuss ideas.”
Certainly one area that is bringing discussion to Sabota’s tables is the film world, as every Monday and Thursday evening Sabota takes on the function of a cinema. While on Monday the collective selects films of a political nature, both features and documentaries, Thursday’s screening are usually cinematic works selected and coordinated by the Uliksi society.
Uliksi is a film association that Glauk is also a part of, created in 2013 with the aim of forming a group of passionate film fans that gather and discuss the seventh art. “We consider film as a kind of tool for emancipation and an aesthetic education,” says Rinë Zhitia, a member of Uliksi and the curator of Thursday’s films. “When Uliksi started in the beginning, the movies were screened at the University and the space was always a problem.”
Contrary to the coldness of the interiors of the University building “where you need to say something smart,” discussions after the screening at Sabota are more spontaneous. Usually one of the attendees comments on a scene, a character or a dialogue what leads a whole night of talk. “More than giving you a thought, it is important for a film to give you a feeling, and the space at Sabota gives you that kind of warmth,” says Rinë.
After a selection of masterpieces from the Czech New Wave and the Polish Film School, Italian Neorealism is the next movement in focus, with Rinë saying that usually they select films from a particular artistic movement.
“Films from the Czech New Wave are some of the favorite films of filmmakers that we watch, and we thought to start from this point,” Rinë says. “The aim is to create a group that will make regular critical reviews of cinema. This way you create people who really know film.”
Old and new political and artistic movies screened at Sabota are undoubtedly an important addition to the cinema culture of the city, which tends to mainly feature Hollywood blockbusters. But the existence of Sabota also is developing the concept of a social center, where socializing leads towards a more natural and community based activism. The five men are also about to officially make the collective open to newcomers.
The social center also provides an alternative hub for Ulpiana. The neighborhood has remained quiet and almost unaltered during the great expansion of the capital in other directions, but now Sabota is refreshing the district with a countercultural, anarchic spirit.K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
Edited by Jack Robinson.