national pride

words: amos barshad

photography: anthony blasko


In our two hours together, Besim Hasani will choke up three times. Happy choke-ups. Triumphant chokeups. He is the president of Kosovo’s National Olympic Committee. And he is explaining how it is that tiny, contested Kosovo even has an Olympic Committee. “Sorry for my emotions,” he will say, “but it’s not possible to go into that time and not feel how I felt in that time. All the time, it happens to me.”


I’d been picked up that morning at the airport in Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, by Jeton Rudari, a tall, jovial ex-volleyballer and, for years, Hasani’s only employee. As we entered the city, we rolled down Bill Clinton Boulevard and passed its most eye-popping sight: a massive portrait of Bill hanging over a slightly-less massive statue of Bill. Then we passed a women’s clothing shop named HILLARY. A smiling portrait of Hillary Clinton, in her Secretary of State days, hung on the shop’s outside wall. The Clinton administration is fondly remembered here for its intervention during the 1998 Kosovo War, when a NATO-led bombing campaign helped to drive out Serbian forces. Kosovo, it seems, is one of the last places on Earth to enjoy an uncomplicated relationship with the Clintons.


I point Hillary and Bill out to Rudari and he blandly nods in recognition. He changes the subject by asking me about a pop star from Kosovo: “Do you know Dua Lipa?” A few minutes later we pull into a parking garage. As the gate opens, a man on a bicycle follows behind our car, then, waving, rides happily on down into the subterranean structure. We park and walk outside to the headquarters of the country’s national sports program, a five-story structure proudly labeled, in English, the HOUSE OF SPORT.


It’s an inauspicious building: spartan, poorly lit, with a massive wayward generator plopped out front. But on the third floor is Hasani’s office which, with its slickly-veneered conference table and attendant fetching espressos, feels teleported in from a nineties Grisham legal thriller. This, clearly, is a boardroom and here, clearly, shit fucking happens.


Behind Hasani is a framed photograph of him taking a selfie alongside Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaçi. To be clear, the photo isn’t the selfie—it is a photo of these people during the act of taking a selfie. To Hasani’s right is a long wall of glass-entombed honorifics: trophies, certificates, plaques, scrolls, torches, and fuzzy, googly-eyed mascot stuffed animals.


Hasani is fiftysomething, besuited, and bald. He’s seated between national flags and backlit by glowing Olympic rings and speaks in a mesmerizing Bond archvillain mumble. When I walk in Hasani motions me over to the seat to his right, the one an underling has just vacated. I feel like a supplicant coming to curry favor from a high-society mandarin.




When Yugoslavia began to crumble, Hasani was working in a shock-absorber factory. He was also an amateur athlete—mostly karate, with a little table tennis on the side. And Kosovo, a majority-Albanian state of 1.8 million squeezed between Albania and Serbia, was an autonomous Yugoslav province. Then, in 1989, under the nationalistic aggression of Slobodan Miloševiç, Serbia forced through constitutional changes that severely limited Kosovo’s autonomy. Through the mandates of the Serbian government, and the increased and aggressive presence of Serbian police in Kosovo, the day-today lives of ethnic Albanians were curtailed.


All Albanian institutions in Kosovo were targets. Albanian civil servants were fired from government jobs. Albanian judges were fired. Albanian families were evicted from their homes. Albanians seeking education had to do so via an underground network of homeschooling. And sports clubs, from youth to pro, were disbanded. According to Hasani, Serbian police officers in Kosovo would interrogate, imprison and, at times, even kill Albanians found engaging in organized sports. “We were in our own country, our own place,” Hasani says, “but we couldn’t [freely] move.” Albanians in Kosovo felt like they were living under Serbian occupation. So as the years went on, they found makeshift solutions. Village fields were turned to soccer pitches. Basements were commandeered for combat sports. As Hasani puts it, “We organized our life in a different way. We managed maybe—to improvise. We, somehow, used to survive.”


In 1993 Hasani, then acting as Secretary General of the Kosovo Karate Federation, convinced an international youth karate tournament in Prague to allow a Kosovar team to enter. It was a breakthrough moment: the fledgling would-be state had competed, in something, as Kosovo. The country’s performance in the tournament was poor. But just getting there felt like a win. Building off this small, unlikely success, Hasani and the coaching staff worked the youngsters hard. They started practicing twice a week, then twice a day. Hasani says they got pretty damn good. He boasts, endearingly, “We were the best in the world with karate kids!”


A national youth sports delegation is a small thing, for most countries. But Kosovo was obsessed then, as it is now, with gaining recognition of its independent status. Kosovo needed internationally recognized institutions. “I traveled with karate guys,” Hasani says, referring to the trips he took with the athletes and coaches in his federation. “I needed some courage to go through Serbia. I always had business cards, always had pens: Kosovo Karate Federation. I didn’t hide from this. When they stopped us I said—here he slaps his chest—“‘Yes! I am head of Kosovo Karate Federation! I am here, you can kill me, whatever! But I am doing my job!’”



Prishtina gives off a charming looseness on an August weekday night. A music shop on a main drag sells burned CDs. Eavesdropping on a conversation between a customer and the shopkeeper, I catch one phrase: “hip-hop.” The main pedestrian walkway could use a lot more street lights. But the darkness is not stopping anyone. As it gets later and later, parents are in no way pressed about getting very small children home. A postrock band jams under a projected screening of German expressionist classic Metropolis. Young men, invariably, are in sweatshorts, fanny packs, and tight crewcuts. A stray dog saunters past me, jauntily, with a literal bone in its mouth. A similarly unattended nine-year-old pops out of a corner store and, smiling wide, swaggering happily, sings something at me in Albanian.


Nearby the shop is a bust of Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State during the Clinton administration’s Balkans intervention. And just across the street, on a tall apartment building, is a giant mural of the aforementioned Dua Lipa. She is rendered in a Star Wars-esque space-warrior fit, riding what I believe is a space snail.


The next day I return to the HOUSE OF SPORT. This time I go to a narrow room on the second floor whose defining attribute is its impressively bulky Xerox machine. There, I meet the leaders of the Kosovo Gymnastics Federation.


Amir Tahiraga is the General Secretary. Besim Halilaj is its President. They both also have part-time jobs: Halilaj is an assistant professor of physical education and Tahiraga works in his mother’s jewelry shop. Halilaj has a pair of large wraparound shades. Tahiraga has a mouth full of Lucky Strike-stained teeth, and is generous with his cigarettes. He’s also happily self-deprecating. At one point, fumbling through an explanation of the differences between the Albanians in Kosovo and the Albanians in Albania, he says, “here we are … softer Albanians.”


Tahiraga and Halilaj, now both 41, first met in the nineties, during Serbian occupation, as university students. The Faculty had no campus. The professors had no salaries. Its students attended lectures in cramped, cold, makeshift classrooms in private homes. They would do physical training, as best and surreptitiously as they could, in open yards.


“When we saw Serbian police, we must turn [away],” Halilaj says.


“To escape somehow,” Tahiraga explains.


If they were stopped, they’d be interrogated. “They ask us, what do you have in your bag, what do you train for— for war?” Halilaj says.


“Walking in the streets, we had different kinds of problems [with the police]” Tahiraga says. “It would go from them swearing at us, shouting bad words, up to beatings. Sometimes they beat people very badly. Beat people until they cannot even stand on their legs. That was the worst thing that can happen to a society. In Kosovo, the Albanians were kicked [out] from real life. That’s tremendously bad. That was the Serbian regime. That was the human brain that produced these kind of things.”


In 1995 the Dayton Agreement formalized an end to war in the Balkans. Yugoslavia splintered into independent nations. In The Hague, an International Criminal Tribunal went about the arduous work of meting out judgements to war criminals from Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia alike.


Kosovo desired independence as well but remained, legally, a province of Serbia. Then, in 1998, Miloševiç ordered ground troops into Kosovo. The Kosovo War—an aftershock of the wars in the Balkans that destroyed Yugoslavia in the early nineties—had begun. 1.5 million Albanians would eventually flee the country.


Halilaj remembers the day when war uprooted his life. On the way to class at the Faculty of Physical Education and Sport, he saw not the usual police, but army troops. He was afraid, but attempted to keep his routine. “I went for the lecture, I opened the door—bwaaaaang. Nobody inside. I turned around, I saw my professor. He said, ‘Where are the others?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘You must go to your family. The situation is not good. Many Serbian forces are here.’ He said, ‘Please, keep doing the best for yourself.’”


Tahiraga cuts in, perhaps trying to end this line of conversation, perhaps just trying to help me understand. “So, yes,” he says. “This is a painful story from the war.”


After the NATO bombing campaign, Serbia retreated and Albanians who had fled Kosovo returned. Serbia continued to view Kosovo as a breakaway province. And Kosovo went about the business of building itself up.


“After the war, you couldn’t find any dog in Kosovo,” Hasani, the Olympic Committee president, says. “You couldn’t find any sheep. Naaaaaathing. Everything was stolen or killed. But I knew they could not destroy us all.”


Hasani had been running Kosovo’s Olympic Committee since 1996. To Hasani, the end of the war in 1999 meant one thing: it was time to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to recognize Kosovo. “You see that you have to give your contribution,” he says. “Being part of sport, this was my way.”


Hasani ran the same playbook from his karate days. To him, it was all about building momentum by getting recognition from various international bodies. Within the massive constellation of worldwide sports bureaucracy, these were obscure organizations. But to Hasani, it seems, this system had a gravitas akin to top-level diplomacy. Beaming, Hasani ticks off his accomplishments: In 2003, Kosovo table tennis was accepted by ITTF, the International Table Tennis Federation. In 2008, both Kosovo weightlifting and Kosovo softball were recognized by their respective international bodies. That same year, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia.


All the while, Hasani wrote letters to the IOC, waged pleading phone calls to the IOC, and buttonholed IOC officials at conventions. He was constantly “lobbying, lobbying, lobbying.” And still, reps from the IOC would tell him, wait your turn, wait your turn. Hasani was obsessed. To him, Kosovo wasn’t real until it was in the IOC. “I asked them, ‘What should we do now? What to do? You are not allowing us to be part of you! What should we do?!’”


The first time Hasani chokes up is when recalling the first time he actually got some good news. He was at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2014 and Pere Miró, IOC Deputy Director General, greeted him with a hug and a furtive message: “I have one very good news for you,” Miro whispered in his ear. “It’s time for you to prepare your application. But nooooobody should know.” Hasani drops a pen onto his desk and stops talking. His eyes water. His throat constricts.


The second time Hasani chokes up is when recalling a follow-up conversation in Lausanne later that year. Miro found him again, and this time handed him a phone with Thomas Bach, the President of the IOC, on the other end of the line. The application had been accepted. Bach told him, “Besim, congratulations: the executive board decided unanimously…” Hasani’s voice pitches up. He slams the desk as he tells the story. He needs to tell it fast, before his voice fails him. “I was just saying, ohhhh, ohhh, ohhh. I couldn’t answer. I was crying, laughing, whatever!”


The third time Hasani chokes up is when recalling sharing the good news with his wife, Shpresa. He was in a hotel in Lausanne, and it was raining. As he tells it, first he engaged in a bit of melodrama: he went outside, dropped his head, stretched out his arms, and let the drops splash him. Then he called Shpresa. His voice indicated to her that something dramatic had taken place. She thought maybe something had happened with the kids?!


“I said, ‘No, everything is OK!’” He’s pausing between every few words. “I said, ‘Go sit. Everything is OK. But you are first person to know. That we are. Member. Of IOC!’” He can barely talk. His voice is a squeak. This is not the same imposing fellow I met a couple of hours back. “She was crying.” He picks up his car keys. He chucks them across his desk. “I was crying!”


He pauses, then continues. “One day, your dream is achieved. That same day, if I was dead—for me, was OK!”


In 2016, in Rio, Kosovo competed in its first-ever Olympics. In judo, in the 52-kg women's division, Majlinda Kelmendi won gold. Kosovo is one of only 100 countries to have ever won a gold medal. A plan is now underway for Kelmendi to join Bill, Hillary, Madeline, and Dua Lipa. Somewhere in the city, a concrete Kelmendi statue will be constructed.



A few weeks before I visit Prishtina, Kosovo’s prime minister Ramush Haradinaj had resigned after being called for questioning in the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague. Haradinaj, a former commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, is suspected of atrocities against ethnic Serbs during the war. Presumably to avoid implicating the current government in his past deeds, Haradinaj wanted to go to The Hague a private citizen, not a representative of Kosovo.


Haradinaj’s resignation, and its nightmarish echoes of the war, came at a time of increased tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Serbia had successfully blocked Kosovo’s attempts to be recognized by Interpol and other international bodies. In retaliation, Kosovo placed a 100 percent tariff on Serbian produce. In the name of peace, the two governments have discussed land swaps that would exchange Albanian-majority Serb territory with Serb-majority Kosovo territory. These negotiations seem simple, and promising, but have terrifying overtones— can only “ethnically pure” countries exist in the Balkans? Writing in The Guardian, Kosovar journalist Agron Bajrami said, “A Kosovo-Serbia land swap is ethnic cleansing by another name. Don’t do it.”


In the 2018 World Cup, Switzerland’s roster included two players, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka, with Kosovo- Albanian roots. (In the late eighties, Xhaka’s father, then a student at the University of Pristina, was imprisoned for three years after a protest against the Belgrade government.) In the Switzerland-Serbia match in Kaliningrad, both Shaqiri and Xhaka scored. And both ran over to Serbian supporters with maniacal glee, where they hooked their thumbs together, and pressed their flattened palms to their chest in the double-eagle Albanian salute.


Giant international sports organizations like FIFA and the IOC project ideals of unity and hope. Their actual practices are plagued with cynicism and brutal, base profiteering that makes you want to write off the entire enterprise. Then Shaqiri and Xhaka hit the double-eagle and you can’t help but get carried away in their dramatic, urgent displays of nationalist pride. But the mission of FIFA, or of the Kosovo Olympic Committee, or of any cultural institution, isn’t actually to create new arenas in which to simulate old sectarian battles. It’s to transcend the sectarianism altogether.


In these days of renewed strife, Dukagjin Lipa is trying to create a Kosovo cultural institution that transcends. Lipa is the founder of Sunny Hill, a two-year-old Prishtina music festival headlined by international acts like Miley Cyrus, Calvin Harris, and his own daughter, Dua Lipa. “The majority of the world, immediately they connect Kosovo with the war and the troubles,” the elder Lipa tells me over the phone. “For 20 years now, we keep fighting against that sort of imagery.” He wants his festival, he says, to “bring Europeans to Kosovo, to visit the youth here, to be a part of this Mediterranean mentality, to see the positivity.”


He says sports and culture, like his festival, are “the best and biggest promotional tool that a government can have.” But, he stresses, “as a festival, we are independent, and we don’t do politics and we don’t do religion.”


Is it realistic, to try and remain apolitical in modern-day Kosovo? Or is it a well-intentioned fantasy? Reporting from the inaugural Sunny Hill, The New York Times wrote, “Many of the acts … drew cheers from the crowd by making a double-handed sign that represents the black eagle on Albania’s flag … Kosovo’s blue flag, which features six stars to represent the country’s main ethnic groups, was nowhere on display.”


I ask Lipa, “Do Serbs come to the festival?” He answers, with well-practiced magnanimity, “We do have a database of all our audience and of course there are people from Serbia. We welcome them. I hope they had a great time being here.”



One afternoon, I go with Amir Tahiraga, the Gymnastics Federation’s General Secretary, to a training session for Prishtina club Elita. The club trains in the Palace of Youth and Sports, a wide, aging complex in the center of the city.


The Palace’s deterioration is more than made up for by the personality of the place; it is a strange, beguiling behemoth. A towering, Mao-like portrait of a beloved, martyred Kosovo Liberation Army commander named Adem Jashari, bearded nearly to his eyes, hangs on the Palace’s front. Its roof resembles the exoskeleton of a titanic, ancient insect.


I follow Tahiraga through a maze-y path past walls covered with pen graffiti. (On one of the walls someone has gone to the trouble to scribble “esketit,” the catchphrase of the SoundCloud rapper Lil Pump.) We get to the basement and we see, in turn, cavernous rooms full of hopped-up boxers, judokas, table-tennis players and, finally, gymnasts. It’s an echoey, yellow-brick gym full of yelping kids. Some have proper competition-ready glittery tops. Most are in T-shirts brandishing a variety of logos: Adidas, Nike, a cartoon character named Cowboy Zeyton, the band KISS.


This is the same room Tahiraga trained in as a young boy. Shkumbin Maqastena, the Elita coach, shows me photos on his phone of the gym, cratered, in shambles. This is how they found it after the war.


As Tahiraga and Maqastena themselves sheepishly admit, the gym is still quite… scrappy. Water damage has chewed up the roof tiles. Dinged-up wood partitions serve as locker rooms. The equipment, sourced willynilly from donations, is all mashed together in a strange hodgepodge. “The balance beam is from… God knows,” Tahiraga cracks. “Is probably older than me!” But the set-up works. The twenty or so kids here range widely in both age, from five to 15, and in talent. Some pull off slick front handsprings to round-offs, again and again. Some just go screaming and diving into the foam pit. The room is in endearing chaos.


“They have a huge motivation,” Maqastena says of his trainees. “Everything they do, they do with their heart. If you tell them right now, ‘Hey, let’s go to the competition’— they’ll say, ‘Hey, no problem.’”


“These were all kids born after the war,” I note. Tahiraga nods. “They don’t have to look back as much,” he says.


As Tahiraga and Maqastena also readily admit, the Kosovo Gymnastic Federation has a long way to go toward actually achieving dreams of Olympic glory, toward actually producing an athlete that can make Kosovo as proud as the judo star Majlinda Kelmendi. Still, they plow forward.


“We are a new country,” Tahiraga says. “In 2008, we were recognized by over 100 states. And still we are coming to work, to build our own country in a positive way.”


“And for me?” Tahiraga adds. “A country, without the gymnastics? It doesn’t make sense.”