An Introduction  by Anna Di Lellio to ONE FLEW OVER THE KOSOVO
THEATER: An Anthology of Contemporary Drama from Kosovo


This collection of contemporary plays from Kosovo, spanning almost a decade, is deeply influenced by a dramatic historical context. As we examine this period, we must remember that the war began in Kosovo well before 1998 as a low intensity conflict, following Slobodan Milošević’s rise to power in Yugoslavia ten years earlier. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and the entire Eastern Bloc moved towards Western Europe and liberal democracy, Yugoslavia remained in the grip of the old Communist apparatus. To seize power and maintain it, Milošević exploited the destructive passion of Serbian nationalist circles and forced the recentralization of Federal Yugoslavia. But first he revoked the constitutional autonomy of Kosovo, which was Serbia’s province. Then he went to war in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia to stop these republics from seceding from Yugoslavia, aiming to forcibly annex the areas where Serbs lived, after having ethnically cleansed them.

The comedy, The Crossroads Café, is situated during the (Kosovo) Albanians’ war of secession from Serbia, which culminated with NATO intervention to stop an anticipated ethnic cleansing by Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. The Basement develops during the mass expulsions of Albanians from Pristina in April 1999 and includes the disappearance of the protagonist’s son. A missing husband and son casts his shadow on The Finger ten years after the conflict, while the monologue Slaying the Mosquito belongs entirely to a man exiled by the war, who in exile is missing a part of himself. The 2008 declaration of independence provides the backdrop for One Flew over the Kosovo Theater, where the newly won independence is spoiled by a loss of agency.

In the 1990s, as the Yugoslav wars raged elsewhere, Albanians in Kosovo were stripped of their jobs, schools, and all other services and had to cope with a diminished life. They organized as a self-help society without a state. An organic leadership emerged, making an uncompromising choice in favor of peaceful resistance. Albanians lived in poverty, supported by contributions from the diaspora along with some foreign aid, and in fear, under the thumb of Serbian security forces, but avoided a full-blown war until 1998. It was then that the armed guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) escalated their actions, provoking a bloody state counterinsurgency that degenerated into a campaign of ethnic cleansing and drove nearly half of Kosovo’s Albanian population into neighboring countries.

The war brought to light the long-simmering chasm in Albanian society between the party of accommodation within the Yugoslav state and the party of open rebellion. As the KLA took center stage during the conflict, upping the ante with its successful lobbying for NATO intervention against Milošević, the war also flipped the domestic political power structure on its head.  In postwar Kosovo, KLA commanders-turned-politicians asserted themselves over the prewar leadership, which included educated urban elites, as well as state bureaucrats released from the Yugoslav system. The former combatants tried to impose the renewal of a heroic national tradition of resistance against foreign oppressors, but their adoption of national history as dogma – and as a claim to power – faced sharp resistance.

No character in this collection of plays embodies the heroic, martial virtues promoted by the KLA national narrative. Even when Enver, the protagonist of The Basement, reminds his frightened young son Gent of the Albanian warrior tradition, it is clear that he is talking in abstractions. The men in the play are defenseless against the Serbian security forces bent on killing them and must either hide or flee. Thus Enver, a professor, waxes uselessly over an epic past. There is hidden irony in his invocation of Mic Sokoli, a nineteenth-century guerrilla leader celebrated for having pressed his chest against the muzzle of an Ottoman cannon, one in a line of heroes making a Pyrrhic last stand. There could be no sharper contrast between Enver’s proud words and his impotence as a patriot, as an intellectual, and literally, as a man, as we learn from a conversation with his wife Pranvera.

The Kosovo secessionist war was typically asymmetric, and the KLA, fighting an overwhelmingly more powerful enemy, followed Mao Tse-Tung’s maxim: “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” And while it began as a small force based on tightknit rural networks and the nationalist underground, the KLA developed a broader popular base in the midst of Milošević’s war against civilians.  The Crossroads Café, in large part, shows how the militants of an unnamed movement, which is clearly the KLA, were supported by an array of different people with an overarching shared national goal, but for a variety of reasons, from conviction to personal connections, opportunism, money, or some other force of circumstance.

Most Albanians lionized the KLA during the war, but many criticized it afterwards, explicitly or not. Sokol, the café owner, finds himself performing difficult missions and misfires, not so much because of his lack of martial qualities, as because of the guerrillas’ amateurism. Here the fighters are never present when the action occurs – in particular when the enemy, the Serbian police, must be confronted. Sokol, the Everyman of the play, must suffer all the consequences of his undefended exposure to them.

The Humanitarian Law Center has produced the most accurate available database of human loss during the 1998-2000 period, including the immediate aftermath of the war. Of the10,415 Albanians, 2,197 Serbs and 528 Roma, Bosniaks and other non-Albanians killed or missing over that period, 8,661 Albanians, 1,797 Serbs and 447 Roma, Bosniaks and other non-Albanians were civilians. The number of missing persons – originally 3,200 – has been halved to 1,666 over the past ten years. Of the latter, about 1,000 Albanians are presumed dead, but without a final resolution of their status.

Enver’s son, as well as Zoja’s son / Shkurta’s husband in The Finger, are killed as they step out of their houses – the first to search for food, and the other to reconnoiter. Both are civilians uninvolved in the war, but they are killed nevertheless. Because their bodies are not found, their families live in the hopeless dream of finding them alive, years later. There are many such cases in real life.

In these plays, the absence of physical remains condemns survivors to search relentlessly for more tangible representations of their dead. They see ghostly apparitions, or rummage through the old clothes of the disappeared, trying to conjure up images.  There is no normal life in the families of the missing, and both The Basement and The Finger dramatize the devastation caused by the disappearance of family members. This loss seems also to have broken a previously existing equilibrium and revealed a deep, personal unhappiness with family life.

To borrow a classic feminist argument that has more than one application, the personal is political in Kosovo society. For example, Enver’s desperate refuge in an imaginary life of letters and pride, in contrast to his marginal and impotent real life, can be understood in the context of the dramatic loss of status many intellectuals suffered after 1981. That year, they were expelled en masse from the University because of nationalist protests and were never able to regain their position, since Milošević closed Albanian schools altogether in 1990.

Zoja and Shkurta are both trapped in a cycle of subordination and domination, which they hate but have been unable to overcome. In the traditional Albanian home, the son’s bride doesn’t just join a new family; she becomes that family’s possession. As a second fiddle to the mother-in-law, she must obey the older woman until death or age turns the tables. The power thus gained by women in the latter part of their lives compensates for the pain of arranged marriages, unhappy relationships, and domestic violence, as well as their own years of servitude to the older woman of the house. It is a tradition that does not allow for sentiments to be expressed. In The Finger, like the men and women who cannot reveal their love for each other, mother and daughter-in-law cannot show their mutual compassion.

Almost all the characters in these plays suffer from a lackluster love life. Quarrels, betrayals, or estrangement are ubiquitous against a background of violence from outside and within the society. This violence either forces or encourages individuals to choose emigration, and then follows them, uprooting them both physically and spiritually. In Slaying the Mosquito, what appears at first to be a semi-comical incident due to the drunkenness of the protagonist, later suggests domestic violence.  Only at the end do we learn of a mutual victimization, as the object of this violence is brazenly cheating on her husband, a poet exiled to Mexico, where he feels soulless,  far from a home he dreams of but can no longer reach.

Following the war, Kosovo became a special type of country. Its already overwhelming Albanian majority increased further, despite population loss due to mass killing and migration, as Serbs left in large numbers.  The United Nations suspended Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo, and established an international administration – the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), which governed Kosovo like contemporary Ottoman rulers from June 1999 through February 2008, when independence was declared. For almost ten years, all the vital functions of the country were entrusted to outsiders, diplomats, and consultants affiliated with international institutions such as the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the European Union (EU). Security, in the absence of a domestic armed force (which is still substantially lacking), was and is the responsibility of a NATO mission, KFOR. A new vocabulary emerged for this form of governance: It was composed of a plethora of acronyms designating international institutions and agencies, as well as foreign donors.

Tasked with building a state in Kosovo, UNMIK was strongly constrained by the fact that there was no defined state to be built because for years there was no international agreement on what status Kosovo would be granted. What was built instead was an Albanian political and social elite that operated in an environment that was more sensitive to international bureaucratic and political demands than to citizens’ needs and aspirations.  But citizens had very high expectations for a country they had dreamed of for so long, but did not yet possess.

Kosovo, the poorest province of Yugoslavia, went through ten years of complete desertion by Yugoslav state institutions, followed by two years of a devastating war. It emerged from this tragedy quickly, though the merit for the recovery was not due to foreign aid, which went mostly to support a huge international bureaucracy and to create a very small urban civil society. In large part, Kosovo bounced back on the strength of a people accustomed to surviving. Contemporary Kosovo is naturally a mixed bag. Critics are very vocal, citing high unemployment, the lack of good services, and a self-serving political class that can also be threatening through its domestic surveillance, as the fundamental ills of the country. The disappointment with this reality vis-à-vis the dream is palpable in the biting monologue of Slaying the Mosquito; but it is also played on a broader scale by the ensemble of One Flew over the Kosovo Theater.

Surviving is what the characters of One Flew do best. In this play within a play, the National Theater Company partakes, with all other Albanians, in the dreams of a good life and an independent country.  Independence is achieved, but at the cost of freedom. The company is asked to produce a celebratory play for an unspecified date, and censorship as well as self-censorship weigh heavily on the outcome. The good life, which is the realization of one’s vocation whatever that might be, is defined down because there are no conditions for success.

Kosovo independence was declared on February 17, 2008, and after years of longing, it came as a surprise to the nation because only a very small number of people knew it would be declared on that date. It was a negotiated independence, debated over two long years by an array of actors – among them, in a dominant role, the United States government and other western governments, together with the United Nations.  The Kosovo political elite played a secondary role. After declaring independence, Kosovo remained a hybrid state with the lingering institutional presence of the EU and NATO, which enjoy strong powers and are able to override the government’s authority. Lacking a seat at the UN because it is not recognized by almost half the member countries, Kosovo still heavily depends on members, such as the United States, which were the first to support its right to exist.

Like the new Kosovo state, most characters in One Flew, no matter their status – whether the Secretary of the Ministry of Sport, the Director, or the young actress Rosie – enjoy only very limited freedom. Their choices are already compromised, while they parade their most idealistic ambitions.  Thus, they fail the grand celebration of independence as they opportunistically acquiesce to political interference. Individual rebellions are haphazard and futile, whether they are inspired by desperation as in the case of Dilo, the unhappy and drunk actor who reads his wife’s humiliating farewell letter rather than his lines, or by quixotic idealism such as James’ plan to turn a pile of scrap metal into a functioning airplane.

All the characters in these plays think, talk, and move in a physical space that is both local and confined, and swept by broader events. Whether they are in the city, in a village, or in exile, their immediate environment suffocates them, paradoxically not because of its closeness, but because of its lack of intimacy. Estrangement, lack of freedom, and a sense of loss dominate the comedies as well as the dramas, projecting a critical and somber image of the life of Kosovars.  

Naturally, these characters are first of all individuals, displaying individual happiness, sorrow, fear, courage, self-pity, dishonesty, and ambitions. They will provoke individual reactions from readers or theater audiences. What I have suggested in this foreword is to view them against a broader political and social backdrop. It is on that broader stage that a collective drama is being played out:  The story of a nation that has a tragic history but sees it as epic and in conflict with the uninspired reality of contemporary life; that is proud of its unique tradition but begins to regard it as a straitjacket; and finally, that survives against all odds.

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