photo & text by nacrowe
i was excited to read FREE: A CHILD AND A COUNTRY AT THE END OF HISTORY (NORTON, 2022) by LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS professor LEA YPI, which recounts her youth her native ALBANIA as it emerged from the COLLAPSE of its SOCIALIST government in the early 1990s and struggled towards a market-driven CAPITALIST economy. its an absolutely fascinating period of time from a largely FORGOTTEN and MISUNDERSTOOD country. and i should state my bias up front, since i served 27 months as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA between 2011-2013 and was primarily stationed and spent extensive time primarily in both the north (KUKES) and the south (VLORA) of the country. ive written about this experience extensively before so i will link to those entries if there reader is interested: HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. that being said, im always interested in learning more about the country and its COMPLICATED past and FREE is a revelation.
one of the strengths of this book is YPI's capacity to personalize the ideology of the state during SOCIALISM through her depiction of not only teachers, family members and acquaintances, but also herself as a child. part of what made the fall of the government such a DISORIENTATING and DEBILITATING event for YPI personally was how it transformed the actions of others. she was led to believe that the SOCIAL, POLITICAL and CULTURAL COHESION of the country was founded on one set of ideals, only to see that none other than here own family had shielded her from their true beliefs and FAMILY HISTORY in order to safeguard everyone from backlash from the state. you really get a sense from YPI's personal narrative what a shock to one's strongly held sense of IDENTITY the fall of the state was for people. their sense of self and relationship to each other were irrevocably TRANSFORMED.
another compelling facet of this book that very much hit home for me was the portrayal of the influx of NGOs and foreign aid organizations post-collapse that had SOCIAL and POLITICAL AGENDAS that didnt necessarily coincide with the local population. in fact, YPI's mother was gifted at sifting through all the PRETENSE and BUZZWORDS and JARGON of these international organizations in order to secure physical entry for ALBANIANS during the mass EXODUS to ITALY. it was particularly draining because the problems being prescribed by foreigners did not intersect or cohere with how ALBANIANS actually self-identified or assessed their situation. in order to prosper under these new rules, one had to self-impose a new VALUE SYSTEM and participate in the construction of new SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS (i.e. 'civil society') that were completely derived from foreigners. this makes sense since PEACE CORPS encouraged its volunteers to initiate programs that addressed issues and problems they saw as worthy. i always felt such was completely backwards and worked with my ALBANIAN counterparts to develop initiatives that addressed problems derived from what they deemed worthwhile. i was vehicle for helping them help themselves is how i saw it, but this mindset of PATERNALISM that enfeebles the local population is such a common trait of foreign organizations dealing in aid and development. the fact that YPI delineated that TENSION on such personal terms very much hit home for me.
YPI also gets into the mass PSYCHOLOGY behind the pyramid schemes that collapsed in 1996 and led to a brief civil war in 1997. as a PEACE CORPS volunteer stationed at the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA, i initiated an oral history project in order to create concrete examples for my translation students to, well, translate and use as evidence for future employers. i had my students record their grandparents and parents answering questions about SENSITIVE topics that included everything from life during COMMUNISM to the KOSOVO WAR, but even i knew that the widespread PYRAMID SCHEMES that ultimately spiraled the country into civil war was completely TABOO and out of bounds. there was still such collective SHAME about the population being duped at scale by CORRUPT OPPORTUNISTS. YPI presents her parents as educated individuals that wanted to be involved in MARKET CAPITALISM and the INVESTING CULTURE they learned about from EUROPE. post-collapse ALBANIA in the mid-1990s was one where regular people were excited about the prospect of integrating economically with their neighbors and being seen as equals. the TRAGEDY is that the financial institutions were not in place yet and what were deemed "the firms" came in its place and became so integrated into the culture that they even prominently sponsored a political party. the population lost $1.2 billion (approximately half its GDP) and the PSYCHIC SCARS lasted well over a decade later when i arrived.
YPI covers so much ground in this book and i knew going in to write this that i would not be able to address most of it. suffice to say this book is personal narrative that gives voice to the EXPERIENCES, STRUGGLES, HOPES, TRIUMPHS and all too much DESPAIR of a population that is often DERIDED, MISUNDERSTOOD and outright DISMISSED. ALBANIA to many people in THE WEST is a non-entity, an open canvas, a tabula rasa for them to pin their uninformed assumptions and pet theories upon. that was my experience as a volunteer with my own organization and it frustrated me to no end. so the fact that FREE is an attempt to present the COMPLEXITIES that arrive out of this remarkable period in ALBANIA's history, from the perspective of the people themselves through YPI very much resonated with me.
im glad i found this book.
parody by nacrowe
i was thinking the other day about how music serves as a soundtrack to your life and how certain artists literally follow you around.
for me that band is MASTODON.
LEVIATHAN (RELAPSE, 2004)
i was first became aware of MASTODON in college when they were out touring their album LEVIATHAN. the album was a loose reimagining of HERMAN MELVILLE's MOBY DICK along the lines of a touring band following their dream but wishing for the comforts of home. as an ENGLISH major, how could i not love a band interested in literature? i wrote term papers to that album.
CRACK THE SKYE (REPRISE/SIRE/RELAPSE, 2009)
i remember listening to CRACK THE SKYE while going through the months-long process of applying for PEACE CORPS when i was living and working as a long-term-substitute teacher at STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL in NYC. when i learned that i was accepted and i had a departure date (country to specified later), i immediately thought i may be going to the UKRAINE. so given this album's RUSSIAN monarchy theme, it was only too perfect as a soundtrack to my reading of ROBERT K. MASSIE's epic NICHOLAS AND ALAEXANDRIA book centered around the doomed TSAR NICHOLAS II and his family. the sound of it fit perfectly. plus i got to see them tour this album at MADISON SQUARE GARDEN on their tour with ALICE IN CHAINS and DEFTONES. i had floor tickets. beyond sweet.
THE HUNTER (REPRISE, 2011)
turns out i was assigned ALBANIA, not UKRAINE, and I was in the remote mountainous northern region of KUKES on the border with KOSOVO when THE HUNTER came out. for me this album recalls cold trips through serene mountain passages along dirt roads in the ALBANIAN ALPS where our ride would stop to allow wolf packs to cross the road. just epic. i hear it and i can still smell that mountain air.
ONCE MORE AROUND THE SUN (REPRISE, 2014)
somewhere between LAKE TITICACA and the AREQUIPA DESERT in PERU i was able to obtain this album by dubious methods when it released. before getting it i had just seen the SACRED VALLEY, MACHU PICCHU and COLCA CANYON with its centuries-old fields scalloped into the mountains with running streams below and hovering condors dotting the sky overhead. when i heard the album the first time i was going through the AREQUIPA DESERT (driest in the world) with severely chapped lips counting the vicunas wandering afoot untouched in the distance. the album fit the vibe of that country perfectly.
EMPEROR OF SAND (REPRISE, 2017)
i streamed this via youtube when it first released as i was en route to HA LONG BAY from HANOI during a trip through VIETNAM. when i hear it i think of ungodly traffic and dusty BUDDHIST temples carved into rock on elevated vistas. what a gorgeous country.
MASTODON is an epic group and i feel fortunate that I got to experience their past few albums while in some pretty incredible places that more than lived up to the scale and scope of their music. i am definitely looking forward to their new release (whenever that is) which will most likely take place from an equally compelling locale: my car while driving down the GARDEN STATE PARKWAY.
enjoy this DEER GOD RADIO episode on MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC from a few months back pre-PANDEMIC dedicated to MASTODON.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
everything is so depressing at the moment. seems the complete balkanization of the AMERICAN body politic is in full free fall right now. you have a president with tyrannical ambitions kicking the tires on what he can get away with in terms of utilizing the military against his own people.
i've seen this movie before. i lived through it specifically in VENEZUELA, NIGERIA and MYANMAR. when i read about unmarked federal officials with a dubious chain of command carrying out protection details against protestors i have flashbacks to seeing colectivos in MATURIN who were off-duty cops that attacked and killed protestors against NICOLAS MADURO. when i see TRUMP using military helicopters and the might of his forces to clear away protestors for the sake of a lame bible photo op, i think back to living in LAGOS in the mid 1990s and watching the police burn markets with glee. the learned hatred by some of my students in MYANMAR against MUSLIMS as manifested in them dressing up as "terrorists" for HALLOWEEN is mirrored in TRUMP and the REPUBLICANS blanket animosity and racism towards the non-white population. to this day i still wear it as a badge of honor that i didn't stay on after my first contract in MYANMAR at a job where my employer didn't have the moral fortitude to challenge the students against racism. the ROHINGYA CRISIS was taboo and never spoken about. what a wasted opportunity.
i've seen personally how injustice erodes unity and corrodes the national psyche. there is a choice being made right now by our fellow AMERICANS that wear a badge and plead an oath of fidelity to the constitution. at some point they are going to have make a decision on who they serve: the people or this dictator. if they collectively choose poorly we are all fucked.
but that isn't why i'm writing this. i do have an example of an individual who during a time of civil unrest made a selfless, patriotic decision and great personal expense on behalf of his fellow compatriots. and ironically this example is set in the BALKANS, specifically ALBANIA.
i've made mention before about my experience as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA and my nationwide literacy project that resulted in me presenting a paper i co-wrote at CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY. i have also mentioned before how during my initial stay at my original placement site in the border town of KUKES (10 miles from the KOSOVAN border) resulted in me getting assaulted and ultimately relocated to another city.
what i haven't spoken about before is my former landlord in KUKES, whom i wont identify by name out of respect. in 1997 the ALBANIAN economy, already the second-poorest in EUROPE, took a sharp nose dive after the government lost a reported $1.2 billion due to involvement in a pyramid scheme. the result was countrywide civil unrest. some have described it as a civil war.
in terms of the police, many abandoned their post. but not my former landlord. he went down to the station and personally defended their stockpile of weapons from would-be looters. his feeling was that the last thing that this powder-keg of a situation needed was more firearms and ammunition. the looters came and turned his own gun against him.
i've seen his through-and-through scars. he showed them to me the night of my assault, telling me that i was a PURO KUKESIAN. that i couldn't leave. my assumption is that everything worthwhile in his community comes at a price and my efforts to educate was worth that price. i still hold him in the highest esteem for his service to his community at their hour of need. a true hero and patriot.
when i think now of our current crisis where the police-citizen relationship is coming apart at the seams, my hope is that our compatriots on the other side of the blue line will display some solidarity and empathy with those who have suffered. they are there in their current position to serve and protect the citizens, not the state.
hopefully they realize such en masse before we find ourselves in a new TRUMPIAN hell-scape we can't return from.
photos by nacrowe
bosnia & herzegovinaive live in 8 countries abroad and visited (for at least three days) over 60 countries worldwide. ive been assaulted (ALBANIA), robbed (GREECE), threatened at gunpoint (NIGERIA) and even roofied (CYPRUS) but there are only two countries i hold a grudge against: KUWAIT and SERBIA. i'll leave KUWAIT for another future entry.
maybe it was because i had just visited SARAJVEO or spent 6 months in an ALBANIAN border town with KOSOVO or maybe it was just the fact that the people there were assholes, but i really detested BELGRADE.
its the only place i can think of where i was physically dominated by a priest, imam, monk, etc.. i visited SAINT MICHAEL THE ARCANGEL CATHEDRAL which has ties to the beginnings of SERBIAN identity and statehood and is one of the most important religious buildings in the country (not the CHURCH OF SAINT SAVA pictured above). at midday on a weekday there were no discernable signs saying not to enter. just for context, its their country and i respect their customs. i am not looking for confrontation. when i walked inside (hat off) i looked around quietly and there was literally this robed goon b-lining straight at me full bore and physically pushed me out on the street while screaming at me. it was crazy. again for context i have entered numerous orthodox churchs of varying importance in UKRAINE, GREECE, MACEDONIA, and even RUSSIA with no incident. literally pushed me on the street. no sign, no nothing. you are unwelcome. after that it didnt take much imagination to see why those assholes sanctioned the actions of SLOBIDAN MILOSEVIC back in the 90s. walking in the path of JESUS they very much are.
anyway, i visited BOSNIA partly because in terms of the history of ALBANIA where i was stationed as a PEACE CORPS volunteer, all roads led to BELGRADE in terms of their recent history. BELGRADE pre-SERBIAN independence was just the headquarters of a regional territory under the rule of OTTOMAN TURKS for a few hundred years. it later became the capital of YUGOSLAVIA and thereafter SERBIA. even the ALBANIAN national hero SKENDERBEG's mother was SERBIAN, although they don't like discussing that in polite company.
i am glad that i went solely because i was able to visit JOSIP BROZ TITO's tomb, himself a dictator that had a longstanding non-agression pact with his ALBANIA counterpart ENVER HOXHA. depending on where you are in ALBANIA, the cultural and economic influence of YUGOSLAVIA is profound and constantly referenced by locals. this is something i witness firsthand doing interview in ALBANIA border cities like POGRADEC, HAS, PESHKOPI, KUKES, GOLAJ, BAJRAM CURRI and their nearby analogues in OHRID (MACEDONIA), DEBAR (MACEDONIA), GJAKOVA (KOSOVO) and PRIZREN (KOSOVO). some even thought TITO was a good man. i dont. but i've visited his tomb just like i have many other authoritarian leaders over the years: including HUGO CHAVEZ (VENEZUELA), FRANCISCO FRANCO (SPAIN), HO CHI MINH (VIETNAM), VLADIMIR LENIN (RUSSIA) and MAO ZEDONG (CHINA). i just believe in confronting the past and taking in the spectacle. the fact that these graves (exception being HOXHA) are ostentatious and tacky makes total sense.
lest you think i support those figures, i've made actual pilgrimages to the graves/cremation sites of other more palatable political figures like SALVADOR ALLENDE (CHILE), MAHATMA GANDHI (INDIA), THICH QUANG DUC (VIETNAM), SIMON BOLIVAR (COLOMBIA), YITZHAK RABIN (ISRAEL), JFK (VIRGINIA) and cultural figures like PABLO NERUDA (CHILE), OSCAR WILDE (FRANCE), AKIRA KUROSAWA (JAPAN), NIKOLA TESLA (SERBIA) LOUIS ARMSTRONG (NYC), JOEY RAMONE (NEW JERSEY), BUDDY HOLLY-CRASH SITE (IOWA) and ELVIS PRESLEY (TENNESSEE) among others.
so dont get it twisted.
whats crazy is that SERBIA was the second country i visited on what was planned to be a two country trip (the other being BOSNIA), but i hated it so much that i immediately took the next train out of town after two days. what got me was the arrogance and outright freakish NATIONALISM of the people i ran into, how they saw themselves as superior to their neighbors. it was like running into a mindless TRUMP supporter except on their turf. as an AMERICAN abroad you sometimes get into situations where people cant believe that you would belittle yourself to live or travel in other countries. that was how SERBIANS felt about BOSNIA and ALBANIA and ive seen that in other situations as well, namely THAILAND with MYANMAR and (interestingly) MYANMAR with BANGLADESH and COUNTLESS EUROPEANS and AMERICANS with NIGERIA. its an annoying cultural blindspot that is aggravating.
case in point i heard the exact same misogynist ethnic jokes about BOSNIAN women being ugly in SERBIA that i did in CROATIA. so go figure. both those countries had people walking around with swastika tattoos and seemed sure of their status as EUROPEAN, whatever that meant. if anything, the BOSNIAN women i saw were impossibly gorgeous and the SERBS and CROATS repeatedly came off insecure and just woefully ignorant and backwards. but maybe i encountered a bad batch.
at one point i took a small guided tour of BELGRADE and the guide pointed at a government building and looked square at me and said forcefully that my country blew it up in 1999. i looked right back at him and said "yes we did." truth is at that point i lived in KUKES in ALBANIA for 6 months and they famously took in 450,000 KOSOVAN refugees from that conflict. its a remarkable story that i lived with and would later research, but at no point did i feel sorry about this building being blown up to halt the efforts of MILOSEVIC in killing muslims and ethnic ALBANIANS in mass. actually kind of proud i snapped back at that poor tour guide.
anyway, i read that NOVI SAD was supposed to be gorgeous but really i had enough. next day i went to the train station and missed an overnight train to BUDAPEST by 10 minutes. next train was to ZAGREB in CROATIA. off i went. it wasn't much better but i am certainly glad i got to see MOSTAR. again, another entry down the line.
like i said, there are times you walk right into the fault lines of a country, especially how they feel about their neighbors. more than not people are empathetic to their neighbors. i saw this with COLOMBIA with regards to VENEZUELA. despite the fact that VENEZUELANS during their recent economic boom treated COLOMBIANS appallingly, treating them almost as serfs. talking to COLOMBIANS during my travels they would almost certainly get teary-eyed when i mentioned i lived in VENEZUELA. they look at them as extended family which was always touching. and this is the norm by and large i found abroad.
but not SERBIA and not KUWAIT. and for that they are the only two countries i wouldn't revisit if you paid me.
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY, APRIL 2013
so i did these series of interviews throughout the GREATER ALBANIA region which encompasses parts of neighboring NORTH MACEDONIA, KOSOVO and MONTENEGRO. i didn't make it into GREECE for interviews due to security concerns. again, i did this in order for my students to have material to translate so that 1) they could prove their worth to possible employers by having their written translations published with the original audio embedded and 2) the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA would have a collection of interviews to start an oral history archive of a generation that saw a lot of political/cultural/social/technological upheaval that was getting older. all told by the time i left i believe we had around 700 interviews.
i also did this, mind you, without the support and approval of PEACE CORPS. they tend to like projects that are visible but without substance at best and mindlessly parochial at worst. imagine you are a privileged american that is used to something small like garbage collection and then suddenly you find yourself in a poor eastern european country with garbage in the streets. trash pickup sounds like a good start, right? WRONG. where does that trash go? what are you going to do with it? something like this is a municipal issue that requires urban planning and carry through. unfortunately most places here have bigger problems. so you are satiating a need that the community doesn't see as viable, rather than other more pressing concerns. whats worse is that volunteers were encouraged to pursue what they thought was best. in my opinion i was there to serve the people of my community, period. when i got to VLORA i asked my university what were the biggest problems they'd like to see me tackle. with their answer i came up with 5 projects i presented. they picked one. i then came up with 3 variations of it. they chose that. ultimately my project came about in this manner. if they'd have picked public speaking i'd have been on a totally trajectory with my time as a volunteer, as well i should have.
so when PEACE CORPS put up any hurdles the university pretty much had my back. it was a crazy time and very very stressful. i had shingles at one point due to the stress of PEACE CORPS potentially taking away my project.
eventually my counterpart at the university and i wrote a paper that utilized a lot of these interviews we had. after writing it my counterpart wished to send it to conferences and journals in western europe, which i agreed with but thought nothing of. what's funny is we sent one to CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY and got in. that was quite the shock. i had a small dilemma on my hands because my unsanctioned project had now been successful to the point that i was asked to speak at a conference at a prestigious university.
PEACE CORPS had this policy that no one was allowed to travel outside of the country in the last 3 months of your service. my "vacation" time at that point was used up and the conference was within a few weeks of my exit. luckily we had a new director who allowed it. to me it didn't matter because i was going either way, it was an opportunity i created with my colleagues at the university. of course, i wanted PEACE CORPS to sanction it and i'm glad they did.
real quick i just want to say that during this year-long period i did this project i opted out of every meeting i could where i would have to see other volunteers. that or i took vacations during the mandatory meetings. i was never asked to participate in clinics for new volunteers and pretty much kept my activities under wraps with the exception being my director albanian supervisor who overlooked TEFL. i didn't brag or boast or participate in the internal pissing match of volunteers. i was a ghost. my site-mate spoke about me to the new volunteers from his class but luckily for me he had a reputation for lying. turned out he wasnt. i became an urban legend of sorts and when i did finally depart post-CAMBRIDGE, volunteers i ran into at the capital couldn't believe i existed. they heard about me and what i did, but didn't believe it was an actual thing. they were angry PEACE CORPS didn't include me in trainings, but with due deference to them, i wouldn't have come if asked.
back to CAMBRIDGE. i went and co-presented and truth be told i wasn't really nervous about it because i didn't speak beyond what i knew or had evidence for. it was surreal taking questions from OXFORD professors and the like but my mindset at the time was that i wanted to effectively represent the UNIVERSITY OF VLORE at a conference and also accurately present the stories of the people i met. to me that was the responsibility of the moment and i think i did alright. honestly, as cool as it was being there and taking it all in, the real treat was doing the interviews. getting the support of those people was all the validation i needed. the fact that PEACE CORPS came around and ultimately sanctioned the project didn't really change my opinion of the work one way or another. if anything i still pitty the PEACE CORPS and their priorities to this day. enough about them.
one very interesting thing that happened at the conference was a former editor at THE GUARDIAN had written a book at the time about his time working in RUSSIA. he spoke about the level of harassment (online, in person or telegraphed through surveillance) the intelligence services reeked on his family. what was startling was that he said anytime he spoke in public there were RUSSIAN goons that sought to dismantle his reputation. and that is what happened. several russian participants of the conference stood up during Q&A and severely denounced him. who knew that this was gonna be a thing in a few short years during the next US presidential election? i certainly did not.
former GUARDIAN reporter LUKE HARDING speaking about his book MAFIA STATE
looking back at my time as PEACE CORPS volunteer i am glad to have done it, as i learned about myself and the pressures i could handle. i immensely proud of the work i did and the friends i gained and peers i worked with. as an organization the PEACE CORPS is what it is. if you spend your time worrying about their approval then its not a worthwhile experience. i am happy to this day that i sought the approval of the people on the ground that i sought to assist in any way i could. and that is the true gift i take with me.
family portrait from DOBRUNË
before i get into these interviews i should give a little background into why i did them.
THE UNIVERSITY OF VLORA
at the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA i was tasked with teaching students translation studies. now this is funny because due to my working in a university setting, my albanian language skills were a bit stunted relative to other volunteers, essentially because i spoke english all day. in fact, people knew i was a "professor" so pretty consistently people practiced with me at the market, on the street, at the gym, you get the idea. i made a choice early on that my facilitating their english-speaking skills trumped my need to master albanian. many are the PEACE CORPS volunteers that spend all their time on the language and not on their job in order to win a pissing contest within the PEACE CORPS community. as i made clear in PART 1 of this series, i wasn't concerned with the other volunteers and their opinions unless it would benefit my adopted community.
ok, so i am tasked with teaching translation but my albanian language skills are whatever. my thought to improve their writing was, ingeniously yet obviously, to make them write. unfortunately the educational system there was focused on a book and multiple-choice tests for certification. the book wasn't helping them, they'd master it through rote memorization and they still couldn't write or speak well. worse, the test made no sense and was arbitrary. this further minimized the effectiveness of the entire educational structure. these students were being trained to become written and spoken translators for foreign businesses and governments. that was the job everyone wanted.
my thought was to have students translate interviews they did with their elders and then translate them. these translations would be put on a website that i created (now long-since defunct) that would showcase the audio file and written translation that could be easily sent via text/e-mail to potential employers.
it was a good idea and it also afforded me the ability to have students record conversations with their grandparents. this was the genius part of the whole thing. PEACE CORPS at one point told us not to talk to albanians about life during communism, the KOSOVO CONFLICT, or anything political. this is exactly what my students asked their parents about and it gave me tons of insight and information that pepople don't ask or learn about. it was great.
usually there was a lead of someone i could interview. i would go there with a representative of that community who would explain who i was and that i was with PEACE CORPS and the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA and that i was collecting answers as part of an archive for future generations to learn from. i would show them the questions. after the interview, which i recorded on my iPhone, most often they'd be excited by the experience and tell me that other people in the community were better suited for my queries. this would result in moving up the ladder of participants.
DOBRUNË was the perfect example of this process since we interviewed several adult men who duruing the conflict 15 years before had run guns across the border into KOSOVO to assist the KLA (KOSOVO LIBERATION ARMY) in fighting off the genocide being perpeturated by SERBIA and SLOBODAN MILOŠEVIĆ. in that manner we worked our way up to the grandmother, who talked about how she only recently met her sister in KOSOVO after 30+ years due to strict travel rules during the communist reign of ENVER HOXHA. the support i got from this and other families is something i still hold dear.
family portrait in GODIN
the next day i went into the nearby border town of GODIN in KOSOVO, which was hit particularly hard by the SERBIAN ARMY during the conflict. MILOŠEVIĆ saw an opportunity during his election in 1997 to use an anniversary of a failed uprising by SERBIA against the OTTOMAN TURKS to mount an ethnic cleansing campaign against MUSLIMS in the region, including BOSNIA and KOSOVO. what was interesting about my initial meetings was that people referred to a family in DOBRUNË that brought them weapons at great personal cost. it was the very family i had interviewed the day before. that was intense.
i should state that the MUSLIMS in KOSOVO are predominantly ETHNIC-ALBANIAN, but ALBANIA is not a religion dominated by any religion. in fact, albanians have a saying that equates to "the only religion in ALBANIA is ALBANIAISM." in the north there is a slight majority towards ISLAM and in the south a slight majority of GREEK ORTHODOX.
the SERBIAN MILITARY's campaign against their own people included that of the people of GODIN, where soldiers had all males over the age of 5 lined up against a wall and shot in the head. its just brutal and unforgivable. people in the UNITED STATES like to throw around the word "terror" quite a bit. THIS IS TERRORISM. i spoke to several families here that had that traumatic experience. they showed me the wall in the center of town. it still gives me a chills.
there was one father i spoke with who enjoyed speaking about his son, long since passed. when we were introduced to him he was about to rest but instead brought us in and fed us. to me THAT HOSPITALITY is uniquely albanian. him and others participated i was told because they were happy that someone cared about their experience. that someone wanted to document it. that someone believed them. i took a photo of this father and his son in front of a portrait of his fallen son. it was a family portrait i sent back framed and have been told its still hanging on the wall.
to me this experience of doing interviews was the highlight of my time as a PEACE CORPS volunteer and i look back at it as one of the privileges of my life. the next and final part of this series will be on the paper i co-wrote and its presentation at a prestigious conference, but this moment speaking with the people of ALBANIA/KOSOVO border about their experiences during this fraught time is something i still carry with and appreciate the opportunity to listen and learn from.
the village of GODIN
photo by komisar pecanka
whatever your feelings are about PEACE CORPS, i'd say just table them for a moment. i'm not attempting here to confirm or dissuade you from whatever romantic, idealistic notions you may have concerning the organization. i'm only speaking to my truth about my experience.
and i am conflicted.
my time as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA from 2011-2013 was highly unusual in that i successfully fought my superiors after being assualted by a local during my initial run in the remote northern city of KUKËS, which lay right by the KOSOVO border. i was a TEFL (teaching english as a foreign language) volunteer and due to my graduate degree i was one of 4 that were assigned to teach at a university. i want to say that i have nothing but love for the people of KUKËS and enjoyed working with my students and peers and talking with my friends (some to this day) in that community. but unfortunately coming home from work one day i was assaulted near my apartment and was told by PEACE CORPS to make a report with the police. and again, unfortunately the police leaked my details to the local newspaper in neighboring KOSOVO, which created a scenario where i was a national news story for a few days.
my classroom in KUKËS
yep that was crazy. i have to say the assault was minor, basically since i didn't resist. i was later told by albanian friends that this was the smartest thing i could have done since undoubtedly there were several others watching that would've put me in the hospital if i had. what was even more unfortunate was that the police put me in a situation where every male in town over the age of 25 thought i ratted them out to the authorities. while at the station they brought in several "suspects" to ask me if it was them, which gave these innocent guys (whom im sure were beaten) a good look at me.
i wanted out and i fought peace corps. before me if you had a stalker or were abused as a volunteer you were given the option of quitting or staying basically. i changed that. i fought them to relocate me. since me they have relocated volunteers. it really sucked because i basically got ZERO support from my fellow volunteers. they felt i had abandoned my site.
to this day i basically don't speak with volunteers from my group. again, i have nothing but love for KUKËS and their people. they were ashamed. historically albanians are treated very badly by their neighbors, especially the Greeks and Italians. the albanian family that took me in for 3 months during training had recently lost a son to the fields of GREECE where he had been worked to death. and thats not hyperbole. he was literally worked to death. so albanians see themselves as hospitable first and foremost. and my experience which became very public due to the press put that community in a very bad light.
home of albanian family i sayed with during training for 3 months in HAJDARAN
i know this because i dedicated a research project from my relocated site in VLORA, a southern port city along the ADRIATIC SEA, that focused on the relationship between northern ALBANIA and their ehtnic-Albanian counterparts in KOSOVO during the KOSOVO CONFLICT of the 1990s. it was an oral history project that me and a counterpart at the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA later turned into a paper. it meant i went back to KUKËS a few times to get stories from the period documented. i should say that KUKËS was nominated for a NOBEL PEACE PRIZE in 2000 for their actions taking in refugees during the conflict. only town to ever be formally nominated which is quite something to be proud of. basically there was me, somebody that had experienced the brunt of their city talking to them about their best moment. people cried out of shame when i talked to them. it still moves me.
i want to reiterate that i hold nothing against that community. the truth is that in an isolated country with few resources it could be argued that KUKËS is one of the most isolated and least well-funded. as an foreigner i was a target and there was a risk, but of course the vast majority were good people trying to get by and saw my efforts to teach english as a force for good in their community.
local restaurant owner and mother of two students i tutored in KUKËS
i also understand why PEACE CORPS was reticent to relocate me, or any other volunteer, in general. i don't believe it had anything to do with me personally. sending a volunteer to a community is a political act from our government to theirs. it states that they recognize a need in a specific community that we as a nation would like to assist with them. taking me out can be construed as the american government not feeling that a particular community was their concern. i was a pawn basically. there is a balance there and i recognize that, but my personal safety trumped their concerns and that shouldve been their priority.
the research project i did took me all over KOSOVO and was the defining moment of my experience as a PEACE CORPS volunteer. these communities are notoriously suspicious of outsiders, but the fact that i knew their community and networked my way through remote small border communities in the northern mountains gained me access, along with the help of my former landlord YLBERT PECANKA. the fact that i was an american associated with the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA also helped. VLORA is the city were the first ALBANIAN FLAG was hoistered in defiance of the receding TURKISH armies and holds a special place in the hearts of albanians. mostly people i interviewed couldn't believe i cared about their story. that i was documenting it for future research purposes for future generations at the university.
two communities i want to focus one next time are those of the remote northern mountain community of DEBRUNE (ALBANIA) and the remote village of nearby GODIN (KOSOVO), both were indicative of what that experience interviewing locals was like.
rooftop shot in KUKËS
photo by karl burhop
ok i admit that its more than a little strange to write a profile on yourself. but here i go.
as creative director of DEER GOD i basically have a hand in everything we do that is non-audio. that basically boils down controlling/editing all things visual and written. of course we work as a team and frequently collaborate and take cues from one another, but i more or less take these efforts and produce the final product.
out of the whole team i am probably the last to the party in that i was not involved with audio or video production until a few years ago when i returned from overseas. for the better part of the last decade i was involved with education having taught secondary english abroad at international schools in MYANMAR, JAPAN, VENEZUELA as well as a stint as a peace corps volunteer in ALBANIA. my start as an educator was in NYC where i got my masters at COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY and had brief stints teaching at both BROOKLYN TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL (student teacher) and STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL (long-term substitute). my bad timing entering the field in the wake of the great recession meant that no new positions were available as older teachers delayed retirement and an effective freeze was put on new hires. thus i had an IVY LEAGUE degree and recommendations from two of the top public high schools in the nation, but no prospects.
so i went and taught overseas.
due to my parents work i spent time overseas growing up in NIGERIA (middle school) and KUWAIT (junior year of high school) and attended high school in both MASSACHUSETTS (NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON) and CALIFORNIA (ROCKLIN HIGH SCHOOL). oh yeah, and i was born in SPAIN.
my passion as long as i can remember photography as i would take photos of my travels (somehere around 60+ countries). i think my passion for other cultures and worldviews informed my (brief) teaching career and most definitely is a part of what i bring to my current visual work here at DEER GOD. if interested, check out my photos above.
the rest are linked HERE.