March 26, 2003: Perspective

The power of the young

Teenagers build their nation, and their own lives

By Hugo Berkeley ’99

Photo: A shot from A Normal Life shows Kosovar-Albanians celebrating independence.

Hugo Berkeley ’99, a documentary film-maker in New York, codirected his first film, A Normal Life, with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ’00. Information about the film may be found at

osovo has the youngest population in Europe; of its two million people, half are under the age of 25. The huge demographic imbalance is more than an interesting fact; it was a vital and largely unacknowledged factor in the recent war in Kosovo. As with most ex-Yugoslav citizens, Kosovars can be divided between those who grew up under Communism, and those who did not. The prevailing mentality of older generations is anachronistic and bureaucratic, while that of the young is forward thinking and pro-Western. In Kosovo, the impetus to end a decade of ethnic repression came from frustrated and agitating young Kosovar-Albanians. These revolutionary fighters, clandestine journalists, and underground activists were as tired of the “wait and see” mentality of their leaders as they were of the nationalist Serb regime.

I went to Kosovo three weeks after graduating from Princeton in June 1999, together with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ’00, a comparative literature major like me, who had just finished her junior year. Our first port of call was a hastily constructed NATO press office in Skopje, Macedonia. When asked for accreditation, we flashed our Princeton University I.D. cards. “We’re doing a research project for the university,” Chai ventured, hopefully. “A documentary film.” The press officer shot us a suspicious look, smiled, and stamped our passes. Reality quickly set in as we drove by torched villages on our way to Pristina. That first night I lay awake, listening to the city’s ominous silence and occasional bursts of gunfire. The war in Kosovo had ended 10 days earlier.

We found Beni and Tina in the bar of the Grand Hotel. Chai and I had been in Pristina all of 36 hours, but we had heard enough references to “Beni and Tina” to know that we wanted to meet them. They were 19-year-old Kosovar-Albanian newspaper journalists who had worked as translators for the foreign press corps during the yearlong war. We shook hands and cast appraising eyes over one another: Beni looked familiar, with a baseball cap, beaded necklace and unbuttoned plaid shirt, while Tina, his girlfriend, had a charming smile and large, sympathetic eyes. Beni and Tina were intrigued by Chai and me as well. We had come to Kosovo on our own, to interview our contemporaries about their experiences during the war, and, in a room full of CNN-style correspondents, we were something of an enigma.

We interviewed Beni and Tina for more than two hours that evening. They gave us a crash course on Kosovo’s recent history of ethnic cleansing, on their own perilous escape from Serbian militia forces sweeping through Pristina, and on how their childhood had been affected by the approaching conflict. When Tina remembered how she had made Beni sleep with his sneakers on, in case soldiers came to the apartment during the night, he laughed. “The shoes wouldn’t have done any good, because I still had to jump out of a sixth-floor window,” he said. It was the first of many interviews that we would conduct over the next three years, as Chai and I entered into the lives of Beni, Tina, and several of their friends. Their stories, unified by a common search for stability, are told in A Normal Life, a feature-length documentary film that we completed last December. As Kaltrina, a passionate 17-year-old, said after the war, “Now is the opportunity to get a normal life – not that I believe in ‘normal life,’ – but to give people the opportunity to go to school, to get an education, the chance to make their own choices.”

We decided to focus our documentary on these young, educated Kosovar-Albanians from Pristina for two reasons. First, we were awed by the influential roles that such young people, working as journalists, artists, or activists, had played in changing their country’s history. Second, we were meeting them at a pivotal moment of transformation in their lives. Contrary to our expectations, those first weeks after the war in Kosovo were far from jubilant. Scenes of joyous celebration were marred by brutal revenge attacks against the Serbs, and relief and weariness at the end of war was accompanied in equal measure by a foreboding about what was to come. “It’s like being in front of a huge wall, and all you do for your whole life is learn how to jump over the wall,” Beni mused. “And suddenly you jump over the wall, and you ask yourself, ‘What’s next?’”

What was next? Ylber, a journalistic colleague of Beni and Tina, had evaded arrest to report live via his cell phone on ABC’s World News Tonight as the first NATO bombs fell on Pristina in March 1999. He left Kosovo two months after the war ended. “Now, the point is to make the change from collective thinking to more personal goals,” Ylber explained. Soon after arriving in Washington, D.C., Ylber was awarded a scholarship to study at American University, where he is now a senior. However, he has maintained a close involvement in Kosovo’s political development and has testified before congressional hearings on resolving Kosovo’s final status.

Kaltrina has taken a leading role in addressing Kosovo’s postwar social problems. In a country that sends heroin addicts to psychiatric institutions, Kaltrina challenged conservative social mores by starting Kosovo’s first drug treatment and education program, with funding from international donors. “It’s really hard, but eventually you realize that this world is not that big,” said Kaltrina, now 19. “You can change a hell of a lot of it. . . . You can change structures that have been in place for 50 years.”

Over the last three years, Beni and Tina have weathered trauma and depression in their search to move on: “It’s not easy getting over the things we saw – a dead woman, pregnant. They still live with us,” Tina said. With time, Beni and Tina succeeded in shifting their idealism from defeating the Serbian regime to building new institutions for Kosovo’s future stability. Both are heavily involved in cultivating Kosovo’s nascent democratic structures – Tina through her work as an Associated Press reporter and Beni as the host of Kosovo’s most-watched television political talk show. As Tina walked into a polling station to report on Kosovo’s first democratic presidential elections in November 2001, she spoke directly to the camera: “When the war was on, it was hard to imagine that we would ever have a happy day, or a happy period of life, but I think it’s finally happening.”


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