War exiled me from Kosovo. Bureaucracy made me a citizen of nowhere

War exiled me from Kosovo. Bureaucracy made me a citizen of nowhere

Amid a tide of rising nationalism, politicians across Europe are calling for greater patriotism. But as writer Din Havolli reflects on his childhood, he finds that for migrants and refugees, finding a country to belong to is often a challenge in itself.

8 September 2020

There is a rivulet of people stretching beyond my line of sight, being steered toward a train station by heavily armed uniforms. The year is 1999. Ethnic tensions in former Yugoslavia have resulted in a series of bloody conflicts that have led to the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. In a bid to retain territories home to a Kosovar Albanian majority, Serb forces have poured into Kosovo, engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. I escape along with my family on board one of the trains herding ethnic Albanians from Prishtina to Bllace through a window, carried in head first like a dainty parcel. Inside I sit on the floor and it is difficult to breathe. I feel my brother’s head slumped against my shoulder; he is suffering from sepsis and slipping in and out of consciousness. My father stands above us and rips up our blood red Yugoslavian passports, tossing them from a window dripping with condensation. The image marks the end of our citizenship from a country quickly reaching its own demise. It is a snapshot I have carried over borders, seas, and through an otherwise conventional childhood in the British city of Liverpool.

Throughout my childhood, myself, my family, and more than 500,000 refugees from Kosovo were rendered citizens of nowhere

Throughout that childhood, myself, my family, and more than 500,000 refugees from Kosovo were rendered citizens of nowhere. The country where we were born was stuck in a legislative no-man’s-land, still seeking recognition and the right to exist. The country where we sought refuge, meanwhile — the United Kingdom — spent years deliberating our suitability and right to belong. While this was happening, I went to school, was gifted my first Liverpool shirt with Fowler on the back, and somewhere along the way displaced Albanian as my first language.

The contours of my identity were still forming. In our flat in south Liverpool, I would wait patiently for coverage of The Hague trials to finish so that I could watch Des Lynam’s The Premiership. Through the years, war criminals whose names conjured pixelated images of uniformed middle-aged men were indicted by an international court, each called on to answer for their crimes in the Yugoslav wars that we had fled. Each time, the feeling in our home was hardly one of “we got em’, boys”, but something tempered by trauma, leaving no room for detached elation.

Din Havolli as a child, wearing his Liverpool shirt. Image courtesy of the author

As a child, I was aware of the fact that my life in Liverpool had only come about as a result of trauma. Growing up, I found myself navigating fragmented memories of what had taken place. It happened quietly, in the background to years spent moving through school and forming bonds and allegiances to a city harbouring a strong identity of its own.

I grew up in the quarters of a city where nationalism was unfashionable, the last English city to enjoy prosperity as the European Capital of Culture. Home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe, Liverpool is an outward-looking city where an estimated three quarters of its population can trace Irish routes. At one time the epicentre of the transatlantic slave trade, Liverpool would not look as it does today without its involvement in one the most despicable periods in British history.

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Such recognition is important for a city that often aims to distance itself from a sense of Britishness. “Citizen of the world” is not an unappealing phrase in these parts: in fact, it is one you’ll likely encounter on a dating app as an indication of that particular individual’s culturedness. Liverpool is distinct, a city and people historically maligned by the corridors of political power. “Scouse not English”, has remained an epithet for a city famous for its will to banish a billionaire’s poisonous newspaper from its borders; a city that endured even after ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was urged to abandon Liverpool to “managed decline” by her chancellor Jeffrey Howe. I was a Scouser long before I was British.

So when then Prime Minister Theresa May announced in a speech in October 2016: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”, we knew exactly what she meant. Her words were a call to nail your colours to the mast, a desperate attempt at populism, grasping at a nationalist sentiment that had propelled the country toward Brexit. While the attempt proved futile for May’s own political ambitions, it did manipulate language in a way that questioned British citizenship.

Havolli with his father. Image courtesy of the author

Borders are an integral part of identity. Since identities are not static but continuously being (de- and re-)constructed, they depend on solid lines, an “othering” of us versus them. My own experiences have straddled both sides of that line.

But acquiring citizenship is not the straightforward process various British newspapers or even Theresa May will have you believe. My family remained citizens of nowhere for eight long years. The Home Office continued to deliberate over our status, eventually granting us indefinite leave to remain. Indefinite leave to remain does not grant you citizenship and therefore restricts your ability to travel. The prospect of being reunited with family was complicated by the fact Kosovo was yet to be recognised as a sovereign state. To acquire a travel document you were required to contact the Serbian Embassy, thereby accepting that Kosovo had no right to independence. After the atrocities they had endured for many, including my father, this was simply too much.

Borders are an integral part of identity. Since identities are not static but continuously being (de- and re-)constructed, they depend on solid lines, an “othering” of us versus them. My own experiences have straddled both sides of that line

The çifteli on my bedroom wall and the endless double headed eagles with which I graffitied my textbooks were the paraphernalia of another life that was denied. A unit in history class covering the Balkan war, a question regarding the language you used with your mother on parent’s evening — these were casual reminders of an unexplored self. Letters and phone calls, which eventually became Skype calls, were the only link to another life. The phone would ring in the middle of the night and as I listened to my mother’s sobs, my brother explained that our granddad had passed away. I wondered what kind of man he had been, and watched on jealously as my friends would sit at Sunday dinners with extended family.

My extended family were voices. I carried them carefully on my morning walks to school. Certain voices were louder, arising from poignant fragments of memory, others supplemented by nightly Skype calls. These exchanges were ceremonial and tender, and I cared for the tones and dimensions of these voices that shone out of our family laptop. I wanted to hook them through the delicate needles of memory from my life in Kosovo to which I still clung.

Havolli in his childhood home in Liverpool. Image courtesy of the author

In late 2006, on the day Everton put three past Liverpool, we received a letter notifying us that we would be granted citizenship. I was 13 the first time I visited Kosovo. This was my second time on a plane, a long overdue return flight. The frayed ends of my Albanian were nursed by the tongue we used in our Liverpool home. I used the language in passport control like a limb fully extended the first time after trauma. Often at the airport, after reclaiming your baggage and moving through the exit doors into arrivals, you are offered the momentary sense of being intimately important. In those brief seconds, vulnerable eyes wander upon you with urgency, and then they slip away. Except, this time, they didn’t. As I moved beyond the designated cordon, I was uncomfortably aware that all of these people were walking toward me. I noticed each and every set of eyes welling. I was afraid, and then I heard a voice that I had been carrying on my walks to school.

That first trip was important. Kosovo was not yet an independent country; it was a place conscious of the attitudes other nations held about it. The scars of conflict were evident in the bullet holes which skittered across the walls of family homes. Questions of where you felt you were from were frequent, casual. The answer to those questions is something I have spent much of my life working towards.

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The combinations of cultures that make up my identity are not quite in conflict, and yet certainly not some hybridised conception. Hybridity is a problematic term when adopted in discussions relating to identity, its simplicity neglects the complex process of a person forming their identity.

For the late scholar and literary critic Edward Said, his own bicultural background enabled him to view identity as a “cluster of flowing currents”. In a piece for London Review of Books, Said spoke of how these currents, like the themes of one’s life, are carried with you. At best, he says, they require no reconciling, no harmonising. Although they may not be quite right: “they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom.”

This freedom can, at the same time, feel like an isolating experience. In that first visit in Kosovo, a mispronounced word became much more than a humorous fumble; it echoed a sense of loss and displacement. This freedom can also help reshape the idea of belonging, and re-situate it in important relationships you develop as you grow.

Havolli as a teacher in Kosovo. Image courtesy of the author

Upon being recognised as a country, Kosovo was required to shelve its past. As plans for a new flag were drawn up, colours and symbols that were important in the history of its people were deemed provocative and consequently bypassed. In her infamous speech, Theresa May had requested something similar. British citizens were required to shelve their own histories and pasts in recognition of their Britishness — despite many having already made an oath of allegiance in their citizenship ceremonies.

The polyphony of cultural strands that make up identity are often problematic for political entities hoping to usher through an agenda. Proud labels of multiculturalism have been discarded for something more useful. In the UK, the terminology we use for those who are most vulnerable now revolves around a points-based visa or migration system, while those seeking refuge from war or persecution are merely described as “illegal”. I think now of those rendered stateless, those forced from their own homes by oppressive regimes, failing foreign policy and a lack of hope. I think of those huddled on rafts at sea as broadcasters offer a play-by-play of the most desperate moments of their lives.

Recently I asked my father why he had ripped up our passports all those years ago; “to be a citizen of nowhere, at that moment”, he said, “meant making it through the next checkpoint alive”.

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