Profile on Gazmend Syla

The following originally appeared in The Oklahoma Daily, spring 2008.

Gazmend Syla woke up early Sunday in Oklahoma and turned on the news. As the events of the previous night filled the screen, his thoughts were catapulted halfway across the world to a place he calls home.

Syla hails from the newly-formed nation of Kosovo, which broke apart from its parent country, Serbia, Sunday.

For a large part of the day, his eyes were glued to the coverage coming out of his home country.

Syla, a Kosovar journalist who is visiting OU for a yearlong professional development program funded by the U.S. State Department, said he was delighted by the news.

Warren Vieth, journalism professor, forwarded an e-mail to the journalism faculty and some journalism students from Syla with a simple message: "I have a state. It's a nice feeling. I'm happy, extremely happy."

As Sunday progressed, Syla said he called his family, still in Kosovo, several times.

"I talked to my 5-month-old son, and I told him, 'Congratulations, son. You have a future now'" he said, his voice quivering.

Serbian Conflict

As the sun rises on another day in Kosovo, it shines on a cautiously-optimistic people, a stark contrast from the recent past which was marred by conflict and war, particularly between the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Albanians and the Serbians. Tensions between the two sides escalated until the rise of Slobodan Milosevic as president of Serbia, when they skyrocketed, leading to all-out war in the 1990s.

During this time, Syla was in high school, and, like most high school students, he was looking forward to graduation, he said. But years of intolerance had left its mark on even the most liberal of institutions, in 1991, weeks away from graduation, the Serbian director of Syla's school shut the doors on the Albanians, he said.

Syla was forced to finish his secondary education in private houses without tables or chairs, he said.

"I had to hide my books, my notebooks, while going to school because I was afraid that Serbian police would beat me if they would see me with books," Syla said, a practice he called “common.”

Despite the obstacles in his path, Syla managed to graduate from high school. "I still do not have a stamp on my diploma from high school since my director did not want to stamp it," he said.

At the time, Syla's father was working for a company owned by the state, a job he and his Albanian coworkers were fired from. With everyone in his family unable to find decent jobs, Syla began working on the streets selling fruits and vegetables.

On several occasions, Serbian police came to his stand and questioned him about what he was doing, he said.

"He took my ID and sent me to interrogation, and I was told I had no right to sell fruits and vegetables," Syla said. "The only job I could do, according to them, was to dig graves."

After that, Syla said he was beaten and thrown out.

Civil War

A decade of violence from both sides of the ethnic aisle culminated in the mid-to-late 1990s, when civil war broke out between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian and Yugoslav troops.

In March 1999, in the midst of escalating violence, Syla, his family and his neighbors were forced to flee their houses when Serbians began shelling the village where they were staying, he said.

During the shelling about 45 people, including Syla's father, mother, sister, grandmother and cousin, were holed up in a small house, which took hits from three shells.

From that day until the end of the war on June 10, 1999, after NATO bombed Serbian ground troops in Kosovo, Syla did not see his family again. Captured by Serbian soldiers, his family was forced to flee the country to Albania, which was about a 100-mile trek. Syla was not caught and thus not forced to flee.

"I knew nothing about them, and they knew nothing about me," Syla said. "My mother told me later that she was convinced I was killed."

Syla and a few of his friends escaped that village to go to another village while dodging the Serbian army, he said. Food and water were scarce. There were times when neither Syla nor his friends had anything to eat for days, he said.

After the War

Despite all of the hardships he has faced, Syla said he does not hold ill will toward Serbians because only a few led the violence.

"I will never forget what happened to me, but I would never commit to Serbians what they have done to me," Syla said. "We are all equal; we deserve the same rights.

Kosovo should be a state for Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians and all other minorities."

Charles Self, director of the professional development program at OU in which Syla is involved, said Syla is one of the premier journalists in Kosovo, and one who has devoted himself to the idea of free speech, a priority which Syla said is a direct result of the disenfranchisement he and his family and friends faced.

Syla has put on journalism workshops in the country to inspire knowledge and to try to avoid another situation similar to what he experienced in his younger years, Self said.

"He makes you very serious about your freedoms," Self said.

Boris Georgievski, another member of the professional development program and a Macedonian native, said while he is glad to see Syla happy, he is concerned what Kosovar independence might mean for the Balkan region.

While countries like the U.S., Britain, France and Germany have recognized Kosovar independence, other countries, such as Serbia, Russia and Spain,  most of which are facing separatist movements of their own, have refused to recognize the newly-formed Balkan state.

There are a lot of social and economic concerns facing Kosovo as it emerges as a new state, but Syla said he believes it is up to the state and the citizens to avoid another outbreak of violence.

"I think that you have to find ways to make each other believe in each other and not see an enemy in each other," he said.

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