One year ago I knew little-to-nothing about Kosovo, Europe’s newest country — although it remains a partially recognized and disputed territory. So how exactly did I end up pitching and winning a crisis reporting grant to spend nine weeks “alone” as a journalist there?
Simply, British journalist and author Carlotta Gall’s article in the New York Times last May titled “How Kosovo Was Turned Into a Fertile Ground for ISIS” piqued my attention. Her piece traces Saudi Arabia’s insidious role over the past decade, flooding Kosovo with money and systematically transforming the small country into a pipeline for jihadists.
Just as I was while writing this post, I was sitting alongside my mamy’s rose garden in bucolic Wallonia — the southern French-speaking territory of Belgium, where my mother’s family resides and where I feel a strong attachment. Despite the birds chirping and the content horses neighing, I sat wrestling with how the Belgium I grew up knowing had taken on a dark, unrecognizable shape. Placid armed forces surrounded public spaces, transforming the airport into an ostensible military base. Since the March 2016 bombings, twisted dark humor dominated not only political discourse, but conversations with family and friends. As I sat reading the article about Kosovo, I couldn’t help but ponder whether Kosovo was moving in the same direction as Belgium with regard to polarization, terrorism and international media attention. The article also further reinforced the influence media has on molding stereotypes that can turn into our opinions. For example, this country I knew barely anything about was now marked on my radar as a nest for terrorism.
Confused, I reached out to my political science mentor Dr. Besir Ceka, a native of Kosovo’s neighboring Macedonia. He thought the allegations against the Saudis were, unfortunately, true. There has been a concerted effort by Gulf countries to spread Wahhabism in Muslim parts of the Balkans, and Kosovo is part of that bigger picture.
When the time came to apply for a Pulitzer Center grant this year, and almost no Western publications had followed up on the Times’ Kosovo piece, I believed I had found an underreported topic that married both personal and Pulitzer interests. Having no real connection to Kosovo, I began using social media to chat with local journalists and members of civil society about the claim’s against Saudi Arabia. A meeting with the coordinator of counter terrorism for the EU, Gilles de Kerchove, raised my awareness of the incoming threat of the 5,000 European jihadists who would now be returning to Europe since the Islamic State “Caliphate” had been defeated territorially. According to analysts, Kosovo claims Europe’s bigger contributor per capita of foreign fighters who have joined ISIS, and the government considers the potential of attacks by returnees to be one of the main national security threats. I’ve been warned, however, not to mention Gall’s article in my conversations–according to an unnamed local journalist, the “most criticized piece ever published in Western media concerning Kosovo. Most of the content was not new or surprising. Mainly the first couple of graphs show a picture of Kosovo that is contrary to how streets look” (email conversation, April 24).
Now, I would be remiss to base my research and reporting solely on Gall’s article, but it shows you how one piece can spark a quest for deeper query and truth. She herself warned me my project will not be easy. The Salafis are very secretive and distrustful now, and the authorities are upset with her reporting. But there are court cases to follow, and many cases she did not write about.
Also of interest is the unreported concentrated effort of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic agenda in the Balkans. Indeed, it must be noted the issues of radicalization and de-radicalization that I will investigate are regional, stretching across the Western Balkans. However, my focus will be on the various manifestations of radicalization in Kosovo. While I bring a naivete in many ways, with that lack of knowledge of the region comes unmitigated drive, curiosity and optimism. Dr. Ceka suspects I will love visiting Kosovo and meeting its people, who are still overwhelmingly pro-Western and, especially, pro-American.
As for my coverage, today’s journalists are multimedia producers — podcasts, video, photography, etc. I believe as a young journalist trying to build my skills and find my way, I should try it all. Podcast, video, photography, written pieces… try it all without holding myself to standards of perfection. Along these lines, I’ll be creating a new Facebook page for this trip (and hopefully future journalism trips), posting daily stories on my Instagram page, and writing this blog on a weekly basis. Like any good journalist, I aim to provide my audience with a more nuanced and thoughtful perspective on Kosovo by using the tools of 21st century journalism.