Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From Kosovo's Ashes... to College

Before 1991, Yugoslavia was one country made up of six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia--with Serbia again divided into two autonomous regions: Kosovo and Vojvodina. When Slobodon Milosevic came to power in 1987 with a vision of a Greater Serbia, one of his first moves was to abolish Kosovo's autonomy. Martial law was imposed, and systematically, Kosovo’s Albanian Muslim minority was stripped of basic human rights. They were fired from their jobs, and denied access to health care and education.

Ilir Bajraktari was 11-years-old in 1990—the year teaching in his native language (Albanian) was banned, and all the schools were shut down—including the Albanian University of Prishtina, the region's only institute of higher education, where his father was a professor. For the next decade, while Kosovo's struggles were overshadowed by wars of independence fought by Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, Ilir studied in garages and basements, doubting he would ever have a chance to go to college. Today, Ilir is a college graduate, and he's applying for a masters program in photojournalism at Boston University. He asked me to write a recommendation letter:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am very pleased to provide these words of recommendation for Ilir Bajraktari who I consider to be an extraordinary human being. Not only is he an enormously talented photojournalist and artist, but he is also a person who understands what it means to truly suffer at the hands of evil while all the while dedicating himself to helping others who are also suffering. Rarely does a person have an opportunity to meet someone of such moral fortitude and strength of purpose.

I am a documentary filmmaker, and I first met Ilir in June 1999 while shooting a public television documentary about the war in Kosovo and the campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces. Ilir is a Kosovar Albanian, and he and his family were victims of the Serb atrocities committed between March and June 1999.

As he told me then, “I had no family, no friends, no house, no hope. I had nothing worth living for. Although I had a new name: refugee. It felt like I was dreaming. But this was not a dream. This was not a Nazi movie. These people in front of me—my friends and neighbors—were not Jews chased away by Hitler. This was happening to me.”

Faced with this terrifying truth, Ilir (then only 20-years-old) could have turned inward. Instead, he extended himself to help other refugees. Forced out of Kosovo at gunpoint, Ilir crossed the border into Macedonia. A few days later he saw someone from his village who told him his home had been burned to the ground. But Ilir refused to succumb to the anger and sadness that were knocking on his heart’s door. He was skilled in English, had excellent communication skills, and was inherently smart. He was ready to get to work.

MercyCorp, an aid organization that was running refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania, hired Ilir as a driver and translator. In no time, he was working with foreign media—like me—helping us to document the stories of refugees and providing sensitive cultural education lessons.

When the peace accord was signed on June 9, 1999, Ilir was with us as part of the first convoy to re-enter Kosovo after three months of war. As we made our way through the war-ravaged province, Ilir wondered whether the friends he’d left behind were dead or alive: “I had to confront my ideas and everything I stood for,” he said. “Every once in a while I would get this image in my head where I would see corpses of people I knew laying all over the soccer stadium. Still to this day, I refuse to admit that in that pile of corpses I saw my closest friends and my family. But I did.”

While many of the Albanians arrived home intent on exacting revenge on former Serbian neighbors who attacked Kosovo Albanians or destroyed their homes, Ilir was not interested in vengeance. He wanted to go to school and study, something that had been denied to him as a member of Kosovo’s minority population.

A few years later, it was an honor for me to sponsor Ilir to come to the United States to attend college. Highly motivated, Ilir honed the skills I had witnessed when we first met. He excelled in the communications field, spent his spare time volunteering at the student paper, and reveled in being a “regular” college kid. Over the course of four years, I watched as his photographs—which from the beginning showed a raw talent—became stunning. He was able to capture creative, beautiful and emotive imagery while developing his own signature style that earned him accolades from the university and photography communities.

I felt like a proud parent when Ilir graduated from college two years ago, and was so disappointed when a shoot in Afghanistan prevented me from attending his graduation ceremony. But at least his parent would be there… or so Ilir had hoped. Haxhi and Rabije Bajraktari were denied their visas, told by the embassy in Skopje that their son’s graduation was not a good enough reason to visit America. They were even accused of wanting to flee. It was another harsh reminder that Kosovo Albanians continue to be discriminated against in society.

It is my deepest wish that Haxhi and Rabije will have the joy of watching their son receive his MA in photojournalism from Boston University. Ilir is a true inspiration and a talented photograher and journalist. I believe he will make a most worthy addition to the BU graduate program.

Ilir Photos 1
Ilir Photos 2

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Afghanistan: In Danger of Becoming Afghanistan Again

It has been almost two years since we were in Afghanistan filming BEYOND BELIEF, and from the moment we left, the situation has been steadily deteriorating. Just 24 hours after our departure in May 2006, anti-Western riots erupted in Kabul after a US military vehicle's brakes gave out coming down a hill and slammed into a line of cars, killing five Afghans. The incident ignited the worst violence in Kabul since America's invasion in 2001.

Rioters chanted "Death to America," and terrorized international aid organizations in a search for foreigners. The Naween Guest House, a B&B known for foreign guests—and where we had stayed for our entire visit—came under attack, as gunmen fired bullets at the front gate. The armed guard who was on duty outside the Naween was forced from his post, and Aziz Humraz, the manager who smoked shisha with us on our last night, hid under the reception desk. Just a few blocks away, the CARE International offices we had visited every day during our filming were ransacked and set on fire, and an Afghan toddler at the organization’s daycare center was pulled from her caretaker’s arms after being mistaken for a foreigner because of her light skin. Only when she cried out in Dari was she saved.

When the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 ended five years of barbaric Taliban rule, there was hope that a new democratic government would help liberate Afghanistan’s most oppressed population: the women. But many dreams have been dashed as fundamentalist restrictions on women take hold once again. As William Dobson, managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, told me, "Afghanistan is in danger of becoming Afghanistan again."

Disturbing trends include increasing arson attacks on girls’ schools, forced gynecological exams of women “caught” in public with men who are not their husbands or relatives, and the murder of a young female TV host who was condemned by conservative clerics for being “un-Islamic.”

In September 2007 a new burn unit opened up at Herat’s hospital to handle the dramatic rise in cases in which women set themselves on fire to avoid a forced marriage (60 to 80 percent of all marriages are believed to be forced) or end an abusive one.

And just last week Islamic clergymen in Tahkar province made it illegal for male tailors to measure women for fittings—a ruling reminiscent of the oppressive bans imposed by the Taliban between 1996 and 2001.

Little by little the Taliban is once again gaining power and exerted influence across Afghanistan.

Yesterday, when the Serena Hotel—a favorite of foreigners and diplomats—was attacked by Taliban suicide bombers, Nato officials were quick to call it a “sign of Taliban weakness.” But this is a naïve description for such a brazen attack in Afghanistan’s capital. Eyewitness Lisa Gans who is an NGO worker in Afghanistan wrote in an email to friends and family after the attack: “I hope that this country will not go the way of Iraq, but I'm sure that I'm not the only one here who sees this as a dramatic event that will shift the security situation on the ground. This tragedy will have broader-reaching implication, not only for me, but for the country of Afghanistan.”

Unlike previous winters which signaled an end to fighting before a spring offensive, this year, Taliban leaders have begun a winter offensive in dramatic fashion. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed has put Westerners on notice: the restaurants you eat at and the guest houses where you stay are “not safe anymore.”

For more:
BBC News -- Little Hope for Afghans in 2008