|Kosovar Albanians are increasingly tolerant of men who divorce local wives in order to temporarily marry foreigners and obtain resident status in the West [Credit: Petrit Rrahmani]
Each time she goes to sleep, Valbona, 35, from Peja, western Kosovo, looks at her wedding photograph taken 13 years ago. Beside her, she sees her smiling husband.
Today, that moment is just a memory. Two years ago, her husband remarried a German woman. Not only did Valbona, mother of their four children aged four to 11, know of his plan, she approved it.
This is because Valbona is not really divorced in the eyes of her family or the wider community. Many Kosovar Albanian men divorce their first wives by mutual consent, departing for western Europe where they find new spouses who enable them to obtain residency papers.
They leave their children behind in Kosovo so that they can pose as single men and remarry fast. Once they have permanent residency in Germany, or other EU states, they divorce their second wives, go back to their first ones and bring the family to the West.
Germany is a popular destination for Kosovars because there is already a large Albanian expatriate population living there.
The women that these Kosovar Albanians marry in the West believe they have found ideal, attentive husbands. However, once the men have gained permanent residency in their host country - after five years of marriage to a citizen in Germany - they often demand a divorce.
Valbona is confident that her husband will do the same. "The 'divorce' was difficult, but as both of us knew its purpose, it was somewhat easier," explains Valbona.
Unknown to his German wife, Valbona has already spent one summer holiday with her ex-husband back in Kosovo.
Benefits override taboo
In the past, Albanian families did not accept divorce so easily. But the taboo has been forgotten now that Kosovar Albanians have discovered the usefulness of divorcing and remarrying foreigners in order to gain papers to live in western Europe.
Each month, Valbona's ex-husband sends back money for her to spend on their four children. Such money counts for a lot in a country as poor as Kosovo, where 40 per cent of the population is unemployed and the average monthly salary of those in work is only about $265 (200 euros).
Kosovars who have moved to western European countries send home $701m (530m euros) each year. These remittances account for around 13 per cent of the country's GDP, according to the Kosovo Central Bank.
Against a background of such economic hardship, many people feel desperate to obtain the right to live and work in western Europe. But obtaining a visa to enter the EU is difficult.
Unlike some of their Balkan neighbours, Kosovars do not enjoy visa-free travel within the EU. Nor is a relaxation of visa requirements imminent. It is almost impossible for Kosovars to gain German citizenship unless they are born there, or enter the country as an infant and go to school there.
But adult Kosovars, like other non-EU foreigners, can request permanent resident status in Germany, or Niederlassungserlaubnis, if they have legally resided in Germany for more than five years - the grounds for which are normally either higher educational studies or marriage to a German national.
Rising divorce rate
In the Kosovar capital of Pristina, a city with a population of about 600,000, officials recorded 127 divorces in 2007. That number might appear low by western European standards but it is high for Kosovars. Municipal officials in Pristina recorded just 36 divorces as recently as 2003.
In parallel with the increased number of divorces, marriages to foreign citizens have also risen, mostly to residents of western countries. In 2009, officials in Pristina recorded 98 such marriages between Kosovar men and women from the West.
Sonja, a German from Stuttgart, was the target of a man seeking permanent residency in Germany. Now in her early thirties, she married an Albanian from the Mitrovica area of northern Kosovo 13 years ago.
Jobless and a little lonely at the time, she was charmed when a good-looking, dark-haired man, a few years older than her, approached her in a café in Stuttgart and said hello.
She had no idea that this supposedly single man had, in fact, married at the age of 18 in Kosovo and obtained a divorce before coming to Stuttgart.
They soon married, after which Sonja threw herself into learning the Albanian language and adopting the modest lifestyle of a Kosovar housewife. "I became more Albanian than an Albanian woman," she recalls.
Unusually, Sonja's husband did not demand a divorce after five years. Apparently because by then, they had a little boy whose fate complicated matters. Sonja's husband wanted to ensure he would enjoy sole custody of their son before he left.
They finally divorced only two years ago, after Sonja agreed to leave her son, then eight, with her ex-husband. He remarried his first wife, and now lives outside Stuttgart with her and the son he had by Sonja.
Sonja does not know the whole story of her marriage, but some Kosovar Albanians living in the neighbourhood are well aware of her ex-husband's background. She knows only that her ex-husband remarried "an Albanian woman who didn't have any papers".
Tradition pushed aside
Years ago, only infertility could legitimately separate couples, says 71-year-old Hamdi Veliu, from Polac, a village in central Kosovo.
"If the wife couldn't have a baby, she had two choices; to divorce, or stay," he explains.
"Nowadays, the situation is very bad," Veliu says, going on to talk disapprovingly of a Kosovar he knows whose first wife's family pressurised him into bringing her to Germany before he had even divorced his second German wife.
Most Kosovar Albanians are Muslims, but there is also a small Catholic minority. The clergy of both religions view matrimony as sacrosanct.
"Marriage is permanent and has no time-limit; it is eternal," says Bedri Syla, an imam from Skenderaj in central Kosovo, who views these temporary divorces as a mockery and sacrilegious.
His views are fully echoed by Don Shan Zefi, a Catholic priest in Pristina. "Marriages like these are not permissible morally, psychologically or legally," he says.
'The sacrifice is worth it'
However, Agron, 40, says it is worth compromising on morals and traditions in order to obtain the European dream.
A carver of gravestones, he now lives with his first wife in a village 30km from Stuttgart, having completed the long and difficult process of divorcing his second German wife in order to remarry his first Kosovar one.
"The sacrifice is worth it, as long as you don't forget your [first] wife and children back in Kosovo," Agron maintains. "For me, living here is like paradise."
In order to attain a similar 'paradise', Valbona and her four children must wait for at least another three years.
Asked how she feels about her husband's second marriage, she says: "For me it simply doesn't matter ... miserable economic conditions forced us to do this."
Jeton Musliu is a Pristina-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.