Who are the Kosovar fighters in Syria?
Family members tell the stories of brothers and uncles killed fighting for ISIL and other armed groups in Syria.
Valon and Musli Musliu were only one kilometre apart as they fought for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Syria. This is the only detail of his brother’s death that Musli would share with his family.
Eighteen months later, an old Kosovar man points to a narrow concrete bridge over a stream. As we cross, the road grows rougher and muddier. At the other side stand two houses set apart from the rest of the village, as if they have been cast out.
A few chickens run around; a dog barks.
The homes look unfinished, as if somebody had simply given up on them. They have no windows.
Selman Musliu, the second oldest of the five Musliu brothers, steps out of one and slips a thin jacket on over his vest. It is minus four degrees Celsius outside.
“I thought we could handle it,” he says. “That we could discourage Valon from going and be able to bring him back home on our own.”
Valon was the fourth of the Musliu brothers. He was only 17 when he left home to study Islam at the main religion school in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. From there, he travelled to Saudi Arabia for further Islamic studies.
“All through his primary [education] and until the ninth grade, Valon did poorly at school,” Selman explains. “But he found that he did very well in the religion school in Pristina. He became much more interested in Islam there, but it was in Saudi where we felt the real effects of his extreme views.”
After three months in Saudi, he spent seven months in Syria. Then he returned home. The Turkish authorities had imposed a five-year ban on him entering the country.
“I told him, ‘This is a good thing, you can stay here with your family now,'” Selman recalls, rubbing his bloodshot eyes.
But a month later, Selman received a call from a foreign number. It was Valon.
“I was so shocked, all I kept saying was: ‘I don’t trust you. I don’t believe you.’ Then he confirmed my fear: He told me he was in Syria.”
Valon had made his way from Kosovo into Macedonia, and from there he had crossed through Turkey and entered Syria.
The family decided to contact the authorities in Kosovo for help, but Selman says they did nothing.
He had not contacted them earlier, he says, because “I didn’t even dream that he would return to Syria … I thought that’s it, Valon would never able to cross through Turkey because he was banned.”
In desperation, Selman turned to Valon’s closest brother, Musli. Together, they came up with a plan to bring Valon home: “We agreed that Musli would go to Syria and persuade him to return. But Musli failed and he ended up staying there to look after him.”
This is when things grew difficult for the family of farmers. Every brother is crucial for the upkeep of the farm, Selman explains. But the Muslius had now lost two. It had a crippling effect on the family’s finances and welfare.
For Selman, it was also a personal blow; of all his brothers, he was closest to Musli.
“Missing your brothers is difficult. You feel it constantly,” he says. “I spent so much time with Musli. We worked on the farm together. We worked hard to build our family home together. And every chance we got, we would play football together, too. Barcelona was my favourite team and Real Madrid was his.”
He remembers a brother whose kindness was known throughout the village.
As for Valon, he says, his interest in Islam developed on its own. “He was the one who taught us all how to pray. I told him, ‘You know the Quran, so you know you shouldn’t go and you don’t need to. But here we need you. You could do a better job by teaching us and others about the Quran.'”
When they were in Syria, the brothers stayed in touch with their family, calling at least once a week, emailing and video chatting.
Then, one Monday morning, just before 6am, Selman was woken by his older brother, Mohammed.
“He told me Valon is a shahid [martyr]. I froze. I was confused and shocked.”
Shortly after, Musli called.
“I told him: ‘Musli, that’s it. You have to come back home now,'” Selman recalls.
But Musli had other ideas.
“He said, ‘My brother has been killed. This is where his blood last dropped. I will never come back now.'”
According to various reports, Valon was killed in April 2014. The location of his death, however, is disputed, and Selman says that he is not sure where in Syria his brothers were fighting.
It has been eight months since Selman last heard from Musli. He speaks of him as though he, too, is dead.
“With Musli, there was nothing I could have done,” he says. “It was never part of our plan. He was meant to bring Valon back home, not to end up there.”
|An explosion rocks the Syrian city of Kobane on October 20, 2014 [Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images]|
The local hero and war veteran
Naman Demolli had a reputation as a fighter in Kosovo. In fact, in the eyes of his neighbours, friends and family, Demolli was a local hero.
During the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, he was the commander of a special unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army. But even before the war, he had taken on the responsibility of fighting for his family’s wellbeing.
At the age of 17, Demolli headed to Italy and from there had gone on to Germany, working odd jobs along the way so that he might send some money home. His ultimate goal was to save enough to build his family a house.
But the war at home brought Demolli back. He worked his way through the ranks and, not long before the war’s end, he was found injured in the mountains.
When his country gained its independence, Demolli left for Spain. He had a family of eight to provide for, and even this historical moment in Kosovo’s history could not stand in the way of that.
“That was the kind of man he was: a generous man who made it his sole priority to take care of us,” says his sister, Hamide.
“He fulfilled our dream; he built us this house in Pristina,” she says, pointing to a three-storey structure in a hilly area north of the capital.
Demolli spent at least seven years in Spain. His brother, who asked not to be named, says that he lived with a group of religiously conservative Moroccans. It was upon his return that he noticed his group of friends had changed.
“Some of his friends would come over to our family home, and I overheard them telling Naman off, saying he should stop working and focus all his time on praying and serving Islam. This was strange for us,” the brother says.
Videos on the internet show Demolli being arrested after he advocated that a mosque be built in Pristina.
In 2012, Demolli left for Syria. In November of that year, he was reportedly killed in Aleppo by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, becoming the first Kosovar fighter officially recorded as being killed in the country’s war.
Hamide wipes away her tears with the hem of her sleeve. “When he died, it was horrible,” she says. “For some time, no one knew if he was really killed or not. It was painful. For so long we kept praying he would come back.”
Local reports said Demolli had carried out a suicide mission. Headlines in Kosovo read: “Survived the bullets of the Serbian regime, but not those of the regime of Bashar al Assad.”
He was 38 when he died, leaving behind a daughter aged five and a three-year-old son. They are children, Demolli’s brother points out, that he has never even met. Neither has he met Demolli’s wife or her family.
Unlike the Muslius, the main dispute for this family is not where or when their brother died, but for whom he died fighting.
Demolli’s family insists that he left to join the rebel forces in Syria because he wanted to defend the Syrian people. His 12-year-old niece defends him. “He went to Syria to fight with the rebel forces against Assad. Our uncle wanted to save people. He went to Syria to help them. He didn’t know how complicated it was before he got there. He was a good fighter. He helped us win the war here [in Kosovo].”
And this is where the dispute begins. When Demolli arrived in Syria it seems few knew which group he had joined. Did he first fight for the Free Syrian Army and later defect to the al Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front? Or did he join them from the beginning? Nobody seems to be sure, not even Kosovo’s intelligence.
This lack of clarity seems to point to just how complicated the country and its numerous fighting factions can be to some of those recruited as fighters. That is what has motivated Demolli’s three nieces to learn more about the war in Syria. A thin, dark-haired 14-year-old, with large glasses on her small face, says sternly: “We watch the news on Syria all the time. The media always lies about Syria. After our uncle left, we wanted to know why – why did he go to this country? Everyone forgot the Syrians and focused on terrorists. My uncle is not a terrorist.”
‘Not my brother’
Laila (not her real name) looks down as she taps her fingers on the wooden school desk. She is an English teacher but it took all the courage she had to return to her school after the news broke of her brother’s suicide attack in Baghdad. It left 52 security officers dead.
“I was furious. At the same time, I was grieving. It was such a mixture of feelings,” she says.
“I would ask myself over and over again: ‘What have we done so wrong that would make him go there?’ I was mad at him – how could he do this? He was not just a brother; he was everything to me.”
Laila’s brother was born in Germany, but the family returned to Kosovo when he was 10. He grew up listening to rock music and watching comedy films. It was from American music and movies that the brother and sister learned English.
He would obsess about things, she remembers, but then drop them as suddenly as he had picked them up.
“He would fall in love with something like astronomy or that movie Inception, and he wanted to understand everything to do with dreams. He would suddenly want to learn everything about it and drop everything else,” Laila says.
After finishing school, he worked for a year and a half at Camp Bondsteel, the main United States army base in Kosovo.
She cannot reconcile the brother she knew with the popular image of a fighter. “He would not even dare to cross a red traffic light. He never threw rubbish on the streets. He would get terrified if he saw someone doing something wrong.”
“We were the same people, him and I,” she reflects. “The difference is that I have a much stronger personality. He was kind, polite and trusted people easily, but he did not have a strong personality. I always protected him.”
LONG READ: Memoirs of a refugee from Kosovo
She recalls how he started to change in the months before he left for Syria, adapting his behaviour to become more like the members of a new group he was spending time with. She says she knows the man who encouraged her brother to go to Syria and that he still lives in their village.
“Those people that he was getting to know, at the start, never spoke to him about religion. Instead, they would first act all friendly, tell him that he was one of them. My brother liked the way they would behave with him. Then, slowly they started to introduce the idea of hell, telling him the only way to repent and save yourself is to turn to religion. So, in order to go to paradise, where all good things happen, you have to sacrifice life. They spoke so much about how so many Muslim women and children were being killed.”
In August 2013, her brother left for Syria. He told his family that he was going there to learn more about Islam. “Only later did we find out why he really went to Syria through a text message,” she says. “He told us he went there to help people, that an Islamic State had been created and that the people lived according to Islamic traditions there.”
He did, however, confess to his sister that there had been a moment when he doubted what he was doing there. “He asked his friend in Syria: ‘Is this wrong what we are doing?'” she says. But the friend replied: “No, brother, you are the one chosen by God because you have a pure spirit and a good heart. And not many people will have this luck.”
Less than a year later, on March 24, 2014, there was a suicide attack in Baghdad targeting security officers.
The next day, Laila’s husband woke her up with the news: Her brother had been responsible for the attack. She does not know how he ended up in Iraq.
Today, she is still trying to make sense of all of it. “My brother and I shared different religious views. I am an atheist. One of the reasons I felt I was not able to change his view was that I never gave him the chance to really speak to me. I would get so irritated that I would refuse to listen. I did not give him the time to explain himself,” she says.
“Maybe if I did, I could have understood what his plans were.”
She stops tapping the desk and reflects: “He slipped on this path slowly. He was cheated. I am not justifying what he did. I feel terrible about the people who lost their lives. But that was not my brother, the brother I knew, who did that.”
|Kosovo has Europe’s highest number of fighters per capita in Syria and Iraq, according to the KCSS [Walter Bibikow/Getty Images]|
‘No haven’ in Kosovo
These cases seemed to shock Kosovo almost as much as they shocked the families of the fighters themselves.
It may be a tiny minority, but according to the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS), the Balkan nation leads Europe with the highest number of fighters per capita in Syria and Iraq. KCSS says it has confirmed at least 232 cases of fighters from Kosovo in the conflict areas, but estimates that the true number is more than 300.
Those looking for a common thread in these stories may find it difficult to locate; the men seemingly have little in common.
Florian Qehaja, the executive director of KCSS, says that the one commonality appears to be a desire to forge an identity.
“In the past, nationalism was part of the core identity [in Kosovo]. People were fighting for a cause – to be liberated,” he reflects.
“Now, young people have no cause to fight for. As part of the international project to give Kosovo statehood, some did not accept this new identity because it was externally driven. During this void, some of the people were recruited on the grounds of creating a new identity – an Islamic one.”
Although, according to a 2012 government census, almost 96 percent of Kosovo’s population is Muslim, the nation is secular.
There is also a strong pro-American sentiment here, almost 17 years after NATO and US intervention helped bring the Kosovo war to an end. Many people speak with fondness of the US, and boulevards, bars and stores are named after the Clinton family and former US president George W Bush.
So, how has this happened?
Resul Rexhepi, the secretary of BIK, the main Islamic organisation in Kosovo, explains: “It’s difficult to spot radicalisation as a lot of it happens through the internet and social media. We have even had a few imams who have been radicalised this way who have now been detained. But during and after the war, many foreign NGOs arrived here, bringing with them a Salafist ideology that never existed in Kosovo before.”
Atifete Jahjaga, the Kosovar president, says it is an issue that the government does not take lightly.
“No country is immune to this global threat of extremism,” Jahjaga says. “But, despite that, Kosovo has been the leading country in the wider region in fighting extremism. Since last year, we have carried out numerous operations and co-ordinated with intelligence to arrest over 60 Kosovar citizens who were planning to go to Syria and Iraq.
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“We have also passed a law that will see 15 years of imprisonment to whoever joins this kind of organisation. Kosovo has never been and will never be a safe haven for this group or for these individuals.”
Still, many Kosovars express frustration with what they perceive to be a failure to address some of the root causes, including a weak education system and rising unemployment rates. But Jahjaga believes such questions fail to appreciate the country’s unique challenges.
“We should not analyse it from that perspective,” she says. “We are a young country. We have overcome enormous challenges and only gained independence 16 years ago.”