The scent of the city was the first thing I noticed as stepping out of the car in the capital of Kosovo on Sunday the 12th of February. The next morning the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers was about to launch a needs assessment conducted by Kosovo Center for Security Studies (KCSS) on the prevention of violent extremism.
For me, visiting Prishtina was not only a business trip. Kosovo has a special place in my heart. I had lived in this city three months during the late spring and summer of 2015.
As collecting my luggage from the car trunk I realised that in one and a half years I had forgotten the scent of Prishtina. The piercing, yet soft, smell of the city. Even though the smell reflected familiarity, there was something different in it now. Unlike during my last visit, I could feel the smoke in my lungs. I hadn’t been in Kosovo during the winter, when people burn whatever they can to heat their houses. This winter had been especially cold – my Kosovar friends told me later – and the air quality was competing with that of Beijing and Delhi.
Pollution is just one of the many struggles faced by the new born country characterised by the limited number of natural resources and unstable sources of livelihood. The cafés of Prishtina are always full of life, no matter which time of the day. This is not a symptom of economic growth and an increase in purchasing power. Quite the opposite; more than half of the youth is unemployed spending their days either in cafés, restaurants or out on the streets of city. A youth unemployment rate of more than 50 percent is a devastating figure for a country, whose median age is under 30.
An age structure envied by many welfare countries and thought of as one of the greatest asset of Kosovo, is soon to turn against the country. The needs assessment recognizes the lack of future visions and the scarcity of opportunities as some of the root-causes behind the radicalization of young Kosovars. Hundreds of Kosovars left the country by the end of 2015 to fight with ISIS or other extremist groups, and tens of thousands migrated to Europe in search for a better life. High hopes have been tied to EU integration and visa liberalization, but due to the current state of mind in Europe, these dreams seem to have drifted further than ever before. Kosovo has been isolated from the rest of Europe, and this makes it an easy target for the recruiters of extremist groups.
In February 2018 Kosovo will celebrate its 10th anniversary of independence. It must be recognised, that it takes more than a decade to build a nation, and the future of Kosovo indeed lies in its vast youth population.
During my less than 48-hour visit, I met a boy selling salted peanuts for café customers. I recognised him as the same boy selling peanuts in the same cafés already one and a half years ago. Compared to our first encounters, the difference was that now he spoke English. He had become quite a salesman.
The potential in the critical, driven and enthusiastic minds of Kosovar youth is immense. This potential simply needs a chance.
To read the needs assessment conducted by KCSS, have a look here.
Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers