Story

Sorrow and Despair in Kosovo: Portraits of Kosovo-Albanians Connected to Jihad

img_9273.jpg

Albin Heta, 19, the cousin of Blerim Heta, poses in his small village called Varosh. Blerim left to fight for jihad in Syria on August 7, 2013. On March 25, 2017, Blreim became one of two Kosovo-Albanian suicide bombers, killing himself and 52 Iraqis in a bombing in Baghdad. “He was polite and nice, but in three months, he changed completely,” said Albin. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

Albin Heta, 19, the cousin of Blerim Heta, poses in his small village called Varosh. Blerim left to fight for jihad in Syria on August 7, 2013. On March 25, 2017, Blreim became one of two Kosovo-Albanian suicide bombers, killing himself and 52 Iraqis in a bombing in Baghdad. “He was polite and nice, but in three months, he changed completely,” said Albin. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

img_9528.jpg

Seated at a cafe next to the dilapidated Grand Hotel in Pristina, Fitim Lladrovci, 28, is one of the only former Kosovar Islamic State fighters released from a three-year prison sentence and free to roam the streets. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

Seated at a cafe next to the dilapidated Grand Hotel in Pristina, Fitim Lladrovci, 28, is one of the only former Kosovar Islamic State fighters released from a three-year prison sentence and free to roam the streets. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

10297902-321087744710597-6343696274660983179-n.jpg

Fitim Lladrovci claims to have fought on the frontlines on a near daily basis and to have partaken in some of the battles against the al-Sheitaat tribe. The battle against the tribe in August 2014 is known as being brutal even by ISIS standards: More than 1,000 Sunni men, women and children were murdered in three days. Image used with permission from Visar Duriqi. Kosovo, 2018.

Fitim Lladrovci claims to have fought on the frontlines on a near daily basis and to have partaken in some of the battles against the al-Sheitaat tribe. The battle against the tribe in August 2014 is known as being brutal even by ISIS standards: More than 1,000 Sunni men, women and children were murdered in three days. Image used with permission from Visar Duriqi. Kosovo, 2018.

img_9712.jpg

Atdhe Deva, pictured here in his childhood, left for Syria from Turkey in 2012. “His youth was normal. He was very smart, we never practiced religion and are an intellectual family,” said his father Nasser Deva, a politician and former teacher. Atdhe’s radicalization occurred when he left to study electrical engineering at the University of Prishtina. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

Atdhe Deva, pictured here in his childhood, left for Syria from Turkey in 2012. “His youth was normal. He was very smart, we never practiced religion and are an intellectual family,” said his father Nasser Deva, a politician and former teacher. Atdhe’s radicalization occurred when he left to study electrical engineering at the University of Prishtina. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

img_9620.jpg

According to Naser Deva (pictured), his son, Atdhe, is currently in Syria fighting with what used to be known as Jabat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Atdhe has cut communication with Deva because of their fundamental worldview differences. “By the time I was aware, it was too late. I was helpless to the power of others. That’s where I gave up, because I knew I couldn’t influence him at all,” Deva said. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

According to Naser Deva (pictured), his son, Atdhe, is currently in Syria fighting with what used to be known as Jabat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Atdhe has cut communication with Deva because of their fundamental worldview differences. “By the time I was aware, it was too late. I was helpless to the power of others. That’s where I gave up, because I knew I couldn’t influence him at all,” Deva said. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

img_9783.jpg

In 2014, when Kosovo realized its citizens' involvement in Middle Eastern terrorist groups, the security apparatus began a ferocious crackdown on people suspected of terrorist activities, including some controversial imams. One of the imams was Enes Goga, the great imam of the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK) in Peja, featured above, whom Naser Deva partially blames for his influencing his son’s departure. “I don’t think that I am responsible. I am a victim from the political parties. They needed to create a new problem in society besides unemployment, the economical failure, the political failure, organized crime,” Goga said. “These are the problems of our society. Islam is never a problem. Never.” Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

In 2014, when Kosovo realized its citizens' involvement in Middle Eastern terrorist groups, the security apparatus began a ferocious crackdown on people suspected of terrorist activities, including some controversial imams. One of the imams was Enes Goga, the great imam of the Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK) in Peja, featured above, whom Naser Deva partially blames for his influencing his son’s departure. “I don’t think that I am responsible. I am a victim from the political parties. They needed to create a new problem in society besides unemployment, the economical failure, the political failure, organized crime,” Goga said. “These are the problems of our society. Islam is never a problem. Never.” Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

img_9866.jpg

Raif Bushi’s two sons, Emri and Adil, went to fight “jihad” in Syria in 2013 and returned later that year disillusioned from the reality on the ground. “Where did my sons go? Who sent my sons there? Who trained them? Who sent them to the airport? Who waited for them in Turkey, in Syria? Who trained them? We should know that this he can’t do by himself, because my sons didn’t know Kosovo well where to go, let alone Syria,” Bushi said. Although they returned in 2013, before a law was passed sentencing anyone who participates a foreign war for up to 15 years of prison, they were imprisoned under prior anti-terror laws. Both his sons are still currently in jail. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

Raif Bushi’s two sons, Emri and Adil, went to fight “jihad” in Syria in 2013 and returned later that year disillusioned from the reality on the ground. “Where did my sons go? Who sent my sons there? Who trained them? Who sent them to the airport? Who waited for them in Turkey, in Syria? Who trained them? We should know that this he can’t do by himself, because my sons didn’t know Kosovo well where to go, let alone Syria,” Bushi said. Although they returned in 2013, before a law was passed sentencing anyone who participates a foreign war for up to 15 years of prison, they were imprisoned under prior anti-terror laws. Both his sons are still currently in jail. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

img_9822.jpg

Featured above is a distant relative of Lavdim Muhaxheri, the most prominent Kosovo-Albanian ISIS commander, whose nom de guerre was Abu Abdullah al Kosova. Muhaxheri was reported to have been killed by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike in August 2017. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

Featured above is a distant relative of Lavdim Muhaxheri, the most prominent Kosovo-Albanian ISIS commander, whose nom de guerre was Abu Abdullah al Kosova. Muhaxheri was reported to have been killed by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike in August 2017. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

img_9952.jpg

Albert Berisha, 31, traveled to Syria in October 2013 and returned to Kosovo in less than two weeks. In March 2018, Berisha was imprisoned for three years and six months at the Correctional Center in Smrekovnica. After appealing his sentence on charges for participation in a terrorist organization, Berisha founded the Institute for Security, Integration and Deradicalization (INSID), an NGO that worked directly with returnees and their families. “Nobody wanted to join ISIS in 2012 or 2013. Some of us didn’t even know these morons existed. We/they wanted to join the opposition. But they wanted to be in one Albanian speaking group,” he said. “And ISIS was mostly near the border with Turkey.” Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

Albert Berisha, 31, traveled to Syria in October 2013 and returned to Kosovo in less than two weeks. In March 2018, Berisha was imprisoned for three years and six months at the Correctional Center in Smrekovnica. After appealing his sentence on charges for participation in a terrorist organization, Berisha founded the Institute for Security, Integration and Deradicalization (INSID), an NGO that worked directly with returnees and their families. “Nobody wanted to join ISIS in 2012 or 2013. Some of us didn’t even know these morons existed. We/they wanted to join the opposition. But they wanted to be in one Albanian speaking group,” he said. “And ISIS was mostly near the border with Turkey.” Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

img_9978.jpg

Liridon Kabashi, 31, another former Islamic State member, said he never encountered any prison treatment efforts. “For two years I heard talk about the program, but I never saw it in reality,” said Kabashi, who returned to Kosovo in 2013 and served a three-year prison term. He is also one of the handful of foreign fighters released from prison. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

Liridon Kabashi, 31, another former Islamic State member, said he never encountered any prison treatment efforts. “For two years I heard talk about the program, but I never saw it in reality,” said Kabashi, who returned to Kosovo in 2013 and served a three-year prison term. He is also one of the handful of foreign fighters released from prison. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

img_0029.jpg

Isuf Zena, the father of Arben Zena, who took his son Erion to to ISIS held territory in Syria against his mother’s knowledge in June 2014. He stayed for three months among other Albanians in Syria while Arben went to fight on the frontlines in Mosul, Iraq. His grandson Erion was returned to Kosovo by Fitim Lladrovci, featured above. “I’m happy that my grandson is in Prishtina. The things that happen in Mosul and Syria are awful. I would never want my grandson there… I have only seen him once since he has returned because his mother refuses, which breaks my heart. As for my son, I try to contact him on Skype twice a week but to no avail; last time I heard from him, he told me he was re-married to an intellectual woman in Mosul. But that was two years ago," said Isuf Zena. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

Isuf Zena, the father of Arben Zena, who took his son Erion to to ISIS held territory in Syria against his mother’s knowledge in June 2014. He stayed for three months among other Albanians in Syria while Arben went to fight on the frontlines in Mosul, Iraq. His grandson Erion was returned to Kosovo by Fitim Lladrovci, featured above. “I’m happy that my grandson is in Prishtina. The things that happen in Mosul and Syria are awful. I would never want my grandson there… I have only seen him once since he has returned because his mother refuses, which breaks my heart. As for my son, I try to contact him on Skype twice a week but to no avail; last time I heard from him, he told me he was re-married to an intellectual woman in Mosul. But that was two years ago," said Isuf Zena. Image by AJ Naddaff. Kosovo, 2018.

This photo essay displays various faces of male Kosovo-Albanians directly connected to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq: relatives of jihadists, returned foreign fighters, and an imam. Women played active roles in the conflict as well, but proved more difficult to track down and interview.

Kosovo has produced one of the highest number of fighters per capita to the recent wars in the Middle East. Yet the vast majority of Kosovo-Albanians do not have any connections to the foreign conflicts, and no longer see Islamic extremism as a threat.

For a small group of people in the country, Syria’s war left an indelible scar on their lives. As A. J. Naddaff conducted interviews with fathers whose sons left to fight “jihad,” he was reminded of how what seems exotic and foreign for some is quite real and personal for others. To pick up arms and join a foreign conflict in Syria and Iraq is a sign of final despair and reflects how deep grievances ran in a country where opportunities are few and far between. Although every person who left for “jihad” chose to do so for different reasons, similar pangs of guilt, sorrow, and indignation were voiced by family members grappling with the devastating reality.