Kosovar Youth Learns to Live with Peace
By Mark Pedersen, Carnegie Council Staff Writer
The day NATO started bombing Kosovo in the spring of 1999, Chai Vasarhelyi and Hugo Berkeley met for a drink to discuss a lecture given by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke on the Princeton campus that day about the unfolding Balkan conflict. As Princeton undergraduates studying film, they agreed Kosovo would be a unique setting for a documentary and that when the NATO bombing ended, they should go to Kosovo and film one. Then they finished their drinks and went home.
Seven days after the bombing in Kosovo officially ended, Vasarhelyi and Berkeley were en route to Pristina with an ABC News crew. Persistence, connections and luck had gotten them there, but the bigger question remained: What would they find?
"We weren't sure what to expect, but what we did know is that we wanted to put a familiar face, not especially on Kosovo, but on a place where there was a recent conflict and where there was a rebuilding effort," said Berkeley. "We wanted to show people something that wasn't impersonal and was easy to relate to."
Almost immediately, however, it became clear what their film should focus on: young Kosovars. Vasarhelyi and Berkeley could not help but draw comparisons between themselves -- both in their early 20s -- and the 50% plus of the Kosovo population under the age of 24. They were of the same MTV generation but had almost perfectly opposite backgrounds.
Right away, Vasarhelyi and Berkeley made friends with the younger Kosovars working as translators for Western media outlets such as ABC News. These relationships led to friendships and other friendships, and soon, the two filmmakers were behind the camera interviewing their Kosovar contemporaries. Immediately, Vasarhelyi and Berkeley were struck by how much their Kosovar counterparts had to say, watching them digress on camera on topics of death and of Kosovo's future. All were unsure what to do with their newfound freedom and one of the characters in the film even professes to have come to the U.S. after the war for fear of "being held hostage by the past in Kosovo."
"This is a generation that never thought about what would happen after war," said Vasarhelyi. "There was one goal: Getting rid of the Serbian regime. So now they aren't quite sure what to do."
"They came back [from the refugee camps] with all these expectations," said Berkeley. "They were jubilant, ecstatic. They came back with all these hopes to rebuild a new society and it just did not happen like they thought."
"A Normal Life" paints a picture of post-war Kosovo through the eyes of its characters, all of whom speak directly to the camera about moving beyond a childhood of conflict and rebuilding their society. They are intimate and their testimony is immediate, from the stories of witnessing rising drug addiction to the first-hand accounts of seeing dead bodies.
While showing the immensity of what the younger generation in Kosovo has experienced - conveyed bluntly when one of the characters says "Everything before the war no longer exists, at least for me" -- the film shows plenty of reason for optimism about the future in Kosovo.
"Just because the war ended doesn't mean the struggle to make Kosovo livable has ended," said Vasarhelyi. "In some ways, now you have to do all the work."
The film is a "portrait of the generation that will define Kosovo," said David Marash, an ABC News Nightline correspondent who covered the war in Kosovo. "These are extraordinary people who went through extraordinary times. And the film shows just that."