Ibrahim Rugova — Gandhi of the Balkans

Ibrahim Rugova was a prominent Kosovo Albanian political leader, scholar, and writer. Now called the “Father of the Nation” of Kosovo, he led the popular struggle for independence from Serbian rule and is considered by many to be the “Gandhi of the Balkans”. In 1998 he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and has posthumously been declared a hero of Kosovo. He died in 2006 after losing his battle against cancer.

Known for the silk scarf around his neck that he was never seen in public without, swearing that he would not take it off until Kosovo had its independence, it was long suspected that President Rugova had cancer, although the truth was never made public until just before the very end. Committed to a non-violent path toward independence, Rugova was often at odds with the radical element of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) that was waging a guerilla war against the Serbian government.

A pacifist at heart, we had a feeling that he did not really want to be president. But the common people loved him, and NATO felt he would best serve the interests of the fledgling nation they had just helped separate from Serbia on its road toward U.N. recognition. And so it was that in his final days he struggled with both health and conscience. He lived in a simple house in the center of the capital Priština, and did not consider himself above others. We admired him greatly, and prayed for him often, as his position was a difficult one. 

In 2004, we received an invitation to participate in a multi-ethnic children’s day celebration that was going to be held at the U.N. Headquarters building in Priština. Since the conflict in Kosovo mainly centered around the differences between the majority Albanian population and the Serbian minority, the U.N. wanted to put on a “show” that Kosovo was a truly multi-ethnic success story, and they wanted to use the children as living proof.

They had selected children from several “multi-ethnic” village schools who would come to Priština and spend the day at the U.N. building attending various events. I say “multi-ethnic” in quotes because the children in these schools were not truly integrated in the classroom. They were kept segregated, with one group using the school in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. Still, it was progress in the right direction.

Knowing that we were specialists in multi-ethnic children’s activities, high ranking U.N. officials asked if we would be willing to stage our program for the children as part of the day’s activities. We had a really great time with the children, teaching them to sing our meaningful songs in both Albanian and Serbian languages, playing fun games, and presenting a message of reconciliation via mime theatre!

Towards the end of our program we were asked to wrap things up as the children had been invited to attend a press conference with U.N. Administrator for Kosovo at the U.N. Press Office. Still dressed in our clown and animation outfits, we accompanied the children to the Press Office and sat patiently waiting for the press conference to begin. Time dragged on and the children were getting restless, so the organizers asked if we could do something with them to help pass the time. We jumped at the chance and took over the entire room, diplomats and press corps included, and led a rousing time of inspiration, singing and dancing around the conference room. I dare say that room had never seen anything quite like that before! We had every video and hand-held camera focused on us as we marched the children up and down the aisles of chairs, singing our songs in both Albanian and Serbian. The following day we were of course featured on the local news!

The featured speakers finally arrived, and after settling down and listening respectfully to their speeches, the children were led out to the U.N. parking lot where two large buses were waiting for them. Following a photo shoot, and not knowing what was happening next, we asked one of the officials where the children were going now. He said, “First they’ll go to the amusement park, and then they will meet President Rugova at his residence.” Our part of the program was now finished, but we could not pass up this golden opportunity to meet Dr. Rugova, so without exactly asking if it would be OK, we climbed up on to the buses as well. Thankfully no one seemed to question why the clowns were going to meet the President.

We had many times walked right past Dr. Rugova’s house. He kept very little security, and there was normally just one guard between the gate and the front door about 10 meters away. On this occasion the gate was open and welcoming as we all filed out of the buses and were escorted into the reception room reserved for high-level visitors. Behind a large conference table and dais we could see on the wall two large framed photos: one of Dr. Rugova with Pope John Paul II, and the other with Mother Theresa. We knew this man was someone special!

Sadly, on this occasion he had just returned from a trip to Den Haag, and looked very tired. There were the usual speeches and other formalities, but then his attention turned toward us, standing in the back, still in our clown outfits. He invited us to join him for a photo, and once the ice was broken and we had moved into the limelight, the Lord’s Spirit took over. One of the songs we had taught the children that day was the Sunday school favorite “I’ve Got Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy, Down in my Heart”. We suspected from things we had heard that President Rugova had secretly become a Christian, and so asked him to sing along with us in a rousing chorus of “I’ve Got the Joy” in his native Albanian. It was an incredible scene as the entire group joined in while the cameras continued to roll.

As we were leaving, he thanked us for the happy, joyful spirit that we had brought to his home, and we were able to encourage him in his difficult job! It was not long after that he passed away and went on to his Heavenly reward.