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Until One Plus One Equals Three

A rock school overcomes


I should be in Iraq. But once again, the target value of my calculations does not correspond to the actual value. A week before departure, the workshop in Erbil needed to be postponed. It had to do with making new arrangements and I had to put my creativity and luck once again to the test. What can be organized in a week?

The solution was Kosovo. And I didn’t expect to regret the change.

I cautiously pushed on with the planned project, whether I could spontaneously - well, I could stop by next week already. Even then, I realized the team is accustomed to unplanned changes. You just couldn’t leave them out of the concept and expect them agree without a fuss.

Why Kosovo? That's an old hat!

If that were the case, a lot of things would be different and I would definitely not be here.


I was immediately moved by the concept of the Musicians without Borders, but what does the implementation look like?


At most events, the story against the background which the project unrolls seems rather absurd with this crazy bridge that separates life into two parts and a population that is still divided. 18 years after the end of the war. Everything is not so conceivable. This makes it all the more urgent for me to go there and get my own view of the place.

Is the past forgotten?


After sniffing  some of the air of the capital, it pulled me to the North, to the   border, to the fracture point, to the dividing line, that would tear a society apart.

I don't think this works.

After an hour’s drive through the country, which is only one quarter the surface area of Switzerland, I was there in Mitrovica. I had arrived at the focal point where tensions from the entire Balkans converge. At the same time full of expectations and without ideas, I approach the conflict site.


For two weeks, I let myself go on a life which cannot be compared with anything I have seen so far. A bit European but still very different, Muslim but not at all Arab, a bit Slavic and yet Mediterranean. The atmosphere is cheerful and relaxed. Where exactly was the catch? I think with the coffee in the sunshine with a view of a bridge that does not seem to differ from any other.

It is the fifteen  months of war which has torn a deep abyss into the social   cohabitation in this region. Within minutes of destruction, what had been built up on solidarity for decades succumbed. Nationalist aspirations stifled every respect for the other. Exterminated and shaken  lives made mutual trust impossible.

Since then, through a one-sided depiction of the past, the blocking of political decisions, mutual provocations and the maintenance of an  enemy's rhetoric, mental walls have been consolidated and the  status quo is carved in stone. A new normality has been established, where it  has become natural that the Kosovo-Serbian and Kosovo-Albanian population do not intermix or even meet.


How is it possible in an environment with such hardened positions - to open up the war corset which takes every breath of the region toward development?  How can parallel co-existence be transformed into togetherness? Is it supposed to arise by itself?

“Perhaps the music helps" - I thought to myself as I got closer to the Rock School.


The Mitrovica Rock School has emerged as a project of Musicians without Borders. Since 2001, two years after the end of the war, the organization has been working on the question of how music can  contribute to the establishment of sustainable relationships among the hostile groups in this difficult context.


But this is not enough, for the woman of external inconspicuousness and inner strength, it is at the same time her goal to open the perspectives of the young generation, to counter the lack of training opportunities and to revive the musical tradition.                


From her conviction, nothing should deter her from building a place and  framework for an encounter for Kosovo-Serbs and Kosovo-Albanians.


Not for 16 years.

Although nobody initially believed that the project could be successful.


She herself could not even dare to believe what was to happen this week.


But the spotlight was not on the Dutch-American program manager. She entrusted the regional leadership to the young local guard. I was warmly welcomed by Emir Hasani and Lizza Kosova, both in their twenties, in the small office of the school, 100 meters from the bridge that leads to the "other" side. The bridge was built as a connection and still symbolizes the separation like no other place in the country. The Kosovo-Serbs mainly live in the North while the Kosovo-Albanians are in the South.



Blog: The Dividing Bridge

Wendy Hassler-Forest was to arrive just a few days later. She lives in Belgrade, the commute between Serbia and Kosovo is not only part of her work, but also of her personal  life.



In the office of the Rock School, with Emir Hasani and Milizza Kosova, right: Emir Hasani in front of the poster of his band"the Artchitects" which - 6 years ago - was the first inter-ethnic band

The crux of the matter

Of course the idea was not conceived here. Neither was it conceived yesterday. In a later discussion, Wendy Hassler-Forest told me about the original idea: "In the beginning the idea was to build a common rock school for the children from both sides of the river. "That was completely naive," she laughed heartily at her unwavering zeal that had driven her into this crazy project.


It soon became apparent that a common school would be too dangerous for the participants. To get to school on the other side of the river, they would face the risk of confrontation (verbal or even violent) *on the other side*, as well as negative reactions from their own community.        


What was left was the possibility of building two branches; one in the North and one in the South. Then came the next hurdle: how can a meeting place be created when students are taught in different buildings? So the concept of "summer school" was developed and in 2008, it was possible to make this happen for the first time. The trick: the music students of both schools are invited to participate in a summer school in Skopje. Skopje is just a two-hour drive fromMitrovica, but the big advantage is that it is located abroad, in Macedonia.


Music is not the only lesson offered in the summer schools, the creation of band is the core activity of the school. Then, in the summer of 2008, after the first inter-ethnic bansd were formed during a summer school, the participants asked the organizers if there would finally be a RockSchool in Mitrovica. "We actually had no idea if this would be possible. But we were completely in love with the project and we did everything we could to find musical instruments and facilities."



Much has been done since the beginning of the endeavors. Meanwhile two branches were set up, one in the Kosovo-Serbian North and the other in the Kosovo-Albanian South of the city, both of which provide concert space and rehearsing facilities. In 2016, the school had 113 students and 10 inter-ethnic bands involving a total of 44 young musicians. The school has 15 staff members 10 of whom are former students. 

I met Wendy Hassler-Forest in one of the branches. Her warmth and modesty was striking at first glance. She is obviously not here for her own sake, she stays happy in the background and leaves the show to the local musicians. This withdrawal and leaving the others in the limelight announces  itself with her arrival at school and runs through the whole week, during which I followed the  endeavour. Even at the closing concert at the end of the training week, one waits for a speech from the founder and program manager but it is done by a bandleader.


Unveiling the secret

I was glad that she took time for me and my numerous questions, although her agenda was full to the brim,urgent deadlines were running late that day, her time in Kosovo was limited, and her husband and two toddlers were waiting for her in the hotel room. I wanted to know from her what the concept of the Rock School was based on, why it was possible to establish it and why it still exists today despite the circumstances.


Human being as identity

The initiators of the school strived first and foremost to keep the ethnic identity in the background and bring the identity as a musician in the  foreground.



“You treat them like normal human beings that are associated with other normal human beings, that is why it works”.

Local power

Wendy Hassler-Forest emphasized how important it was to adapt the original project idea to local conditions. That is also the reason why the genre of rock was targeted. The Rock School builds on a long tradition of rock, Mitrovica was  well-known for its jam sessions, concerts and festivals. However, the rock culture was interrupted by the war and the spread of the turbo folk. Many of the rock bands were mostly made up of musicians of different ethnic backgrounds who could neither rehearse nor perform together after the war. By selecting this musical genre, the school can get the older rock musicians involved, build on elements of local identity and revive a  tradition. "All the elements were there. What was missing was the structure."


The mixture contains the spice

The involvemen of the local population plays an important role in this context. "If we were a team of internationals, we would have been a joke," Wendy Hassler-Forest concludes. "The people have  to realize that it is their project." The current team consists of 16 local teachers, trainees and coordinators plus Wendy Hassler-Forest as international team member. To have an international in the team is particularly valuable in the case of sensitive subjects, in which she can act better as a neutral person.


“If we were a team of internationals, we would be a joke”

Expertise and neutrality

The involvement of the local population plays an important role in this context. "If we were a team of internationals, we would have been a joke," Wendy Hassler-Forest concludes. "The people have   to realize that it is their project." The current team consists of 14 local coordinators plus Wendy Hassler-Forest as international team member. To have an international in the team is particularly valuable in the case of sensitive subjects, in which she can act better as a neutral person.


When one plus one makes

In the popular musicians' café Soho, I met up with Ruud Borgers who works for the Rockcity Institute in Eindhoven. He is also one of the primal forces of the Rock School in Mitrovica and has been with them since 2008. Every year. Multiple times each year. Free of charge.


If I had encountered him in the streets, I would have underestimated him many times, and even wrongly classified him. Tough, lone warrior,  party type, chain smoke ... This misperception immediately changes during conversations. There is this soft, even vulnerable and caring side. His social commitment, his sensitivity, his sense of  responsibility, and his open and interested nature was such that  instead of the scheduled half an hour, we ended up having three  hours of conversation - or was it four? What is so important about the function of the band coach and what does it have to do with peace?


“We show them how one and one can become three”

But does it have to be rock music? In a country that is proving difficult to deal with national identity, it seems quite alright when the young generation exercise their own traditional music. However, their past hinders them once again from playing traditional music. They would have to agree on a language and one of the music traditions and the ethnic background would once again be in the center stage. Sidestepping to a third culture and language is indeed suitable for the purpose of the school. At least until  now. This is also one of the basic rules, everybody sings and talks in English.


And how about classical music? I ask the hardcore rocker before me. It worked with Barenboim.


“Expressing your soul”

Why so much commitment to a country with nothing connecting him either to the country or the organization which he had not known before?


"It is a beautiful example of the power of music. In Holland, we are used  to using music as a goal. But here - music is a purpose AND a goal."

Despite the uncertainty

As a newcomer, it is difficult for me to see the real dangers in the region or even smell them because they are likely to be visible only when it is too late.


Are students andcoaches not in danger when they are involved in a project that challenges the status quo, the ethnic separation? "There is a risk," says Wendy Hassler-Forest.


This makes it all the more important for the school to use all possible resources for security. "We have to guarantee that the young people arrive safely at school and get back home safely." In the given situation, this is a big or even a heavy responsibility to the pupils as well as the parents and a majority of the students, are a minors. Some of the measures put in place to reduce the risk of students becoming victims of aggression is a taxi service that handles the transport of students between the Southern District and the Northern District. Also, for the protection of the young people, we had to avoid displaying photos of them in this reportage. Too sensitive, something could happen too quickly. Going to Skopje is also a securitymeasure, because the creation of inter-ethnic bands within Kosovo is unthinkable - or was unthinkable until recently.


Bring the Neo-Nazis on board

Regarding the outcome, I remain somewhat skeptical. Who are these youngsters and can the school achieve more than just a musical experience? Would the school not face the same problems like most similar projects which are not able reach out to those who don’t have an open attitude towards the other? Wendy Hassler-Forest laughs.


"We never had trouble attracting radical elements". The good thing about it is that they need us as much as we need them.

“We never had troubles to attract the radicals

This opening up towards those who are ideologically on the other side calls for clear rules. The school had to recognize this after a concert where a nationalist band performed. "House rules" were put in place. In addition to some "decorative" rules, it is mainly about the fact that there is no place for political expressions in the school. This may be surprising at first glance if one expects socially dedicated rock. But on a closer look, this seems to be the key to success. This is the only way to involve those people whose political convictions are at odds with the intentions of the school, that is, those who must be won for the idea of ​​opening up.


Anyway, peace seems to work better when it is circumvented, not expressed, and averted by all means. "Talking about reconciliation" Is it not an issue for the Rock school "You cannot overestimate how cynical people became towards NGO activities aiming at reconciliation. If we were talking about reconciliation - no kids would turn up". Another lesson which I didn’t hear for the first time within the framework of PeacePrints.

The paradox of sustainability

Even though many solutions have already been found, some hard nuts still exist. Besides the political tensions and parallel administrative systems which sometimes block the progress completely, the most serious concern of the program coordinator is the financing of the school.

And what about the possibilities of generating your own income? The Rock School has left no stone unturned regarding this issue. But one thing is clear: In the local context rock music is sub-culture, the opposite  of commercial.


You can hardly be underground and self-sustainable and being inter-ethnic and self-sustainable is definitely impossible.”


Long breath - looking ahead

Despite all obstacles, the school cannot relent its efforts. People cannot imagine the city without the Rock School anymore. The main reason for its success is the support of all the participants, everyone at the school agrees. The coordinators, teachers, musicians and students fight for the  school with an almost endless commitment and a great shared responsibility even when the budget is not enough to pay the employees a wage.


Emir Hasani is one of those people who are versatile and has served the school for long. He was a student at the second summer school, became a member of the first inter-ethnic band, later became a teacher, then a band coach and he is now a local project coordinator.


“We are touching the future right now”, the school is now close to its initial goals, says Emir Hasani in a conversation between two band rehearsals. Young people get together and develop a band identity whereby, the ethnic background becomes irrelevant. I ask how the school succeeded in achieving this goal and in which he thinks about the importance of the school for local musicians.

“Creating something together connects

The privilege serve

And what is it that drives Wendy Hassler-Forest to keep moving? Why is she willing to invest so much in a project and sacrifice so much? The question amused her visibly.

“Working with  young people who are in the stage of deciding who they want to become is very meaningful.

Every life counts

Wendy Hassler-Forest measures the success of the Rock School in life stories:

I have a woman in front of me with clear principles and goals. She knows what she is doing and she does it with conviction without arrogance and with a touch of self-irony.

What does peace mean

I ask her at the end of the conversation, while we were both freezing in the unheated school building.                      .

And that is exactly what I experience this week.


I experience the students as a group of young people who live out their passion for music and express their musical talents. Young people in one of the most difficult stages of life, born into a world with boundaries are supported and guided in the search for their voice, pursuing their musical identity. They rehearse with zeal and concentration in the dark band basement while the spring lures outdoors.


They give it all. I know now what Ruud Borgers meant by "urgency". There is this urge for music, for expression, for life. Instruments are rare, places where rehearsals can be done are rarer. The young people put in a lot of effort to use an electric guitar they can’t afford to buy, to work with a sound system and to make music together. In no time they bring songs full of depth, originality and poetry into life.


When I listen to the bands, I instantly forget where who comes from, from  which environment they came, and which worries they have to fight  everyday. The only thing that counts for the musicians as well as the listeners is the music. When I ask the young people why they choose to come to this school, the answer is unanimous: I want to become a rock musician! It’s only here they can get a rock music education, the facilities for practicing, instruments that they cannot afford themselves, the possibility to perform in front of an audience and a professional mentoring to achieve their goal. The fact that the bands created are inter-ethnic seems insignificant to them. They want to be able to play with the best musicians, no matter where they come from.


The Rock School does also help the bands to create crowd funding campaigns - the band Proximity Mine has just published its video.

To organize a concert with inter-ethnic bands and an inter-ethnic audience in Mitrovica is  still too risky. Therefore we travel together to Gracanica. Gracanica is a Serbian enclave not far from the capital Pristina. Another curious phenomenon, as in this already small country, even smaller ethnic islands could emerge.


We stopped over at the Hotel Gracanica which offered refreshment for the musicians. The group were guests of honor in this hotel, which is not only an absolute eye-catcher architecturally. The founder and director is the Swiss, Andreas Wormser. After being confronted with the difficult situation of the minorities in Kosovo as a staff of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he decided to build up a hotel that would help the Roma minority to integrate into the labor market. Other social activities of the hotel and some very noteworthy anecdotes from the everyday life of this dedicated entrepreneur can be read here.

The team is not getting tired of challenging one border after the other and is always daring to take a step towards what was considered ruled out yesterday. This week is a special highlight which they are looking  forward to with anxiety: For the first time inter-ethnic bands were to be formed within Kosovo (which was previously only possible in Skopje). The students could therefore meet their  counterpart from the other side of the river here and now. In the course of the week the tension gradually eased away. The experiment worked.          


Completely inconspicuous and unobserved by the masses, through one small final step, a big vision has today become a reality in this basement. 16 years of relentless commitment - 16 years of struggle against critics and harsh reality - 16 years of faith in something that has never existed before.


I am touched that I was able to witness this moment - through many coincidences. The moment when a dream comes true, when an idea - to create inter-ethnic bands in an ethnically divided city, an idea that has been declared completely crazy prevails.

I wonder how much of such visions come true every day, without the world noticing.


How long will they consider living in devided society as  normal and what will it take to move forward? The figure 32 is being rumored on the internet, 32% of the population, the so-called critical mass which is needed to bring about a change. This week in Mitrovica I felt we were on the brink: 31? 31.5? I ask myself and with the hope that with this reportage I can help bring the missing 0.5 to the balance, to the side which believes  that from coexistence one can create a cohabitation.

One thing was certain, this example shows clearly that we must try the impossible to achieve the maximum  possible.


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