Tears of joy not grief as Kosovan fulfils Games dream

A decades-long dream kept alive despite the threat of death came to fruition amidst tears of joy when the Kosovans paraded under their own flag at the European Games opening ceremony, the Kosovan National Olympic Committee president told AFP on Saturday.

Besim Hasani said watching the small delegation led by flag bearer and two-time world judo champion Majlinda Kelmendi in Baku, Azerbaijan, just over a week ago had been an extraordinary experience.

It had all been made possible when his extraordinary and dangerous diplomatic efforts were finally rewarded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially recognising Kosovo last December in Monaco.

“It was a long dream, 20 years,” Hasani told AFP in an interview in his hotel in Baku.

“My dream became part of the Olympic dream. When you start a dream it is something when it works out, you cannot describe it.

“It’s fabulous. There were tears, everything in terms of emotion was there after so many years.

“I thought then now I can die tomorrow. Of course I changed my mind!”

The threat of death, though, was something that hung over him during the early years of battling to get Kosovo recognised on the international sporting stage.

Previously a part of Serbia with an ethnic Albanian population, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 and has since been recognised by more than 100 UN member states.

However, Hasani’s efforts at lobbying for recognition were not appreciated by the Serbians.

“I faced threats and retribution, everything from the Serbians,” said Hasani, who has been president of the NOC since 1996 and is into his fifth mandate.

“When Kosovo was occupied by the Serbians I was regarded as one of the most dangerous people.

“They asked me what I was doing. I say it is sport.

“But I was prepared to be arrested, to be beaten or even to be killed and my family (he is married with three children) knew that.

“Such killings happened in the mountains, around a hundred Kosovan Albanians were victims of that.

“However, you didn’t care about your life. You took one direction and I was prepared for everything.”

– Terror tactics –

The Serbian terror tactics did not stop with him, for if Kosovans dared to put on sports events such as football matches, the security forces would step in.

“Yes you could be killed for playing sport. They (the Serbs) wouldn’t allow us to compete,” said Hasani.

“They would stop the games.

“Some of the people were arrested, some were killed. All the time the Serbians justified it.

“Our direction was a peaceful way and to become independent.”

Eventually it did boil over into war.

During the 1998-99 war KLA guerrillas — a pro-independence ethnic Albanian rebel movement — fought Serbian armed forces.

The war ended when a NATO-led air campaign halted Serbia’s crackdown and ousted its forces from the territory in June 1999.

Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008, a move that Serbia still refuses to recognise.

However, even after the Serbian Army was ejected from the province it still took Hasani years of racking up the air miles as he used diplomacy and lobbying to get Kosovo recognised by the IOC.

“After the war I went to different places where the IOC was but without accreditation (to gain access to the hotel they were staying in),” he said.

“I would find different ways of getting in to see them, even climbing through windows.

“I find one hundred ways to come and meet the people and bring them small presents. I would say to them our athletes are waiting and waiting to compete.”

Many top athletes have moved abroad — Hasani said one football match between Albania and Switzerland had 11 Kosovans on the pitch, including Swiss playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri, of Inter Milan.

But he is proud that they have already produced a superstar in Kelmendi.

“She is a hero, she is the most important person in the country,” said Hasani, who was voted personality of the year in Kosovo last year.

“It is remarkable how one of the poorest countries in the world can have a two-time world champion.

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