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A Summer in Kosovo

August 18, 2011


by Marshal Lurtz, 2L

This summer, I studied International Law with Professor William Slomanson at Pristina University in Kosovo. Notwithstanding the minimal dormitory accommodations, this experience was an unforgettable one. Studying in Kosovo brought law, and International Law, to life. It was an incredibly rewarding opportunity to study in a post-conflict society. As the professor says, it’s one thing to study about it, but quite another to be there—especially because so many of the course issues arose in the Balkan-Kosovo context.  

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, a move that incensed as many as it pleased. For some, it meant successfully removing the yoke under which Kosovars were repressed and denied self-determination. For others loyal to Serbia, Kosovo’s declaration was void from the beginning. In their view, the territory always has, and will forever remain, exclusively under the sovereign control of Serbia—a perspective which literally exploded at Kosovo’s northern border adjacent to Serbia just after I left. With Kosovo’s revolutionary history having both vintage and contemporary expression, International Law became intimately both real and surreal. Listening to my classmates explain the impact that war and political strife had had on them, and their families, helped me see many things that would have otherwise escaped me, had I merely studied about them in a textbook back home. I heard stories of families displaced, often compelled to leave on short notice, because of the ethnic hostilities that created so many unfortunate victims.

The personal connection with my many peers made for a passionate and entertaining class. About half of the students were from Kosovo. The rest were international students, predominantly from Europe. Their impeccable English skills astounded me. Many were fluent in three to five languages. The fiery and often contentious classroom debates ameliorated the sweltering conditions of our non air-conditioned classroom. But if I studied these issues in a comfortable vacuum, I would never have tasted the on the scene realities flooding my consciousness at every moment.  

I remember discussing whether Kosovo’s declaration of independence was in accordance with international law and how the International Court of Justice’s 2010 opinion did not really answer that burning issue. Professor. Slomanson appointed me to represent the interests of Serbia. I instantly became the hypothetical “enemy.” Perceiving the sensitivity of the issue, I felt it necessary to first proclaim that the views expressed are unrepresentative of my personal opinions—which made me realize why Professor Slomanson chose me for this task. The debating structure of our course was unfamiliar to the students in that part of the world. Their prior academic experiences consisted of laboriously listening to lecture-only class settings. However, once acclimated, the class swiftly took off, as my colleagues had their first opportunity to voice their views. Professor Slomanson would occasionally intercede; for example, by once commenting that while his former teenaged children thought they knew all the answers—he tried to teach them the comparative importance of learning to ask the right questions. Given the ebb and flow of what constitutes International Law at any one time, his point was well-taken.  

Amidst our exploration of the principles of International Law, the Kosovars inundated me with traditional laws of their own. The Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, for example, is the unwritten law of traditional custom and cultural practice—supposedly still practiced in some rural areas—whose seminal principle is “Besa.” According to it, Kosovars shall welcome visitors, as their own families, to establish trust, friendship, and understanding. So there was never enough time in a day to accept all the invitations I received. Whether it was an invite to a traditional family dinner, a party on the roof of a friend’s apartment, or simply to the local pool, I always felt like the guest of honor.

Life in the dormitory made getting to know practically everyone inescapable. Without internet and air-conditioning, quality conversation carried the day. Every evening, when the sun and the concomitant heat waned, relaxing on the steps and in the courtyard of the dormitory was the norm. It was there that I believe I learned more about the Balkans, and the people who inhabit these lands, than anywhere else. I began to understand their motivations and aspirations, their opinions on the future of Kosovo, and how they have come to reconcile the past and present. On my return flight, reminiscing about the two weeks that had just flown by, I humbly acknowledged just how much I had learned from my friends and classmates—and thus why Professor Slomanson keeps going back. TJSL has some incredible programs in other parts of the world. It is my hope that student readers will consider similarly learning from them. I am just now beginning to articulate all of the lessons learned from my summer abroad program.