Being in the same room as Milosevic made me physically ill, as I kept thinking of what he was doing to the people of Kosova.
January 15, 2007
Ilir Zherka was born in Krusheva of Plava. His family immigrated to Italy when he was 2 years old due to escape persecution, and later on moved to USA. Ilir is the Executive Director of DC Vote, an educational and advocacy organization dedicated to securing full voting representation in Congress for the residents of the District of Columbia, which has a direct relation ship with the Congress and its members. Previously, he has held positions with Congress, White House, and has been the Executive Director of the National Albanian American Council. He is fluent in Albanian despite the fact that he came to the US when he was two years old. This is the language we start our conversation in. Ilir says he always tried to speak and write in Albanian, except when it came to politics since he has to use English expressions and terminology.
Your family is very well known within the Albanian-American Community. Could you tell us a little about how Ilir’s life started in America?
We traveled to America in 1968, and settled in the South Bronx, a very difficult area to live then, as was the rest of New York. I think one of the most difficult but less understood challenges for Balkan immigrants is to grow up in New York. It was a hard life especially for the Albanians, to be the minority surrounded by African-American and Hispanic majority. Most of the people I grew up with, Albanians and others did not end up very well, because they quit high school and never attended college. In short, growing up the way I did was very difficult, especially since I stayed in the straight and narrow and went to college. One of my greatest personal achievements at the time was attending Cornell University.
Going from public school to Cornell University was very difficult. How did you achieve this when it remains a beautiful but unrealized dream for so many people?
When I was in high school, I went to see the school career and education advisor, and I asked him what should I do, quit or go on to College. He advised me not to quit, but to attend Community College for three years, the way a lot of my Albanian peers were doing. It was a solution but it was not the solution for me. I came out of that appointment very disillusioned and disappointed. I told my sister Nexhmie what the school advisor told me. She looked at me in the eye for a moment then she asked what I wanted to do at that moment. I told her I wanted to attend the best school possible, so she advised me not to give up, but to insist further and work towards my goal. I followed my sister’s advice, this woman who became a very high-ranking officer of the US Army and served there until her death. Studying at Cornell made a big difference in my life and her advice helped me with it.
Due to its expensive tuition and rigorous admitting requirements, there are only a few Albanian students attending Cornell University now. Were there more during your time there?
I have never met an Albanian student at Cornell during my time there. This is an excellent college, and it is safe to say one of the best in the world. Students from every corner of the world attend its classes and they all are very talented. To succeed you have to be very smart, energetic, organized and dedicated.
I was very involved with all student activities at Cornell, I was a democrat activist (as I still am) and I was elected president of the democrat student body of Cornell.
During my time as president, I put together a symposium on Kosova (1988) where we invited Joe Dioguardi and Sami Repishti, whose names filled the room to the brim with people who wanted to be informed about the situation in Kosova. It was a pleasure for Cornell and a great honor for me because I was able to use my position as president of the democrat student body, to make the situation in Kosova better understood.
Some days ago, I was discussing with my wife about the best places to study, and she mentioned she studies best in libraries full of people, since she feels comfortable with a lot of people around, whereas I have always been more comfortable studying in quiet corners. Cornell’s library had two or three such places, one of which was the post-graduate library on the sixth floor, which contained a section on Albania and where I would sometimes stop and take a book by Albanian authors such as Elez Biberaj and others. Reading these books always brought me pleasure and gave me new strength for the studies ahead.
You wrote for the College newspaper at Cornell; what were some of the themes you concentrated on the most during that time?
Yes, I did write for the college newspaper on the subject of Kosova. I was always trying to convince the public opinion about the arbitrary invasion of Kosova and the assistance needed from the American Government. I felt a real obligation to write about Kosova, as I could not remain silent about its situation, which continuously worried me.
You were very young when you started to get involved in the Kosova situation. How do you explain this?
We were always involved as a family in all efforts to free Kosova. I do remember other families going for picnics in various parks, but we would pack our food and go a different way instead, in front of the UN in Manhattan, or in Washington DC, to protest. We were so active the others called us the protest family. We kept to this routine for many years. When I grew up and went to college, I was already a protest veteran.
Is there a significant moment stuck in your memory of those protests you participated as a student, which you can tell us about?
When I was very young, I remember going to Washington DC with my family, at the time that Tito the dictator was there for an official visit. A big Albanian demonstration was to happen in protest of the Albanian situation in Kosova. I remember that the trip was very long. I gets a little hazy, but somebody told me later that I went and kicked Tito’s limo as it stopped in front of the crowd, whereas another person grabbed the Yugoslavian flag, climbed an oak in front of the White House and burned it, while the police were trying to stop him. This was a very emotional moment that I still remember, and which took place sometime in the 70-ies.
Well, let’s leave Dictator Tito and get to Dictator Milosevic. Can you describe the meeting you had with him ten years ago?
Yes, I was there with Congressman Elliott Engel in a meeting organized by the Department of State, who were a bit nervous because they did not know how we were going to act (in Milosevic’s presence). I was there as the official representative of the congressman I worked for, and I want to say that nobody questioned my presence there as an Albanian-American. I was surprised to see how easily they took us to Milosevic’s office without a security check first. Inside the meeting room, Milosevic was alone without any interpreters or advisors. We sat in the same room, our team consisting of the American Diplomatic body in Beograd, Congressman Elliott Engel, John Caldwell (chief of staff of Engel) and I, Milosevic being by himself. The table in front of us was laden with refreshments and beverage but I remember that none of us touched anything, as it was not a camaraderie meeting and we were not there to make friends.
I was surprised to see that Milosevic was a very good English speaker, and that he tried to gain the upper hand of our conversation. He put out a lot of arguments that were all ignored by us.
Congressman Engel gave his point of view and asked some questions which were waved away by Milosevic with: “O, these are lies. International Amnesty and all other (international groups) are lying”. I remember trying to keep my cool for a few more moment because Elliott Engel was speaking and I was respecting him, so I did not say much.
When Milosevic started to say all those untruths, I became very agitated and retorted, saying that what he was telling us that day was not true, but to let me tell the truth about Kosova. I started reading from the list of events in 1989 as well as the years before and after.
I forced him to face the holes in his convictions that it was within Serbia’s rights to keep Kosova under its thumb. We argued justly and diplomatically that he was wrong. The meeting lasted more than an hour but I insisted on not letting him gain the upper hand and lie in front of our delegation. I told him I was the representative of an American Congressman and that we took these issues very seriously, and that America is very worried about what was happening in Kosova.
Even if we were not speaking in the name of the Department of State, we were still working for the Congress and we asked repeatedly to stop Milosevic and his repressions in Kosova. It was a very interesting discussion but I found it very difficult to be in the same room with him, knowing what he had done to Albanians and his anti-Albanian views.
I had a physical reaction to his presence in that room because there was a deep hatred between us and it became very difficult to control myself, but in the end we did what we had to do for Kosova and had our meeting with him.
Even traveling from Belgrade to Prishtina was very difficult, due to the heavy presence of the police and the army in the street. We went to the American Informative Bureau. It was the first time back in Kosova for me, and my emotions were very strong. My family comes from the highlands of Gjakova that was half occupied by the Serbs, but there was no border on the mind of my family and mine, only the whole Highlands of Gjakova.
A Serb official who was assigned to me, became very agitated and told me: ”You can not fill these people’s heads with dreams!” and I answered that the dreaming people were the Serb officials in Kosova and Belgrade, who still thought they could keep the Albanian people oppressed, and consider Kosova theirs when it wasn’t, making it the most dangerous dream for them, the Serbs. We had this debate even when we got back to the office, saying our piece to the Serbs. Elliott Engel was not allowed to go back in Kosova during the Milosevic regime, and he said when the war in Kosova started, that he was glad to live in a time when Milosevic was not allowed back in Kosova.
Did Milosevic have any inkling of who you were?
When we got introduced, he looked at me in the eye and held my hand a bit longer. His eyes were a bit furtive, but I do not think his administration knew earlier that I was going to be present too. Obviously, State Department officials kept my presence a secret for security reasons, but when he greeted me, he understood I was Albanian from my name and reacted negatively almost immediately.
When you came home, you had to face your family that was anti-Milosevic. How did you deal with it?
I think that my father and my family, and all the Albanian Community in America welcomed my visit (to Belgrade), because I was representing the Albanian Community together with America, and they were satisfied that I was an active protector of the Albanian Cause. Upon my return to the US, I published an article in Illyria, explaining what we did on our visit. Serbs thought that as Americans, we’d just go and enjoy eating and drinking with them but we were very serious in pointing out that we would work to convince the American government to extend its protection to the Albanian people, which happened as you know.
Ilir’s father Ahmet, remembers thus his son’s meting with Milosevic: “When Ilir came back from Kosova and told me that he had met Milosevic, the criminal, I interrupted him and asked why he did not grab him by the throat and snuff that criminal, what did I train him for since he was a child, but to use his strength and hurt the enemy? Ilir, smiling, answered by saying: Father, at first I considered grabbing him by the throat and hurling him to the ground, but I was in the company of other people, and I promise you that I will do the impossible to convince the US government that Milosevic is only a criminal who deserves strong punishment.” He said.
In 1975, Ahmet Zherka killed a man who stomped on the Albanian flag. Respecting his integrity and the righteousness of his act to protect his nationality, the American justice gave him only three years in prison, when murders in the US were usually punished anywhere from 25 years to life in prison (author’s note).
After graduating from Cornell, you attended Virginia UT. What activities you took part in during your life there?
Well, Virginia UT demanded a lot of dedication, but since I was only two hours away from Washington DC, I used to participate very often in protests to raise the voice on behalf of my people. I also wrote articles for the New York Times and other newspapers, in order to push the American support for Kosova, and articles against senator Bob Dole, who pretended he was working on behalf of Kosova issues, but actually did nothing. That criticizing article was an incentive for Senator Dole to work harder on Kosova issues.
How do you explain the larger involvement in the D.C. area, when the Albanian Community is concentrated in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and their suburbs?
I was born into a very politically active family who was deeply involved in our national cause. Also, by nature, I become very proactive when I see the direction things need to go and benefits we can reap for our country. I am very assertive and goal oriented. I became involved with US Politics because I believe I can help issues get resolved, and because I can help the Albanian Cause. When I was at Cornell, I spent one semester in Washington, working for New York Senator Daniel Patrick. During that time (1988) I discussed foreign policy with his advisor, and I told him that the senator also represented the Albanians of New York but that he had never talked about the Albanian Cause. In the beginning, he told me that US was assisting the progress of Yugoslavia and that they would never do anything to damage that relationship, but later he relented and let me write a speech on the Kosova situation for the senator to read at the senate. I prepared the speech, but it was very difficult to convince the senator to read it. His advisor told me that the senator could not read my speech as US was not ready to denounce the Yugoslavian violence against Albanians, because they considered Yugoslavia their ally in the Balkans.
I decided right there and then to move to Washington DC as soon as I graduated and dedicate my efforts to the national cause. Later- after graduating from law school – I moved with my wife Linda to Albania for a year (1992), and helped rewrite the law on criminal procedures, whereas my wife worked on the environmental law, thus doing our duty to Albania. When I returned to the US, I began my career in the Congress and later worked on president Clinton’s reelection campaign, then I worked as administration in the White House as well.
It is a well-known fact that you are one of the co-founders of the National Albanian American Council. How do you describe the beginnings of this council that contrary to all other Albanian organizations, was based on DC and took upon itself a very important job at that difficult period?
I worked for the Congress during the war in Bosnia and I was really frustrated to see that all the people we called our allies and counted on such as Bob Dole and Ben Gillman, only campaigned the community for fundraising, then went back to Washington DC and did nothing for us. I also knew that Dioguardi, who I supported during the 80-ies, had no foothold in Washington because his league had no offices there, whereas the Greek lobby was very active there and creating a lot of obstacles for Sali Berisha.
A number of us at Congress were very worried about the situation in Kosova. John Caldwell and I talked very often about how our community had no representatives in Washington DC, and our allies did a very inadequate job.
At the time I published two articles in Illyria, criticizing Bob Dole and Ben Gillman, which angered some people, but satisfied the majority, because I really felt that we could do much more for Kosova. At lunch, John Caldwell and I often discussed ways to help the Albanian Community to grow stronger and so we decided to create a new organization.
At the time, Sami Repishti, the Fonda brothers, Hajdar Bajraktari, Avni Mustafaj and others in New York were talking about creating an association called Friends of Albania with the goal of supporting the development of the budding democracy in Albania, while we in Washington DC were thinking of something with a wider range of activities.
What did you idea entail?
We envisioned not an institution but an organization, which would fight for the Albanian cause in the Balkans. It was a unanimous decision, because John Caldwell and I had solid arguments to back up our vision. During one of my lunches with John Caldwell, I got the idea to call this new organization the National Albanian American Council (NAAC). National, because we were working on national issues, Council because we were a group of people discussing as a whole about the Albanian cause, and Albanian-American since our group consisted of Albanian Americans. The New York group liked my idea and we immediately offered to write the status and mission statement, as this is part what I do, as well.
Which organization did you use as a model?
Upon our return to Washington, we began researching other organizations that had considerable success in this field. At that time John Caldwell was very close to AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee), a Hebrew Lobby organization that is considered very influential with US Politics. We wrote our outline based on theirs, and then founded our council in 1996, the same year I went to work for the reelection campaign of President Clinton.
How did you manage to combine a full time job as staff of the White House and the activities of NAAC?
The first two years were the most difficult as we had no funding and we could not find an executive director. I was campaigning with the minorities for the reelection and I was trying to win over the Italian, Irish, Ukrainian, even Serb votes, no matter how difficult it was for me. President Clinton was reelected and I became part of the Department of Labor staff. I was always reading articles on Kosova in the workplace, and sometimes I got very emotional when I read about the violence there.
Our organization was without a leader so the New York people advised me to take the job of the executive director of NAAC. It was very difficult, especially since my wife and children needed me too, but we talked it over and we decided to sacrifice for Kosova; so I would quit my job at the White House and become a volunteer if it would benefit Kosova. When I went to hand in my resignation, the vice head of the Department of Labor smiled and told me they had good news and that I had been promoted, but I answered that I had bad news and that I was resigning, in order to continue my work for Kosova. My contacts within the White House and my earlier workplaces made a big difference during the war. I had a relationship with the White House where nobody could manage to get in earlier, because the administration had refused Dioguardi a meeting as he was on the black lists of the Department of State. It was imperative that we, as a community make contact with the White House.
Our influence was considerable in the administration support of Kosova. It is a well-known fact that LKA (Liberating Kosova Army) was a crucial factor in liberating Kosova, since they were fighting in its lands and they deserve a lot of respect for this, but we also played a small but imperative part to secure the support of the White House, which together with Congress, decided to act against the Serb army much earlier this time.
When did you first meet President Clinton?
I first met Clinton in the White House, during his reelection campaign. His staff was very well organized and I was happy to be part if it at such a young age. One time, we had a meeting with Italian American Community leaders to ask their support to our campaign and I had the chance to have a long conversation with President Clinton. I told him of my efforts to win support of all communities to his campaign. He was happy to hear about that and gave me his support on all my projects as a community outreach coordinator.
Later on, we met several times during the reelection campaign, but we did not have a chance to have a long conversation, until the historic moment of April 1999, when we had our meeting at the White House, at the Roosevelt Room. President Clinton met with NAAC and other Albanian organizations, thanks to my relationship with the White House and Congress, and thanks to the same contacts and friends I made during the reelection campaign. I was the only one who knew that the President was coming to the meeting, since the organizers did not tell anybody. All the participants thought they were meeting with Sandy Berger (National Security Advisor), and they were very surprised to see President Clinton instead. The Presidents words were very clear, he literally said: “We will not lose this war, we will fight until we win!”
In Kosova, people know you through your efforts in their behalf, and that you know them very well in return. Please tell us about its current political situation.
There are still plenty of visible challenges. Serbia is fighting again its hopeless battle to reinstate its control over Kosova, and they are spending a lot on that battle. Lately, they have employed a Republican Lobby in Washington that concentrates on juridical issues and they are set to pay millions of dollars for their collaboration in the coming two years. Albanians will have to take this new battle very seriously. Everybody knows that EU and USA are supporting the independence of Kosova, but it is never over until it’s over in politics, which means that things might change at the last minute. The Albanians must be aware that the war is still going on and it will truly go on until the last moment.
It is not smart to postpone the status question and I support Ceku-s idea that a decision needs to be made very quickly. Personally I trust the leader of Kosova, and I think that EU and USA want to see Kosova independent as soon as possible. New challenges will be born with the future independence of Kosova, because from what I know of politics, I can tell that the little insignificant issues are the ones most difficult to resolve, i.e. everyday life brings the issue of whether tap water is safe to drink, whether there is uninterrupted electricity, whether it is safe to start a business and how soon, what is a secure banking system to put your money in, whether you can get and maintain a car, whether there are enough books for education, etc. These are some of the issues pending resolution after independence, and even if they look insignificant now, they are very important on daily life.
Kosova should see a solid ally in the US, but they should understand that the future of Kosova is with EU, and that a good relationship with them is necessary. Kosova has a significant advantage, because its institutions are built following UNMIK instructions. I know of all the controversy surrounding UNMIK, and I do not agree with some of their directives myself, but I think that this administration organization will make it easier for Kosova to control its transition from a country with a repressed future and progress, to a dynamic part of Europe.
How should Kosova institutions act during these decisive times?
A necessary step for Kosova would be the transparency of all government decisions, open meetings, more responsible representatives in parliament who should be aware and protect the interests of their people. Further more during US (primary) elections, the people choose the candidates, not the parties like in Kosova, which can make a huge difference. The problem with Kosova is that its leaders answer each to their own party and not to their constituents, sometimes causing a genuine paralysis of the government.
Regarding the constitution in progress, what direction should it go according to your opinion?
Kosova Constitution should take from Europe as it is a part of that, but it should take from the American Constitution too, as that is what made this country strong. Its laws support transparence and control political power by giving the people the power to keep elected officials under control and hold them responsible. These issues are very crucial to the make of Kosova into a developed and civilized European country with a very approachable political class after the American model.
Can the decentralization in Kosova bring an ethnic based division of the country?
The decentralization is very important because the closer the people are to the issues; the closer they are to the solutions. When you give people more responsibility and power over their own issues, they are understandably more motivated to resolve these issues and get effective results in their jobs, which makes me a very active supporter of decentralization and local, not central solutions to local problems.
I think that the minority issue will gradually resolve itself, once Serbia leaves the minds of Kosova citizens and independence is accepted. As soon as they accept the new reality the Kosova Serbs will let go of politics with the exception of some extreme nationalists maybe, but the majority will be tired by their big political loss. Meanwhile people want to go to work during the day and relax in the evenings, they want to smile, celebrate weddings, have families and enjoy their lives.
Any comments on the talks in Vienna?
Fortunately these talks favor Albanians, since Serbs are making the same mistakes again. It is a well-known fact that if Milosevic would have behaved smartly at Ramboulliet, the results would have been different today. The Americans gave him plenty of chances to change his behavior and save himself, but he erred, and fortunately for us, Serbs did not follow USA’s suggestions. They are doing the same thing again, which helps us very much. The extremist Serb politics and their ineptitude during these talks will hurt them much as a nation buttheir stubbornness is working in our favor.
You are always mentioned with respect in Kosova, especiall from former LKA leaders, because you were very active during the Ramboulliet talks. Do you see any parallels between those talks and the Vienna talks?
In my opinion, Ramboulliet events were very important. Albanians were very united throughout, even if they had a lot of pressure from different people, and we went to Ramboulliet to support the Kosova delegation, and not only us but a lot of other Americans went there to support the Kossova delegation. We suggested that they accept the American proposal, but something went awry and the refusal of the American proposal from the Kosova delegation lost a lot of time and let the Serbs strengthen their army.
We were there strictly on a supporting role, since the Kosova delegation was the main player as representatives of their people and bearers of a great responsibility. In this respect Vienna talks are similar to the Ramboulliet talks, because in both of them Albanians show a unified front and are very productive. The Americans and Europeans all consider this strategy as an example of how delegations should behave during talks about solving large conflicts. Kosova leaders are really doing very well and the results may very well be similar to the Ramboulliet ones too, when the international community imposed its solution. We should work a lot to reach this goal again.
The Albanians are criticizing the Negotiating Team of Kosova, accusing it of releasing a lot of territory to the control of the local Serbs, which might bring about more trouble into the future of Kosova. In your opinion, what should the Negotiating Team of Kosova have done?
In my opinion, if you cannot control your fate, you should follow the instructions of those stronger than you. I do not have any opinion on whether there should have been less or more territory released, but I think that the Albanians are very strong and they are achieving the goals of their people.
Do you think the Kosova delegation was well prepared as their leader often was a person with a degree in math or linguistics and has nothing to do with politics?
I think that it is not the place here to criticize the Kosova leaders and talk about their political incompetence. As Albanian-Americans, we cannot influence elections of Albanian Leaders, because it is not our job to do that. Our duty is to support any leader elected by the people and at a general glance, they have done a good job which will bring about positive results.
If there is no status resolution until spring of 2007, how do you predict Kosova during this time?
Since there was no resolution during 2006, the next date is March 24 2007, when the American and Allies intervention for the Kosova liberation first started. This is a very crucial date not only for political reasons but also for the people psyche, because this date is also a symbol of our will not to delay the resolution status.
If the Security Council does not recognize the Independence of Kosova for fear of the Russian veto, what other solution is left? Is there a plan B?
I hope there will be no need for a Plan b, since the majority agrees that this will bring about a very horrible situation. The Congress must really put greater pressure on the White House in order to resolve the Kosova Issue as soon as possible. I am not criticizing the administration’s strategy, but they should have a more aggressive policy in place in order to help Kosova further.
I have a read a lot of articles about you from the Meyers Foundation and the book of Paul Hockenos ”Homeland Calling” presents you with a lot of respect, but there are also pro-Serb journalists that criticize your actions against Serbia. Do you have any comments on this?
I take it as a great compliment when pro-Serb journalists criticize my work. Serb critics only serve to confirm that I am getting closer to my goals, so they are like praise to me. That is why they bring me great
Can you tell us about something DC Vote which hired you as its Executive Director?
Yes, I resigned the National Albanian-American Council and returned to my work with the American politics some years ago. I am very dedicated to both American and Albanian politics and I am always trying to further our cause as much as I am able.
I never fought in the ranks of the LKA, which has been a dream for many people including me. Despite my assistance to the LKA, which I always cherished, I do not consider my dream fulfilled. Now I have another dream as well, helping people in Washington DC. The people who live in this free world are not yet aware that democracu in this country is not yet complete
Albanians must know that only hundreds of feet away from the White House, people still have no control over their budget and their laws, they cannot vote for neither Congress or Senate, which is very absurd, and that DC has no representatives in the high government levels. The people here in DC have worked very hard in this direction and they were very impressed with my accomplishments. My contacts at the Clinton administration referred me to DC Vote in order to help them make true democracy a reality and we have made incredible progress. If I can achieve my goals during my short career here, I will feel very proud especially because I am an Albanian immigrant in the US and I am accomplishing a lot.
It looks like you are very busy with the introduction of new laws for Congress approval. Does this mean you will not deal with Albanian issues at the moment?
I am doing whatever I can through the National Albanian-American Council. I support Avni Mustafaj and I get involved whenever necessary. Now NAAC is not as demanding because Kosova was liberated, very good news I must say, but I am ready to help my people as much as I am able, at any moment.
What will be your message for Kosova in its current situation?
They must remain vigilant and fight for independence. The Kosova Albanians must be informed about the current political reality, but they must remember that people can change that political reality if they are so determined. My message to the people is to prepare for independence and plan a strategy for economic development of Kosova so they can have a normal life. This is the reason why wars happen, because people want to fulfill their dreams of a normal.
Qazim Doda, End of 2006, New York
Adapted into English by Blerta Alikaj