PRISTINA, KOSOVO —
Editor's note: VOA's Jeff Swicord visited Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to examine radical extremism in the Balkans. This is the first of three parts.
The text message read, “Tonight is the night.” We had been trying for weeks to set up a meeting. After numerous conversations to settle on a discreet time and place, it was finally on.
Hundreds of Kosovars have left for Syria.
“Many of them are influenced by what they learn on social media and finish on the battlefields of Syria.” said Skender Perteshi of the Kosovar Center for Security Studies. “The majority of them come from isolated rural communities, are very poorly educated, and live in bad economic conditions.”
Some are criminals lured by the promise that jihad will cleanse them of their sins.
FILE - Kosovo Muslims donate money in a box labeled "Help for Syria" in front of the Grand Mosque in Kosovo's capital Pristina in this 2012.
'You have to do something'
Amir, not his real name, didn't fit that description. When he walked into the room, we thought he was another worker from the office suite we were borrowing. Well-educated, his attire was more suited to an American Ivy-League college student than someone willing to risk their life trekking through the war-torn hell that Syria has become.
Inspired to help what he saw as innocent Muslims suffering in Syria’s civil war, Amir left Kosovo to join one of the dozens of Islamist militias fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“I cannot deny the religious factor,” he said. “But the main reason was a human one. Believe me, let me be sincere, I don’t mind non-Muslims fighting against [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad. For me, when you see suffering like that you have to do something.”
Amir told his family he was going to Turkey – his deceit something that troubles him to this day.
“Going there without the knowledge of my family was religiously wrong,” he said. “And I feel guilty before Allah and family for doing this.”
He traveled a well-worn path. A year before, some Albanian friends had gone to fight in Syria and told Amir of the necessary connections. The first month, he spent talking with members of an Islamist militia he wanted to join. He also met members of other groups, including al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State.
“Most of the time there I spent discussing and debating. It is a procedure like that. You have to wait for military training because there are too many people and you must be trained in groups,” he said.
FILE - Islamist fighters crawl under razor wire at a training camp in near Damascus in this 2013 photo.
Unwillingness to cooperate
It was during this time that Amir started to become disillusioned with what he was seeing.
“I was part of a group that the main objective was to defeat Bashar al-Assad. And they were willing to cooperate with other groups. But the other groups didn’t want to cooperate," he said. "They wanted a monopoly on the war, a monopoly on Islam, and they liked to think they were the primary authority on everything.”
Days before he was to receive his military training, he decided to leave. Amir told us the militia he was with was very understanding — he was welcome to return anytime.
“If it had been the Islamic State, I would be dead,” he told us.
Shortly after he returned to Kosovo, his suspicions about the rivalries were realized. He learned the leader of the rebel group he was with had been killed by another militia. All the militias, he said, were fighting against each other and the situation on the ground had descended into chaos.
“Had I known what was really going on there I never would have gone. I thought that we were going there to help the Syrian people fight against the dictator Assad," he said. "But what I saw was a situation that was just burdening them [the Syrian people] more.”
FILE - Kosovo police officers stand guard outside a Pristina courthouse in 2014 following the arrest of 40 men suspected of having fought with Islamist insurgents in Syria and Iraq.
Added to watch list
Back home, Amir tried to go back to a normal routine but he faced new troubles.
“Sometimes I would go to the border of Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania to visit friends and family. And I learned from the border police that I was on a watch list,” he said.
Then, he was stopped by Kosovo’s counterterrorism unit for questioning. He was honest, he said, and told them everything.
“After that meeting they told me I could go free – that I had done nothing wrong," he said.
But security forces came back and he was formally arrested. He's set to stand trial on the charge of participating in a terrorist organization. Dozens of other Kosovars who have returned from Syria are also facing trial.
Amir's legal problems have turned his life upside down. He cannot get a job and opportunities to study abroad have evaporated.
“It is forbidden for me to travel to the EU states for three years," he said. "I don’t have my passports; they are in the hands of the police. I lost many opportunities to continue my education. I lost three scholarships because of this.”
But his troubles don't end with the authorities. Extremist groups in Syria and in Kosovo have threatening him with death.