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But through all of this, Dani maintained his keen awareness of what's at stake in his troubled homeland. Between his shoulder blades is a large tattoo of a snake and the initials E.I.S., for the words "Ethnic Identity Sucks." Though the entire Serb minority fled Ferizaj after the war, Dani has met many Serbs at youth conferences elsewhere in the Balkans. He'd also traveled in Serb villages in Kosovo right after the war while interpreting for U.S. troops, and he saw one old woman who'd just been badly beaten by local Albanians. "This land we have fought over is not any of ours," he says. "The universe is the owner."
In his speech in Ferizaj, Clinton famously told the Albanian crowd: "No one can force you to forgive what was done to you. But you must try." Dani traces his own tolerance to his mother, who always taught him to have basic respect for others. Even during the war, Dani recalls, he did not have the feeling of "hate that others had." Then again, he adds, "I don't know how I'd feel if they'd killed my father. I want to think my ideas wouldn't be different, but I don't know."
As the oldest and only male child in his family, Dani bears much responsibility. His father, Bashkin, now 57, has been unemployed for the past two years. It is Dani who supports the family on the $1,070 a month he makes as a translator for Irish peacekeeping troops, while studying sociology at the local university.
When Dani was 14, I must already have had an inkling that he was one of those rare people who transcend age and place and ethnicity and religion, too. I couldn't know to what extent: a year after the war, Dani converted from Islam to Protestantism after reading a New Testament given to him by American missionaries. "It matched with my philosophy," he says. "Jesus' message is love, to turn the other cheek." Dani keeps his faith close to his chest. "I don't think God wants to be as popular as he is right now," he says. If it doesn't come up, Dani doesn't mention his religion to people he meets, most of whom assume that he's Muslim. After all, he says with a smile, "My name is Ramadan."
What he is eager to speak out about is politics. Like most Albanians, Dani still loves the U.S., but "sometimes more the idea than the reality." He's noticed that some U.S. troops in Kosovo come after tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and bring with them prejudices against Muslims. But his main focus is Kosovo, where he says the "status" question of when and how to extend independence to the Albanian-majority nation has become a way for political leaders to distract citizens from more concrete problems. Basic infrastructure is decrepit (electric power is cut twice a day in Ferizaj), the unemployment rate is the highest in Europe, and organized crime and corruption are on the rise. "If we had a government that was accountable, independence would have been a natural outcome," he says. "Instead some can say we're not ready for independence. Peaceful multiethnicity can only come out of economic and social stability."
These days, rather than be a politician himself, Dani wants to be a political watchdog. He founded an NGO two years ago called INPO, initiative for progress, which has a dozen young staff members who report to him. The organization, which takes pains to stay independent from any political party or business interest, aims to hold politicians' feet to the fire and convince citizens to do the same: protesting against missing traffic lights at a busy intersection, investigating candidates for conflicts of interest, running a get-out-the-vote drive. "It's not only about the idea of democracy, but also of civic responsibility, about educating the people about the role they play in a democracy," says Dani. While I was there, INPO announced the names of nine Ferizaj city council members whom it accused of conflicts of interest or corruption, such as spouses applying for public contracts. It was the lead story on both local nightly news programs, and was covered in the national dailies the next morning.
To end our four days together, Dani took me to a nearby village named Talinovic, which historically was split between Serbs and Albanians. Here, on July 2, 1999, after Belgrade's capitulation, Greek peacekeeping troops told some 300 Serb villagers that they could no longer guarantee their safety. They fled en masse, and every home was subsequently burned to the ground by Albanians from out of town. Last year, the first 40 brick houses were rebuilt on the land, and a few of the mostly older Serb residents began to trickle back from their exile in Serbia.
"The best place to live is where you were born and grew up," says Radomir Stojanovic, 67, whose children and grandchildren are still in Serbia proper. "So far, we are free and safe to be back here. But we are still worried." With Dani translating from Serbo-Croatian, Stojanovic tells me the question of Kosovo's independence is by now a chess match between Russia and the U.S., while Serbs and Albanians want the same things: peace and work. He tells how he used to work in a state-owned corner store, and knew all the Albanian residents. "I've known some of them since I was a kid, and we have always got along," Stojanovic says. "But when I invite them to my home for coffee, they say: 'Not yet it's not time.' But when will that time come?"
Heading to the car, I thought back to the tents we were invited into by Albanian refugees in Macedonia when Dani was still a fresh-faced boy of 14. The ethnicity of the sufferers has changed, but not the nature of their suffering nor the simple hope that it may end. These are truths I might never have seen without Dani.