|Albert Berisha, returned from Syria who established INSTID | Photo: Cortesy of Albert Berisha|
Albert Berisha is a man on a mission. A returnee from the conflict zone in Syria, he has formed an NGO to help other disillusioned ex-fighters get back into society – and out of the extremist ideology that took them from Kosovo to a foreign war.
“The state has never understood that our goals were not to be terrorists,” he says, referring to the 300 or so Kosovars believed to have fought in the Middle East in recent years.
“Each had his own history and goals. But the one important thing about those who have returned is that their return means they were disappointed by what they saw,” Berisha told BIRN.
Berisha himself went to Syria to join fight against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in October 2013 but returned to Kosovo after only nine days.
He claimed he never actually fought on the battlefields and came home because he did not want to join jihadist organizations like Al-Nusra.
But a first-instance court in Kosovo jailed him for terrorism for three-and-a-half years. His case is currently with the Appeal Court and he is awaiting the verdict while at liberty.
Kosovo authorities say about 300 would-be fighters travelled to Syria and Iraq in recent years of whom around 130 have returned.
But returnees face prison when they reach home. Parliament in March 2015 adopted a law punishing participation in foreign conflicts with up to 15 years in jail.
The tough sentences were part of the government’s measures aimed at tackling the issue of Kosovars heading to the Middle East and fighting for Islamist extremists.
About 120 people have been arrested and nearly 60 are currently on trial for violent extremism.
“The hardest time for me was social prejudice, the lingering doubts and the constant pressures from all institutions – their tendency to fulfil their political or institutional agendas through us,” Berisha said, recalling his trial.
“Even more difficult was the time after I was released from custody. By then, we had already become public faces and people began to stigmatize us even more,” he added.
“It is very difficult for people caught between two fires, when you do not know where you belong any longer,” Berisha continued.
His NGO, called INSTID, aims to combat religious extremism in Kosovo and “de-radicalize” people who have returned from the Middle Eastern warzone.
“Knowing that most of them have been victims, I thought that their further victimization was not a solution, and threatened to radicalize them even more,” he said.
“So I decided to form an institution to deal exclusively with this, so these persons can become useful again in society and not be deprived of their freedom – creating the potential for greater radicalization and even for radicalising others in prison,” said Berisha.
Berisha says de-radicalization and reintegration of those who have returned to Kosovo is a staged process.
The first program tackles the key question, which is not why they went to Syria but why they came back.
“We aim to emphasize their disappointment and remorse and use this for other people, to give them a clearer picture of the situation that was there and remains the same these days,” Berisha said.
From his own experience, Berisha thought that he knew what these former foreign fighters truly needed, something he says state institutions have failed to understand.
“Another program the NGO is planning is to understand the needs of these individuals by offering them support in employment and education, social support and support for their families,” he added.
According to him, tackling violent extremism and the extremist ideology requires a different approach from the one that the Kosovo state is taking.
“If the wrong policies are applied, actions such as detention and pressures, I think extremism as a phenomenon will become worse,” he said.
Berisha says relatives of people who still are fighting in Syria and Iraq have contacted the NGO seeking help.
“Our plan is to knock on the door of each person against whom charges have been filed, or who is under investigation, or is known to have been involved in these conflicts, or is spreading extremist ideas, show them the right way and take them out of this ideology,” Berisha said.
As someone who has publicly shared his experience of the conflict in Syria, although he denies has fought by extremist groups, Berisha says some people inevitably viewed his initiative with deep suspicion.
“There have been attempts to sabotage us using every kind of reasoning and prejudice, aiming to stop our work,” he recalled.
“But we will continue our work despite all the pressure because I think we’re doing a good job, which will benefit society,” he concluded.