Representations of women in war, particularly in media, often tend to be simplistic readings of their roles and positions in such contexts. In addition, state-centric and western approaches to war often fail to properly grasp the experiences of resistance among oppressed and colonised peoples, especially of those in guerrilla movements. E&M’s author Nisa Sherifi aims to share the lessons she learned about this topic after interviewing Mimoza Shala, a former guerrilla soldier of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who is currently a municipal deputy and political advisor in the city of Gjakova.
Upon joining the KLA, Mimoza was 16 years old and she turned 17 during the war. As such, her experience of the war is not only one of a guerrilla soldier, one of a woman, or one of a teenager; it is all three. During our discussion, Mimoza told me how tired she was of all the interviews she went through, in which the main and only focus of her interviewers had been the gendered perspective of this experience. To her, and one might assume this is the case for many more women guerrilla soldiers, this was reductionist.
Mimoza does not deny gender as an important factor in this context. During our conversation, she reiterated that: “Not only among the Albanians of Kosovo, or Albanians in general, but worldwide, being a woman comes with its own set of challenges. So of course, in a context like that of the KLA, being a woman meant there was also an internal war, symbolically.”
When speaking about the position of women in the war, Mimoza states that: “In my opinion, as women, we were given as much [power, space] as we deserved.” Despite the fact that their numbers were small, there were women occupying high ranks in the KLA, who “did their job well” as she puts it. However, she also tempers the conversation with a dose of reality, pointing out that many women weren’t prepared to lead soldiers into combat.
There were cases of gender-based discrimination or violations, but she claims that such incidents were caused by individuals, and were isolated cases. After all, the KLA did not exist in a vacuum in which everyone had suddenly unlearned the gendered behaviors they’d been taught and had become fully feminist; to expect that would mean to be blind to reality. Yet, Mimoza insists that there was no violation or deep sexism on a structural level in the guerrilla army. According to her, this was because of the deep support that women in the KLA received from their male comrades, who were always there for them.
Mimoza says that the sense of solidarity among former fighters has persisted until today: “Sometimes we don’t see each other for years, but when we do, despite the fact that we are not related by blood, we are some kind of a very important family, because we experienced such extreme times together, during which we realised that all we had was each other.” This notion of family between the former fighters is much more than a metaphor. Mimoza recalls a moment in which she spoke of a fellow soldier, now a veteran, and her family members disputed her words. She retorted: “Please shut up, because when the conversation is about the topic I was talking about [the war] she is my sister, not yours, just as I was her sister, and not my biological sister’s”.
Digging into the source of this deep connection, Mimoza stated that: “It’s a world that only we experienced, in our skin, and I often say that no matter how much we try to describe it, I’m afraid that we never find the adequate words to make others understand its essence. But at least, we expect empathy.”
“There were cases of harassment, by individuals with no scruples and many prejudices, but we still had this support of our fellow soldiers; if you didn’t want to deal with an issue, there were people who would solve it for you.”
“Now, when I look back, I am surprised at how I managed such situations, and how I could understand the situation I was in,” she reflects. “It’s true that during the whole war, my biggest safety was my gun under my pillow, which illustrates much about being a girl or woman in times of war.” She recalls that some struggles came from within the KLA, particularly when faced with unknown people: “When we retreated, it was possible that we’d get separated from the soldiers in our battalion, and we came across people who we didn’t know and who didn’t know us, and sadly, since we are also a patriarchal society, there was prejudice against being a woman, and since I’m naturally blonde, that added to it.” Hailing from the city was an added dimension: “for some of them it sufficed to see that you were a woman from the city to think you were inadequate for war.”
Mimoza also claims to not know of a single case of rape against women from within the KLA: “There were cases of harassment, by individuals with no scruples and many prejudices, but we still had this support of our fellow soldiers; if you didn’t want to deal with an issue, there were people who would solve it for you.”
She says that she would not change her war-time experiences for anything. “Because it taught me to understand people even before they spoke,” she explains. “With one look, I can tell what kind of people they are and what they might be thinking, because the war really developed my intuition to that degree. Trust me, the people that I had issues with because of my gender, I already knew I was going to have issues with before they even arose,” she insists.
This solidarity and protection Mimoza received from her fellow soldiers was something “natural” according to her, and even today, whenever they meet, they refer to each other as “sisters” and “brothers”.
“What differentiated us, the young soldiers, from the older ones was the fact that we didn’t really care whether we were going to get killed right there and then or not.”
She says this is because all of them knew exactly where they were going. “We knew we weren’t going to play Counter-Strike” she says. They were heading towards an almost certain death. When the KLA took up arms, few people predicted the NATO intervention, so the asymmetry of the war meant that those joining the KLA were well aware of the high likelihood of losing their lives; it was simply a risk they had chosen to take.
“What differentiated us, the young soldiers, from the older ones was the fact that we didn’t really care whether we were going to get killed right there and then or not.” Mimoza goes on to explain. “The more mature members didn’t dive into situations like we did, which I understand, because they had families to lose. We young ones had an approach of wherever I fall I hope I don’t die.”
Of course, while most of our conversation was inspiring and showed how joining the KLA was a decision that Mimoza would make over and over again, the dark realities of war were touched upon as well.
“Most of us went in saying ‘I hope I don’t die’ but most of us lost friends in the battles” she said. “Yet, we learned to adapt to these kinds of situations so quickly that sometimes we’d bury a friend at noon, while in the evening we’d be singing, to keep our motivation alive.” They always centred the living, she explains: “If a friend of ours got killed, and we knew another friend was closer to them, there’d be this sort of unplanned organisation where each of us would do something to ease the pain of our buddy, which I think we continuously managed to do.”
Beyond death, there was also a high probability of injury, which Mimoza experienced first hand. Yet, she humbled me, and probably much of the KLA with the manner in which she dealt with it. Mimoza got shot in the foot, and “unlike the many men soldiers who’d go for treatment to Albania for far smaller injuries,” as she recalls, she refused to do so. Without abandoning her post, she and her battalion tended to her injury while in the mountains.
Her overall experience of the war is one of no regret, as she heroically fought to defend her homeland, including me and my family, and because it is one that taught her invaluable lessons, even though it came with the unimaginable pain of having to bury loved ones lost in battle.
“We had the luck to be part of such a colossal event in our history” she says, jokingly apologising to me for “not having had that chance” since I was a baby at the time. Few can say that they truly risked everything to defend their loved ones, their people, their community and country; few can say they truly fought for self-determination. She can.
“For me, now, post-war and post-independence, the real soldiers are those that work tirelessly to improve the lives of our citizens and to improve the country”
Yet, since the war is over, Mimoza has made sure to shift the attention to a new battle: the battle for an adequate livelihood and living standard for everyone in the now free and independent Kosovo.
As she says: “For me, now, post-war and post-independence, the real soldiers are those that work tirelessly to improve the lives of our citizens and to improve the country”.
This series of articles has hopefully given you a glimpse of what it was like to be a woman guerrilla soldier in the Kosovo Liberation Army. It is not meant to glorify war, as all soldiers, including Mimoza, would’ve wanted to attain liberation without having to sacrifice thousands of lives and live through decades of oppression and colonisation.
However, since that was not the reality we and most other oppressed people live in, it is crucial to look into why guerrilla soldiers, especially women and young people with little experience and their lives in front of them, would join such wars. Understanding Mimoza’s experiences hopefully not only helped you understand a part of her story and that of Kosovo, but also the reality of guerrilla warfare and limits of white feminism.
Feature image by D.Lleshi, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons