A strange thing happened on my way to this month’s blog. I had planned to discuss something completely different (which I’ll do another time), but Paula Huntley’s 2003 book kept creeping into my mind. Reading the blurbs raised a question for me: can one small, important book really change the lives of people in a far and troubled corner of the world? I needed to answer that question for myself. After reading this book, my intuition has been screaming at me to share this story with others…so here we are.

Huntley’s book is actually her journal of the 8 months she and her husband spent in Kosovo in 2000-2001. Her husband, Ed Villmoare, was a law professor who volunteered to help create a legal system in Kosovo while she taught English as a second language. It would be difficult to imagine a more dramatic change from living in coastal Bolinas, CA to living in a war-torn and traumatized country in much reduced circumstances and not knowing the language. On the other hand, the Kosovars needed help in virtually every imaginable way, so Huntley and her husband offered theirs because they could.

It’s important to know a bit about Kosovo to understand what the “internationals” who came to Kosovo faced. Huntley explains it so well in her “accidental book,” as she calls it: the journal that became an unplanned book. The Balkans have been problematic for centuries, as we in the West have learned. It’s an area of collisions; where the edges of empires, religions, ethnic groups, and codes of living meet, often in conflict. The area known as Kosovo has been occupied for about 10,000 years by various groups, including the Romans. In the 6th and 7th centuries, Slavs migrated to the area, and it was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century until 100 years ago. It was made part of Yugoslavia after WWI, then made an Autonomous Province within Serbia after WWII. Every Kosovar knows their history of greatness, who their heroes are, and what they did. Outsiders must understand the importance of pride in their history, their courage to prevail, which is still strong in their mindset.

After WWII, Yugoslavia fell under Communism and the rule of Josip Tito. He was able to hold together the motley grouping of which Yugoslavia was comprised under a looser form of Communism than Russia practiced until his death in 1980. In the 1990s, Serbian president Milosevic cracked down on the Kosovars in ways that sound exactly like Jim Crow, turning Kosovars into second-class citizens. In 1998-1999, Serbian paramilitary and other forces used Nazi-style techniques (e.g., packed trains) to send nearly 1 million Albanian Kosovars out of Kosovo in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They then swept through Kosovo in a genocidal wave, killing many males and brutalizing other Kosovars and especially females (Huntley gives more details). In March-June 1999, NATO conducted armed intervention, including bombing Serbian parts of the capital city of Pristina, to push out the Serbs. The city and country were in shambles. Few people survived with their entire families intact, & virtually everyone was traumatized to some extent. Kosovars were by no means going to accept Serbian rule again and wanted independence. This is the Pristina and Kosovo that Huntley and her husband encountered in September 2000.

Huntley describes her feeling of terror at making this change in their lives. That fear disappeared once they were on the ground in Kosovo, however, despite the environment of destruction, rebuilding, lack of dependable services and supplies, huge piles of uncollected garbage in the streets, not understanding the language, and just general “otherness.” She found herself opening to the people and accepting the situation, something she credits in good part to her age. At 56, she reacted differently than she feels she would have in her 30s. She was in turn accepted happily by the generous Kosovars, who loved Americans. While Serbs were hated for what they had done to Kosovars, they felt that the Americans helped them push back the Serbs.

Huntley secured a position teaching English as a second language at the Cambridge School, a privately owned English language school in Pristina. She wasn’t sure anyone would come to her class, given the condition of the city, transportation difficulty, etc. The class eventually grew to nearly 20, most in the high school-college-age range. The students all had some basic command of English, and her goal was to increase their vocabulary and command of the language. Huntley wrote about each student as she got to know and love them—and they to know and love her.

She wondered why these students were trying to learn English at that time in their country. That’s when she learned about the deep and strong family ties in Kosovar society. Family was everything (which makes what happened to family members even more horrifying). Young people wanted and expected to stay with their families, to do whatever they could to support the whole family. That meant having a good job, and the best way to get one, often abroad, was to know English, the common language of business. That made sense.

Huntley looked for various creative ways to improve her students’ English ability. By chance, she found a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. She felt the simple language, short story, and classic tale was a good choice, so made a copy for each student. Since this “book club” was outside of their classwork, she invited them to her rented home to meet and talk about their assignments. It was this story, this relaxed and informal meeting place to talk about it, that Huntley says cemented the class into a family. While she didn’t think at first that the students could relate to the old man, the sea, and the fish, she says that it turned out to be the perfect work for them. “Hemingway’s fable of the spirit’s victory over loss and adversity turned out to be the story of my students’ lives.” (p. 206) His courage inspired them to keep up their courage and not bend under adversity.

What touched me most deeply about this book is how the best aspects of humanity emerged from loss and sorrow by disparate people coming together. Yes, there was hate…Huntley gently tried to temper the “all Serbs are killers” statement to a more moderate “some Serbs are killers;” the “all Romas collaborated with Serbs” statement to “some Romas collaborated with Serbs.” People have to stop being seen as people, as humans; they must be seen as objects, as “the other,” for the kinds of atrocities that were committed to be perpetrated. Perhaps with time, Kosovars will feel more moderate, but the loss and brutality were too fresh just then. These students and Huntley were able to give each other hope, support, and love; to be able to give of themselves to each other.

In her final meeting with her students, Huntley spoke from her heart:
“We all have a responsibility to think about the purpose of language—what we do with our words. I encourage you to use your new language to try to understand people who are different from you, to help them understand you. And use your new words to say kind things to one another, to help other people, to encourage them, to make them feel better about themselves. To express the things I know each of you feels in your heart: love, generosity, compassion.” (pp. 204-205)

To revisit my initial question, I’d say: yes. Hemingway’s small book really did change the lives of the students and the teacher by allowing them to talk about things they’d never have discussed otherwise; by doing so in a safe place and emotional space; and thereby creating a new type of family (the most precious thing in Kosovar culture) for them all. Huntley and her husband have kept in touch with most of the students, even helping some financially when possible, and in whatever other ways they can.

I will be re-visiting Huntley’s journal-turned-book often to remind myself of its wisdom. It is as relevant today as it was when it was written.

–Donna Rueff