After Yugoslav and Serbian military and paramilitary forces swept through Kosovo, destroying more than 500 villages, the sky was filled with NATO air strikes, and millions of Kosovar Albanians were displaced. Among them was five-year-old Jerinë and her family.
Pristina isn’t the prettiest of cities, but then it’s had a tough life. Home to one million of Kosovo’s 1.7million people, its mish-mash of architectural styles is symbolic of having to build a lot of homes for a lot of people, very quickly. Around 90 per cent of Kosovan homes were destroyed by the war, and with many leaving the countryside for the city, Pristina become a new home for many. It’s still the case today, with cranes and scaffolding a permanent fixture of the cityscape.
If you’d been here 15 years ago, you’d have seen first-hand the destruction wrought by war, with roads and buildings scarred by the bombings.
In a country barely a decade old, Kosovo has been rebuilding on all fronts, homes, lives and community. Which is where rugby comes in. The sport has been a slow burner in Europe’s youngest country, with the first team being set up by expats straight after the war in 2000, and only four teams emerging since. One is even more pioneering than the rest, Lynx Rugby Football Club, the country’s first and only women’s rugby club.
Inadvertently, rugby’s emergence was the result of the end of the war, and the rapid influx of expats, as the UN took managerial control of the rebuilding of the country. Kosovo didn’t obtain full independence until 2008, when the UN began to withdraw from the country giving it full autonomy. They left behind a more developed, and secure nation and Kosovo’s first-ever rugby team; Kosovo International Rugby Football Club.
Among this first group of expats was Bronwyn Jones, a media and communications development officer and founder of Lynx Rugby.
When we meet Bronwyn, it’s in one of the more vibrant areas of Pristina, full of al fresco bars and restaurants, in a sports bar with large screens playing European football.
This is a regular haunt for the Lynx Rugby team, and it’s a gathering just like any other across the rugby diaspora; women chatting, laughing and joking about the previous session and infamous ‘3rd halves’ (the socials). What makes it different is the diversity of nationalities that sit round the table; the two coaches, Simon and Mark, are from England and Ireland, while others hail from France, Italy, New York, and Turkey.
The first player Bronwyn introduces us to is a local, Jerinë, who came to the club in March 2018, and is now one of their most dedicated players. Being Kosovan Albanian, her back story is unlike any of her international team-mates. Despite being very young when the war began, her memories are vivid.
In 1994, after Jerinë’s father had been dismissed from his job, due to his Albanian heritage, her family (mother, father and four siblings) were forced to move to Pristina. “We had to move to so many places,” she says, “and my sisters had to change schools a lot.”
Like her fellow Kosovans, her family moved to escape the violence of the Serbian army. “On the night we left home, I remember boiling eggs so we could take them with us,” begins Jerinë. “Once we were walking, we were in the mountains, but I could see a village and I remember seeing houses burning but we just kept walking.”
Jerinë and her family first went to live with her aunt outside of Pristina. “She had enough food for us in the beginning, but later on the supplies were not enough for all of us, because they are a big family too. Then we went to some relatives in ‘Sunny Hill,’ [a district in Pristina] but there were too many people living in the same house, and they said, ‘we don’t have enough space for you’. It also wasn’t safe to stay in the same place for too long because you never knew when the army or police would come.”
“My parents were afraid for us and themselves, and that the old house would fall down and bury us alive. They lived in fear, no food, no water and a daughter who asks for food and water all the time. We were poor, we had nothing, just a roof over our head.”
In the aftermath of the war, Jerinë’s family worked tirelessly to rebuild their lives, ensuring their children focused on their studies to secure good jobs. When we meet, Jerinë is finishing off her thesis in Law, and attending extra-curricular English classes to develop her language skills. At the end of it all, she’s hoping to put something back into the community by starting her own NGO to help teachers combat ethnic disparity in the region.
It was her English teacher who first encouraged her to take up rugby, as a means of improving her language skills. Jerinë, having no idea what she was letting herself in for, braved the first training session and left, like most who have never played before, not knowing what was going on. “So I came home and watched some videos, and I saw broken noses, teeth and blood, and learnt how the game was actually played,” she says, before adding, “and I got really scared.”
Despite having found the more brutal side of the game, Jerinë decided that giving up was not an option and continued to attend training, improving each week, and it wasn’t long before she was hooked.
New Yorker Bronwyn is ultimately the person responsible for introducing Jerinë and, indeed, many other Kosovan women to rugby. Born in the Bronx, she first left America for Croatia, where she studied for a second masters in international relations, focusing on the rise of Nationalism in the region. “I went to college in Croatia and when I finished my masters I ended up working here because it was right after the war,” she explains. “I worked in every country in this region except for Romania, and then also Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Armenia.”
Like many people in the region at that time, Bronwyn was working in international development and humanitarian affairs, she’d arrived in Kosovo in 2004, but randomly it was during a two-year stint in Afghanistan that she was introduced to rugby. So unstable had the area in which she was staying become, that she and her Kiwi flatmate had been instructed not to leave their house. With presumably the New Zealander in charge of the remote, they would while away the hours watching rugby until soon Bronwyn was hooked. Her new passion for the sport followed her when she moved back to Kosovo.
Whereas before, she would always head to the sports bar to watch football, now she was seeking out the latest rugby action. She soon struck up a friendship with a fellow regular, the head coach of the Kosovo men’s rugby side. “I eventually said to him that we needed to start a women’s team – basically because I really wanted to play.”
The coach finally relented and agreed to help set up a women’s team [starting with sevens], and the club was formed in September 2017, with just four players. Numbers quickly grew, and by January they had ten training regularly at the local park. “The hardest thing was to find a pitch,” admits Bronwyn. “It took months to find, and even then we were lucky to find it because what pitches there are tend to be very small, almost 5-a-side football pitches.”
Luckily for the team, the British government ambassador for Kosovo, Ruarí O’Connell, was an avid rugby fan, even coaching rugby himself with the local kids, and came to the rescue, allowing the team to share the pitch that he used.
The side now meet three times a week and, although the location on the outskirts of the city is far from ideal, in just one year, the numbers have risen from four to 25 – and that’s despite playing in the darkness of winter due to the absence of floodlights. It’s one of a number of challenges facing the side, coupled with a shortage of funding, decent rugby balls, and a lack of opposition. Sevens rugby is the first goal but, with no other Kosovan sides in existence, they can only get match practice with internal competitions or tournaments in neighbouring countries.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is the culture around them, with oppressive gender stereotypes and expectations prevalent across Kosovan society. This is partly due to the lack of sporting opportunities in the national school curriculum, particularly for women. “Organised sport in schools doesn’t exist here,” says Bronwyn, “PE is pretty much, ‘go outside and maybe take a run around’, if that. So, for some of the girls they had never done anything like this before, it was completely new to them. Even the whole idea of being in a team is just completely new.”
Beyond schools, sporting culture for women is also rare with only 15 per cent of women participating in regular physical activity, compared to 58 per cent of women in the UK. “It’s not even common for women to go to a gym here,” continues Bronwyn. “The men stare, and many women go and just take selfies.”
Despite efforts by coaches Mark and Simon to encourage the team to take part in extra gym sessions outside of training – they’ve sought out less crowded gyms and designed gym sessions for the girls - they still face the challenge of overcoming the traditional gender stereotypes that exist in society. “This is a very traditional society,” says Bronwyn. “It’s changing very quickly, but at the same time you can still be told by someone, even if you’re dating them, ‘I can’t marry you because I’m promised to so and so’.
“There are still those issues and women are still expected to grow up, to get married and to have children, and that’s their primary thing in life.”
Jerinë also reflected on how women are treated within society: “Women here are not secure, they can be harassed by men and if something bad happens to them and they go to the police, they don’t do anything.
“I don’t go out that often, but when I do, I make sure to come back home before dark. You feel scared, especially when there are no lights on the road or a few people [around]. It is like, ‘you are a girl, and your place is at home’, especially at night.”
This attitude is reflected in the response many of the girls have got from their parents when they began playing. Luckily for Jerinë her parents had never watched a rugby game, and do not know how physically challenging it can be. “I think if they knew the game, they wouldn’t let me play,” she admits. “They’d think it is too dangerous, that I will hurt myself.” Even without knowing what the sport entails, Jerinë’s parents were not overly positive about her taking up the sport. “I said I had started playing rugby and my dad didn’t say anything, he just scowled. He was angry because at almost 24 I should be focusing on finding a job, not just going out to play ball.”
Yet there are hints that this may be starting to change, with the appointment of Atifete Jahjaga as Kosovo’s third president. Jahjaga worked tirelessly to highlight women’s experience of the war, culminating in the erection of the ‘Heroinat’ statue in central Pristina, built in remembrance of women who suffered atrocities at the hands of the Serbian army. There’s still a way to go to get respect though. “The other day,” says Bronwyn, “we were going to the ministry, and we were asking for the person we were going to meet and said, ‘oh yes, we’re from the rugby team’, and they looked at us and they all started laughing. So, you know, it happens.”
Despite these responses, the profile of women’s sport is on the rise, partly due to the success of judo champion, Majlinda Kelmendi, who won Kosovo’s first medal, a gold, at the country’s first Olympic games in 2016.
Team sports, especially contact sports such as rugby, have yet to enjoy the same recognition, but slowly the Lynx Rugby team are making a change. “Rugby did a great thing for me,” says Jerinë, “it helped me to increase my confidence and look at myself in a different light. Before, I was scared of people, I always thought that because I am skinny they can easily hurt me and I wouldn’t be able to protect myself. But now I feel differently, I don’t see my weight as a problem and I’ve learned so much about myself. I don’t need kilos to protect myself, I can do it without any problem.”
The club now organises outreach programs in Pristina’s surrounding districts to gather more players, old and young, and hope to start an under 18 side which will feed through to the women’s team as it develops, hopefully then making the step to 15s. “I would really love to do 15s,” says Bronwyn. “I’m suited for 15s, because I’m a front rower, but our coaches feel, ‘well let’s try to get sevens first and then we’ll see’. A 15s team would be fantastic though.”
Before that, Bronwyn and Lynx Rugby have a meeting with International Olympic Committee as they look to help with the next steps for the rugby in Kosovo. Bronwyn and the members of Lynx Rugby have been instrumental in putting together Kosovo’s first ever Rugby Federation, which was inaugurated by the International Olympic Committee in September 2018. With the federation in place, Lynx Rugby can now apply for funding from Rugby Europe, and perhaps a place at Tokyo 2020 could even be on the cards. It’s a big call, but given what they’ve been through, even just the opportunity is reason to be positive.
Considering the Lynx side – who would make up the entirety of a Kosovan national women’s side – have only played one tournament so far, it’s a lofty dream, but definitely possible. On debut at a Bulgarian sevens event earlier this year, they fielded two sides, and perhaps unsurprisingly finished third and fourth in a group of four, but it was invaluable experience.
Until new sides form in Kosovo, international opposition is the only option when it comes to game time. A lack of funding means going away all the time is not feasible – a visa costs £50, half the weekly wage in Kosovo – and so they hope to attract sides from across Europe to the country for a unique touring experience. Pints for £1 is one plus point and just for its unique culture and incredible story, Kosovo should be an attractive tour destination. Hosting an annual festival to help bring in those sides will certainly help, it will also give some much-needed exposure for women’s sport in the country. When it comes to challenging perceptions, Lynx have already made their mark. “With the guys and girls, you have to explain a lot of the culture around rugby, about tolerance, respect, and diversity, which is such a good thing in Kosovo, especially when you look at the way the women are treated,” says Bronwyn. “When you start playing rugby you know that you’re a rugby player, that’s it. There’s no difference, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are, or where you come from, you’re just a rugby player.”
Words and Pictures by Hannah Davisson