Andrew March


Taking the routes less traveled through Kosovo and other war-torn lands has given College senior Andrew March insights into interethnic conflict. (Behind March in this picture is a photograph of Kosovo Liberation Army founder Adem Jashari, his father and his brother.)

Photo by Candace diCarlo

You could probably call Andrew March (C’00) a citizen of the world. He’s lived on both sides of the Atlantic. He had studied five languages by the time he applied to Penn. His wife, Munhtuya Altangerel (C’99), is from Mongolia. And he’s spent much of his undergraduate career traveling to global hot spots — Northern Ireland, Palestine, Bosnia, Kosovo.

Especially Kosovo. His experiences there led him to question conventional thinking about ways to resolve interethnic conflict. In his view, Westerners have forgotten their own history of ethnic cleansing, assimilation and sorting out of peoples, a process which he says is going on right now in the Balkans and elsewhere in the postcolonial world. Yet the modern Western desire to stop genocide plus a reluctance to redraw existing national borders makes the old state-based solutions to these conflicts obsolete.

Now he, his wife and his son, Tamir, 18 months, will all travel to Oxford, where he will study political philosophy and intellectual history for the next two years on a Marshall Scholarship — a steppingstone to the future he plans as an activist scholar who applies ideas and experience to major policy questions.

March is one of 40 students from across the United States to win the prestigious scholarship, which provides full support for two or three years of study toward a degree from a British university.

But as he tells it, none of this might have happened had it not been for an accidental encounter on a trip through the Balkans.

Q. How did you become interested in the Balkans?

A. It was actually kind of an accident. In April of 1996, before I came to Penn, I had been working in Slovakia as a translator. I wanted to take a trip. I didn’t have enough time to go anyplace far, so I decided to take a trip to the Balkans.

Kosovo was meant to be a transit stop. I was supposed to be spending one night there with a Serbian family just south of Pristina, and then move on.

So I got there a day earlier than expected, and happened to meet a couple of students who said they were from the University of Pristina. I asked them if they had any friends who [I could spend the night with], and they brought me to this guy who was also a student at the university.

The next morning, he invited me to come with him to the university. I was expecting that we would go to the official university buildings that we had visited the previous day, [but] we walked past those buildings into an Albanian neighborhood. We walk up to this big green gate, knock on it, a little window opens up, closes, lets us in, opens up into this courtyard, this private house — and that was the university.

It turned out that this house was part of a large network of underground universities and high schools that the Albanians had set up in 1989, when their autonomy was taken away and their institutions were forcibly integrated into Serbian institutions. They set up a large network of schools, health care, justice, cultural institutions, sports, taxation...

Q. In essence, a whole parallel government and country?

A. Basically, they declared their independence. They basically took their entire society underground.

So this, for me, was an absolutely surreal situation, where it’s almost like being witness to something in history. I thought that by virtue of my age I had missed all the interesting things that were going to happen in history.

So I completely canceled the rest of my travel plans, and I stayed for a couple of days until the guy I stayed with the first night invited me to visit his family.

On the way, we stopped in a small town called Shtime. It was this old Balkan town with a mosque and donkey carts, so I went out to take a picture. Before I could even trip the shutter, a police car pulled up across the street from us.

[The police] walked over, asked who we were, found out that they [his host and a friend] were young Albanian men and I was a foreigner, and brought us back to the police station, separated us, interrogated us for a couple of hours, looked through our stuff, found that I had written a letter in which I had spoken about [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic and the Albanian university in Pristina. So they kept us around, harassed us, and then they didn’t know what to do with us. So they called their superiors at the State Security, brought us over there for another round of interrogations, again separated us, decided that there was nothing really going on, but that I would have to leave the country. They drove me to the border with Albania and told me not to come back to Yugoslavia. The border guard was able to communicate to me just to sit there.

Finally, her shift ended, and a little minibus pulled up. We drove to this nearest town where I spent the night with her family, and the next day they put me on a bus to Tirana.

And that was my introduction to the Balkans. I went through Albania, went through Macedonia, went back into Kosovo, spent a couple of more days there at the university and then went on back to Slovakia.

Q. You were able to go back into the country after they told you not to return?

A. Exactly. They figured that the whole scare of the thing would be enough and didn’t bother to stamp my passport or anything, so I was able to get back in. And my personal experiences there, the nature of the political situation, the fact that [Kosovo] was very understudied and ignored convinced me that this was what I wanted to use my [University] Scholarship for. So I spent my freshman year developing a research project to go back to Kosovo in the summer of ’97, and it was [because of] this accidental, serendipitous chance encounter that didn’t have to happen.

Q. How many trips have you made there since?

A. I was there in ’97 for the entire summer. I was there in ’98 at the beginning of the war for about 10 days — the Albanians were calling elections in ’98 and I was going there with an NGO [nongovernmental organization] to be an election monitor.

While our trip was in preparation one day, I woke up in the morning and looked at the paper, and there was a massacre in a village called Prekaz. And I had been to Prekaz the previous summer. And I had stayed with a family called Jashari that had organized armed resistance against the Serbs in 1991. So I looked at the paper and the massacre was of a family called Jashari. And it turns out that this family was one of the main organizers of the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army]. One of the sons, Adem Jashari, overnight became a legend, and was — is still now — spoken about as the original founder and commander of the KLA. His picture, with his father and his brother, whom I met and stayed with, is all over the streets of all the cities of Kosovo.

So I was back there in Kosovo a couple of days after the massacre. There were student demonstrations that I was involved in because I knew the organizers of the student union and I was helping them translate their speeches.

And then I used the opportunity to go as an interpreter for a Time photographer — because journalists could get permission from the Interior Ministry — to go back and visit the village, visit the graves of the people I had stayed with, visit their house, which was burned and shelled.

This trip in December [’99] was the first trip since the war, and that was for two weeks.

Originally published on February 3, 2000