LOOKING WEST: A Kosovo child pulls on the EU flag - still a symbol of prosperity for many - on the road in the town of Kacanik.
Each time she goes to sleep, Valbona (35), from Peja, western Kosovo, looks at her wedding photograph taken 13 years ago. Beside her, she sees her smiling husband.
Today, that moment is just a memory. Two years ago, her husband remarried a German woman. Not only did Valbona, mother of their four children aged four to 11, know of his plan, she approved it.
This is because Valbona is not really divorced in the eyes of her family or the wider community.
Many Kosovar Albanian men divorce their first wives by mutual consent, departing for western Europe where they find new spouses who enable them to obtain residency papers.
They leave their children behind in Kosovo so that they can pose as single men and remarry fast. Once they have permanent residency in Germany, or other EU states, they divorce their second wives, go back to their first ones and bring the family to the West.
Germany is a popular destination for Kosovars seeking foreign wives, and eventually an EU passport, because there is already a large Albanian expatriate population living there.
The women that these Kosovar Albanians marry in the West believe they have found ideal, attentive husbands.
However, once the men have gained permanent residency in their host country – after five years of marriage to a citizen in Germany – they often demand a divorce.
Valbona is confident that her husband will do the same: leave his new wife after three more years and return to Kosovo to take her, and the children, to a new life in the affluent West.
"The ‘divorce’ was difficult, but as both of us knew its purpose, it was somewhat easier," explains Valbona who – in the absence of her husband – lives with her children next door to her husband’s brothers. "It’s a big sacrifice but I’m doing it for the sake of a better future for me and the children," she adds.
Unknown to his German wife, Valbona has already spent one summer holiday with her ex-husband back in Kosovo.
Benefits override taboo
In the past, Albanian families did not accept divorce so easily. But the taboo has been forgotten now that Kosovar Albanians have discovered the usefulness of divorcing and remarrying foreigners in order to gain papers to live in western Europe.
Not all foreign wives are equally acceptable, of course.
A second marriage to a non-Albanian is seen as worthless unless the new wife has citizenship of the European Union. But if men divorce their Kosovar wives for that reason, society turns a blind eye.
Each month, Valbona’s ex-husband sends back money for her to spend on their four children. Such money counts for a lot in a country as poor as Kosovo, where 40 per cent of the population is unemployed and the average monthly salary of those in work is only about 200 euro.
Kosovars who have moved to western European countries send home 530 million euro each year. These remittances account for around 13 per cent of the country’s GDP, according to the Kosovo Central Bank.
Sokol Havolli, a senior official at the bank, says that 30 per cent of Kosovar households regularly receive money from relatives working abroad.
Against a background of such economic hardship, many people feel desperate to obtain the right to live and work in western Europe.
But obtaining a visa to enter the EU is difficult. Unlike their Balkan neighbours, Kosovars do not enjoy visa-free travel within the EU Schengen zone. Nor is a relaxation of visa requirements imminent.
It is almost impossible for Kosovars to gain German citizenship unless they are born there, or enter the country as an infant and go to school there.
But adult Kosovars, like other non-EU foreigners, can request permanent resident status in Germany, or Niederlassungserlaubnis, if they have legally resided in Germany for more than five years – the grounds for which are normally either higher educational studies or marriage to a German national.
Rising divorce rate
In the Kosovar capital of Pristina, a city with a population of about 600 000, officials recorded 127 divorces in 2007. That number might appear low by western European standards but it is high for Kosovars. Municipal officials in Pristina recorded just 36 divorces as recently as 2003.
In parallel with the increased number of divorces, marriages to foreign citizens have also risen, mostly to residents of western countries. In 2009, officials in Pristina recorded 98 such marriages between Kosovar men and women from the West.
Shefqet Buqaj, a city hall official, admits knowing of cases in which Kosovars have remarried their local first wives after divorcing their foreign spouses.
The ability of officials to monitor the motives behind marriages to foreigners is poor, he admits. When Kosovar men wish to remarry their first wives, the couple may simply declare that they have been reconciled.
But Buqaj insists that when they doubt the motives behind the marriage of a Kosovar to a foreign woman, they ask questions.
One especially suspicious case involved a local man marrying a foreigner who was 15 years older than him, he recalls.
Such unions are practically unknown in patriarchal Kosovo, where marriage to a woman more than a decade older than her husband violates all tradition.
But Buqaj says they could not find any good reason to disallow the marriage. "We talked with them and concluded it wasn’t a fictitious marriage," he says.
Lonely western women
Sonja, a German from Stuttgart, was the target of one Kosovar Albanian man seeking permanent residency in Germany.
Now in her early thirties, she married an Albanian from the Mitrovica area of northern Kosovo 13 years ago.
Jobless and a little lonely at the time, she was charmed when a good-looking, dark-haired man, a few years older than her, approached her in a café in Stuttgart and said hello.
She had no idea that this supposedly single man had, in fact, married at the age of 18 in Kosovo and obtained a divorce before coming to Stuttgart. She was also unaware he was now on the hunt for a German wife, for reasons that had little to do with love.
They soon married, after which Sonja threw herself into learning the Albanian language and adopting the modest lifestyle of a Kosovar housewife, no longer going out of the apartment to visit friends for coffee, for example.
"I became more Albanian than an Albanian woman," she recalls.
Unusually, Sonja’s husband did not demand a divorce after five years. Apparently because, by then, they had a little boy whose fate complicated matters. Sonja’s husband wanted to ensure he would enjoy sole custody of their son before he left.
They finally divorced only two years ago, after Sonja agreed to leave her son, then eight, with her ex-husband. He soon remarried his first wife, and now lives outside Stuttgart with her and the son he had by Sonja.
Sonja does not know the whole story of her marriage, but some Kosovar Albanians living in the neighbourhood are well aware of the secrets of her ex-husband’s background.
She knows only that her ex-husband remarried "an Albanian woman who didn’t have any papers". She still believes she married for love and doesn’t understand what went wrong.
Tradition pushed aside
Many Kosovar Albanians defend the practice of men going abroad to seek temporary foreign second wives in order to improve their prospects.
Valdrin Hoxha, an unemployed 23-year-old from Pristina, said he would do the same thing if he could.
"I would explain to my family that after getting the (EU) documents I would divorce my foreign wife and marry a Kosovar girl," he says, confidently.
Years ago, only infertility could legitimately separate couples, says 71-year-old Hamdi Veliu, from Polac, a village in central Kosovo.
"If the wife couldn’t have a baby, she had two choices; to divorce, or stay," he explains. "But, if she decided to stay, she had to accept that her husband needed a second wife.
"If she accepted that her husband needed another wife, and stayed in the same house, she could still be head of the home," he says.
"Nowadays, the situation is very bad," Veliu maintains, going on to talk disapprovingly of a Kosovar he knows whose first wife’s family pressurised him into bringing her to Germany before he had even divorced his second German wife.
He says he knows of other similar cases, in which Kosovar wives live somewhere in Germany while their husbands are somewhere else, still with their second German wives.
"Such situations are not based on our tradition," he complains.
Veliu says possession of all-important EU residency papers gives men immeasurable prestige in modern Kosovo.
With these, a man in his forties can take his pick of the local girls, even if she is 20 years younger than him.
Such men often use the services of a marriage mediator, or village matchmaker, to find a young bride.
Smajl Shatraj (60), from the village of Llausha, in central Kosovo, has performed this task often over the years.
"Now that most of the girls want to live abroad, it’s much easier to arrange (when the man has EU papers)," he says.
Back in the old days, he adds, they chose couples who were more or less the same age and who appeared suitable for one another.
Today the most important factor is whether the future husband has the right documents. "They are pushing traditions to one side in favour of interests," he sighs.
In fact, mixed marriages – and especially marriages to improve men’s social and economic prospects – are not entirely new among Kosovars.
Previously, these marriages tended to be established within the framework of the old Yugoslav state. They usually involved Kosovar men marrying Serbs – seen as the most powerful ethnic community in the former Yugoslavia.
"Through a marriage in former Yugoslavia, one could gain social prestige," explains Anton Berishaj, professor of sociology at the University of Pristina.
Some people also entered such marriages in order to prove their loyalty to the multi-ethnic Yugoslav idea, he is careful to add.
An important difference between these marriages and those taking place with Germans today, is that the men had no incentive to divorce their wives after a certain period.
They remained together, often moving to the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade.
Some, like the Selimis, still live there together. But whereas an Albanian-Serbian marriage was a socially advantageous move in the 1960s and 1970s, this is far from the case now, following the break-up of Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the decline of Serbian-Albanian relations in general.
"Today these couples live with a stigma," says Professor Nada Raduski, of Belgrade’s Demographic Research Centre.
‘Not moral or correct’
Anton Berishaj, professor of sociology at the University of Pristina, strongly disapproves of Kosovar men marrying foreign women in order to obtain permanent residency in the West.
"A ‘double’ marriage, in which one side doesn’t know the whole situation, and when families pretend nothing is happening, is not human, moral or correct," he says.
Leaders of all the main faiths in Kosovo also vehemently condemn the trend.
Most Kosovar Albanians are Muslims but there is also a small Catholic minority. The clergy of both religions view matrimony as sacrosanct. "Marriage is permanent and has no time-limit; it is eternal," says Bedri Syla, an imam from Skenderaj in central Kosovo. The imam views so-called divorces, contracted mainly for the sake of obtaining documents, as a mockery and sacrilegious.
"These are games that break down families and morality," he says, citing verses from the Koran. Such doings can never be justified in Islam, he adds, regardless of the potential benefits. His views are fully echoed by Don Shan Zefi, a Catholic priest in Pristina.
"Marriages like these are not permissible morally, psychologically or legally," he says.
‘The sacrifice is worth it’
However, Agron (40), says it is worth compromising on morals and traditions in order to obtain the European dream.
A stonemason, he now lives with his first wife in a village about 30km from Stuttgart, having completed the long and difficult process of divorcing his second German wife in order to remarry his first Kosovar one.
Agron tries to forget the fact that he had to leave his first wife and their children in Kosovo for five years while being married to a German woman.
"The sacrifice is worth it, as long as you don’t forget your (first) wife and children back in Kosovo," Agron maintains. "For me, living here is like paradise," he adds, referring to the small German village that is now his home.
In order to attain a similar "paradise", Valbona and her four children must wait for at least another three years.
Looking forward to a new life abroad, she doesn’t bother about the nationality of the foreigner to whom her husband is currently married – as long as she gets to the West in the end.
"For me, it simply doesn’t matter," she says. "Miserable economic conditions forced us to do this."
*This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.