I woke up early on February 24, 2022. I opened Facebook and it was filled with news about Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. I couldn’t believe it. Seeing people in Ukraine leaving their homes, their country and everything they had built for so many years behind was heartbreaking. Terrible feelings that we thought we had left in the past returned.
During this time I would hear people at home, especially my mother, talking about Ukraine and recalling their own memories from the war in Kosovo. On TV there were images of pregnant women and babies hiding or in flight. My mother was devastated by these images. She was once a young pregnant woman hiding from gunfire and soldiers. She felt like she was going through that terror and suffering once again.
Over the last few months a lot of emotions have arisen in me as well. Even though I was just one year old during the war in Kosovo, when the war in Ukraine started, it felt like I could remember everything from the war in my country, maybe because of inherited trauma or maybe because of all the stories my mother has told me.
I used to hear one of these stories often while growing up and it left its mark on me.
I was born on May 29, 1998 in a small hospital in Drenas. I was my mother’s first child. She recalls that the room she was staying in was full of other young pregnant women, who, just like my mother, were facing a nightmare. The fear of rape, murder, bombardment and fires were on everyone’s lips.
She recalls that there were explosions and gunfire in the surrounding area shortly after I was born. There was talk that Serbian paramilitary forces were fighting against the Kosovo Liberation Army and that because Serbian forces could not seize a particular area, they’d started taking revenge by killing civilians.
When the explosions started to get more intense, everyone left the hospital room where my mother and I were staying and headed to safer places. Right after my birth, I was put on a bed near some big windows by the only nurse left in the hospital, the same nurse who had helped my mother during labor. My mother says that she was sitting in another bed right next to me, and was trying to bring me closer, but she could barely move, due to the birth pains, the lack of food and many other difficulties she had experienced before giving birth.
She remembers she was crying a lot and kept asking some women who were leaving the room to help us — or at least to take me with them. But they did not help either of us; they did not even look back at us as they fled. My mother said that during those moments she felt no hope. She was feeling so weak and so helpless that she could not move her child away from the windows, which bullets could shatter at any moment.
After a few minutes of trying, she reached my bed. Because she could not return to her bed again, she placed her body between me and the windows.
At one point the gunfire seemed to stop. “We are safe!” she told me she thought. We were all alone, just the two of us in that empty hospital room.
A few days after we managed to go home, we had to leave again. Serbian paramilitary forces had started to burn everything in the surrounding areas. We had nowhere to go except into the woods. Life in the woods was extremely difficult, especially for the newborn babies, of which there were many. Everyone had to constantly struggle for water, food and the most basic necessities. All that me and my mother had were each other, and the clothes on our bodies.
She told me that I was constantly crying, especially when the gunfire was intense and when I was hungry. These moments were the most difficult, not just for me but also for my mother, who could do nothing but hope that the situation would change soon. Life for her had become miserable and unbearable.
“A few times when we went to look for food or anything else we needed, we would see dead bodies, killed or massacred,” my mother tells me. “It was so awful to encounter such terrifying scenes. They stay with me even today.” Even worse, soon she would come to witness the deaths of her friends and family members.
“Life had become a nightmare for all of us,” she recalls, “a bad dream that was never going to end.” This bad dream fortunately ended on June 11, 1999. But the scars and memories remain painful even now.
When my mother and I saw the images of war in Ukraine, these traumas resurfaced. Seeing pregnant women in besieged hospitals and little children crying brought back her memories, which had been pushed into a corner of her memory.
After the war, my mom and I returned home and started our lives from the beginning. Everything was burned: our clothes, our photos, our house. There was nothing left. Everyone started rebuilding their homes and their lives. But so many things could never be rebuilt. During the war, she lost a number of friends and family members.
“Those were the worst years of my life. Our loved ones were gone forever,” she told me. Though she and her family were broken emotionally and financially, she found peace and comfort, she tells me, in me, her child. Perhaps I represented some sort of hope for a future.
As a child I used to hear stories about the war from my mother and other people in my neighborhood and family. Even though I was young, I found them very interesting, but there was always an underlying sorrow, especially when she would talk about the people she lost in the war, like her brother.
Even though I’ve always understood the pain my mother, and so many other people, went through, the feeling became more visceral when I saw the images from the terrifying war in Ukraine. Though the war in Kosovo is over, the memories and pain remain. Now with the war in Ukraine, millions more are experiencing these horrors. Will the bad dream ever end?
Feature image: MagneG via CC.