Blogbox | War

I’ve seen war

By - 02.10.2023

‘It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember.’

-Valentina P. Chudaeva, interviewed by Svletlana Alexievich

On the night that the U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called on the Serbian government to withdraw troops from the border with Kosovo, I went shopping with my mother and sister. Kirby made his call on September 29, five days after the armed attack against the Kosovar Police, where a group of men armed to their teeth killed Sergeant Afrim Bunjaku.

Driving to the clothing store usually takes 15 to 20 minutes, depending on traffic. On days like these, there is an inexplicable gloominess when you do something as routine as buying a new coat. We carry a hidden sense of shame, a certain discomfort that we are doing ordinary things.

I would like to start this conversation on my own terms, without being directed by questions and headlines written by people who are not here: “War in Kosovo?”; “The Balkans in conflict”; “So-and-so sent troops.” Another one reads: “Return to dialogue” and “I warned you that there will be another war in Kosovo.” It’s terrible that so many self-satisfied headlines can be drawn from someone’s most agonizing experience. 

While many are talking about a new war in Kosovo, I break the flow and return to the old one. “Mother,” I say tentatively, “I remember three things from the war.”

I would like to have this conversation once, in peace. Not just when we are shown that peace is like broken glass, ready to cut your hands at any moment. I would like to have this conversation in its entirety and write about it in its entirety too.

I want to have this conversation at a time when the words “escalation” and “de-escalation” no longer plague my upbringing, in a generation that no longer knows these words.

But the right day to have this conversation seems far out of reach. With the way things are going, I’m afraid that if I wait, it might be too late. Not even the worst memories can win their perpetual war with time.

When I talk about my own memories of the war, I always doubt myself. “Was I old enough to remember the war, or did I construct my memories from fragments of the stories that my family told me?”

I turned four during the war. It’s good that I don’t remember much, it’s good that I remember enough.

– I – 

“I remember a school, there were a lot of people lying down,” I say, making a gesture with my hand, trying to prove to both of them that I remember correctly what it was like. I want to convince them, unnecessarily, that I was in the war. “I know that we were lying down, almost connected to each other,” I continue.

People usually talk about being packed like sardines to express how we were lying. But I don’t like this simile.

They say fish forget quickly, but I remember vividly how the woman lying next to me groaned. She didn’t complain. She just groaned. Now, I know for sure she wasn’t complaining. It wasn’t an appropriate time to complain about how the breath of the stranger lying next to us mingled with ours. How we could smell someone else’s body. How we touched the hands and heads of others.

We had forgotten what it was like to roll over, since we left the safety of our beds and fled to the mountains in March 1999. Rolling over in bed was a before-the-war move.

It was also not the right time to ask the woman next to me to move a little. It was not the time for banal annoyances. We were lined up, lying on the rough floor of a school in a remote village in Podujeva. I also know that that woman was not groaning because her body was hurting. Or because her arm was numb. We all slept on our sides, probably because lying on our backs took up too much space. We had forgotten what it was like to roll over, ever since we left the safety of our beds and sought refuge in the mountains in March of 1999. Rolling over in bed was a before-the-war move. 

I know we didn’t have enough clothes to cushion the weight of our bodies on the floor. In those days, I don’t think we slept. During the days we wandered in the mountains and at night we found some shelter, if we were lucky.

It was dark inside the school. You could hear rumbles and the screams of women and children. In the deafening silence of the mountain, you could hear the cries of children, who did not know how else to oppose the war. This much, I remember. Perhaps, we were hearing our intestines, which inside us, coiled up and shrinking inside our bodies, waged their own war. A rebellion against the emptiness inside us.

My mother confirms my memory. She knows that we didn’t sleep. But she doesn’t know if we were in a school in Koliq or in a farm in Ballaban. What’s important is that the memory stands.

Without a shred of shame, I continue to take advantage of the fact that we were alone in the car and continue the conversation.

“Mother, was this the time that dad slept on a grave?” I ask. When I say the words out loud, I realize how twisted they sound. “Yes,” she tells me. “Only women and children were inside, men and young boys were outside.” Guarding us.

My father lay on top of the grave, alive.

“Mother, while we were on the tractor, did you see dead bodies?” I ask. 

I know this is a difficult question, to which my mother usually responds “We were at war, sweetheart.” She answers more or less the same way this time. Surely she knows what hides in the reality of war much better than I do. And I’m afraid to know the full answer. Passingly she tells me that bullets hit our tractor. I think my mother is afraid that if she tells us what really happened during the war, she might sound like she is complaining.

My mother never complains. I don’t push her to answer me.

– II – 

“Mother,” I say, “I remember shrubs, there was a steep hillside, a mountain. We were going down somewhere, between the shrubs.”

Here too, my mother confirms my memory. But she doesn’t know exactly which mountain, which shrubs, which valley or which village. Was it in Turuçica, Koliq, Ballaban, Shajkoc, Kushevica, Lladoc or Keçekollë? They told me that we were wandering in the deep valleys of the mountains for months.

My mother, without saying much, has a way of telling me that the war was long and that our bodies met with many shrubs. I still don’t understand how I managed to walk. Deep down, I feel proud. Sometimes I even brag about it: “I walked during the war.”

On the eve of my fourth year of life, I no longer walked carefree like a child. We had to conduct ourselves like we were at war, at all times.

A plastic cup became my salvation. In the corner of the tractor I was liberated. One war down.

I still feel guilty that I needed to pee while we were on the tractor. I have been told that I shouted impatiently.

Physiological needs, like memories, don’t ask permission. I remember how during the war, I didn’t want to wet myself and ruin my only clothes in the cold spring. In war, even spring is cold, and the torn plastic sheet draped over the tractor does not protect you. Of course, war does not teach you how to overcome it, but you learn some practicalities along the way.

I remember once, I screamed as loud as I could and asked for someone to save me from wetting myself. A plastic cup was my salvation. I was liberated in the corner of the tractor. One war down.

We continue along the road to the next mountain.

– III – 

I say to my mother, “and when we left home, how did we leave?” She tells me that we were not prepared. If she knew what was going to happen, she would have taken the new boots that my parents had just bought me. Surely, the war would have been just as ugly and cold if I had walked it in my new boots. 

“How did I celebrate my birthday on May 25?” I ask my mother while we wait for a traffic light in Prishtina to turn green. Immediately, I think that my use of “celebrate” was peculiar. Usually, I am meticulous with my words. As if to excuse myself for my semantic misstep, I add “I think that’s when my birthdays started going downhill”.

“At our apartment,” she tells me. I do not remember. But I have a vague vision of the apartment when we returned. Everything was upside down. Even the tiniest object that once had a set place was lying on the ground. My new boots were no longer there. Nor my mother’s ring with a red stone.

In unison, my sister and I ask, “And how, with the bombings, did we return to our apartment?” My mother, as if to justify this decision, tells us “our son,” that is, my brother, “would have died if we hadn’t returned.”

I feel an urge to kiss my mother and father’s hands for making this decision. I dare not think what would have happened if we did not return. Certainly, my sister, who is my brother’s twin, dares even less. But that is her story to tell, not mine.

I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that I don't remember how long my hair was, but I do remember being in the war. Somehow, my distant memories tell me, especially these days, that I have seen war.

“And did you see the bombs?” comes the next question. We used to live on the seventh floor, in the center of Podujeva, a city on the border with Serbia. “Yes, all of them,” replied my mother. She tells me how we used to ask questions when we heard the soldiers running on the roof of our building. “They are playing hide and seek,” my mother used to tell us. I am thankful that I was not old enough to differentiate lies from truth.

We heard the noises. Even the smells. I think to myself, “This must be why I’m always tense when I smell smoke.” I don’t say it out loud.

I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that I don’t remember how long my hair was, but I do remember being in the war. Somehow, my distant memories tell me, especially these days, that I have seen war.

Anyone who easily and cold heartedly declares a new war from the other side of a screen, does not think that those who have been to war once, will return there again in their mind. It’s never easy to talk about war after you’ve seen one.

“This trip took so long!” I say and banal life continues. A new war, in all its banality, may begin. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe never.

But if it does happen, this time I’ll bring my boots.

Feature Image: K2.0.