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The following is an account of what took place between March 24, 1999 and April 1, 1999 in Prishtina.
Sometime after 7 p.m., the electricity went out and the phone rang. It was my brother in London, who called to tell us that NATO warplanes had taken off from the Aviano Air Base in Italy and were heading towards us. He told us goodbye. We had no idea what would happen next.
Sitting by the phone in the candlelight, my father’s shadow flickered against the wall as he rocked back and forth. He didn’t turn around, he just stood there. The phone rang again. “There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “Just wait and see.” I felt his agitation ripple through the room and tunnel into my chest. The phone line went dead. We would never know who made that second phone call.
Our dark living room was abuzz with conversation. The adults were speculating about what would happen next. As usual, my academic uncle, who had an encyclopedic knowledge on military aviation, came for a visit and subsequently got stuck with us. He was blowing my mind with specifics on the logistics behind warplanes. He told us how the British Harrier Jump Jet was superior to other warplanes with their awesome take-off and landing abilities and how Turkish fighter jets fly really low and if we were lucky, we might just see them.
I was captivated by the stories of what was happening in the sky and I conjured terrifying scenarios in my mind. The “what ifs.” What if they bombed us? What if the Serb paramilitary forces massacred us? What if we were killed? What if… BANG. That was when I first experienced what I call the “Grand Prix Anxiety,” a sudden angst that entered my body, sped through my thoughts, ignited my fears and just as quickly left me alone only to return seconds later and do the same all over again.
On March 24, 1999, I was a small and skinny 12-year-old, with the voice of a mouse. I worried about my homework. I worried about ending up in the mountains like refugees from villages nearby. So I did what I thought was the right thing to do. I put on three pairs of trousers, a dozen tops, triple socks and went and stood by the wood-burning stove.
I felt hot pretty quickly after that. I was too embarrassed to tell my mum I had put on my entire wardrobe in case she scolded me for wearing my “Bajram” clothes under three t-shirts, a fleece, a jumper and a hoodie. More on this later.
Life was simple, I was happy. But all of this changed when my brothers introduced me to Adem Jashari.
Growing up in Prishtina was fun. My fondest memories are from the hot scorching summer days when life moved at a tortoise-pace and the mid-summer silence that descended over our neighbourhood would be interrupted only by my neighbour hammering nails into the walls of his eternally-unfinished house. Every neighbourhood had one.
We had the hammer guy, my friend’s street had the axe guy, splitting tree stumps into firewood, chop after chop, or the guy with the bresalic. Life was simple, I was happy. But all of this changed when my brothers introduced me to Adem Jashari.
On a winter evening in 1998, we were flicking through German satellite TV channels before going to bed. ProSieben, VOX, RTL, Deutsche Welle, the news from a dozen different countries, then on comes Kosovo. My two brothers and I fell silent as we caught the beginning of the voice over which went something like “Kozovo” then “das ist Adem Jashari,” showing this scruffy, bearded man holding an AK-47 entering an Albanian Oda.
My brothers were excited. I’d never seen a Kosovar holding an AK-47 before, I had no idea who this man was, he looked petrifying, he had an intense look, a dark beard and long hair that made him look like he had seen plenty of life. He looked exactly like “babaroka,” a made-up monster that I believed was living behind my house.
When the news segment ended, I asked my brothers who he was. They told me he was from the Kosovo Liberation Army, the KLA, and that he was coming here this very evening to sleep under my bed. I laughed at them so they didn’t think I was scared but on the inside, my thoughts went along the lines of “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! Babaroka knows about me. Shit! Shit! Shit!”
Sleepless, I waited for him that evening. He never came.
But the war did.
It didn’t come in the way I expected. I imagined choppers, like the helicopter ride in “Apocalypse Now,” with heavy artillery booming in the background. It was the opposite. It came in five scenes with some extra dollop of b-roll for cutaway.
March 31, 1999. I was outside on the front porch when I spotted a man jumping over my uncle’s garden fence. He turned round to help two others over the fence to join him. They wore balaclavas and army clothes. Each one carried four or five small, white RPG missiles on their backs and, at their hips, long Swiss army knives. They looked a lot like the paramilitary Serb unit called the Jackals.
They moved fast and headed towards our home. Meanwhile, my mum was inside trying to catch an afternoon nap. When all of a sudden, a whisper from my brother. “Come on, come on, quick, quick, quick, quick.”
Next thing I knew, we were running.
I was in the backseat of my father’s car, an Opel Ascona 1.6D. My brother was sitting next to me, my dad was driving out of our narrow road while speaking to my mum in the passenger seat, saying something about driving to the border. A split second later, he shouted: “DUCK DOWN, DUCK DOWN!”
We heard bullets fly through the car, the sound came in threes, as if someone out there was zipping their coat really loudly — zip, zip, zip. The balaclava men missed this time, perhaps those were warning shots. After that, we abandoned the car and joined the crowds on foot. I must have fainted shortly after that.
The silence was eerie. No one looked up. I had never before witnessed a queue in the Balkans as quiet or as orderly as that one.
“Sve što imaš, pare, dokumenti, nakit, ostavi ovde.”
“Everything you have, money, documents, jewelry, drop it here,” shouted a young Serb paramilitary from his perch on top of what looked like a T-72 tank. Parked next to it, a police Pinzgauer. Three more mercenaries were holding black bin bags, stripping everyone of their identities and any valuables they had.
Beyond the checkpoint, we formed an orderly queue of five people and walked the line. The silence was eerie. No one looked up. I had never before witnessed a queue in the Balkans as quiet or as orderly as that one.
We walked past Prishtina’s WWII memorial for the Partisan fighters — commonly referred to as the “spomenik.” A rumour was spreading amongst the crowd. It had probably started with a sneeze from someone at the top which, by the time it reached my ears, had become the certainty that we were now being led to the national stadium where we would be massacred, Srebrenica-style.
My Monte Carlo Grand Prix anxiety returned. My muscles started twitching in a way I have never felt again since that day.
The rumour was already running wild when, just as we were marched past the “spomenik,” a small wooden door opened in a house on the left side and an arm reached out to grab mine. It was an old lady, her hair very similar to Babaroka’s. She stopped me in my tracks, still gripping my arm, not looking at me but appealing to my father in a desperate, whining tone verging on tears.
She must have caught a cold from the sneeze from the top of the column.“Leave your son with me, he’s too small to be butchered, I will look after him,” she implored him. My father pushed me along with a firm hand at my back. “We’re staying together no matter what,” he told her.
Onwards we walked, past the Dora complex where we heard “Niko nikog ne voli” — “Nobody likes anyone” — blaring from speakers in the flats above us. Then we heard an echo in Serbian, I didn’t understand it, but I knew it wasn’t friendly, being followed by sprinkles of some bleach or acid shortly after. We marched on, still orderly, still looking down.
Scene three — cutaway
Hurrah! The joint fear amongst all of us — the feeling of taking our last steps before meeting our destiny — did not materialise. It was the train station we were heading to, not the stadium. I somewhat relaxed.
A baby, wrapped tightly in a bundle, rose on arms that carried it above the crowd of heads. But the train drew away, her arms kept waving, and the baby stayed with us on the platform.
At this moment, I remembered that I was wearing two layers of jeans and two tops, one of which had been sent to me by my brother in Sweden and never really fit me. He would send me clothes that were bigger than I was, but my mum insisted that I wear them and show some respect, goddamnit! Twice a year during Bajram — Eid — you would find a skinny little boy, floating his oversized Western clothes. I quite liked that lanky style.
There was elation and uncertainty as the orderly queue joined the frenzied crowd in front of the Prishtina railway station. People moved around, trying to find out what was happening. Coaches arrived in the station car park and rumours started anew. My dad decided that we would wait and not rush to board either a coach or a train. We moved to the platform where a train sponsored by Jugoslovenske željenice waited, as the scrambling mass attempted to board.
The crowd was aghast as a young woman — who had managed to board through a window — reached out with long, skinny arms, stretching as far as she could to reach something, someone. As the train began to move she pulled her hair, and waved her arms wildly, screaming all the while. A baby, wrapped tightly in a bundle, rose on arms that carried it above the crowd of heads. But the train drew away, her arms kept waving, and the baby stayed with us on the platform.
The remaining crowd spread out along the railway track; you could see how many people there were. Serbian snipers shot at us from houses above us in the Dragodan neighbourhood, now called Arberi. I don’t think anyone was hit.
We found space on the track to sit down. The whole of Prishtina must have been there. I saw the guy who sold me my first Tetris game. My Albanian language school teacher was there, his wife, and another teacher. My cousins, distant ones, the ones I met at weddings were there. The whole city and its surrounding areas were there.
And then there was the railway man, an Albanian, still on shift, still working. He wore a navy blue suit and a vivid red hat. After seeing the train off, he reset the tracks before returning to his ticket office — the “shalter,” as we used to call it. He would get very angry about eight hours later, as darkness with a pinch of cold descended on the platform. People walked aimlessly up and down to ward off the chill.
Someone discovered that the Prishtina railway station not only boasted a very dedicated Albanian station master, but also had a large stock of styrofoam in a derelict storehouse. Blocks of styrofoam were soon flying out from the broken gate. Everyone had some. My mum wrapped some around me and I rested my head in her lap, my body lying along the length of a wooden sleeper. I played with the stones between the tracks until I fell asleep.
I opened my eyes to darkness and mayhem and I was not dreaming. I had fallen asleep on the railway track under styrofoam, with my mother and half of the city sleeping beside me. Everyone was running about in a frenzy, jumping back onto the platform, screaming at others to clear the track.
From some way off a white light was getting bigger and bigger. The frenzy did not stop when the train arrived. The Albanian railwayman was there and I felt the cold and shivered. Someone grabbed me from behind, lifted me up and shoved me through the train window.
I moved from the aisle seat to the middle seat, then to the window seat when hands grabbed me again and I ended up in the luggage rack.
I landed head first on the seat. I set myself upright and sat there. The train cabin had three seats facing one way, and three seats opposite. It was warm and barely lit by a dim depressing light. I had just the time to reflect that this was the first time I had ever been on a train before people surged in from the corridor, from the window.
I moved from the aisle seat to the middle seat, then to the window seat when hands grabbed me again and I ended up in the luggage rack, with nothing to do but to stay where I was. From there, I watched the chaos of people searching for their loved ones. I saw my neighbours and my uncle but not my parents or brothers.
The Grand Prix returned for a quick lap, and I started screaming “Where’s my dad? Has anyone seen my dad?” Then my uncle replied. “Your father is one carriage down, we’re all on the train,” he said. “They know you’re here. Hang in there.”
Scene five — cutaway
The train eventually left the railway station, moving slowly. The lazily lit cabin fell dark, people fell silent and only murmurs could be heard. From the luggage rack, I listened to every sound and watched the dark faces below light up from time to time from the soft orange glow of burning villages as our train rolled past. The train stopped several times without warning and I feared that the men in balaclavas would come for us. But the train moved on.
On April 1, 1999 we arrived in Bllacë, on the Macedonian border. I left Kosovo for the last time as a citizen, a forced journey that I later discovered had a name.
Feature image: K2.0.