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Strength in silence

By - 04.04.2024

A resilient woman’s journey through motherhood and wartime loss.

My first birthday was in May 1998, two months after the war in Kosovo began. When I think of my parents at the time, I try to comprehend the fear they must have been experiencing. They married and started a family just before the war started. Then, during the war, my mom became pregnant with my brother Erald and gave birth to him. 

The family would wake up and sleep listening to the radio. That’s how my grandfather from my dad’s side found out that my mom’s brothers, Ali and Xhavit, were killed. To confirm the news, he went into the neighborhood and asked if anyone had heard anything. He eventually confirmed the deaths and told my dad. They agreed that they should not tell my mom until the war was over.

Hava and Skender Hoti. Photo courtesy of Eriona Hoti.

My mother had five brothers but was especially close with Ali and Xhavit. Ali was very quiet and introverted, Xhavit the opposite. Those who knew them say my mother’s and Xhavit’s characters were very much alike. 

When the war ended in June 1999, my mom, not knowing anything, was determined to go back to her family and confirm that everyone was safe. She was distraught. She took Erald in her arms and told everyone that she wanted to go to Poterç. Grandpa and Grandma decided to accompany her. 

Upon arriving in Poterç, she saw demolished houses but no people. 

She waited for someone to pass close to the family houses until she saw a tractor coming. She positioned herself in the middle of the road, forcing the driver to halt the tractor, even though he initially resisted doing so. The driver was someone from the village, so she immediately asked him who was killed. 

The driver was someone from the village, so she immediately asked him who was killed.

The driver didn’t recognize my mom. He listed names of people who had been killed until Ali and Xhavit were mentioned. When my mom recently told me this story, she said “I felt like my heart stopped beating and I couldn’t breathe.” 

On March 29, 1999, 11 young men were killed around a demolished house at the entrance of Poterç, a village near Peja. Almost everyone in that group was preparing to leave the village, as they knew that Serbian military forces were coming into that area. Ali and Xhavit were part of the group, but never managed to leave. 

My mother’s father was fleeing to Albania when he heard that his sons were killed. He decided to return and was killed by Serbian forces while coming back to his house in Poterç. His family wouldn’t know his fate for another year. For my mother and her family, the hope that he’d return safely was a beacon of comfort in their grief. But as time passed with no sign of him, their worry grew. Then, after a year, his body was found and the family learned that he had been killed. 

Hava Hoti at the graves of her brothers, Ali and Xhavit. Photo courtesy of Eriona Hoti.

Yet, amid the grief, there remained a glimmer of hope…

New beginnings after war

Ali and Xhavit were both married. Ali had two daughters, and Xhavit had no kids but was married and planned to have a family. When the brothers were killed, both of their wives were pregnant. On June 30, 1999, three months after they died, Ali’s and Xhavit’s wives both gave birth. Incredibly, the brothers’ widows gave birth to baby boys on the same day, within an hour of each other. 

It was a bittersweet moment marked by tears of grief and happiness. The doctor, knowing the family’s story, came to my grandmother with tears in his eyes, hugged her and told her that she has two nephews now. All the people in the corridor started crying. 

Incredibly, the brothers' widows gave birth to baby boys on the same day, within an hour of each other.

The newborns were named Ali and Xhavit, just like their fathers. 

When little Ali and Xhavit arrived home, e pamja — the period after the burial in which mourners gather in the deceased’s home to pay their respects to the bereaved ― was still open for their fathers. Two lives were extinguished, and two new lives entered the world.

Protecting mother from war on TV

We had a small, old TV in the living room. If our mother was in the living room while we were watching TV, we were very observant and attentive of her. Whenever war-related content came on, we swiftly changed the channel. War topics were taboo in our family.

We understood that certain scenes might be triggering for our mother. Neither my siblings nor I ever asked questions related to war in front of her. We were aware of how doing that would affect our mother and wanted to protect her joy at all costs.

As we matured, me and my youngest brother, Erblin, playfully teased our mother about favoring Erald, the one born during the war. She would deny it, but there was a sense that she showered him with a little extra love. One day, when Erald wasn’t around, Mom opened up. 

She spoke of the toll the war took on her as she struggled to care for a newborn amid the chaos and uncertainty. She told us that her physical and emotional state during the war prevented her from providing Erald with the love and care he deserved as a baby. The guilt stemming from those challenging times lingered, creating a persistent desire to compensate by showering him with more love.

As she spoke, we could see the pain in her eyes, the lingering guilt that weighed heavy on her heart. Her words struck a chord with us. A profound sense of understanding washed over us. We realized that Mom’s extra love for Erald was not about favoritism. It was about redemption. It was her way of making up for lost time, of giving him the love and attention she felt she had missed out on during those dark days.

Hidden photographs from the war

In Mom’s room, there’s a red box filled with pictures and albums. In nearly every somber photograph, my mom is wearing a white headscarf, a physical representation of her grief adorning her body. I’ve always tried to avoid such images by placing them at the bottom of the pile. Witnessing my mom in a state of sadness is something I instinctively avoid. 

Nonetheless, as a child, I was always ready and eager to learn more about what happened during the war with Mom’s family. She had never told me exactly, so I had to find out for myself. 

There was a dusty gray bag with “UNICEF” written in white font on it atop a shelf. I was little, maybe nine years old and could not reach it. But one day, mom wasn’t home, so I grabbed the chair and attempted to reach the bag. After many attempts, I managed to throw it on the floor. I was excited to open it because I hoped a Barbie or something similar would be inside. Instead, I found newspapers and pictures. 

Nothing made sense to me until I saw a woman with a white headscarf. It was my mother, close to her mother and sister on the day my uncles and grandfather were buried. There were also some that I did not understand: pictures of gray dead bodies who I later realized were my uncles. 

Fear seized me as I stared at those haunting images. I trembled, unsure if I should be looking at them, afraid that I was intruding on something sacred. 

I read every piece of writing about my uncles and grandfather in the newspapers in that bag. One paragraph stood out among the articles and tributes. It was a heartfelt message written by my mother for her brothers.

Sa e rëndë më duket jeta pa ju oh vëllezërit e motrës,

Nuk dua të shoh diell as dritë, dua të rrij në errësirë,

Dëshira juaj për liri u realizua, por pa ju,

Me mall e lot në sy i kujton motra Hava me bashkëshortin Skenderin, fëmijët Erionën dhe Eraldin

“Oh my brothers, how difficult life seems without you

I don’t want to see the sun or light; I want to stay in darkness,

Your desire for freedom came true, but without you,

With yearning and tears in her eyes, sister Hava remembers you with her husband Skender and the children Eriona and Erald”

Releasing the burden of the past

I believe that my mom had finally started to heal when again, she had to put the white headscarf on. In 2003, my uncle’s son, Astrit, was diagnosed with cancer. He was mom’s favorite. 

The day after Astrit died, mom wore her white headscarf. I noticed that her eyes were red and swollen. I wasn’t ready to hear her crying in silence and only see her shedding tears. I wasn’t ready at all to see her without makeup again. 

At that time, my biggest concern was wondering how long my mom would not dress up and put on makeup like she did before. But I was always ready to be there for her, to hug her tight and ask the usual stupid question “Mam, pse po kan?” — “Mom, why are you crying?” I would wipe her tears and slowly touch her hair. She never answered. Never. 

In 2019, my grandmother, Nana Nushe, my mom’s mother, passed away. She had endured a great deal and her heart was profoundly shattered by the loss of her children and husband. For a few years, she had prayed for death to take her. 

Nana Nushe’s death brought another occasion in which my mom would wear the white headscarf. When she saw Mom wearing it, Ernea, my little sister, asked me “pse mami e ka qit shaminë e bardhë,” meaning “Why has Mom put the white headscarf on?” 

I explained to her that as a sign of grief, it is customary for the closest female family members to wear it for some weeks after someone dies. At this point, I was used to seeing her with that goddamn white headscarf. I hate white headscarves.

At this point, I was used to seeing her with that goddamn white headscarf.

She put the white headscarf on for the last time in 2020, when her older brother died of cancer. This time, I asked her: “Mam, a mundesh mos me qit shaminë, të lutem?” — “Mom, could you not wear the white headscarf, please?” 

It wasn’t easy to initiate a conversation, knowing the emotional attachment she had to those scarves. They were emblematic of her struggles, each one a poignant reminder of loss. 

However, as I finally voiced my thoughts, I sensed an understanding and silent acknowledgement in her eyes. Her expression softened and her demeanor took on a quiet resolve. It was as though she recognized the sincerity of my request and embraced the opportunity for change. As she decided to get rid of those headscarves, relief washed over me. 

It was more than just saying yes to a simple request for me. To see her discard those scarves was to witness a symbolic release from the burdens of the past, a step toward embracing hope and renewal. It was as though by relinquishing the symbols of grief, she unlocked the door to a future filled with possibility. And in that moment of mutual understanding, I realized that sometimes, the greatest acts of courage lie not in the face of adversity, but in the willingness to embrace change and hope.

Healing is a process

Today, my mother, Hava, resides in a small village in Kosovo, where she takes care of her beloved bees and tends to two flourishing gardens filled with vibrant flowers. She has a special connection with nature and the land; I often catch her engaging in heartfelt conversations with the buzzing bees outside. It seems as though amid the tranquility of nature, she finds a sense of healing. 

Yet I’m uncertain if she has truly healed from the scars of the past. We never delve into that past for fear of unearthing buried emotions that may be too painful to confront. It’s a silent agreement between us. 

She poured her heart and soul into raising us, ensuring that we received the best education possible. Her dedication to our well-being knew no bounds. She has been our guiding light, tirelessly monitoring our progress and offering unwavering support throughout our lives. Her belief in our potential fueled our determination to succeed and pushed us to strive for excellence in every endeavor. 

I sometimes ponder whether the moments of joy and success in my and my siblings’ lives balance out the hardships our mother endured. It’s as if our achievements are a small token of gratitude for all the sacrifices she made for us. There’s a prayer that often lingers in the recesses of my mind, a silent wish that I could mend all the wounds on my mother’s heart. I wish I had that superpower…


Feature image: Photo courtesy of Eriona Hoti

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  • 14 Apr 2024 - 05:56 | Blerim:

    Bravo, Eriona! Mos i harrojmë kurrë përvojat. Me suksesë pa fund!

  • 09 Apr 2024 - 07:35 | Rajmonda:

    Thank you for sharing this story Eriona! Full of emotions. You are raised by a strong woman! 🙏

  • 06 Apr 2024 - 17:23 | Flutura:

    I too remember the white scarf emerging on the heads of my mother and other matriarchs of the family, signifying grief and loss, wishing I would never see it again. Thank you for sharing your story, Eriona. Wishing for peace and healing for your mother and family.

  • 04 Apr 2024 - 21:23 | Osman:

    Amazing piece, amazing author