‘We have each other’s lives in our hands’
A night with Prishtina's firefighters.
On the outskirts of Prishtina, at the Urban Trafik garages, there is a narrow turn that can only be found by those who know where to look. It leads to the wide courtyard of the Prishtina Fire Department.
On the first floor of the building, the color red dominates. There is a garage for large fire engines, which also occupy the front part of the yard. The doors lead to the lobby of the station, from where you can see a room with windows. This is where the telephone operator and the red button that activates the alarm are.
From the lobby, where uniforms hang ready for action, you can see the stairs that lead to the hall where the firefighters spend their time. One wall is lined with Certificates of Appreciation. Nearby, dozens of metal lockers and rest rooms are lined up tidily.
Another set of narrow stairs leads to a big room with a pool table, table tennis and fitness equipment.
The building is never closed because firefighters work in two shifts. The telephone that takes calls for fires and accidents could ring at any time.
When firefighters are mentioned, the mind naturally goes to putting out fires, but they do so much more. They get involved when accidents, floods, earthquakes happen or even when the municipality asks them to deliver drinking water to neighborhoods and clean the streets.
Throughout the facility, firefighters wander about like free electrons, until the alarm rings.
“I cried like a child”
Rrustem Uka and Vezir Berisha had taken a seat in front of the hall where the TV is located and the rest of the team were getting ready to hand over the shift.
The shift had started at eight in the morning and followed the same routine that Uka has followed since 2003, when as a 20-year-old he had his first day as a firefighter.
Uka tells the firefighters that they are responsible from the moment they accept a task. They adjust the collective equipment and return it to an orderly condition, do exercises, a theory lesson and then have free time until the alarm rings. “For example, today we only had a garbage container that was on fire, nothing else,” said Uka.
However, this incident is not one of those that changes Uka’s facial expression, who graduated in physical education and is an expert in urban rescue.
“The first case for me was a field fire here at the cemetery near Komuna e Re. It was easy, but I have always been afraid of intervening in accidents. So the moment the boss found out, for the first accident that was announced, he sent me as part of a team,” he begins his story, recalling memories from almost two decades ago.
“In Veternik, an Alfa-Romeo was completely destroyed by a large truck with Macedonian plates. My boss told me to get inside and take out the body. Just imagine, all that was left of the car was luggage. Together with a colleague, we took a welder to cut the vehicle, something that was very hard to see, but the situation required us. It was a very serious case and it took away all my reluctance,” said Uka, who was then interrupted by his colleague, Vezir Berisha.
Berisha started working as a firefighter in 2003. Unlike his colleague, he is a firefighter from Fushë Kosova, but he works in Prishtina since neither Fushë Kosovë with 40,000 inhabitants nor Obiliq with nearly 22,000 inhabitants have their own firefighting units.
Every time he sees a truck mixing concrete and pouring it into another truck, he remembers one of the worst cases he has ever had to deal with.
“A young boy had one of his feet inside and then the machine, while mixing, took him completely inside. It turned him into pieces. As soon as I finished dealing with the incident, I stopped and cried. I couldn’t calm down,” Berisha said.
Like a ball of yarn that has started to unravel, they continue telling their stories.
“The apartment had burned down entirely. When we entered, we found a suffocated baby. We took the baby out and gave it first aid immediately. The baby came back to life. I went to the wheel of the truck, I sat on the floor and I cried like a baby,” Uka added, describing another incident.
Some noises began to be heard from the ground floor. The night shift was about to start. At 18:59, the shift was over.
Waiting for the alarm to ring
The head of the shift now was Murat Haliti. His deputy was Nehat Berisha who is known as “Cell” and there were nine other firefighters on the team.
In the lobby of the station they gathered and confirmed the divided tasks, who is S1 – the first attacker, S2 – the second attacker and even who will be in which truck if an incident is announced.
Immediately the routine vehicle inspection began. The trucks are started, they check how much fuel they have, whether the water pressure has moved and that the generators, sirens and rotating lights are turned on. Someone else on duty checks that all the equipment is in place. After the green light is given, the noise stops.
While the inspection was finishing, the deputy head of the shift, Nehat Berisha, lights a cigarette and says that this has been his routine for more than two decades. When some of the firefighters had gone to other areas of the station, Berisha entered the telephone operator’s office.
He presses the red button, the alarm fills the air and the sound of quick footsteps on the stairs can be heard. The firefighters thought it was a real alarm and went into action.
“It’s just a test, a test, no need to come,” Berisha shouts, but too late. They had already arrived.
“Ahh, be thankful the journalists are here, because who knows what I’d do otherwise…” someone was heard saying and the laughter continued.
However, Berisha did not hear his first alarm as a firefighter in March 2001.
“I was a young man and lived my life like any other young man, a little unbridled until then. The first alarm goes off, I don’t hear it at all. The second alarm goes off and they asked for my help again. Then, a colleague comes and says to me ‘I think this guy might be dead.’ After that, I woke up and went into action,” said Berisha laughing.
When the sound of the alarm fills the station, the firefighters stop everything and go running into action.
In 2018, the most watched match of the 2018 World Cup, where Croatia was shooting penalties against Russia, firefighters watched on TV. However, they did not see the last penalty after the alarm went off as they had to run into action.
Something similar happened in 2005.
Uka is an ardent fan of the English football team Liverpool. He did not get to see the most iconic match of his club until the end.
“I will never forget it. The final of 2005, Liverpool versus Milan. The alarm went off… It’s kind of my fate that every time Liverpool plays, the alarm goes off,” he laughs.
While we were talking and drinking black tea, someone called the station. A short silence falls, but then it’s understood that it is not an alarm.
“Someone must be making fun. We are used to this, that they call and then it is nothing,” says Enver Qolli. He continues the story by recounting a recent incident.
A woman had fallen between the stairs of a building and got her head stuck between two iron railings. “It was a very dangerous case, because any movement could bring death. I called Enver, because he works with iron and I told him to take over,” intervenes Arton Rusinovci.
“Communicating with the lady, we managed to get her out, by millimeters, thank God,” says Qolli, who works a second job with iron because firefighters’ salary is low. Many of them are forced to have another source of income.
Until 2008, the monthly salary was 145 euros. Today, they receive a salary of 451 euros. The risk allowance is the same as some officials who work in an office without windows, 107 euros. Firefighters do not have health or life insurance.
The technical uniform from 2020 was recently replaced and the uniforms for fire protection date from 2020.
“Can you believe that they gave us some thin, badly sewn pants? I was honestly ashamed to wear them and for someone to say ‘look how that firefighter is dressed, look at those shoes.’ Each of us has to send them to get sewn again because they get destroyed immediately,” says Rusinovci. “Once they brought us good, original technical clothing. We wore them happily.”
During the conversation, between each other they start collecting money in order for one of them to go and buy dinner. Someone buys kebab, someone a hamburger, someone else a pizza or doner kebab. They buy the dinner themselves, even though according to their contracts, the food should be paid for by the Municipality of Prishtina.
Firefighters have no defined status. As an institution, they are part of the Emergency Agency, and they receive their salaries from their respective municipalities.
But, they forget these obstacles when something happens, which according to them, doesn’t have a price.
“Can you imagine how it feels when a family thanks you, when you save their family member or their home, or their business? Honestly, it cannot be put into words. These things keep you alive,” Berisha says as everyone else agrees with him with a nod.
A round of billiards
Everyone gathered around a “carambola” type billiard table. We joined the game, firefighters versus journalists.
Ismet Berbatovci (known as Gjyksi), Isak Pllana and Bashkim Hajdari rarely miss when they’re playing billiards. At the table, which they inherited from before the war, they shoot with their eyes closed, knowing by heart all the angles and approaches.
“Gjyksi” usually describes someone big and muscular and everyone laughed at us when he entered the hall for the first time, because they knew what we were thinking. It was not the first time for them. He is the shortest among the firefighters, with strong hands and a humor that no one could resist. Everyone was a victim of his humor, including himself.
“How could it be different, when we spend more time together than with family,” says Hajdari, who together with Haliti, have been firefighters since before the war.
According to them, until 2012, billiards was a bigger game because there were 115 firefighters. Today there is a team of 89 people, out of which 82 operatives cover Prishtina, Fushë Kosova, Obliq and Gračanica. According to them, the standard is one firefighter per 1,500 inhabitants. To reach this, 65 more firefighters would need to be hired, but those who left have not been replaced yet.
During the summer they say they spend more time outside, where they have a basketball hoop to pass the time until the alarm goes off. That’s where the fun ends and the action begins.
The laughter continued even when they went to smoke in the smoking area.
“Stay calm, please, do not laugh too much. Do you remember what happened to us one time we laughed like this? The oil reservoirs exploded,” Enver Qolli warned them.
Rusinovci never forgets the case of the reservoirs.
“When they called us, they said it was just a fire. We didn’t know the size and what the risk was. When we went there, we knew what we were dealing with, but no one from the company showed us the terrain in detail. We were walking as a team over the big reservoirs leading up to the fire. We had no idea what was under our feet. A detonation happened, it shook us and then we understood. I will never forget that case and I don’t know how I felt,” said Rusinovci. He is also known as “’Tita,” a nickname he got from a poster of a Yugoslav film “Tito i Ja” because friends thought he resembled one of the characters.
Haliti, a firefighter since 1985, shares his two most difficult cases: the burning of the mills in Fushë Kosovë before the war and the burning of the Palace of Youth and Sports, known as Bororamizi, in 2000.
“I think that for five days, not only the team from Prishtina, but also from other municipalities worked to extinguish the fire at the flour warehouse and the mills in Fushë Kosovë,” he says.
“In Bororamizi, we worked without tools. We didn’t have anything, we used a big pickaxe to open the padlocked warehouses. The others could not. We worked a lot, until some Swedes who measured the temperature inside, which had reached 900 degrees in the great hall, told us to get out. After 10 or 15 minutes, the ceiling collapsed.”
In one accident, Qolli knew the victim as they were a distant relative. He hid the head and body, so that the victim’s parents would not see it, he recalls. During another incident, one of their colleagues went to the scene of an accident and realized the victim was his sister.
“The only case that has happened to us in Kosovo”
“What I am about to tell you, I believe is the only instance of this that has happened to us in Kosovo,” he begins.
In the Arbëria neighborhood, a house fire meant that the firefighters had to step inside. In that room there happened something that is rarely seen.
“The lady who lived in the house showed us the door. We didn’t see smoke in the hallway and that is a sign of danger. When the fire has used up all the oxygen, it does not burn, but instead it absorbs the smoke that it burned earlier and you hear the hissing of air in the empty keyholes,” Berisha pauses for a second, to continue the story.
“I raised my head and saw a spark of fire. The lady of the house wanted to jump from the balcony. I got up and caught her with my body and we fell to the floor. Fire exploded over me, I had the lady covered. After about seven or eight seconds, I grabbed the lady and took her out,” Berisha confesses, adding that this case is called an oxygen explosion, which firefighters know as a flashover.
The 10 years spent together on the same shift had provided them with stories that had probably happened to only one person, but which every one of them now knew. This made the work even easier for them on the ground.
The night we stayed at the fire station there were no incidents.
“We can be mad at each other, we can argue, but we are always united. We have each other’s lives in our hands,” said Rusinovci, sitting in the corner of an old sofa next to the pool table. The others nodded as a sign of agreement.
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0
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