I met with a potential Albanian teacher, Flurije, today after work. It may be a little ridiculous to try to pick up a new language for a two-month stay, but I’m excited to learn what I can. It was a beautiful breezy afternoon, and we were sitting in a sidewalk cafe on the pedestrian Mother Theresa street, sipping Kosovo macchiatos and making small talk. She was delighted I was American, a common reaction in Pristina. She gave me a warm, twinkly smile – she didn’t have to tell me she’d been a primary school teacher for 25 years after I saw that smile! – and reminded me that it was the holiday commemorating Liberation Day (June 12, 1999, the day that NATO troops entered Kosovo to take control as Serb forces withdrew). Americans were extra-popular today. If I were smarter I could probably get a lot of bar tabs paid by keeping my passport not-so-subtly sticking out of my purse.
I mentioned that I hadn’t seen much in the way of celebration – just a few strings of NATO country flags suspended over streets in the center of town. Flurije laughed, “Yes, I suppose it’s not such a big deal after twelve years!”
But then she turned to look down the street we were sitting on – consequently the street that dead-ends with the Kosovo Women’s Network building at the end of the block. “That building there, the beautiful one,” she motioned to a nicely painted apartment building maybe fifty feet away, “that is where I spent the entire war. With my husband, our three daughters, my father-in-law and mother-in-law, together.” I was surprised – I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone (knowingly) who lived in the capital during the entire war. “We tried to leave,” she continued. “We went to the border. We spent seven days and six nights next to the border. With no food, no water… finally, they turned us back.” She paused, still smiling a bit apologetically. “It was horrible… We would see the Serb paramilitaries out walking. There were one or two food stores, and when I went, I took all three of my daughters with me.” She held two clenched fists down in memory of clinging to her small children. “I was too scared to go alone. I couldn’t let my husband go alone. So we all went together.”
“We were happy when we heard the bombs,” she said. “Those were our….” “Rescuers,” I supplied. “Yes,” she nodded.
She shared a few more memories from the war, and then I steered the conversation toward Kosovo’s present when I sensed it was time to move on. And then there we were, chatting about Pristina’s ubiquitous street construction, sipping macchiatos and enjoying the breeze.
I’ve had this feeling plenty of times traveling throughout the former Yugoslavia – I’m sure everyone who’s been here has – of unintentionally trying to superimpose some idea of what it actually felt like to be trapped in a war-ravaged city on top of whatever lovely, peaceful, happy central square I’m looking over. It never feels less horrible, less surreal to imagine.
I always find myself trying to understand how differently time would move under those conditions. To think, there was one day, one seemingly random day, when shooting started, and everything fell apart. For Flurije, there were seven days and six nights frozen on the Kosovo-Macedonia border, living on fear alone. And then there was one day when the shooting stopped. I end up wondering, “How long does it take for your own street to stop feeling like a warzone? When does it become your city once again? How long is it before you can trust a stranger again?”
Working with Roma in Kosovo, I have some new thoughts about Liberation Day. It was the day that a kind of new campaign began against Pristina’s Roma. In the days after displaced Albanians began flooding back into the city, Roma, who were considered to be Serb sympathizers, began to flee first out of fear, and then because of threats and actual mass violence. Along with murders, there were several documented instances of KLA members raping Roma women. The same expulsions and violence happened throughout the country, as “liberated” Kosovo became a renewed hell for the Roma. I wonder how/if that history figures into how they think about this day now? How has it changed the time it’s taken – and is still taking – to heal their wounds from the war?
Posted By Samantha Hammer
Posted Jun 13th, 2011