The Age
Remember Meri?

By STEVE WALDON

Sunday 16 April 2000


PRISTINA - The 19-year-old Mejreme Xhemajli who fell into Puckapunyal last year does not write her diary any more.

Meri is not the same person, and her diary entries, published in The Sunday Age during her stay in Australia, have lost some of their meaning for her.

The changes in Meri are superficially apparent. She is now 20, likes to keep her hair blonde, has a more wordly (and occasionally cynical) view of the future, and is working as an administrator for Oxfam.

What is not so obvious is the damage last year's forced evacuation from her home has done, how the unfortunate imprint of war rests on Meri and many of the young adults in her age group. Like her cousins Edina and Enisa, who shared her Australian experience, Meri has confronted the realities of life back home. Her "lovely Pristina" is a long way from realising its potential.

And like Edina and Enisa, Meri's dreams of having a medical career are frustratingly unrealistic. Without her monthly salary, the family would be reliant solely on her brother, Abdullah. It is the simplest mathematics to understand that to cut a family's income in half must have a serious impact on its quality of existence.

So Meri would like to resume her university studies - in effect, she is already two years behind - but she feels the burden of family obligation.

The Xhemajlis are more fortunate than others here. With Meri and Abdullah both working, they lead a reasonably good life in their modestly comfortable home.

Meri's parents would desperately love her to finish her studies, she explains, but she would regard this as a selfish indulgence. On the other hand, she is frustrated and, yes, miserable when she sees how her life has been blighted by circumstances beyond her control. She wanted to be a doctor, but she drifts along as an administrator.

So, in the nine months since she rushed to return to her parents - she took the first plane out of Melbourne last July - Meri has grown and matured, and there are not too many things about her that would be familiar to those Australians who met her last year.

But it is a sad maturity. Opportunity beckons tantalisingly: perhaps she could return to Australia to study, if a benefactor could help, or perhaps she could get shift work in Pristina so that she could resume her university studies here in July.

Perhaps, maybe, what if ... that's how her life is at the moment. But she is still capable of laughter when she plays with the nieces she loves so much.

But whether it is Slobodan Milosevic, or the United Nations, or the many historians who have tried to analyse this disputed part of the planet, someone one day is going to have to explain to all the intelligent, capable young people here why they have been denied the lives they wanted.



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