Growing up in a war zone

By Matthew Price

Saturday, 5 February, 2000

In another life and another country, Harrulajar and Ivan might have been close friends.

They live about an hour's drive apart. Both are 12 years old, from fairly affluent families. Both are educated and well dressed, have short hair. Both have an endearing toothy grin and a naughty sparkle in their eyes.

But they'll probably never meet - Harrulajar is a Kosovar Albanian and Ivan is Serbian.

The stairs up to Ivan's flat are cold and smell of rotting vegetables and urine. The walk upwards is made more uncomfortable by the darkness in the stairwell.

A dangerous place

We stopped outside and one of the soldiers knocked. Ivan and his mother would never have let us in if it hadn't been for the British troops who had brought us here. Pristina - like the rest of Kosovo - is a dangerous place for Serbs, and they don't let strangers in their home.

The flat was cold, as if it hadn't been lived in for some time. The curtains pulled only slightly open so people couldn't see in. There were no lights on - the electricity was off again.

Ivan and his 10-month-old sister, Jac, haven't been out of the flat much in the last eight months. Their mother is too afraid even to let Ivan run around the rooms in case the neighbours should hear and be reminded they have Serbs living in their block.

Children growing up in a war zone seem to mature quickly. Ivan is no exception. He nervously picks at his hands when he speaks, and stares into the middle distance, his skin pale from staying indoors too much.

'He doesn't hate Albanians'

All his classmates have fled Pristina. He has heard the stories of course - about Serbs being pulled from their cars and shot by Albanians, and he knows of the death threats, but he wants to stay. This is his home.

"I don't really go out," he tells me. "I don't play. I don't go anywhere."

But no, he doesn't hate Albanians. Then there's a pause and he thinks, and frowns.

Actually he does hate the people who come and bang on his door at night. He does hate the people trying to intimidate him and his sister and his mother.

"They want to bully me and they want to beat me," he says. "I just want the situation to calm down, and for us to be able to play together again." By "us" he means he and Albanian children like Harrulajar.

It's an hour down depressing mud-covered and potholed roads to Harrulajar's village. The sky is grey like the inside of Ivan's home.

Fleeing the Serb forces

I first met Harrulajar's family last summer as they returned home after the war - their life loaded on top of their tractor trailer.

They had spent a year on the road after fleeing the Serb forces who had moved into the village. There are still no phone lines there, but we had told them back in the summer that we would return, and they hadn't forgotten us.

As we swung in through their gates, Harrulajar and the others rushed to us.

Within minutes we were warming ourselves round the stove, Turkish coffee in our hands. Grandma busily handed out strong cigarettes, bent double as she stooped to place them on the carpet in front of us.

The Gashis are one of the friendliest families I've come across. We sat and chatted about the eight months since the conflict had ended. While Mrs Gashi fussed around us, offering food and more coffee, children of all ages - Harrulajar's sister and cousins - watched and played in the background.

These are the children that Kosovo's war had most affected, and their smiles and giggles spoke volumes. For all of their lives they had known nothing but oppression. Now at least that oppression seemed to be over.

Repairing the damage

Although their house had been destroyed by Serb forces and was still unfit to live in, the family had managed to repair the damage to a second building on their land.

The talk - as it does in places where politics has destroyed so much - turned quickly to politics and a row about Kosovo's future.

Harrulajar fell quiet. He's had enough of it all. As he told me later, outside as he unloaded roof tiles from his father's tractor, he wants to leave the war behind.

"I can go out and do what I want now," he said. "During the war I couldn't do anything." Many of his friends are now back in the village, and they all go to school together each morning.

Kosovo is becoming a friendlier place for the Albanian children who live here. But ask how he feels about the Serb people and you get the problem of Kosovo's future in a nutshell.

"Serb children shouldn't be allowed to live here," he tells me. "I just can't imagine having a Serb friend." It seems Harrulajar and Ivan will never be friends.