CEOL
Surviving Kosovo meant lying low

By Shaban Buza

March 21, 2000


(Rtr) - I trimmed my beard to try to disguise myself and moved about only when I had to. Even a walk between one block of flats and another could have ended with a bullet in the head.

A year after NATO launched its air campaign over Kosovo, my main concern is that Kosovo does not follow the anarchic path of northern Albania. Then it was, quite literally, a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

During the air strikes it took to get the international peacekeepers here, we Kosovo Albanians who were likely to be on Serb hit lists were just focusing on surviving.

My fellow professors from Pristina University, an institution now surfacing from 10 years of underground existence, thought I was mad to change into pyjamas every evening rather than sleeping, like many of them, fully clothed and ready for a sudden escape.

For me the important thing was to carry on as far as possible as if everything was normal.

My colleagues at Reuters could not understand why, when they were driven out by Serb paramilitaries two days after the air strikes began, I chose to hide out in an area where I knew the paramilitaries lived.

But life under Serb rule had taught me that the last people the gunmen would attack were their neighbours, and so it proved.

To be found with a satellite telephone, a laptop computer or even a notebook with the 'wrong' names in it could have been fatal.

SERB NEIGHBOUR KILLED

As it was, when I met my Serb neighbour by the elevator, in uniform, he was embarrassed.

"I'm only doing my job," he said, and we parted ways. Later I saw a death notice pinned up in the yard. He had been killed by a NATO bomb north of Pristina.

Venturing outside was a different matter. The professor who trained me in computer science was furious with me one day when he saw me walking along the street.

If you went out, it was in a car, and you drove fast, ignoring the traffic lights, like everyone else. It was better not to witness what was being done by the Serb authorities, let alone report on it to the outside world.

The reason I was on foot that day was that my car had broken down. But I also knew that the people I should fear most were otherwise engaged. Pristina had begun holding anti-NATO rallies and I knew they would be there.

The quick tour of the town while the daily rally was on became part of my routine. That way I could check on the night's violence in between following, on satellite television, NATO's view of what was happening here.

It was a strange comparison. There were times when I thought the alliance, trying to keep its 19 members behind the bombing, was as keen on seeing Albanians leave Kosovo as the Serbs.

NATO would say all Pristina was burning when the flames had only licked the outskirts. Many people here, isolated in their flats, believed it and fled in terror.

State television showed refugees saying they were only leaving because of the bombs and officials sending bread and first aid to the border to help them even as masked paramilitaries ransacked the villages, driving people out, taking some away and shooting others where they stood.

WIFE'S UNCLE SHOT

My wife's uncle had not even left his front yard in Djakovica in southwestern Kosovo before he was gunned down with five bullets.

That was just two days after the NATO bombing had begun. The lights in Pristina had gone out and the telephones had gone down, district by district. Mobile phones were not working either.

Through a roundabout telephone route I heard that Djakovica's old quarter was in flames and that people were being killed but could not investigate.

A similar roundabout route saved me a few weeks later when I got a call from neighbouring Macedonia to tell me the police were searching apartments just a few floors below me.

Many Kosovo Albanians spent the bombing in an agony of indecision; to abandon everything and go to Blace, the refugee camp on the Macedonian border where we knew conditions were appalling, or to stay behind and see what happened.

"I know Blace's hell, but I'd rather go there and survive than stay here and get a knife in my back," reasoned one friend.

I knew I wanted to stay even though the danger of venturing out meant hours of enforced idleness. I whiled it away writing software programmes to help me with English grammar. Anything to take my mind off what was happening around me and worse, in Djakovica, where my family comes from.

The terror in Djakovica, where my wife's uncle was manager of a textile factory, had started well before the bombs.

The surrounding area was known as a stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and fighting had been fierce since the Serbs began cracking down on separatism more than a year earlier.

There were few KLA fighters living in the town itself, but when I went there a few weeks before the air strikes with my pregnant wife to see a gynaecologist, there was a curfew.

Caught out after dark and you could be arrested and beaten by Albanians who had joined the Serb police force.

I sent my wife and children out to Macedonia before the bombing began. Eventually, as the date of the birth neared, I knew I had to join her to stop the worry which was threatening her own health and that of the unborn baby.

LEAVING KOSOVO WAS HARD

Leaving was not easy. One group of friends got as far as the car park before masked gunmen sprang out of nowhere. It was the middle of the day and after pleading with their attackers, they were let free. They returned home trembling.

I was helped out by a Serb who found a uniformed policeman to accompany us past a notorious police checkpoint known for turning people back. By this time Belgrade's policy had changed and they wanted to pretend everything was normal.

In one of the many ironies of the war, it turned out that the checkpoint was not there that morning.

When I reached the border on one of the packed trains transporting refugees it was even more surreal.

I had carefully distributed my documents in different places in my clothing so I would retain some identity papers if others were taken as I left to make it hard to prove I was from Kosovo.

As it was, the border guard didn't even ask to see my papers. He just scrawled one more line on a piece of paper. No name, not even a number.

Yet crossing the border was the hardest part. No one knew when or how the conflict would end and there were friends and neighbours back there who I might never see again.

When I finally returned to Djakovica a few days after NATO troops entered Kosovo, a neighbour greeted me awkwardly. I knew something was wrong and hurried home to learn that my brother was one of a thousand men missing from the town.

In Pristina, my flat had been looted. I counted myself lucky.



Original article