For Maliq Sadiku, war has had a mostly happy ending in Kosovo

Nine months ago, his business was destroyed, his family scattered. Today, despite struggles, the tension and dread of the last decade are gone.


Monday, March 13, 2000

Vucitrn, Yugoslavia -- When I first saw Maliq Sadiku, he was trudging along the shoulder of an oven-hot highway in Kosovo. The date was June 14, 1999, two days after NATO troops began pouring into the province at the end of the 11-week conflict with Serbia.

NATO had asked ethnic-Albanian refugees like Mr. Sadiku not to return until retreating Serb forces were out of the way. But he could not wait. Two of his sons were missing in Kosovo. So off he went on foot, heading for home.

By the time a car full of foreign journalists spotted him on the roadside, he had walked 40 kilometres with only a few mouthfuls of water to keep him going. So when we offered him a lift home, he thanked us profusely and jumped into the back of the tiny Yugo.

An hour later, after a bumpy ride past bombed-out bridges and burning houses, we arrived at his ruined hometown, Vucitrn. We were far ahead of the advancing NATO troops, and Serb forces still roamed the town. An armoured car growled into sight around a corner. Bursts of gunfire filled the air.

We stopped just long enough to deliver Mr. Sadiku to his home, and see his two lost sons burst through the door to embrace their father. "Oh my sons, you're alive," he wept as Bsuik and Shkelzen, 15 and 23, fell into his arms.

Nine months after our meeting, I went back to visit Mr. Sadiku, full of questions about his life. Were he and the rest of his family safely reunited? How were they coping with the aftermath of the war? Had his ordeal been worth it?

I found him in the centre of Vucitrn, now known by its Albanian name, Vushtrri. His face split into a grin as he recognized me and he pumped my hand with an iron grip. "Faleminderit,"' he said over and over. "Thank you."

Mr. Sadiku is thriving. He and his wife, Fatima, are settled again in their big, four-storey house along with their 10 children, aged 4 to 26. The youngest one runs around the house in a Kosovo Liberation Army cap, carrying a toy machine gun and hunting for Serbs.

Mr. Sadiku has reopened his bingo-hall café in the ground floor of the house, and scores of townsmen come to play, smoking and filling out their bingo cards as KLA heroes with massive beards look down from posters on the wall.

Business is so good that Mr. Sadiku has almost repaid the loan sharks who lent him money to rebuild at 10 per cent a month.

Everyday life is still a bit of a struggle. The electricity is often off, so the family spent the winter huddling together under blankets. The only drinking water comes from a neighbour's pump.

But, to Mr. Sadiku, 53, a stocky, bear of a man in a black windbreaker, these are trifles.

"With Allah's help we will be fine," he said, drawing on the latest in a string of American cigarettes. "It doesn't matter if we have to live on bread and salt. At least we are free."

Most Albanians in Kosovo seem to feel the same. With all the troubles afflicting Kosovo -- the ethnic tensions, the halting reconstruction, the confused political future -- it is easy to forget that for the vast majority of Kosovo's people this is still a happy ending.

The Serbian police and officials that used to oppress them are gone, they have their homes, mosques and schools back, and 30,000 international troops are here to protect them.

Towns such as Vushtrri still have a postliberation air. Scarlet flags bearing the double-headed eagle of Albania hang from the storefronts, and many families have put the U.S. flag in the window to show their gratitude to the country that led last spring's bombing campaign.

The tension and dread that pervaded Kosovo for more than a decade has evaporated, and people on the street hail each other with a bright "mirdita" (good day) as they hurry around rebuilding their lives.

Mr. Sadiku has big plans. After he finishes fixing the house -- two middle floors are still burned out and empty -- he wants to build a small shopping centre on adjoining land, with one store for each of his sons and daughters.

One day, he is convinced, Kosovo will be the California of the Balkans.

His happiness falters only when he thinks about the Serbs. Like many Albanians, he is furious that so many escaped without paying any price for the things they did.

Vushtrri suffered as much as any town in Kosovo during the war. Serb paramilitary units herded the thousands of people into the local graveyard and then marched them out of town toward Pristina, the provincial capital 20 kilometres to the south. One man was burned alive in front of his family. More than 70 people are still missing.

What pains Mr. Sadiku is that many of those responsible were his neighbours, men who drank coffee in his café and came to him for loans. "I thought they were my friends, but they turned out to be my worst enemies."

Among them was a postal clerk who always greeted Albanians with a polite hello. A local newspaper recently published a photograph of the man smiling as he cut the throat of a half-naked Albanian man. The killer posed for his comrades as they took the photo.

Mr. Sadiku and his family only escaped death by hopping over the back wall as Serbs set fire to their house. They got away to Macedonia in Mr. Sadiku's big, old Mercedes, 12 of them plus one café employee jammed into a single vehicle. Three of the boys rode in the trunk. When they were away, Serb troops used their house as an outpost. They urinated on the walls, piled it with garbage and set it on fire when they left. They took everything they could lay their hands on: money, jewellery, two bridal trousseaus set aside for Mr. Sadiku's daughters, the TV, the radio, even the door handles.

The Serbs are gone now. Of the town's 4,500 Serbs -- 15 per cent of the prewar population of 30,000 -- not one is left.

If Mr. Sadiku's feelings are typical, they were well advised to go.

"Shooting is too good for them." He thinks for a minute and then adds: "It would be hard with the NATO troops around, but I would wait for dark. I would take them somewhere and tie them up. Then I would take my time."

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