A word out of place costs lives in Pristina

Gordana Igric risks her life returning to Pristina, where speaking the wrong language can be a fatal mistake being Serbian, or even Bulgarian, can get you murdered

6 June 2000

A column of vehicles is stuck for hours on the Kosovo-Macedonia border. Hamdi, an ethnic Albanian taxi-driver from Macedonia, keeps harking back to the good old days of the former Yugoslavia, of Tito and the times "when those foreigners didn't spark quarrels among us". He uses a language we both speak – Serbian.

Yet when he parks his car in front of Pristina's Grand hotel his lack of English and my uncertain fluency in Albanian are threats to our lives.

Hamdi knows speaking Serbian here could attract the attention of young Albanians gathered at the town centre. Someone in the long column of taxis could hear him, remember him and brand him a traitor.

The day before I decided to come here, young Albanians stopped a car in Pristina to ask the driver for identification. When they found he was Serb he was killed instantly. One Bulgarian UN worker foolishly responded to: "What time is it?" from young Albanians in Bulgarian, a language dangerously similar to Serbian. He was murdered. So, that's why Hamdi, crimson with embarrassment, whispers words of farewell.

In recent years, I was one of the people whose job was finding victims and witnesses to crimes by Serbian police. They searched me regularly at their checkpoints as a traitor and their Albanian victims mistrusted me for being Serbian.

In the centre of Pristina, at first glance everything looks the same. Even the staff of the Grand, a former centre of Serbian journalists and police informants, wear the same old-fashioned black uniforms.

This time I have to mask my Serbian identity. I sleep in the room of my English colleague, who arranged things so I did not have to show my red Yugoslav passport and compromising name.

When I use the phone at the reception I speak English. But the taxi drivers and shopkeepers know me, and my whole being rebels against the new madness. I was embroiled in my private battle for two weeks to travel here, as I made my preparations for securing in advance a flat and a driver.

Nearly all my friends and colleagues told me the trip was madness. The K-For peacekeeping force refused to grant me security, as if this was not the basic task of these troops.

Three times I called the mobile phone of my former driver from Pristina, who had driven me so many times. Each time he answered and immediately hung up on hearing my voice.

Later, when I got to Pristina, he sent me a message of apology – urging me not to get angry, as he could not dare answer in Serbian while he had a passenger in his taxi. Probably the truth was that he could not really accept to be my driver, out of fear.

Where should I stay? I suggested to an Albanian ex-colleague that I bring a sleeping bag and sleep in the office. He refused awkwardly. Someone would find out, he said, and throw a bomb into the office.

I opted for the most unpalatable choice. I phoned a close friend who had stayed in my house in Belgrade many times. I had the uneasy feeling I was "collecting payment" for that friendly gesture and getting him deeper into danger. I told him I was coming and wanted to see him. I said I had nowhere to sleep. Silence greeted me.

A couple of days later, when I met him in a Pristina restaurant, he told me with an unnatural expression that he did not wish to live in this city. And that he was humiliated.

The same expression, a seal of shame about what your national community is doing in your name, was one I carried for a long time in Kosovo.

Original article