Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland. 01 March 1999, Blace area, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Photograph: UN Photo
The first serious clashes between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Yugoslav authorities began back in January 1998. The conflict was accompanied by a large number of civilian casualties, which ultimately led to foreign intervention. By the fall of 1998, the number of Albanian refugees numbered 230,000. From March to June 1999, against the backdrop of systematic ethnic cleansing, 848,100 Albanians left the region. According to international human rights advocates, and the subsequent confirmation by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic’s troops massacred entire Albanian villages. After several attempts to negotiate and demilitarize the region, the NATO command started a bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, which ended on June 10, 1999 – together with the end of the Kosovo War.
Kosovar Albanian Qëndresë Halili was nine years old when the war burst into her life. Her large family had to leave their native land and go to neighboring Macedonia, where they lived at first in the refugee camp, and then in their friend’s apartment. After several months of moving around, the family returned to Kosovo in June 1999.
Today, Qëndresë has been living in New York for the past three years and, despite her young age, is already a fairly well-known Albanian writer, the author of six books in the Albanian language, including novels and poems. Last month, the first English translation of Qëndresë’s book “War Diary” was published in the US. It is based on an authentic diary, which the author kept as a child during the war. Qëndresë intends to keep most of her diary intact, without the slightest editing, in order to convey to its adult readers how children suffer from war and how they experience its horrors.
The “War Diary” is as simple as a child’s drawing. It does not pass judgment or attempts to chronicle the Kosovo conflict; it only depicts individual situations faced by little Qëndresë and conveys her fear, pain, longing for her native land, worrying about the fate of classmates and a sense of a loss of childhood. She remembers Serbian patrolmen who called the refugees “Albanian dogs”, being afraid to utter even a word and get a bullet in the back, empty villages with corpses lying in the streets and then – weekly messages from the abandoned homeland about the murdered relatives.
“I see everything there. Tents, coverings, quilts, food, packed clothes, baby bottles, pieces of bread, dead people wrapped in newspaper, which had told about my country. Yes, yes, I can see that with my own eyes. There, I see a man’s arm, a child’s foot, an old man’s head, and a woman’s eyes. There I see some hair hung on a tree, which drips blood. There I see babies left in the street… Everywhere there is blood, everywhere there are graves, and everywhere there is pain. There are body pieces and soul pieces without life pieces. I am shivering, I am feeling pain, and I feel I shouldn’t look at anything. I don’t want to look. I am not looking. I don’t want to be here. I am not good. I see the land, the sky, and myself. I see living graves in front of me. I don’t want to see graves. I have never seen graves, even if that was in my dreams. I am afraid of graves. I feel pain because of my fear.” – this is how 9-year-old Qëndresë describes the village through which her family passed during her flight.
According to her, the pain of the war is still very fresh in Kosovo today; however, there is no “revenge” comparable to the past genocide.
“Serbs still live in Kosovo and, although they are an ethnic minority, they have the same rights as Albanians. They do not experience any discrimination by the government,” Qëndresë said in an interview.
However, the girl admits: even today Serbs and Albanians have a difficult time maintaining normal relations – the memory of the massacre of eighteen years ago is still too strong for both peoples.
“Many women were raped during the war, and they still remember everything that happened to them. Among us live mothers who have lost their children, people whose loved ones were killed during the war, and their memories are still very fresh. For people to be able to find peace in relations with each other and in their own hearts, more time has to pass, perhaps decades. Even I still remember the war and the blood that I saw, and I feel that these wounds have not yet healed. Of course, when I meet the Serbs, I perceive them primarily as people, regardless of their nationality. But I feel that for me, a child who survived the war, it is much easier to maintain normal human relations with the Serbs than for those who survived the war as adults. We grew up already in peace time, side by side with Serbian children, while adults remember too clearly that it was these people who killed and raped them,” Qëndresë said.
The girl emphasizes: her book is not meant to be anti-Serbian and is not meant to blame anyone. Its main mission is to show that all children, on either side, are inevitably innocent victims of wars.
“Throughout my life in Kosovo, everything around me always reminded me of the war. I constantly struggled with these memories. Interestingly enough, I originally came to the US to promote my book, like many immigrants, without having anything here: no property, no friends, and no acquaintances. But, despite this, only here did I feel that at last, I was internally free from the war. After I translated my book into English with the friends’ help, I felt that I had fulfilled my mission, and it helped me to gain inner peace,” she admits.
Qëndresë recalls: since childhood, she loved America from afar, primarily for its role in the Kosovo conflict, and considered the United States her guardian angel. Today, after she got a chance to see “this very America” from the inside, she never tires of admiring American values and freedom.
Another interesting moment in Qëndresë’s book was the mysterious image of a woman in white, who the girl saw almost every night, living in exile in Macedonia. Qëndresë, to this day, is sure that it was not just a dream or a hallucination inspired by the war. In addition, the woman’s face, according to the girl, is very similar to Mother Teresa, who, incidentally, also came from the family of Kosovar Albanians. Qëndresë says that back then, in 1999, she did not know anything about Mother Teresa, did not see her pictures, and only years later realized whose face she had seen. That’s why today the girl calls this experience a real miracle.
“At that time, I did not understand who it could be, and only later, when I was older, I discovered information about her and understood who I saw. Perhaps, thanks to these dreams, I realized that I should not give up. Now I feel that my experience and my book can be significant, if only for someone who is going through the war now – as a personal example that it is possible to survive. Yes, now I feel that I have fulfilled my mission,” Qëndresë summed up.