June 28th 2002, 9am
At a meeting at OSCE building in Prishtina organized by the former Us Ambassador in Austria, Ms. Swanee Hunt, I was listening the stories of two Bosnian women.
Six years after the war ended in Bosnia, it was still emotional for the women from Bosnia to talk about their experiences from the war. Three years after the war ended in Kosova, I realized while listening to them that there is still pain left in me from the war.
Especially there was still pain in me from the experience from Blace (no mans land between Kosova and Macedonia). I was in tears while they were sharing their stories and as I listened to them, my mind went back to March 1999.
When Nato started bombing Serbian Army positions in Kosova and Serbia, my whole family gathered at my mothers house so we could stay together. Serbian police and paramilitary units were going around Prishtina forcing Albanians to leave their homes and go to Macedonia or Albania. We were over 37 people at my mothers house: my brothers with their wives and children, my sisters with their husbands and children, my cousins. And we had very little supplies.
Everyday we lived in fear of the police coming to force us out of the house.
On the 4th day of the bombing, the situation got worse. The Serbian police were taking out their brutal and aggressive revenge at Albanians for the Nato bombing.
We had to be quiet and in the night we only used candles, so no one would find out that we are inside the house. Friends from all over the world would call me and ask me to leave Kosova before it was too late. I refused. I was with my family. In the house where I grew up.
We had less and less supplies everyday. I ran out of the cigarettes as well. I decided to go to my Serbian neighbour to ask her buy me cigarettes, because in the shops only Serbian people were allowed to buy things.
Both of her sons had joined the Serbian police. My mother said its too dangerous to go and visit her. Maybe her sons will be at home and do something to me, she said. “ How can they harm me?” I answered.
I grew up with her sons. We played together. They were always poor so my family always helped them. Since I got my first salary in 1984, I always gave some money to her.
I went to her house. She was alone and very surprised to know we were at the house. I gave her money for my cigarettes and also for herself. She promised that she would buy them for me. She never did.
Two weeks after the bombing started, armed Serbian police came to our street, forcing Albanians out of their homes. We started to organize ourselves. Each of us packed something to carry with us because we had no idea where we would be going or how. In my bag I put my multivitamins, my mothers medicine and my toothbrush and toothpaste.
My mobile phone was not working in Kosova because the Serbian Regime had cut the Network so we wouldn’t be able to call each other but I decided to take it with me.
I asked my family not to answer the door if police would knock, hoping that maybe they would think we had left the house. Then they came, knocked at our door and continued on to the next house. I was watching the street through a tiny hole I had made in the curtain. I was happy when the police continued to knock at other doors. Then my neighbour came out of her house and ran towards the police screaming:
” Come back! There are people in that house!” –she pointed with her finger at our house.
If I hadn’t gone to ask her to buy me cigarettes she would not know we were inside the house.
I had to think fast. I asked my family to take their bags and walk towards the street so that when the police would come they would think we heard the door but we were too busy packing our bags.When police came in anger and broke down our door, they started screaming at us pointing their guns at our heads. Somehow I found the courage and screamed back:” Why you are angry? Don’t you see we were busy packing our bags and getting ready to leave?”
My reaction calmed them down and they replied:” Hurry up! Leave! Don’t you ever come back here!”
I was holding back my tears, as I walked down the street with my family. Now and then I would turn my head back towards the house as if I had to say goodbye. Then I looked back and saw my neighbour entering my house,
When we came to the center of town, there was police everywhere. From every streets came convoys of Albanians walking towards the train station, which where the police were directing us to go.
There were many thousands and thousands of people waiting at the train station. Above us and everywhere around us were the snipers.
It started raining and we needed to find something to cover our mother. She had been ill before leaving the house. The trains were arriving and leaving filled with the thousands of people taking them towards the border with Macedonia.
Then it was our turn to leave. It wasn’t a passenger train but a train used for carrying cattle and goods. We were pushed inside as if we were a heard of sheep. We didn’t know where we were going. It was so crowded and no windows and so we made a circle around my mother so she could breath.
After a 40 min. journey the train stopped. It was two am. We heard the police outside screaming:” Put gas on the train and burn them all.”
They let us panic inside the train for another two hours, while they continuously screamed outside.
I couldn’t believe it when the train started moving again. We are saved, I thought at that moment.
Still I was holding back my tears. We arrived at Blace. The no land zone between Kosova and Macedonia. The police made us get out of the train and said to us: “ Walk on the railway tracks because there are mines all around you and don’t you ever come back!”
In the dark we walked two by two. I thought this is it. We are saved! We are going to go into a free country. I was almost letting my tears out, when I heard voices. Babies were crying and in front of me, spread around the muddy fields with no shelter were thousands of people who had been sent here, the same way as we were.
Again I was holding back my tears. I thought its not time to cry but to think. I walked through the field and asked the people how long were they there. Some people said two days, others even five days.
The Macedonian Police let only few people inside their country. They wouldn’t let humanitarian organizations inside the no mans land. They also stopped the International media entering inside no mans land. We were trapped between the two police forces. Those who forced us out of our country by guns and then welcomed by the guns by the Macedonian police. We were not even considered refugees. We were not even considered human beings. No, it was not Blace, no mens land. It was hell.
My first concern was my mother, I thought she would die if she stayed one day in this hell. I had to think of something. I heard my mobile click. The Network was working here. I couldn’t believe it. My mobile is working. We are saved!
It was 6am and I waited a little longer and then started calling humanitarian organizations in Macedonia. They all gave the same answer:” We are not allowed inside Blace!”
Trucks with bread were approaching Blace but they were not allowed inside. They started to throw bread out to the crowd of people who were pushing to the front just so they would be able to catch one piece of bread so they could feed their children.
It was cold so I put on another layer. We covered my mother with the blanket we took from home. She was not feeling well and I thought I have to get her out of here, but how?
In the distance I saw a TV crew, I ran towards them, screaming with anger:”Where are you guys? Don’t you see people are dying here? What took you so long?”
They were US TV journalists from NBC TV chanel. The woman journalist understood my anger and said: “My name is Amy, I work for TV NBC. Tell us your story”. Still angry I answered:”Which story? What you see here is my story!”
Amy was very kind and was trying to calm me down. She explained how she had to come to be inside Blace. They had traveled through the mountains because Macedonian police wouldn’t let them in.
I was impressed with her courage and became calmer then. I shared my story in front of the camera about how we were forced out of our homes and the journey to Blace.
Before she left, she hugged me, wishing us safe journey and then Amy said:” I might not have another chance to come inside here but since your phone is working here I can call you”
Then Amy and the camera man returned to Macedonia taking the same way back: through the mountains.
My mother was cold. I had an idea. I asked my mother to stand up and while holding her, we walked very fast around Blace, until she could hardly breathe. Then quickly I grabbed my sister and said:” Go to the Macedonian police and tell him she is dying!”. I watched my sister and mother walking towards the police who then allowed them to enter Macedonia. It worked. They entered inside Macedonia.
The word spread that my phone was working, so friends were calling me constantly. Outside no mans land, on the Kosova side there was an empty house, where electricity still worked so I was able to charge my mobile batteries.
The crowd of people grew every hour because trains were bringing more and more people in. In the afternoon I saw my friend, Flaka Surroi who was working for UNICEF Kosova. She was in Macedonia and with the badge of UNICEF around her neck, she was allowed in to look for her family but not to bring in any humanitarian aid.
Flaka said she could help me get out but she needed to go back and get a badge of UNICEF for me.
It was very tempting but then I thought of the thousands of people who would be left behind in hell.
I had a mobile phone and I thought I could be useful to people and share the information so I decided to stay.
All the time there was a drizzling rain so we were wet constantly. In the evening people tried to light a fire to warm up but the drizzle was putting the fire out. I didn’t eat all day but I had water and took multivitamin pills. I felt happy that I had taken them with me.
I couldn’t sleep anyway because it was wet so I decided to go around and talk to people, encouraging them, giving them hope that things will change.
The next day I gathered children together to play and exercise gymnastics. I wished we had a ball to play with but since we had nothing, the gymnastic was just as good. This made the children happy and gave a smile to their parents.
Then the tragic news started. Two newborn babies died during the night and an old man who was ill died because there was no medical care for him. I thought how each morning I would see things like this. Something had to be done fast.
I was informing the media through the phone about everything. Still no International Media or Humanitarian organization was allowed in. People started to cut with their hands some of the wood so that they could make temporary tents with blankets.
The days were always noisy. People talking in anger, wondering when things will change. They tried to get some bread when the truck came, but in the evening it was quiet so I did what I had done the previous night. Visit people around, talk to them, comfort them. Give them hope. Never thinking about my need, but their need.
The next day, as I feared, we heard about more people dying during the night.
They were buried on the other side of the small river.
I thought we have to do something. We can’t sit here and do nothing when people are dying in these conditions.
My mobile rang. It was my partner Rachel. Before the bombing started the Serbian police had ordered all the Internationals to leave Kosova. She didn’t want to leave me but I had to convince her to go to Budapest. Everyday she would call me to ask how things are. When she heard we were forced out of our home, she took the first plane to Greece, then train to Macedonia, to see me. “Igo, where are you?”-she asked and continued: “I am inside Blace but its so crowded, I cant find you!”.
She was inside! My heart started jumping. While we were talking on the mobile phone we were giving each other directions on where to meet. “See that big tree before the river? Lets walk towards it” I said.
“I have an umbrella with me “-she said. I was walking toward the tree but still I couldn’t see her because of the crowd. Then she was there, in front of me. We ran towards each other and hugged for a long time. I realized our friend Siobhan was with her, shooting everything with her camera.
They had managed to convince the Macedonian police to let them come inside the no mans land, but of course they to hide the camera.
They brought lots of food and cigarettes which we immediately shared. They also brought me a sleeping bag.
“We have to do something here” I told them “Some kind of protest. You could help us and inform all the media present in Macedonia. And all the political leaders.”
They stayed for four hours. While watching them leave, I felt for the first time, I want to leave with them. My heart broke but I had to stay and organize the protest.
We set up an organizing committee planning how to organize the protest. We agreed that next day, at 11am we would start packing our bags and making a line facing the Macedonian border and exactly at noon, start walking towards the border slowly, but loudly shouting: HELP!
That evening we informed all the people so they would be prepared for next day. Everyone had a smile on their faces because they felt good that at last they would do something.
A phone call came. It was Amy. She was constantly calling to ask about how the situation was but this time she said that NBC will call me live from the US. They asked me some questions about the situation and then they asked:” Igo, are you angry and at who are you are angry with”?
I answered:” I am angry at the Big Powers who knows what is happening here and is doing nothing to put pressure to Macedonian Government to let us in!”
That night I opened up my sleeping bag Rachel brought and for the first time I slept. I felt I was in the most expensive hotel in the world.
Rachel and Siobhan informed all the International media present in Macedonia so the next morning around the border there was a big crowd of journalists but we noticed the uniform of the police had changed. They were wearing special uniforms with bullet proof jackets and huge batons in their hands. They knew about our plan!
Around 10 am, a phone call came from friend, who was living in Macedonia:” Igo, you have to stop this protest. This will lead to a bigger war. The police might even shoot the people!”
He was right, we had to change our plan quickly. Instead of walking towards the border, we decided we would just stand in a line and shout: Help!
We had a hard time to convince people to change our plan. At 11am they stood up, prepared the bags, I was shaking, afraid people would start walking but at 12, everyone stood in line in one place and for an half of an hour we all shouted: HELP!
The police were angry but didn’t intervene because we didn’t walk towards the border. After the shouting people slowly unpacked their belongings and continued talking with each other.
Then a phone call came. “You did it! It worked! Tonight they are going to let people in!’
I started sharing the information to the people and asked them to spread the news. Everyone had tears in their eyes but not me. Not yet.
Then for the first time I felt tired and all my energy was gone. Its over. I felt my mission is over. I can call my Flaka from UNICEF to help me get out from this hell.
When I called her, she said: ”We asked you the first day to come with us but you refused, so now you can stay there” I smiled. I knew she was joking with me.
Then she said ”At 1pm we are coming to get you out!”
Flaka was late because of the trouble with the Macedonian police. She had a UNICEF badge for me and I was supposed to play an International UNICEF staff. We started walking towards the border when I realized that a Macedonian police was following us. He was suspicious about me being an International staff of UNICEF. Then I started speaking loud to my friend pretending I am an International: ”Look all this mud on my trousers, cant believe this mud. I was here only thirty minutes and look at me now!!!”
The policeman turned back. It worked.
We walked toward UNICEF car. Only when I sat inside the car, I was able to cry out. I cried the whole way to Skopje (capital of Macedonia).
June 28th 2002, 7pm
The former US Ambasador Swanee Hunt founded an organization called:” Women Waging Peace”. She came to Prishtina last year and also this year to have meetings with us, womens NGOs and women in the parliament. She has just published a book with the stories of the Bosnian women and she brought two women with her to share their stories to us.
In the evening she organized dinner at a nice restaurant in Prishtina. I went and sat on the table with the women from Bosnia. Ms. Hunt sat with us and then I gave her two books published by UNHCR-Kosova about the situation in Kosova before and after the war and the other one about the Kosovar Women.
While she was looking at the books, her advisor approached her and asked her some questions. Then as she was looking at the books. She was looking at me as I was someone she knew from before. She recognized my voice. She saw my picture in the book and my name written under it then she turned to me and said:” Is that you Igo? I am Amy! Amy from Blace with TV crew!!”
I couldn’t believe it. In tears, we hugged each other for a long time. We didn’t recognize each other.
“What are you doing at Women Waging Peace Organization?” I asked her.
“Well, since I met you, you transformed my life so I decided to work for a womens organization so here I am!”
We talked and talked until it came time to leave. She was leaving Kosova the next morning but Amy promised to come back and catch up with the story.
Since I entered Macedonia with UNICEF car in 1999, I rested for two weeks and then worked with women and children in the refugee camps in Macedonia.
When we returned home in July 1999, I continued working with our organization “Motrat Qiriazi” with the support of the Swedish organization Kvinna till Kvinna. We tried to help traumatized women and children and helping people in need. I thought I dealt with my pain from the war, but while listening to the stories of the Bosnian women, I realized I didn’t deal with my Blace painful story and now finding Amy again it was a healing process.
All this time friends were asking why don’t I write about my Blace experience. I couldn’t but now I feel I can. So I sat all day by my computer and typed. I feel better now. Its all out of me now.
June 29th 2002