Imagine if your mother needed to give birth to you, but all the hospitals were saying we don’t accept your kind here. This happened to my mom. In order for her to give birth to me she had to travel 90 kilometers north to the Mitrovica city. There she knew someone who was working at the hospital and would sneak her in to give birth. Might I add that this was during a very cold November day? I was born into injustice.
My birthday was seen as a big celebration to many because I was the boy after three girls in the family. This was such as celebration that two schools stopped classes because my mom’s colleagues were so excited and decided to celebrate instead. Still to this day many people tell me about how they didn’t have classes because of my birth. Crazy right? However, underlying this celebratory occasion was a deep sense of tension that all the Kosovo Albanians were experiencing at the time due to political tensions between the Serbian Government and Kosovo Albanians.
Living in Prishtina, capital city of Kosovo, and way too young to understand what was going on, the first thing I remember was that when I turned two, my dad had to leave us and go work in assembly labor in a factory in Turkey. The job was horrible but he left us because most Kosovo Albanians were fired from public or governmental jobs – and we needed money to survive. My mom was a teacher in a public school, and my dad was a professor in a public university – both of them fired during the same time. My mom was working without pay because she and many other teachers felt that they could not abandon Kosovo Albanian students. Again, I could sense tensions were rising as I was missing my dad. I remember I use to call my dad’s factory phone and ask “ile konuşmak Agron” – means ‘speak with Agron’ in Turkish.
As time passed, my dad decided to come back and start a business in Kosovo because he could not live far from home any longer. He, together with my uncle started an electronic business in our basement. They were fixing electronic appliances, as well as invent products that they could sell to earn a living. Two products that they sold successfully were an EKG system to measure heart activity, and a remote controlled device that will direct a home satellite. I feel that if my dad was in US, he would have been extremely wealthy. However, in Kosovo tensions were still on the rise, especially after some Kosovar Albanian’s decided that they have had enough of this Serbian government aggression and formed the Kosovo Liberation Army. This did not go smoothly and ended up in leading the Serbian government to undertake an ethnic cleansing process to get all Kosovo Albanian’s either killed or out of Kosovo.
I was around 6 at the time and all of a sudden we were hosting one mother and her four daughters in our house. Our house had three floors. Top floor was where my grandparents, uncle, his wife, and three kids lived. Second floor was for our family of 6, and the bottom floor was my dad’s “laboratory” and an extra room. It didn’t make sense to me to host a family because we only had two rooms per floor. Soon, I came to realize that they had fled from the village and their father was killed by the Serbian paramilitary forces. Then a sense of concern arose in me and filled me with compassion for them because I had a quick glimpse of how it was having no dad.
Along with my house being filled with strangers, our classrooms also started growing in size because many of the people from the villages were fleeing to the city due to violence. In the news we could see many houses were burning, massacres were happening, and many more horrific things. I think that no child should ever understand the word massacre and think about it on daily basis. Many people started fleeing Kosovo and asking for refuge. By this point, my mother was preparing us with emergency situation training as well as filling our house with emergency food supplies and lot of candy. For sometime I was enjoying this food situation in our home due to this excess of candy and food.
While all of this was happening a flood of international organizations came to serve, observe, and monitor the situation in Kosovo. Many people got Kosovo Albanian employees as translators, chefs, cleaners, and more jobs like this. My mom was cleaning bathrooms and cooking. My dad was a driver. And then, Recak Massacre happened. This was one of many horrific events that happened, but what was different this time was that this particular massacre occurred while these international organizations were in Kosovo. The whole world got to see what was happening! Soon after, led by United States, NATO decided that they need to stop this injustice and intervene to support Kosovo Albanian’s before it is too late. NATO gave a chance to Serbian leaders to stop the violence, but their pride got on the way. NATO bombing started March 24th, 1999.
This was the peak of the tension. The Serbian government and paramilitary forces were full of panic and fear. This led to many more massacres but ultimately they unleashed their plan of ethnic cleansing all throughout Kosovo. Within days, at daytime I remember looking outside of my windows and seeing thousands of people in lines leaving their homes. At night, there was bombing sirens, no electricity, and NATO bombing! We were all excited to see the bombing, and sometimes we could feel the vibrations too. When they target the Serbian communication building in Prishtina, we were all watching as the airplane unloaded tomahawks and brought the building to ashes within minutes.
During the daytime, more and more people kept being forced out of their homes. I was asking my parents what was going on and they were saying that people were going on vacation. That was exciting to me! I was thinking we can go to a pool in Bulgaria and somehow I managed to convince my older cousin that we are going on vacation as well. We were running up and down our home celebrating in ecstasy. Then, we ran into our grandfather and we shared our excitement with him. He grabbed us by our t-shirts and shouted “We are not going on vacation! We might die trying to leave this country! We would be lucky to end up in Albania or Macedonia!”. And just like that, our fantasy was squashed and our worry began. Many years later I understood the fact that my grandfather has been a political prisoner for sometime from the same Serbian regime and all this craziness that was happening lead him to over-panic.
While many people were being forced out of their homes and these long lines of people were formed on the street, my cousin and I were playing soccer in our front yard. While we were playing, we heard couple cars and trucks suddenly stop in front of our home. Swiftly, we saw soldiers with masks running towards our house. We both fled inside our homes completely terrified. Running inside and closing the door proved unsuccessful because this solider with a black mask was right behind me. He came in the house yelling and was slowly approaching me. Looking at his eyes through the mask I got to witness pure evil while many other soldiers started entering the house. I got to witness how this person was so proud, yet hateful and full of anger. I was extremely scared and I was by myself until my superhero mom came down and started yelling at the soldiers and ordered them to back down. All this was happening, while my dad and my uncle ran outside to talk to the soldiers and ensure that they do not harm us. Fortunately, one of these masked soldiers was my dad’s student, and he told my dad:
“Look professor, you have the options to leave or to get killed. You have to get out of here, don’t wait. It is not safe anymore for you and your family. There are trains leaving and you should take them. You have 5 minutes to decide.”
Of course we left! Then I realized the genius of how my mother had everything prepared for us and the emergency procedures were in place. While our emergency packing was done ahead of time, we were ready to leave within 2 minutes. However, my grandfather and grandmother were worried that they will slow us down in the case we needed to take a long walk in the woods. They did not want to jeopardize our safety and decided to stay home. It was extremely sad to say goodbye to them, and by this point we were all convinced that they will be killed.
Broken and walking towards the train station, my family decided to sneakily take a detour and go to my aunts house. We went there to spend the night and reassess the situation. There were plus 50 people sleeping in her small house. That night felt so restless but yet I had this sense of adrenaline and hope rushing through me. Next morning, we woke up at 4:00 am and made our way towards the train station. We were the only ones there. The train came at 5:00 am and we were feeling grateful that we will have the train for ourselves. It was my first time on a train! However, the train was not leaving and we did not know when and where it will be going. A flood of people starting coming in the train station while we were all watching them through the windows. Families carrying their members who could not walk in wheelbarrows and trying to make a place for them on the train. The train was packed to a point that people were sitting on top of each other on the seats to a point that it became hard to breathe.
“Choo-Choo” we all heard the whistle signalizing that the train was on the way and whoever is not inside will have to wait another day. A rush of panic, sadness, and deep grief overcame all those in the train. We were waving goodbye and wishing best wishes to those who did not make it inside the train. My younger sister had her violin with her, and we found a special place under the seats to protect it. The train was leaving and after 10 minutes of commute it stopped in an area outside of Prishtina. Outside of the train were a group of Serbian paramilitary soldiers with long beards deciding our destiny. We all recognized these soldiers as part of a military group called “chetniks”. They had long beards and they were known for brutality, slaughter, and rape. I remember hearing my father saying “they need to send us to Albania or Macedonia. Let’s pray they do not send us in Serbia.”. After 3-4 hours of waiting for them to make this decision we luckily ended up being sent on-route to Macedonia. “Choo-Choo” we are on our way again.
As we are approaching the boarder the train stops and everyone is ordered to get out. We were not in Macedonia, we were not in Kosovo, but we were in-between boarder area in the middle of these two countries. As soon as we get out we realize we get to overwhelmed by the large amounts of people already there. In our eyes it looked like a million, but later on we learned that there were around 70,000 people there. My parents were terrified and they brought us in a huddle and told us “No more playing, no more messing around. We have no shelter, we have very little food, and we have to conserve our energies.”. I was upset, a little scared, but also worried because there were a lot of people in a state of panic.
My parents were wrong. There was food and shelter at the boarder – and this was all thanks to some amazing volunteers coming from Macedonia, Albania, and from all over the world. I remember seeing some volunteers from Macedonia with a truck full of food were passing the boarder while the boarder police was hitting them with bats. I wish I had an iPhone to record the incredible courage and braveness of those volunteers in that moment. Volunteers were amazing! They were handing out food, started building shelters, handing out blankets, and distributing water like true angels. While I was standing in the crowd waiting to get food, one volunteer noticed me and gave me a piece of bread and chicken spread and told me I hope that is enough for you big guy. I will never forget how the eyes of that volunteer were shinning and vibrating with this pure loving reflection and compassion.
The sun was starting to set and the temperature was predicted to be way below freezing at midnight. Many parents who had young kids were concerned that they might not make it. My mom, the entrepreneur she is, found a way to get me (the youngest in the family) to cross to Macedonia. My aunt’s husband worked for RedCross and he had this badge that he was thinking of using to pass the boarder with (claiming he was an international volunteer). My mom tells me “listen to your aunt and don’t worry about us.”. I just remember running through a very muddy path with my aunt and her husband to cross the boarder. While we were running I fell down and got covered completely with mud. I started to cry and felt like giving up – but my aunt’s husband yelled at me and pulled my hand so I can start running with him. We passed the boarder!
Covered in mud I was shocked by this whole experience. Some volunteers brought me some clothes and even though they were girl’s clothes I very much welcomed to remove the muddy ones. I held tight to my jacket because that was were my mom stitched some gold coins along with a list of contact information of family friends in any of our neighboring countries. This was part of her emergency plan for all of us. We arrived in the city of Kumanova where we got hosted by this family. They were extremely nice to us and allows us to stay in their house as much as we needed. I remember when it was time to go to bed, I looked outside of the window and there was this massive pouring rain. I missed my family and felt cold in my heart.
Couple of days passed and we didn’t hear anything from my family. By this time I started playing soccer with the kids of the neighborhood. Then all of the sudden my aunt tells me that my family crossed the boarder and they are in town of Gostivar. I gave my aunt the number of the person who was our contact in Macedonia, and she called him asking if he could drive me from Kumanova to Gostivar. He came to pick me up, bought me so many food items on the way. And finally, I was reunited with my family at another incredible host family from Macedonia. Very happy to see everyone, but my dad was missing. He and his brother (my uncle) decided to stay behind and volunteer at the camp to set up shelters for those who couldn’t. Our host family, Selimi family, was extremely kind and they treated us the same as they would treat their own family. We started school in Gostivar (the school was extremely welcoming as well)! The schools name was Goce Delcev and people were incredible. Couple of weeks later we heard that our grandparents were alive, we got to talk to them on the phone and I remember asking them “How are my toys?”! We heard rumors that my dad is still at the camp volunteering.
One day while I was playing soccer with my friends all of a sudden everyone is telling my cousin and I to go home. We wanted to play but they kept insisting with a big smile. While going back home, we see some very muddy boots outside the house. We recognized that our fathers are back!!! We sprinted inside the house and gave our fathers the biggest hugs imaginable (while everyone else was crying tears of joy). The father of the house family, Xhemil Selimi was a true hero. This guy was not just hosting us, but he and others worked to ensure that the refugees that are inside Macedonia are not forced out of Macedonia. They way they did this was buy laying down on the street so the cars with refugees could not drive past them. Heroes, i tell you!
Soon after my dad came back he found a job at UNCHR as a program coordinator based in Skopje. Forever in-debt, we left our host family and moved to Skopje. I was very upset for this move but my sister convinced me by telling me that there is a McDonalds in Skopje and they have Happy Meals! Now I won’t even step into a McDonalds, but back then I only saw the Ronald McDonald clown on TV making kids happy, and boy I needed some happiness.
We moved to Skopje in a smelly small apartment on the 5th floor. I felt very lonely in Skopje and I didn’t really enjoy my school. However, while in Skopje, we applied to immigrate to U.S. and we got accepted. We bought tickets and we were all ready to go. However, last minute parents decided that we need to go back to Kosovo and help rebuild things. We came back to Kosovo, got united with our grandparents and I got united with my toys.
The stories continue as we came back to a war torn country – but that it a story for another time. Thanks for sticking around <3