Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Leaving Homes, Seeking Futures

An IWPR senior editor makes a personal connection amongst the tens of thousands of lost souls now being forced across the Kosovo-Albanian border.
By Fron Nazi

A family of seven led by an old man in his late fifties slowly trudged across the Albanian border with Kosovo near Kukes. I asked in Albanian where they had come from. The old man sighed and answered: "We have been walking for three days. We come from the small village of Janjevo."


I was startled by his answer. Janjevo was my boyhood home.


Janjevo (pronounced Yanyevo) is 20 kilometres south of the capital, Pristina. In times past the village was mostly populated by Croats and Albanians. Janjevo's 5,000 or so residents were known for their handicrafts.


The village centre consisted of shops and a Catholic Church. We used to play on the hills around the village, each holding the iron rim of an old wagon wheel, and rolling it to the bottom as fast as we could. One day my older brother Leks raced his iron wheel down the hill and accidentally caught my elder sister's left elbow. Thereafter wagon wheel racing was banned.


My mother and father arrived in Kosovo from their native Albania in 1952, leaving behind my two elder sisters, Lena and Deila, then aged six and eight, with our grandmother. They were part of the first and last wave of refugees fleeing Enver Hoxha's communist regime and had hoped that Kosovo would be a temporary haven.


We settled in Janjevo in 1962, the year I was born. In 1968, my father moved the entire family, via Italy, to the United States. We eventually settled in the Bronx, where I grew up in a five-floor block of flats on Arthur Avenue, a neighbourhood that soon became home to thousands of Albanians.


When, in 1991, Albania's communist system finally collapsed, I took the first plane from New York to Tirana. I met my elder sisters for the first time and we spent our first week together learning about each other's lives. One subject we did not talk about was Janjevo.


Our journey in 1968 -- by train via Beograd, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sezana, Poggiorre Ale, Trieste, Venice, Bologna, and Florence -- was long and exhausting. But it was nothing compared with the 200 kilometre trek through Serb checkpoints endured by the family I had just met.


When the Janjevo family crossed into Albania to be faced with a barrage of questions from the more than 100 journalists present, I did not tell them that I too came from their home village. I did not even ask their name. Given the circumstances -- they had obviously walked for days -- such questions seemed inappropriate.


The family's children -- three girls and two boys -- are all aged between five and fourteen. The girls were wearing floral dresses over loose trousers and knitted brown sweaters. Both boys were dressed in dirty jeans, tennis shoes and blue winter ski jackets, zipped-up to their chins. Their faces were red and dirty. Their father wore a dusty grey suit, white shirt and ragged brown shoes. All had dark circles under blood-shot eyes.


The father looked into my eyes and asked: "Where can we get water and food?" The little boy held his father's hand, his eyes wide open, his face without expression. I put my pen and paper away and escorted the old man and his family to the food and water stations.


He thanked the aid workers with a smile and a bow of the head. With the little boy in hand and the rest of the family in toe, they set off on foot for the town of Kukes. After about 100 metres, the little boy turned to look back. We made brief eye contact. He smiled and waved goodbye.


That night it rained in Kukes. Like the other 30,000 refugees, the family from Janjevo had to sleep outside in the cold and rain. The next morning I walked among the refugees looking for the family. I found them next to the main square. The little boy appeared tired and worried. He looked my way but didn't recognize me. On the third day, I searched all over Kukes for the them with no luck. How long, I wondered, before they would see Janjevo again?


Fron Nazi is an IWPR senior editor.