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

Survival Instincts

To stay alive in Kosovo, Albanians are resorting to ingenious measures, boring holes in the walls, scurrying into attics, and relying on the spirit of children. Still, many are lost.
By Fron Nazi

To stay alive in Kosovo, ethnic Albanians are resorting to a variety of emergency measures as conditions in the war-torn province continue to deteriorate.


"For the past month our children have assumed the role of parents while we, adults, have assumed the role of children," explained a 35-year-old mother of three children aged between five and nine.


Sitting in her new home, a tent in the refugee camp paid for by the United Arab Emirates, her family and two other newly arrived families from Prizren recount how they survived in Kosovo during the first month of NATO's air campaign, hiding in attics and basements, and moving from house to house to avoid both the Yugoslav Army and local Serbs.


Hearing that some families were headed for the northern Albanian border of Morina, the families joined a convey of 7,000 which crossed into Albania on Friday, April 30. Apart from having their jewellery, money, and identity cards confiscated by Serb border guards, the families managed to cross without major incident.


"We were afraid to leave because they were taking the men away and forcing the women to perform sexual favors for passage," said a 50-year-old mother of two. Since all have left family members behind in Kosovo, they did not wish to have their names published. Both her daughter and son, however, left Kosovo about three months earlier for London and Geneva, respectively.


"Every night the Yugoslav Army escorted by local Serb civilians, would come knocking at our door demanding to know where our men were hiding," the 35-year-old mother explained on behalf of the other two families.


The army officials and Serb civilians systematically searched houses. Albanian males whom they found were taken away and forced to dig ditches by day and used as human shields by night. "They took my 18 year-old-son and about 15 others on April 24," said a 60-year-old father of four boys.


"They dress them up in old Yugoslav Army uniforms and force them to dig ditches in and around the city and the major roads." For one month they barely had enough food or water to live on. "We were afraid to leave our homes," said the mother of three. "The dilemma was who to send to queue for bread in the morning," added her husband.


"We couldn't send our daughters or the mothers outside for fear of what the Serb would do to them and we couldn't send our boys for fear that they would be taken away by the Serbs."


Sitting in the tent, the children of the three families patiently listened as their parents recalled their month-long ordeal. A young girl aged eight smiled each time her parents spoke of how they ran from basement to attic and, when necessary, to the neighbours' house. It was much like a game of hide and seek, only the consequences of being caught were potentially tragic.


"We relied on the children for getting us through the day. They held us together with their optimism of the future," said the mother of three.


One night they witnessed their neighbour and his son being taken away by the Serbs. Another day, the Serbs came and took the young boys away as they queued for bread.


"Three of my boys were taken that day," said the 60-year-old father. Asked what he knows of their whereabouts, he looked down at blanketed floor and said: "They are either in Serb custody or, if they managed to escape, probably fighting with Kosovo Liberation Army."


Every night Serbian television informed local Serbs where they could collect bread, water, cooking oil and other necessities. Some ethnic Albanians would risk posing as Serbs to get food.


"Most of us could speak Serbian and would have got away with pretending to be Serbs for the sake of getting food or water, but local Serb civilians pointed us out to the authorities," said the 35-year-old mother.


Buses from the Morina border crossing arrived in the town centre with more yet more refugees from Kosovo. Earlier arrivals swarmed around the buses firing questions at the latest arrivals in the hope of finding family members.


Armend, 21, from Prizren is among the latest arrivals. For the preceding month and a half he had survived by moving from one house to another via holes which he and the neighbours had bored in adjoining walls in six adjacent houses.


"When the Serbs learned of the holes, panic struck and everyone had to split up," he said. Armend escaped under a blanket on a tractor-pulled wagon. He has no news of his parents and two brothers.


Fron Nazi is a senior editor with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.


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