This holiday season and the battle in Aleppo, sent me back to the 90’s when my country, Kosovo was going through war.
We, Kosovo Albanians were forced out of our homes. The entire city was being forced to walk, or bike to the border with Albania for ethnic cleansing purposes. I had an old Yugo with food, clothing, drinks and medicine but the Serbian soldiers got tired of walking by our side, so they kicked us out of the car and took my car with everything in it. No food, no drinks, no warm clothes, and no medicine. We had swollen feet from hours of walking and feared of getting beaten, killed, or raped if we didn’t give them money.
My parents had my brother and me between them. The Serbian soldiers pulled my brother aside and asked my parents to give them money or they’d shoot him. So my parents gave them money. Every bit of cash they had with them. I think it was 500 Deutsche Mark, over $1000.
They let go of my brother and we’re happy to have him with us. A few hours later, I got picked by a different group of soldiers. Usually, they didn’t shoot women unless you start to run away. They took them to a base where they were forced to clean, cook for the soldier and rape them.
My mom almost passed out. My dad was cursing himself for giving the previews crew all the money to save my brother and was trying to negotiate with the soldiers. So the soldiers gave my dad a choice, to save me or my brother. I’ll never forget the horror on his face. Mom and dad whispered something to each other and both of them chose to save my brother. I was scared, started screaming and crying as I tried to get away from the soldiers. One of my friends from college, Fatos Papova happen to be near us and gave them money to save me. They took his money, let go of me but another group took him. I never saw him again and to this day he is still a missing person from the war.
The road to Albania seemed long and far. It was Christmas Eve and we were cold, hungry, some sick and all of us scared. The Serbian soldiers were tired as well and we all set for the night. We started a fire which was more smoke from wet wood than fire but eventually, we had some good flames. Some people smoked cigarets and threw the empty packs in the fire. I noticed my six- years old cousin playing with the silver lining of the inside of the cigaret packs. He was making balls. I picked him up and held him up to put one on a dead tree. More kids joined us and we made decorative balls out of cigarets packs and decorated a tree while singing a song. Pretty soon, everybody around us started singing. We held hands and formed a big circle around the tree and started dancing. Even the Serbian soldiers joined us which was weird and scary. It was like they needed a break from being evil. As we sang, I could see the faces brighten with hope. My six years old cousin brought cheer and joy to everybody simply by being a kid. We didn’t have presents, we didn’t have shelter, we didn’t have food but we had hope and a bunch of sweet little kids singing and giving hugs. Our extended family ran away from the line that night getting lost in the deeper forest, but we made it. We survived and that was our Christmas Present.
Regardless of our religious beliefs, we celebrated the Catholic and Orthodox Christmas, the Aid El and the biggest holiday was New Year’s Eve. People prayed to different Gods but things didn’t go well until NATO and the United States helped us end the war.
Whenever I share stories from the war, I get asked how I manage to get over it and live a normal life. I never got over it. I suppressed those memories by focusing on helping others. I worked 14 to 18 hours a day.
After the war, I went to Fatos’ home and found his parents burned inside the house. It was horrible. The Serbian military set the house on fire with them trapped inside. He was the only child and after the war, I went crazy looking everywhere for him. The worst part was going through the mass graves that were being discovered in odd places and not be able to identify his corpse because there was no family to compare the DNA. It was one of the main reasons that I got the job with United Nations Police and worked in the area where he was taken. Every day for the first year I drove by the location, I faced those nightmares but I didn’t give up. While looking for Fatos, I found my car Yugo. It was out of gas, some damages but minor repairs and it started running. The weakest, crappiest cars ever made, survived the nasty war but not my friend Fatos. I was mad and hurt.
I’ve asked my parents why they chose to save my brother and not me. They both said they knew somehow I would survive. If anybody has a reason to hate a sibling, I definitely do.
After I started working with the UN Police, we had numerous cases of raped victims coming to report what happened to them. However, there were many of them that didn’t come out. They lived in their nightmares, many of them without help from anybody.
That lead me to found a women’s non-profit, Women’s Life in Kosovo and operated in the same area as my UN job. We provided counseling, medical treatment, and those who wanted to move forward to testify in the International Court for war crimes, we connected with prosecutors. We had other programs but the raped war victims were the main reason I started.
There were so many horror stories and the more I heard, the more I wanted to help. The guilt of surviving and the need to help others was addictive.
Moving in the United States helped put the past behind. However, the first couple of years, it was like going through the”withdrawal.” I felt like I lost my identity, I had no goals and certainly didn’t know what my purpose in this life was anymore. Lucky, I have a loving husband who put up with me and helped me get through.
As I watch my six years old son, Erik cheering up my mother in law, Melissa after losing her husband a week before Christmas last year, I remembered my six-year-old cousin cheering us in the middle of the forest. There’s always somebody to cheer you up even in the worse moments of your life. And if you don’t, count me and my children in.
So this year, I want everybody to enjoy and appreciate your family, friends and the safety you take for granted. Whatever your beliefs may be, at the end of the year is the time to make peace with yourselves, and let go of any issues you may have with others, especially your families.
To all my family, friends, staff and business clients, thank you for being a part of my journey.
I wish all of you a Happy Holiday Season; Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and a Happy New Year.
And May the Force be with the children of Aleppo.