Bjeshka Guri (interviewer)
Blerina Muqolli (interviewee)
Acronyms: BG=Bjeshka Guri, BM=Blerina Muqolli
BG: Could you please tell something about yourself?
BM: Yes. So, I am Blerina Muqolli. I come from Peja. I have finished the primary and secondary school in Peja, then I continued my studies at “Hasan Prishtina” University here in Prishtina, in the department of Journalism at the Faculty of Philology. I have worked as a journalist in a TV and a newspaper. Now, for two years and some months, I have been working in the organization “TOKA” where I am responsible of managing different projects that are related to youth and informal education.
BG: What do you remember from the war?
BM: So, in fact, my family and I did not experience the war in Kosovo, so to say. The war for us began in the moment that we decided to leave Kosovo for another country where we would feel safer. Our family – the ones that left the country- were my parents, I, and my younger sister. And we left behind our grandparents with whom we lived, because they did not accept to leave with us because they were not ready to leave the house and all the other things that they had built during all the years they lived in Peja. Therefore, they incited my parents, me, and my sister, to leave Kosovo so that we feel safer. Even though that we had that opinion that we will feel safer, the journey that we took from Kosovo to Switzerland, where we aimed to go, was extremely difficult and even it did not last too long, it was a real war and very difficult for us. And what I currently remember is that in the moment that we decided to leave, we left by bus, and as a child, I always wished to have some kind of footwear, which I do not know if they are used today. As far as I know, they are not used. And my grandmother was very excited and she did not want to let me leave without those footwear. And we stopped the bus in the last moment. The bus was taking the route to Ulcinj. The war had just began in Kosovo and we tried to leave before it began, as I said, incited by my grandparents, to feel safer. And I remember those moments and I was very excited as a child about those footwear, to the point that I did not realize that I was endangering other people by stopping the bus. So, my grandmother did not let me leave without them, and bought them for me. And this is a memory that stuck to my mind from that time. In this way, we left to Ulcinj. I remember that along the way, there were many stopovers (checks), and I remember my parents being very stressed all the time. I was about 5 years old and I did not understand why they were concerned, why were these people stopping and checking us. There were occasions when they took men from the bus and their family members were left crying without being able to do anything. Fortunately, my father was not one of those who had to leave the bus, and even today it is a miracle how he was not taken out of the bus by the Serbian military. And as far as I know, those people that were taken, they were executed afterwards. Then, we arrived at Ulcinj where we stayed for two months. We always were anxious about leaving behind our other family members. Besides my grandparents, there were also other family members for whom we did not know anything about. Then, the war slowly began to expand to other parts of Kosovo. And the whole time, my parents were anxiously listening to the news in radio, trying to find out who of their beloveds had been killed, and it was really stressful. No matter how much we tried to feel safe outside Kosovo, this perhaps was even worse because we did not know what was happening with the relatives that we left behind. It was a great challenge until this point. But, we faced even a greater challenge when we settled there, because my uncle, my oldest uncle who lived in Switzerland was the initiator who incited us to go in Switzerland. And, we decided to leave Ulcinj and go to Italy, so that we could head to Switzerland then. However, this was very difficult because the manner that the refugees from Kosovo used to pass from Ulcinj to Italy was through some networks, or some persons that expressed readiness to help us and also other people do that. We got in contact with a family. It was a Serbian family in fact, that expressed their wish to help us. We spent one night with that family. It is not very clear to me, but, I think that my parents did not sleep the whole night since it was a very dangerous network, because they asked for money.
BG: From the Serbian family?
BM: Yes, from the Serbian family. So, the Serbian family would then help us through some other persons - I do not quite remember- to pass to Italy. And, I remember that my parents did not sleep at all that night, because that family, as I know, their plan was to take the money from us, but then I do not know if they planned to send us to Italy or not. But there were cases when they took the money from Kosovan families but they did not send them out of Ulcinj at all. So, it was a sort of fraud. Fortunately, my parents did not accept to hand them the money, and we decided to leave without telling that family. I am not quite sure if we reached an agreement with them or not. All that I know is that it was a great danger to our lives because they put pressure on us asking for the money. On the other hand, we told them that we changed our mind and that we did not want to go to Italy. Another night, it is the night that we passed at that family, at their house, our family-the four of us. The Serbian family comprised three brothers and a sister, and their mother. It was a great challenge. We passed the nigh there, then we met some cousins of my dad, 20-21 year old boys, who also had left Kosovo. They had some friends who helped them and also us to pass to Italy. So the long-awaited night came, and we left for Italy. But, when we left for Italy, we did not know how we would get there. When we approached the sea, the Adriatic sea, we saw there an inflatable motorboat... So, it wasn’t a ship, it was not safe, it was just an inflatable boat in which we had to pass through the Adriatic sea to Italy, illegally of course. We were 44 people in an extremely small inflatable motorboat that would normally have space for 15 or 20 people. And I remember that the motorboat was farther and we had to walk a bit, and then swim, in order to get on it. My sister was about 9 months old, not even a year old... so she was a baby, and she started to cry. When we departed, my father was carrying my sister and me, while my mother was carrying the luggage. I, together with my father and sister, walked a lot and after a certain moment my father stopped to see where my mother was. My mother was at the shore, she made two or three steps into the water, and was absolutely shocked, because doing that was like signing your own suicide because it was impossible to imagine that one, with 40 other people would get on that motorboat, that small air boat, and pass through Adriatic illegally, and would get alive after that. So, my mother panicked and fainted, and she froze without being able to move. Then, we had to return. Others had already got into the motorboat. Carrying me and my sister, my father had to return and help my mother, to awaken her from that panic state, and to ask her to continue because we were leaving and 40 other were waiting, so if we did not get in, they would leave without us.
BG: And what was the reason that you no longer wanted to stay in Ucinj?
BM: Yes. So, that was because my mother’s relatives were not in Ulcinj. We did not have more money to stay in Ulcinj, because, of course, we had to pay a kind of rent for staying there. We spent 2 months there and we did not have more money. We did not have a place to stay, nor food. So, we had to leave for Switzerland, to my uncle, the nearest country that we had someone and where we did not need to pay for our stay. We simply did not have more money. All that my parents had, they were saving that for someone who would help us pass to Switzerland, so that we did not have to pay for our night stay. Therefore, this is what incited us to leave Ulcinj. And of course, the life in Ulcinj was not easy at all. Providing food for ourselves wasn’t easy because we did not know anyone there. We know that even if we visit someone as guests, it is hard to adapt, and let alone staying 2 months and knowing that your relatives are in war. Thus, it was very difficult, and we had an emotional need to go to our relatives in Switzerland. Thus, this was the main reason that my parents decided to leave Ulcinj at that time. And to continue the story: after my father returned, he tried to get my mother out of that panic condition. Another problem was that my mother did not know swimming well, and it was a real challenge until we got in that motorboat. Because we were the last to get in, we were at the rear of the motorboat. Now, my 9-month-old sister, I was 5, my mother, my father, the luggage, all of us at the rear, and some 40 more people in that motorboat. The moment the motorboat started, the air pressure got higher, therefore the front of the motorboat lifted, while the rear dropped, and water started to flow in, because the people’s weight was great... the water flowed in as we were sailing through the Adriatic sea with 40 other people. What I remember and what it stuck on my mind, was that even though I was very young, I prayed that day. I do not know who taught me the prayer, I do not know who told me that there was a God that could help us, but all that I know is that I was praying loudly: “Dear God, please save me, my mom, my dad, my sister, and all the people in this motorboat”. I prayed loudly since the moment of the departure until we arrived in Bari, Italy. And afterwards, I know that all the people... in fact I do not myself remember this but my mother told me that the people said that the prayers of that child saved us, because even though I was a child and it was inexplicable how it came to my mind to pray at that moment, I prayed wholeheartedly, and I understood the danger threatening us while at sea, in a very small and tight place where the water started to flow in. Then, I remember that the route Ulcinj-Italy was undertaken during the night, and illegally. I also remember a helicopter, if they were Italians... I do not know... whatever... who turned on a light and followed our motorboat wherever we moved. I remember the person navigating the motorboat telling us to bow our heads, not to look, to behave as we were not there, thus, we tried to somehow hide. I am not sure who were those people and why they were following us, but the helicopter left after some time and we continued our route. I reiterate, our arrival to Italy, passing all those challenges through the sea, is a miracle quite unbelievable for us even today. When we arrived in Italy, we already had made half of the way, and now we had to go from Italy to Switzerland. Then, we went to Rome. From Rome, through mountains, I cannot tell for sure which way...but I know that through mountains we passed to Switzerland.
BG: Was this also illegally done?
BM: Of course. Everything, all these movements (journeys) were illegal. Then, I remember that we went to Rome by bus. I was very ill. I was 5 years old, hungry, barefoot... we did not even have food. I remember being poisoned and suffering of diarrhea. And it was extremely difficult for my parent too, because we did not have a place to stop and take a shower or eat, or at least to rest a bit. I know that my father was in contact with a person who was supposed to help us pass from Rome to Switzerland. That person was a taxi driver... I remember this... and we passed through a mountain. It took us 2 days, 2 nights, to pass through the mountain and I know that we were extremely tired, exhausted, and malnourished, we did not know where we were heading to, and it was extremely difficult for us.
BG: Did you pass the mountain on foot?
BM: Yes, we walked through the mountain. All that we did is: We got in a taxi, I, my parents, my sister, and if I am not wrong, one or two other people. We thought that the taxi driver would drive us through by car. But a moment came when he sent us to a road near a mountain and told us: “We will continue on foot now”. And we got out and continued on foot. So, it was there where we started to walk, sometimes run, without making noise. Another thing that I would mention is that my sister who was a 9-month-baby, as my mother told me, did not cry. If she cried, we would be heard, and then we would be found by the Italian police or anybody else, since we were passing through mountains illegally, and thus they would return us back because we were refugees. But, we were very fortunate that my sister, even though as a child she was not very calm, during that period, she was very quiet. And there were cases when my father stopped to check if she is breathing, because he was holding her so tightly fearing that she would make noise, that in certain moments he thought that he suffocated her, so he usually checked her. So, we were in such a condition that the only thing to be done was to check on each-other if we were alive, if we were able to walk or not. Another thing that I recall is that my father used to carry his shoelaces on his neck, and he walked all the mountain with shoes in his neck because he did not have time to even stop and tie them. And this was another miserable thing that we had to go through. It was this difficult for us. The time spent in the mountain, sleeping there, hungry and thirsty for two days, was extremely difficult for us. And, so, we slept in the mountain, we spent time there. Then, we arrived in Switzerland. When we arrived there, a cousin of my dad took us. We had contacted him earlier, and he came to take us. And then we contacted my uncle. He came and I remember that it was a great relief for us. We could not believe all the things that we had passed through. My uncle came to take us and we went to his house. Of course, they were living a normal life. It was quite strange for me as child, because for months I hadn’t been living a normal life, without stress, without seeing my parents with the radio in their hands, without seeing my dad calling his parents all the time, or my mother calling her family to see if they were alive, if they were alright. So, people in Switzerland were living a normal and quiet life. And it was quite strange for me seeing people not stressed and I remember that it was quite a relief and after being extremely tired, I finally reached a state of calmness. That was a feeling that I will never forget, that when I arrived in my uncle’s house, I took a shower, I ate and I went to sleep. And all I thought about was whether there were people that make a normal living, not leaving their homes, because I did not even know why I did or had to leave at that time.
Bjeshka Guri (interviewer)