R.B.: Thank you very much! Can you tell us a bit about the situation a few days before the bombings?
A: A few days before the bombings, the market in Mitrovica was attacked by grenade, and a few people were killed. I was there, too, because I was working in a shop. I passed by that place just 15 minutes earlier. Then, from my shop I heard people shouting and running from the market. They ran by my shop; everyone was terrified. My family, then, came to see if I was in the shop. There were continuously such problems. The night the bombings started, I was also working in the shop. It was late afternoon. I had some clients in my shop. One of them, a well-known man called Agim Hajrizi, was, unfortunately, killed that night. He bought something in my shop and left. I closed the shop and went home. Then we waited what was going to happen. We constantly listened to the news on satellite TV, CNN, Sky News… We tried to understand what was happening here. We didn’t dare leave the house. We stayed isolated at the centre of the city. We didn’t leave.
R.B.: When did you take the decision to leave?
A: We first stayed at home. Then they started burning some houses in the beginning, on the first and second night. A few families then left from the Bajri region and came to spend a night at my house. That was the second night. We heard shots very close to our house. A bomb was thrown in our neighbour’s yard; we found it in the morning. We saw bullets in another, two-floor house. We could see it had been attacked. Then, I saw with my own two eyes a tank across the road launching a grenade on the other side of the road, to make it look like the shops are being destroyed by the bombings. The attacked from one side of the street to the other. I could see they were hitting the shops and houses of local residents just to make it look like it had been destroyed from the NATO bombings. Then I tried going to the city centre to see my sister, but I couldn’t because there were too many Serbian forces. We returned home and escaped to Bajr but they didn’t let us stay there; we came back home again. We went about 500 meters away to some neighbours. We stayed there a couple nights. Then we went to Tavnik. We only stayed there from morning till evening. At noon, the police fired at some civilians, and I was very close. I didn’t know at first what was going on but the shots were heard very close. Around evening, people left from Tavnik: most of the Mitrovica citizens went to Zhabor. The people of Zhabor received us very warmly. Almost the entire city stayed in Zhabor for about a week. A week later, the police arrived and told us to leave.
R.B.: Did they evict you?
A: Yes, they evicted us from the houses. The residents there welcomed us very warmly, with food and everything we needed. They gave us whatever they had for themselves. We didn’t have any difficulties about food. Then we went to Tavnik because our house was at the centre and it was difficult to stay there. We stayed there for a longer time until April 15, if I’m not wrong, when Mitrovica was bombed by NATO. The army barracks and different important parts of Mitrovica were attacked. That day, they started evicting people from their houses in the city. For example, in [INAUDIBLE] street, they grouped a large number of people and killed them. They were young, and I knew some of them. Most of us, then, went to Zhabar. They didn’t let us stop in Zhabar at all, though; they persectued us. There were also gunshots. They evicted us. We went from Zhabar to the school in Shipol. Nearly half of the population of Mitrovica was in a single room. There was a large number of police officers who constantly firing at us to make us leave. From Shipol we walked to Skenderaj. It was getting dark. It was also raining a bit. When we got closer to the Skenderaj road, where the road divides to go to Peja, there was a street barrier placed by the Police. They stopped us there and told us to go back. They shot a gun in the air. We walked back for about 500 meters and stopped in the pastures. Although it was raining, we stood in the rain. We had very little food with us because we didn’t have time to take more. We didn’t have troubles about food, but when we joined the line of people walking we only had some biscuits and pancakes. My uncle who is disabled and cannot walk was with me. His children were little too; his son was especially very young. And we gave the food we had to the children. The next day they let us cross the road but they told us to go to Peja, not Skenderaj. It was difficult to walk that road because it was uphill. Some people even wanted to go back because they were exhausted and couldn’t walk. There were older people too.
R.B.: You had to walk for a long distance. You walked from Mitrovica the whole time.
A: We did. We then walked from the villages of Drenica till Runik. Before going to – I’ve forgotten some of the names of village – but somewhere we met some people escaping by trucks and cars. They took my uncle and his wife and children. They wanted to take only him first but we insisted to make some room for them too, because there wasn’t a lot of room: the trucks were full. They made some room for them, and I was left with my family only. We kept walking. Then, we met some Serbian soldiers who were keeping guard, and they gave us water in Runik. They had left some gallons with water and they gave us to drink. We were first afraid it was poisoned, but we were thirsty and we had to drink that water. Then, we kept walking to Peja. When we approached Banja e Pejes, we were provoked by some soldiers. They divided some people from the rest and robbed them. I don’t know what happened to them later. We walked to Peja. When it got dark we were somewhere outside Peja. When the bombings started, we sheltered in a shop, because the weather was cold, although it was around April 20. It was very cold. In the morning, we started walking again. We changed the direction again. We walked on the road that takes you to Decan and Gjakova. There were various provocations when we arrived in Decan because there were Serbs in the vicinity of Decan. There were provocations at the Decan Church. We managed to pass that part somehow, but then it started snowing. Although it was late April, it started snowing. Then we arrived at the road cross between Junik and Gjakova. The army divided us into two groups: one group went to Gjakova, the other to Junik. They decided which way we went. Then, we arrived in Junik, and we started hearing the artillery. There were continuous fights. The soldiers moved continuously. The Serbian army followed us, and we went a bit further from Junik. We crossed a river. There were some ruined houses there. Although we could see they were new, they just had been built, they had been destroyed from the bombings. They stopped us at some houses. They didn’t let us move. They kept us there. It was raining and snowing. It was cold. We were wet. We were staying outside. It was ice cold; it was very difficult. They kept us there until evening. We were afraid they were going to kill us or do something to us because we were completely surrounded, under the control of Serbian army or paramilitary; I don’t know what they were. Then they returned us to Junik. There’s a textile factory in Junik; it was called JuText. The army kept us there. Since Koshare was very close, and the fierce battle of Koshare was taking place at that time, we realized they were keeping us hostage there for protection, so that the KLA wouldn’t attack them. I realized this later when I saw some photographs that were published after the war in an exhibition dedicated to the KLA, and I saw the KLA had raised the national flag in that factory. That happened 4-5 days after we left from that factory. So, the KLA regained control of that place.
R.B.: Did you leave on your own?
A: When we woke up in the morning, they came there with trucks. They asked us to pay if we wanted to get on the trucks and leave. We didn’t know what to do. We were afraid we were paying to take us somewhere else and shoot us. We didn’t know what was going on, but we still paid. They took us to a village just before you enter in Peja. Later I realized, although we kind of knew back then too, that they were moving us depending on NATO’s targets in order to protect their own army from NATO by keeping innocent civilians close. When we went to a village, it was a village with tall buildings at the entrance of Peja, and we saw a fountain in the street and went there to drink. We didn’t have any bottles. We just drank there. A woman resident came out and saw we needed water. She was Bosnian. She told us to wait because she would bring us some bottles for us to take water. We waited for her. The line of people was very large. Another group that had been evicted to Gjakova when they took us to Junik was also there. They had returned to and they reunited with their family members. Brothers reunited again. One had gone to Junik, one to Gjakova. Now they all returned there. As we were waiting for the woman to bring us water bottles, NATO’s bombing started and we saw a truck in a yard nearby. That truck was hit by NATO airplanes. We heard the airplanes and kept walking. Across the street there was an army barracks. It was also later attacked by NATO, and we could see various military cars and trucks coming out of the two-floor houses and joining our line. Then the houses were burned; we saw all of them getting burned and we couldn’t walk. That’s when we realized that the army had camouflaged their vehicles really well between those houses. We went to the city stadium in Peja. Some soldiers stopped us there. They told us not to go further. The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger because they stopped everyone and probably wanted to take us inside the stadium. However, the Serbian military police came after a while and it prevented them from doing that action, whatever they had planned to do. So, they took us to the bus station. They told us, “There are some buses here that will take you back to Mitrovica.” When we went to the bus station, they told us, “It’s a lie! There’s no buses here.” We saw a bakery there, next to the station. It only had stale bread though. All of our family and neighbours were there so one of us went to find bread for all of us. One of our neighbours found some breads and distributed them to us. The bread had probably been baked 10 days before, but we still ate it. Then, we walked to Mitrovica, all of us on foot, and we went to Banja e Pejes. There was a private wood factory there. The army had stopped others before us too. They told us to stay in the yard; we barely got in, they pushed us because there were too many of us. There was a two-floor building there and a warehouse. There were people in the warehouse and in the stairs. Everyone stayed there. They kept us for a week like that.
R.B.: Did they torture you?
A: They did. Only a few guards stayed there but, in the next morning, more soldiers came and their commander told us to go inside, although there was no more room inside. One of the soldiers shot a gun in the air but he hit a girl. A young girl was shot. They took the girl in. The refugees themselves treated her: there were some nurses who had first aid; they gave treatment to her somehow they saved her. But they didn’t know what was happening. Then they started torturing the refugees and tried to establish some kind of order because, according to them, the refugees had guns and they were the ones who wounded the girl. They told us, “You have a gun!” And they asked us to hand it to them. “If you don’t hand in your weapon, we will group you and kill you until you hand in the weapon.” So we were psychologically tortured for a full day until evening. In the evening, they saw the girl survived – they were just worried the girl would die, so they wanted to blame us. They saw the girl was alive, she didn’t die, because the bullet scratched her face. She was wounded but her life wasn’t in danger. She survived by a thread because if the bullet had hit her worse, she wouldn’t survive. We had water water but we had to go look for food in the village. The houses were all abandoned. We would find some potatoes and corn and then boil them. That’s all we ate. There were people with small children, new mothers with babies who had left the hospital and joined the line of people escaping. Their children were a few days or a week old, and feeding them was a problem. We would find some flour in the houses. But you couldn’t really bake… the women somehow baked some bread, without salt, just flour and water, just to survive. A few days later, someone from the UN came with a television team and took pictures. That day they also shared some breads, just to be able to say they were feeding us. But they just threw those breads there, whoever was able to get one, because there were too many people there. Probably half of the population of Mitrovica was there. Afterwards, they decided to send us back to Mitrovica, after a week or so. They took us by buses to the Water Utility Company in Shipol. I was among the first group of people who came back. There were masked soldiers whom I didn’t know. A relative of mine, however, knew one of them: she said he was a neighbour. We passed. He had a dog but they were camouflaged. Our group walked and didn’t have any trouble. Later, however, we heard they stopped all of the groups. They asked someone, “What should we do with them?” They let us go. However, when they saw more people were coming after us, they asked their headquarters or whoever they asked, they were ordered to send all the men to prison in Serkonica. They sent them all to prison in Serkonica where they were tortured. I was in the first group, first bus that arrived. We were somewhat tortured but they didn’t stop us for long. We came home. The first thing we did was we took showers when we came home. Then we heard gunshots. Later, we found out that one of our neighbours, a 17-18-year-old girl, or her silhouette, was seen walking in the second floor of her house through the window facing north and was shot dead with a sniper from the Three Skyscrapers apartments in the northern part. They shot and killed her from that part. Her father went to the army in the city centre to inform them about the murder, in order for them to take measures. But they didn’t do anything. It was a wartime. After that, we couldn’t spend the night there. We went at some neighbours on the other side of the street, just to be able to escape more easily in Tavnik. We spent the night at our neighbours and returned home at day. We just took some food items and went back. We spent some time like that until the army came again with some paramilitaries and entered in the houses. They evicted people from their houses and took them to the bus station. They gave all of them green cards. There were provocations and shotguns were heard until late. We were afraid… I hid in a house. I escaped from that house; when they arrived they didn’t see him, and I didn’t come out. If they had found me, maybe the worst would have happened because I hid or for some other reason. But I didn’t go to the bus station. I escaped. Some of my peers, as some people whom I met the next day told me, hid in a neighbour’s attic. Most of them went there. My sister went to the bus station. There were shotguns. A group of the KLA asked to release the civilians. In the evening, they released them and my sister came back. But we didn’t know; it was horrible until we found out what had happened. My sister had a green card too, but she was among the first group who came back earlier. They had green cards. Some of us young men who were hiding didn’t have green cards, and they were rumours everyone who didn’t have a green card would be shot. They were considered illegal. So some of us young men hid in that part; we didn’t go out at all to avoid being seen. We couldn’t even go to our neighbours. The houses weren’t even 100 meters apart but we couldn’t take that risk, because most of the other men had been in prison in Serkonica. The rest were mostly women and older people. We stayed there until the end of the month. Then, a cousin of mine went to Ulqin: he had some relatives who took him to Ulqin by bus. He took the risk, and went to Ulqin with his family. The next day, they called to say they had arrived. They had some troubles but most of them made it. So, we thought let’s take a risk for once. Whatever happens happens. My sister went to the station with another cousin. They bought the tickets for all of us, which were quite expensive. Every ticket costed about 100-150 Marks at that time. They paid a lot of money, 150 Marks per person if I’m not wrong. Then, she just sent us a message and told us. I went home with my sister and took some clothes. We put them in a handbag and walked through Tavnik with that. It was dangerous because we didn’t go out at all until that day. It was also dangerous in the bus station because they used to stop people and ask to see their green card, which I didn’t have. Then, the buses had numbers. Ours was bus number 14. It wasn’t there at all. We barely got in another bus which was full of people. The people themselves asked them to take us because the bus we were supposed to leave with wasn’t there… They had sold more tickets than they should have and the buses were full. We almost remained here but we made it somehow.
R.B.: Did they ever stop you on your journey?
A: They stopped us when we arrived at the border between Serbia and Montenegro. There was a café there. They would stop people and take them inside in groups and interrogate them. They would call someone on the phone, God knows whom, take notes and ask us who we were. Obviously, everyone was psychologically abused in those interviews. But they let us go eventually. When we entered Montenegro, the Montenegrin border police said, “No one can do any harm to you here. Now you’re safe and protected.” When we arrived in Podgorica, however, some defence police officers stopped us at their checkpoint. They took two of us and asked for our money. We had to give them our money. They did, however, give us some change back. It wasn’t that bad; the ones in the bus were more terrified for half an hour while they kept us, because they were afraid they would torture us or something would happen to us. The ones in the bus were much more afraid than we were. Then, we arrived in Ulqin. We arrived late at night. We were accommodated in a Kosovo Albanian’s house from Mitrovica. We spent the night there. In the morning, we went out and saw the camp by the beach. We saw our relatives there. We visited them, and then decided to go to the city. We found an apartment in the city. We paid a rent and stayed there.
R.B.: Was there any international relief provided in that part?
A: There was some but not too much… We stayed there until the end of the war. A few days after NATO troops arrived in Kosovo, we found out our houses had been burned. We waited for a few days, we didn’t return immediately the day after. One of my relatives, for example, returned to Kosovo immediately and went to the northern part where his house was, and he disappeared. Even after NATO’s arrival.
R.B.: What happened to him?
A: He disappeared. They never found him again. The Serbs killed him. He went to the northern part right after, he didn’t know, and the Serbs found him somewhere and nobody knows anything about him since then. So, this happened after the NATO troops arrived. My family and I went back four or five days later. Our house was burned down. We stayed at some relatives for a while until we built our house. Then, the situation here improved. At least, we weren’t afraid anymore. What kept us alive while we were still here was the hope we had that the NATO troops were coming. Especially in the first few days, we were thrilled that NATO was coming but we were also afraid about what will happen to us until it’s all over. We didn’t know how long it would last, whether it would last for a week or for a year. They once asked a little child – there were numerous refugees staying at a house in Tavnik, and they ask him, “How long do you think the war will last?” And he replies, “Three days. No, three weeks. No, three months.” In the end, it turned out to be accurate. It lasted for 3 months.
R.B.: How do you remember the city of Mitrovica? Was it burned down? You’re from the south, right? Was the city burned in general?
A: Yes, the part where I live was mostly burned. Most of the houses were burned.
R.B.: What about the northern part?
A: It was less burned, apart from the Bosnians neighbourhood where a few houses had been burned too. There were mostly apartments there, so they didn’t burn them. They couldn’t because of their residents, because they blamed us, the Albanians, for the crimes. Some people from the south were sheltered there at someone else’s apartment in secret, to prevent the locals from the seeing them. They stayed in a room like prisoners. They couldn’t even go out in the yard so as not to be seen, until the war was over. One of my relatives stayed isolated alone until the war was over. Then, when we were in Zhabor, when they evicted us for the first time, one of my relatives stayed in a henhouse. And the army stayed in the house where the henhouse was. He used the chance to get some food when they left, and then went back to the henhouse. He couldn’t leave. He just went to the kitchen, got some food, and went back there. A few days later, though, they found him and took him to the Police Station, SUP in Serbian. After a few days of torturing him, they let him go. He survived somehow, just a few days before we were evicted. But he was very tired, extremely tired. Also, they found some of my peers in the northern part and then let them go at daylight on purpose. They survived somehow, but one of them died one day later – I don’t know if he was wounded or was it because of the physical abuse. They caught young men in the Bosnians Neighbourhood and until late we didn’t know anything about them, until we found out they had killed them. I personally knew them. I knew one of them who used to practice karate. I knew him very well, and when they caught him, they knew really well who he was, they didn’t let him go alive.
R.B.: When did you stay first after you returned, since your house was burned?
A: We first stayed at some relatives. We also stayed for a while at the house of a family who had left earlier and didn’t come back, as their house wasn’t burned, until we rebuilt our house. But I built my house with my own resources, because there was a large number of people waiting for relief assistance to build their houses. If I had waited for my turn, maybe I’d never built my house, because there were too many people who needed help, and they didn’t help them but for a little.
R.B.: Did you rebuild your house?
A: No, I built a new one because, in our city, all of the houses were connected to each-other, so they were all burned down. There was nothing we could rebuild. Only the chimneys remained, it’s very interesting. The rest of the walls and everything else was destroyed. There was nothing we could restore.
R.B.: Thank you!
A: You are welcome.