R.B.: Hi Naim. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me. Can we start with the period before the war started? Where were you? Who were you with?
A: Whenever you want.
R.B.: How do you remember that period?
A: When the first sparks started, the riots mainly, I was 9-10 years old. But because my father and grandfather regularly watched The Voice of America and RTSH at 19:30, as far as I remember, I was quite involved although I was a kid. I knew the key figures, the time, the developments happening in Kosovo and the region. I remember quite well everything that happened in Albania and in Kosovo over those years, meaning every political period, including the last years. I have quite a good memory of what happened.
R.B.: How do you remember the start of the war? What was talked about, what was going on, what did you hear in the news, and where you afraid?
A: Fear was constant! It wasn’t because a battle or an armed conflict started somewhere, like it did in Prekaz. That was the peak of violence that was felt everywhere in Kosovo. There was no war in my village at first, but we were afraid. For instance, when a police vehicle arrived, it instilled feared for the entire village or for anyone else in Kosovo.
R.B.: Do you remember any that you saw as a child?
A: I did. We also had a car where we hanged the national flag, meaning the flag with the star – I’m talking about the 1990s. We kept it in our men’s room. I remember when the police came once. I went out and put it in my pocket, I hanged it on my belt, but they didn’t say anything to me because I was just a child, they knew it wasn’t a big deal. But, yes, I’ve seen them. I’ve also seen the regular police called Sabracaj, when we used to go the hospital for a flu or anything. Their uniform was dark blue, with white pockets where they kept their weapons. I always was afraid when I saw them as a kid because of the impression of Serbs, Serbia, occupation, regime, no freedom, no democracy, no independence and stuff. For instance, we had a picture of Ibrahim Rugova, the former-president, in our men’s room, with a writing that said “Freedom, Independence, Democracy”. So my perception was that the people with those uniforms where the ones not allowing those three things, those three maxims, freedom, independence, democracy. They are the violators. This is not something I experienced only as a child, because we used to hang out with people in the men’s room, where we had tea together, hosted iftaars, religious holidays, annual holidays, national holidays. So I remember everything. I also remember when we secretly celebrated November 28 at school. I remember when we wanted to join the choir but we couldn’t because only a few people had to be present… and it was celebrated very briefly, to at least do something to celebrate that day, with very few people. But it was celebrated. I also remember when a football game was organized in our village, and the police didn’t allow it. There were around 15 teams but they didn’t allow gatherings, because it bothered them, anything, but especially football. Because football encouraged nationalism, the national flag was waived, people cheered for these three things: freedom, independence, democracy.
R.B.: What do you remember from the time when the war progressed and you were still in Kosovo? What were you talking about or how did you come to the agreement that you have to escape? Did the police evict you or what happened?
A: The village where I lived was the place the regular military regularly operated in. They weren’t paramilitaries. They didn’t do deportations, massacres or murders. We also had a Serbian neighbour village, and we constantly heard shots, we were afraid. But we knew people were from other places were moving, so we gradually started getting ready. As children, we helped my grandfather and my dad get the trailer ready. We mounted wheat bags. We didn’t get flour because it goes bad, so we took wheat and corn, 10 bags in total, to be supplied for about 3 or 4 months if we stay in the woods, and to be ready in case something happens and we have to escape because we constantly heard shots but we never tried to escape, because no one was bothering us. However, suddenly, on April 4, 199, five or six tanks entered in the village: two at the centre of the village, and three or four on the periphery, so they kind of laid siege to the village. A part of our village came to our yard and asked what we were going to do. They sent word to someone to leave the village, saying “We won’t do anything to you, you just have to leave until 3:30 pm!”
R.B.: What was the time when they told you to leave at 3 pm?
A: It was around 9:30-10 am, late morning, and we had to leave at 3:30 otherwise…. They didn’t do anything. They just came there. It wasn’t the paramilitary. So we got ready to leave. Someone, I don’t know who, went to talk to them, saying that we never had any issues with the Serbs or whatever, but it didn’t happen. At 3:30 we were ready, and we waited. At 3:30 they started shooting, not us, we didn’t know where they were shooting. As we got in our cars and escaped through a village called Papavc or Talihoq, I don’t know, we didn’t know in what direction they were shooting. We realized they were just shooting in the air to make us escape. Just when they started shooting, we escaped. It was a quite difficult experience, because we didn’t know what was happening. We just kept low and covered our heads with blankets, and the bullet was hitting the ground or whatever. We decided not to go to Macedonia because we wanted to stay in our country. So we moved to some houses in a neighbourhood in Ferizaj. People had left and their houses were empty, so we moved there. This was a painful experience. We left the village. Two old men didn’t leave, nothing happened to them during the war. We settled in Ferizaj, on Vllezërit Gërvalla street. There were some gypsies there, called najvi who were constantly on the move in Kosovo, and we were afraid of them. There were rumours that they would beat you if you do something wrong (INAUDIBLE). They wandered around the streets on horses, and lived on some improvised carriages. And for the first time, I felt like them, you know, on a tractor trailer, with very little food, little water, unclean, unprotected, unloved by anyone. At the time I didn’t know who gypsies were; I didn’t know what being dirty means, because we had enough to eat and drink. We had the ideal of freedom and independence, and the right to live free and use our native language, which we didn’t have. Otherwise we did have food and other living conditions. When I remember it now, if you ask me how I felt in those moments, the first feeling I recall is being unprotected from anyone, not even from God.
R.B.: How many people were there in the trailer?
A: 18 people.
R.B.: Were you all family members or were there other people as well?
A: We were all family members. There might have been people we met in the street or whose tractor didn’t work, two or three people I think, but the rest were all my family members. That was the first time we felt completely unprotected, completely on our own. You can only protect yourself, as much as you can do that in a war.
R.B.: How long did you stay in Ferizaj?
A: In Ferizaj we stayed for four weeks. Then, because of the frequent Serbian police patrols and the problems with the other ethnic community living there, we had to leave for Macedonia. Apart from my grandfather, there was no one who hadn’t left our village. He stayed until the war was over. We got on the train, and left.
R.B.: Do you remember the discussion between your father or family members and your grandfather? Did they try to convince him to go with you because of the unsafe situation?
A: My grandfather said we have nowhere to go, meaning even if we get on a train and leave for Bllace, which was closer to the border, we will still have nowhere to go, and at some point we will have to come back. Maybe in 5 or 10 years, but this is our country, not as a territory but as the place where we belong. We could live in Macedonia too, but this is where we belong. He said “you have your property here. You have evidence that it belongs to you. Why should anyone expel you? They’re expelling us, they’re killing us. But let them do it here. We will protect ourselves with whatever we can.” However, my father was worried about the children, about us because he wanted us to get an education. He believed there is nothing we can do here anymore. He didn’t want us to end up under Serbian regime, he wanted us to remain Albanians wherever we were. We had the opportunity to leave. We couldn’t stay here and sacrifice. It was quite a problem because of the children, otherwise he wasn’t worried about himself. He was doing it for his children.
R.B.: And you left for Macedonia.
A: We left for Macedonia. There were difficulties during our journey by train as well, meaning torture by showing police arms on the road, curses, and insults but we minded our business, and now that you asked me I remembered quite…
R.B.: Do you speak Serbian? Did you understand what they were saying?
A: They used curse words that we usually heard. Very low curses that were based on family, on ethnicity, and religion, but mostly based on ethnicity, such as “shiptari” and such…
R.B.: Did they torture anyone? Did they take anyone out of the train? What they did do when they got on the train?
A: No, there were no such things when we got in the train. There might be people who were tortured, but as far as I can recall it was mostly insults. Perhaps they were now assured that people were leaving, they weren’t resisting.
R.B.: Where did you go next?
A: We went to the border. We waited at the border for quite a long time. I don’t know who picked us up there. I don’t remember anything. I just know that we didn’t have any money, maybe 80 Marks, which was nothing, not enough to stay somewhere. They provided tends in the Çelani kamp. I think it’s close to Kumanova. We stayed there from May until around June 14-15 when Kosovo was liberated. We stayed in a tent. We went to school. My father started delivering classes there because he was a teacher. We could attend education. There were a lot of things there. The conditions were what you expect to have in a tent, meaning they weren’t that good but at least there was a lot of food. The hygiene was a bit of an issue. So, the conditions were good enough for a refugee. There were clothes, everything.
R.B.: What about showering? Did you have a place where you could shower?
A: There were collective bathrooms for showering, and this was a bit more of an issue.
R.B.: Can you describe those places where you showered?
A: It was a specific place. There were about 20-30 improvised bathrooms and toilets for a thousand people. It wasn’t very good but for us as refugees, in my opinion, the conditions weren’t that bad.
R.B.: Did you feel safe?
A: Yes, I did. It was safe, apart from the animals living nearby because the place where we were staying was like a hill. But it was safe. The police were there, KFOR was there too. There were also civilian international security forces. There were many of them. Another difficult experience was that there were two families got scabies. They were in isolated tends. People said they need a lot of treatment. I don’t know why that happened, whether a serious infection spread. It was a very hard experience. They suffered a lot. They were guarded by the police. Seeing them in that condition was very difficult. I would like to know what happened to them.
R.B.: You were talking about the family that was isolated.
A: Yeah, there were two or three families.
R.B.: Where they physically divided from the rest?
A: They were. They stayed in a special tend, which was surrounded by barbed wire to prevent them from communicating with the other refugees.
R.B.: Do you remember life in that camp? Your daily routine.
A: When we starting attending lessons, and they managed to prepare a curriculum, it was good, in my opinion… I mean, we didn’t know what was going on in Kosovo. We only had a small radio where we listened to the news, but we didn’t see anything. We didn’t know anything until we returned to our village. We were visited by different international staff. The Foreign German Minister, I forgot his name, also visited us. Our day started with breakfast. Then we went to school. We also went to look for fire wood to cook our food in the evening, although we were usually provided ready-made food. They also used (INAUDIBLE) to heat the food, because we had to heat it somehow to be able to eat it. The days were boring to be honest. We didn’t know what was happening. We lived an unsafe life, always moving, the kind of life a non-majority community lived in Kosovo, not knowing what to expect. No education, no health, nothing. (INAUDIBLE) You never knew what was happening.
R.B.: Did you hear the conversations about relatives, what happened to them or did you have such concerns?
A: We were worried about my grandfather. We heard that he had been killed but we didn’t know for sure. My father heard about it earlier, we didn’t know until a month later. We were devastated but we didn’t know for sure whether it was true or not.
R.B.: Do you other families that were in the same camp? What did they go through or did you discuss your war experiences? Were there people who told you what they had been through?
A: Yes, there were, because we weren’t the only ones from Ferizaj. There were also people from Poklek, Germica. There was a family who had lost four loved ones. (INAUDIBLE). There were families whose loved ones had been massacred, who were from other places. I also remember very well an old woman talking about how they killed her son, his daughter, her niece, and only her daughter-in-law was left. She was the only survivor, together with the old woman and her husband. Four members of their family had been killed! It was such a horrible experience to hear about! We deeply empathised with them because we didn’t go through such a thing, apart from the rumours that my grandfather is no longer alive, that he had been killed, persecuted or massacred. We didn’t know. We just knew he wasn’t alive, but not what had really happened. There were many families who had experienced similar things, mainly torture, murder, massacre, obviously on ethnic grounds.
R.B.: How long did you stay in that camp?
A: I don’t remember. I would say from May until June 15-16 when we found out we could return to Kosovo, when Serbia was forced by NATO to leave Kosovo. That was a great day! We got ready two days before, we couldn’t wait! We didn’t sleep all night out of excitement that we were going back. We had a small problem on our way back. All of us children of the Jakaj family got sick in the bus. We threw up. But we were willing to sacrifice that just to go back, it doesn’t matter if we throw up after everything we’ve been through. We went to the border. We were seven families in a truck. We agreed it would be better to go by truck. An open truck. So, we returned the way we escaped. Then we covered it because we were afraid it would rain or something. We returned to the village by truck.
R.B.: What happened then?
A: When we went there, the grass had overgrown, the houses were destroyed when the tanks had entered and the NATO had attacked. When we went to our house we didn’t see anyone. The grass had overgrown. Soldiers had stayed in our house and left it dirty. My grandfather was working in the fields. He didn’t know we were coming, he couldn’t have known, and we just then found out that he was alive. When we returned, he was mowing the grass. It was amazing, we returned home! We were afraid there might be mines on the ground. We were told not to wander around. They didn’t fight in our village, they just stayed there waiting in case something would happen.
R.B.: Do you remember if you knew about the NATO bombings while you were in the camp?
A: Yes, we were in the village when the bombings started.
R.B.: Did you return when the NATO bombings started?
A: No, we were still there. The bombings started on March 24 and lasted until April 4-5. We were here. It was an amazing experience. It lasted for 20-40 minutes, I remember, when the Albanian National TV (RTSH) showed the first airplanes and ballistic rockets took off from Italy. I remember it very well when the first airplanes arrived. There’s no better feeling than knowing someone is coming to protect you.
R.B.: Did you expect you would escape when you heard the NATO bombings were starting?
A: No, that’s why we didn’t leave. We thought it wouldn’t be necessary until they entered with heavy machinery, otherwise they did patrol with police cars and such. Not that we weren’t afraid, we just assumed that we don’t have to leave as long as they don’t do anything to us. We live here, why leave? If they try to inflict violence upon us, there’s nothing we can do. Were defenceless citizens, not the military, not the KLA. So, as long as they didn’t enter, we never considered escaping, like we didn’t when we were in Ferizaj either, until they started coming to houses, knocking on doors, leaving messages that we have to escape. That’s when we started worrying that they might come at night, they might murder children, and commit massacres.
R.B.: That’s when you decided?
A: We decided to leave. This was more or less the reason, to protect the children. Let the children win. We will leave but at least let the children live.
R.B.: How do you remember the first few days after returning from Macedonia? You mentioned being afraid there were mines, overgrown grass… What else did you see? Did you see your neighbours?
A: The village was almost completely empty, apart from the people who had stayed during the war. There were few children, not daring to go out. We went to some relatives who had stayed in Kosovo. They told me about the horror they had experienced, that they had left too for (INAUDIBLE) but they didn’t return home until it was over. The main issue was territorial safety because of the fear they might have left behind mines or something else that could harm us later, or poison at home. We didn’t know. There were some bags they had used for flour and such. There was also unsafety of potential infection caused by dead animals, which they had killed for meat. There were faeces everywhere; the military itself had lived in really bad, dirty conditions. That was the main issue. Then people started coming back. Life was beginning over again. Various international organizations, such as USAID, ADRA, and others started providing help with oil, flour, and sugar. Fortunately, the Serbian military had not damaged the crops. We harvested the first wheat after liberation. They didn’t damage it. We had 2 hectares of wheat, which helped us a lot. We had food for the next year. Everyone else’s crops in the village were safe as well.
R.B.: Would you say that the community spirit stronger than it is today?
A: Yes, I would say there was in general, although there is also solidarity in the community now but not as it was in the past. People were more generous. I stayed in a house with 80 people. No one would stay with 80 people now. The war would start again. I hope it never does but 80 people staying together in a room! There was my entire family there, that is 13 people. My grandparents, parents, and five children, and four other members of a different family, we all slept in one room. Nobody could sleep! We wouldn’t have to do that now but in case something atrocious would happen, or a war, which I hope it doesn’t… But yes, people were more generous because of the fear but also to help-each other for any reason, be it health, technical, education, anything. Or they shared books, any information they had. For example, we had satellite television which we bought in 1996 for the first time, and we extended a cable to our neighbour’s house in order for them to hear what was happening. They watched whatever we watched. It was a way of getting informed. They just wanted to watch the news and know what was happening. Other than that, “We’ll watch whatever we watch.”
R.B.: Is there any other experience you would like to share?
A: Maybe there were post-traumatic situations in me or others which I didn’t notice, but attending school again was difficult.
R.B.: Did you feel like it made no sense?
A: It did. Because the interruption of the school year made it feel like a nonsense (INAUDIBLE) or we probably felt like liberation meant that we’d develop like America right away. It didn’t happen. That could be a trauma I experienced. We expected that everything would be different after liberation. It didn’t happen. We started believing that an external greater force will liberate and develop the country all at once, which is a bad lesson for people… I blame everyone, including my family, for believing that development will happen in itself. It didn’t! And this was the harder part, when we realized that the situation is not that much different, apart from the persecuting occupation. We realized that we have to do the work ourselves. We have to wake up in the morning, provide for ourselves on our own, and develop the country. This was a difficult experience for the first four or five years because we were free and independent but we didn’t know what was going on with the country, the economy. The salaries were extremely low. You couldn’t get an education and provide for yourself without the help of the diaspora…
R.B.: Did you have any family abroad?
A: Yes, our uncle was living abroad, and without his help it would be impossible for us to make it. We wore clothes he sent us from Switzerland. I never bought clothes in Kosovo. We couldn’t afford it. My point is, it was very difficult until 2008-2009. There was a lot of ambiguity, and it was a result of the war and the persecution that came with the war, and the damage which was enormous.
R.B.: Going back to the time you stayed in the refugee camp, was there medical help available?
A: Medical help… I don’t remember quite well, but I do remember there was some but, as a family, we didn’t have the smallest health problem. But I remember once when it happened, it was difficult accessing medical help. I forgot to mention, maybe because we didn’t need it, but yes, access to medical help was a bit of an issue.
R.B.: Wasn’t there adequate medical help?
A: I don’t quite remember. Actually, we didn’t have any health issues, so maybe that’s why I can’t remember very well.
R.B.: When you look back to the war experience now as an adult, what did you miss the most as a child while you were a refugee? Not as an adult, not with someone’s help, but if you think about yourself only, what would you say you missed the most? Both when you were escaping, and when you stayed in the camp? What did you miss the most?
A: Do you mean as in what a modern-day child would miss or what I missed then?
R.B.: No, I mean what did you miss as a child then? Were you ever worried about yourself?
A: Yes, as I said, there was this feeling of insecurity until eight years after the war. My father, for example, always wanted me to become a doctor or attend the military academy in Croatia. I couldn’t do that. I didn’t miss toys because we never had any in the first place. You can’t miss something if you’ve never had it. I wasn’t even used to toys. What we were used to was having our own house, playing with trivial, simple toys, such as a ball, during the day, helping my grandfather in his field work, and the routine of learning to read and write in the evening, learn something new and be able to attend the Academy or Medical school someday. My uncle was a doctor too. So, I missed the progress to achieve one of these two things, which was interrupted. I missed out on getting an education to become a doctor or attend the Military Academy in Croatia.
R.B.: What did you end up studying?
A: I ended up studying Social Sciences and Law, which are more or less the same. I don’t see it as less than what I initially intended to study, but now I consider them as the same. In my opinion, a sociologist is a doctor in his own field, a lawyer is a doctor in his own field, and so on.
R.B.: If you compare modern-day childhood with your childhood, what would your thoughts be?
A: What do you mean?
R.B.: Your childhood with that of a child now.
A: The difference in the childhood now and then is -100 by +100. Information, globalization, communication do have their disadvantages but the advantages are enormous, especially in terms of education. I am a father now, and I compare what my daughter’s experiences are compared to what my experiences were in the ‘90s when my father was fired, none of my parents were employed, there was no electricity, no TV, no communication, no proper toys. My daughter, as a typical three-year old child, has everything! She can go to holidays – right now she is on vacation in the sea. I couldn’t go to the sea until 2007, you know, because of the conditions. My word, a child today is like a star, more than a star! They’re five-star children…
R.B.: Would you say that you were robbed of your childhood or youth because of the war and what you went through?
A: My childhood is related to that period. It’s all related to my childhood. I think a good time for childhood in Kosovo started from 2005 onwards, or even after 2008 with Kosovo declaring its independence. Mainly from 2010 onwards. There was more economic development happening, the salaries in the public sector increased, and the private sector made some progress too. So, children now have more opportunities, including myself. As a young man, I started looking for jobs, but I couldn’t find any. Now, you can find all kinds of jobs. The payment may be small, but a high-school child who shouldn’t even be working but in situations when they have to, they can find jobs. You can find a job when you graduate from university. And that leads to development. The situation of women and girls is also much better. It’s amazing how the war, despite everything else, helped us detach from a persecuting regime and build a democratic society; life is better, there’s more stability, and you know what you will achieve if you work hard.
R.B.: My last question is, if we isolate the time you were in the camp, can you tell me about a day when you were happy, or even a sad experience from the camp? So, we’re isolating the time you spent in the camp. What was your best day and your most painful or worst day?
A: What do you mean by “isolation”?
R.B.: If we talk only about the time you spent in the camp, two days you remember the most from the time you spent in the camp.
A: Okay. The main issue in the camp was that there were many families without income. They had either come with little money or no money at all. So one of the happiest days for me was when my father’s eldest brother, my uncle came to the camp. He flew there and brought us quite a lot of money for us to live as best as we could there and leave the camp, to rent a house with that money. We didn’t leave, but it was a great joy because we saw someone coming from abroad for the first time. This was a moment of liberation, I can say, because that income helped us buy clothes, some different food. The food in the camp was good but we good used to it and we didn’t like it as much. I didn’t have any bad experiences in the camp, apart from the systematic, ongoing feeling of not knowing what was happening, the insecurity that we felt the entire time, the insecurity of what was going to happen to both our personal and collective lives. That was the worst. We were personally insecure, apart from being relieved that nothing bad happened to our family, no one was killed or massacred. But it was mainly the insecurity of what was going to happen to you and your family. Monday comes. What’s going to happen? Tuesday comes. What’s going to happen? Nothing would happen, every day was the same. It was June 2 or, very hot. That’s all that happened. Wednesday – dirt, mud, insecurity, same food, looking for firewood, going to bed. Twelve people sleeping in the same room. That was the daily routine. The routine was the worst experience. The unsafe routine, not having anything, living without a name, without income, without anything. That was the worst experience, waiting what would happen until we learned that we could come back… That was a superior experience, but not knowing about what was happening. The reality here was that… we didn’t win. As I said, people grew up with the thought that we would have everything when we return after liberation.
R.B.: If you look at the situation from your family’s or your parents’ perspective, what do you think was important for them during that time?
A: Their children. Their children only. Nothing else. As I said earlier, that is the reason they decided to escape.
R.B.: Do you think that affected you too? Although you were a child, you subconsciously knew that in war situations there are no request, no…
A: Nothing. We were used to not making big requests, which a child now makes or could make in 2005 or 2010, or the requests a child could make in 1996-97 but in another, more developed country. We were used to it. The idea was for us to get us to having the essential things, a dignified life, meaning having bread, water, food. We were used to having those, so that’s why we didn’t have more requests, but also, seeing my father as a political activist and not asking for a lot, and understanding his limited abilities. And we were used to having the same collective conditions. No one had a different situation. Some families had a more different situation, the families who had employed members or lived somewhere else. For example, there was an accountant in the village but his son was a friend of mine, despite his greater income, we shared a desk at school. He had more clothes and stuff, but it was because his father worked. I had those too, but I was sent those from my family in diaspora.
R.B.: Thank you very much! I don’t have other questions.
A: Thank you.