BG: Can you tell us more about yourself, who you are, what you do?
NF: Ok. I am Neri. I am a Civil Society activist in Mitrovica. I have started to work with the civil society when I was probably 17 years old. A little bit as a volunteer, then I got a job as a project, and since then I think once I have worked in institutions for about 6 months and once in business for 1 year, otherwise my entire life is civil society, until now. Something about myself, I told you about the profession, maybe something else. I live within a family of 5 members, in fact 4 as my sister got married. I live with my brother, mother and father. I am the eldest, I am the child after 8 years of my parent’s marriage. You probably have seen it in the history which I had sent, in Brussels actually where we presented some of our stories, it was like a story telling, and then they processed it and made it artistically.
BG: I want to know more, how do you remember, how old were you before the war started, and maybe to share impressions, which memories you have from that time, ie. before the war started?
NF: It was a bad feeling before the war when my father lost his job and I understood it because my father always used to bring some…. (in the min. 1:54 text is not being clearly understood), that my father is a Miner and often they gave them presents for the children and there were chocolates, dolls, I remember a very big bear, and then for a while all this stopped and I was left wondering why my father is not bringing presents anymore. At that time he lost the job and then took him a while to get used without gifts and I always waited for my father when he is going to bring such gifts. Then, from here started a bad feeling, insecurity, I do not know as a child either how to explain it because I was not aware that when you do not work you have no money, or … I was too young to understand these things, ie. that distinction has begun. I also started to get nervous with my father, why he left the work, why he is not bringing me gifts anymore. Then some time passed when my father stayed at home all the time, did not go to work and did not wait for him, he was there with us. And then we used to go to the school, ie. until latest period we used to go to the school. Even until the war started, so when it started in Drenica then we stopped going to the school in which we used to go, and then I had to go to the school in the village called Rahova, I had to walk too far, I do not know, I was very young and it seemed a little interesting to me, it seemed like a challenge to go and meet new people from the ones I had, it was interesting. Then, from there I started, ie. I was 9 years old when they started bombing, I also lived in the village at the war time in order to escape from the Serbs, and …
BG: It means that you moved to the village?
NF: Yes, at that time they bombed the village. Grenades were falling through the meadow. I remember when they said to go to them, ie. a grenade has fallen, because the grenade does not fall again in the same place, you know what I mean, I always thought that they were shooting with a rifle, or when shooting something cannot fall 2 times in the same place. I always had an impression that if someone once throws a stone at me in that direction, then the second time he does not throw in the same direction. Well yes, even then we as children, e.g. they bombed one day, but on the next day we went out and to play as usually, when I think now it was really terrible, because you did not know when they will bomb you.
We even went to play in those holes where they were, imagine there may have been a piece that has not exploded, but I do not know, maybe even parents did not know how to teach us then, because they did not had experience with such things, ie. now when I think about it many people had suffered from those grenades that have remained … it is strange why we went and played in those places. Then I know that these men of the house have decided to build a bunker due to the constant shelling and have decided to go out with guards, through the mountains around the village. They built it for us as children, it was very interesting to see a bunker, to enter it, ie. we played in the bunker all day long, you know what I mean.
BG: Do you have any memories, do you have any memories of how the bunker looked like, how was built, with what kind of material?
NF: I do not know anything, but I know that they first dug deep into it, because we were there watching what are they doing. Then, they brought wood and placed it on top, but they cut a lot of wood. Ie. It had to be very thick because of the shelling so that the grenades would not hit it. That was the way. Then, we went and all families stayed there as it was big enough. But, in our village there were not many inhabitants, ie. we were quite a bit and we went and stayed there for couple of days. Even when they started, because now the Serbian infantry have entered the village and we have fled, ie. from there-from the bunker. In fact, prior to that we went to our uncles, together with the mother. I know that some have died there in the village because they believed that Serbs will not enter in infantry, will not come up to here. Even two of them have died, ie. they took their families, they tortured them, but fortunately we went to our uncles in a completely different village in Proponiq where there were many other families. First, we went to our uncles and then to an aunt in Vushtrri, and there we stayed until all inhabitants were dispersed, from there we went to Zhabar, and in Zhabar there is a village here in Mitrovica that now I can even call it a neighborhood maybe. I stayed there because I had another aunt, then from there we went to the uncle but not to the uncle at home, but above the village of the uncle there was a mountain very deep where they stayed, I can say about 3 thousand people who gathered from all sides. We stayed there and made some tents. We took cows with us and we survived with them. One of the things that I remember was when my father … that there we were longing for the food, we did not have much to eat, no solution at all, no food to eat. I remember my father, because the men used to get organized at night and went to the city secretly and got flour, took bread gto eat, food, etc. One of the interesting memories, which I do not eat it now, but I liked it very much was made a pastry soup, I forgot the name of the long pastries …?
NF: Spaghetti, thank you. Ie. spaghetti but in the form of soup, because they only cooked it and a little bit salted, but it was extremely good. I liked it very much. It stuck in my head, but it was all about since we were very hungry. Do you understand me? And we used to eat milk with bread, do you know milk with bread all the time. So it was something extra for us, something different and I know I liked it a lot. Then, from there we tried to go …
BG: Only one thing Neri, can you remember the dynamics that had existed amongst people, what was the atmosphere? As you mentioned there were 3,000 people being sheltered in the mountain.
NF: Yes, we were are a bit more … ie. It was interesting that those who have known each other mainly have made tents close to each other. We were: uncle (mother’s brother), uncle (father’s brother), because my uncle from the father’s side also came to my other uncles, then it was my aunt, then my cousins and we all stayed together, ie. we made the tents. For example, we had a tent together with my uncle, my other uncle had together with his relatives, ie. everyone had their own tent, this was the way of organizing. Next, in terms of food- we had it in common. Mostly my father was the one who went to get food all the time, I do not know why but they thought he was more helpful or I do not know, he was always the one who went to get food. Then down, down in the mountain was Halit Berani, perhaps you know Halit Berani? He had built it quite earlier, because Halit was wanted by the Serbs to take him to prison, and he had earlier left the city and there had built it almost as a house, as … it was very nice. Now, when I recall it was very beautiful place. He has stayed there below, but now usually Halit was guarded by some others. I know that once my father came and asked for water, give me some water, because on the way he was afraid when Halit approached him in a big jacket in order to joke with him, do you get it? His also spoke to my father in Serbian and then he got scared and I know asked for water. Ie. that road was quite scary because the route was from Proboniq-Koprivë-Koshutovë-to go in the city somewhere in any house to find food. Usually some Serbian vehicles were in Kopriva and they did not dare, ie.to take the ordinary road, but through the mountains, corners, somewhere where are not visible.
BG: Thus, they have travelled with vehicle up to the town?
NF: No, no, no. On foot, you know, by foot. Ie. my father has travelled perhaps 1 day until he arrived in the city to get food and to come back, and they had either a car nor anything, all the food is to be kept on the arm in order to bring us there in the mountain, where we were. But, before we went there, because I forgot as I have started to forget a bit the war stories, we, from Zhabar in the queue have tried to go to Albania. But, they did not leave us, they returned us back almost at the border with Albania – Prekallë was the place where we stayed. There were a lot of families – then they looted us, they asked for jewelleries, first, I know that they had looted us there, I remember a case in the queue when we were very hungry there were some Bosnians as far as I can remember who were in a village there, as they were not folllowed because they were Bosnians or I do not know, they gave us bread, warm “pitalka” with “ajvar”. (Translator’s comment: “Pitalka” is type of our traditional bread, and “Ajvar” is traditional grounded and cooked pepper). Oh, now I cannot eat too much “pitalka” with “ajvar” because of that emotion that I have. I even know my mother has split it in half to give to us and half saved it for later, but I definitely wanted to eat because I was hungry. I know that then, sometimes I think that our parents knew to manage very well this war situation, to save some food for tomorrow, to not eat all today. Then, I know that there we did not take showers for weeks, it has been for weeks, I remember as a child lices in our heads and it was terrible. I know that those Bosnians helped us and gave us combs to comb our hair, water to take shower, and I know that my mother took me and tried to remove them, because we were all in one tractor in a queue which was full with people that you did not even know them.
There was an ill man and he must have had to lie down..therefore … I was little and I know that man put his foot ie. at my nose, so many times I complained to my mother and she wanted to explain to me that a person is sick and you have to be patient, he needs to lie down. But, somehow when I think that all that disturbance we had, we did not have many confrontations with each other, ie. why are you occupying that part, why you, somehow all of us culd fit there and no one made a noise. Nobody has said why this one, or why you took that in the tractor or why this, or why that, or why you first or last, as it usually happens now. Then, it was not like that, it was interesting we did not have any problem, and this issue also all of us being in a common problem, or I do not know, but it was interesting to see that we did not have issues with each other, never. Otherwise, during the war, I remember that there was also this issue within the family that someone should go and join the Liberation Army, I had and still have three cousins who were older than us, we were as one family, they also had a discussion inside the family with both father and uncle that one of us should go and I know that the youngest uncle’s son was very PRO to go, and there they had a discussion that “yes I want, not him”, and then have decided okay. This youngest one, since he was feeling very much to go (in the min. 15:48 text is not clearly understood) ….to go, but then he is captured by the Serbian army, ie. when he was in the KLA in the mountains here in Mitrovica, they took him to Serbia and sentenced him with 12 years of imprisonment. Today, I do not like much these New Year decorations, because they all know that I love New Year decorations, perhaps it is exactly that even after the war we did not celebrate New Year, because even after the war he was in the prison. All I could see was when I used to go to the uncles place they had those decorations, we did not have them at home because Safet is in the prison and we cannot, I was still young, I wanted a bit, but every year let’s say ok, how he is suffering there, do they give him, do they torture him, do they give food to eat, or other things, always, every holiday we somehow had in our mind that ok we are missing a member who is alive, we knew he was alive because an aunt had visited him, but we did not know if he will survive or they will murder him there. I also know that until recently, when they released Nait Hasani, Albin Kurti and others, he was also released after the war. Until then we had every holiday forbidden, and when he came back we immediately turned on the lights, somehow for that we are very attached to the New Year Holiday, with these decorations which remind us that we had joy, finally we managed to put the lights on, and sometimes I do not understand that now that we are in the liberty, we have all, ok. now we are in the pandemic time, we have many challenges in front of us, because there is not life without challenges, but as long as we are alive, we are well, why to not celebrate together, to turn on some lights, even in this pandemic time e.g. it gives people a good festive feeling because we are used to see the city like that, the same house or, or you know. I, for example am now 32 years old but I still decorate the house, I decorate the tree, the lights that give me the feeling that okay we have a holiday, we have something good, everyone finds something good from their life that they can celebrate. Next, after the war, ie. this has been the post-war period that we have had. I recall bombings during the war ie. we returned from the mountain and went to that house in Zhabar. There was a family that gave to us their house, his brother was abroad and he gave the house for refugees, ie. without money, without anything. We stayed there .. (in the following text is not clearly understood).
BG: In which Municipality is Zhabar?
NF: In Mitrovica is Zhabar, yes. It is nearby, near Mitrovica. I, also know that this NATO issue has been one of the greatest joys, although today I might have a completely different perception, but at that time you were in such a position that an intervention was needed for you to be in freedom, even to enjoy the free speech, free movement, and all the rest. I know that when we heard in the news we could not believe, ie. there is no chance, we went out like this in the city to see that is true, we did not believe. Then, when we saw these NATO interventions, I think that then the Serbs expelled us all from our houses and brought us to one part of the Stadium in Tamnik. There were a lot of people, I know that men were separated from women. We, women and children have been left in that part and in the middle of us, ie. There were NATO bombing, the tanks of Serbs entered, in order for them not to be bombed, because we were there and when they saw that we were children and women they used that in order to survive, do you understand me? inside there, I do not know perhaps NATO wanted to hit a tank, but maybe they (Translator’s comment: referring to Serbs) were afraid too of being attacked or whatever. I just know that we stayed there all day, airplanes were up, tanks down, we were shouting, crying, now that we were separated from my father – I think it was the first time we got separated with my father, there was a kind of insecurity, we did not know where he is since at that time you did not have phones, we had nothing in order to communicate with each other. I, also know that there I experienced a big fear, maybe because of all this, that was my biggest fear where my father is, who knows where he is. They went and hid in a source, in a well, hid there until this ended, and then we went to the town and saw that NATO really stroke and that we are really free. It was very much, the best feeling perhaps, and independence was the best feeling after that period of time.
BG: How was the procedure of returning home, what do you remember from that time?
NF: Our house was burnt, and what bothers me the most is that now I do not have any pictures from my childhood. There are very few pictures that my aunt has, or my uncle has, you know, but they are 2-3 pictures, not all the memories that we had. Maybe the entire house that they burnt did not make me sad as much as for that my memories were burnt, and I am thinking about my toys, as I was very young at that time. Somehow, when we came now after the war I had to, ok. we thought that everything would go well, yes, we had part of the money where the father had kept it there in … it was interesting that even though between each other we did not not know where you have put the money or what you did with them, my mother has always had a fear that, because she put the hand inside the jacket like that, she tore that part of the jacket and put the money inside, it was then 1000 Marks, if I am not mistaken and she sewed them, that jacket was duty of the whole family to be preserved, you understand….because we thought that we will go to another country or Albania, or somewhere else and we knew that we will need money, you know we somehow had no hopes, whether we are going to live here, either NATO will intervene or an external force will intervene to save us or to help us, we did not have such hopes. The only hope was to escape from here, to leave Kosovo, there is no more Kosovo. Then, I remember after the war we took out that money and we bought a lot of things, we entered into a house, in an apartment in fact here in Mitrovica that belonged to Serbs. We lived there in a very good period … aaa..I do not know what else to tell you?
Then, I know that my father came back and they also returned to work without payment. You know when they said, when the Miners survived they told them to work without payment, and they were very enthusiastic to work even without money, does not matter, just to live in freedom. I, also know if I am not mistaken for 6 or more months they have worked without a single cent. Ie. there was such enthusiasm to do for the country because we are free now and does not have matter that we are not being paid, does not have matter that we do not have, what we have we will share, this was it. For example, I know that the money we had after the war we shared it with our uncle, because somehow they were very enthusiastic about everything, and I think this was one of our mistakes. Now I am entering into another topic, perhaps. Having this enthusiasm we did not preserve old buildings. Ie. we just wanted to get built, built, built, when I remember at that time the City Cinema was demolished and we did not react. Stupidity, that we have been impressed that we want to build, we want to move forward, we do not know the value of perhaps some things. Then, even houses e.g. that they burnt, we immediately rebuilt them, probably would had been good to keep something from that time, that ok. there was a war here, these buildings were damaged, these..I think we did not keep any memory from the war. A few, maybe just the words, have been kept as memories, I am stating. And for that e.g. there were three cinemas in Mitrovica and today you do not have any of them. I know it is very nonsensical. There are many other things that have disappeared, perhaps immediately after the war, that we did not pay attention to, perhaps to collective memory.
BG: How do you think that war has had impacted on you, that still has, that you are noticing?
NF: Ok. I probably have that fear that in a country can, because now I….before I believed that e.g. a certain community can be completely bad, just because it is that community. I no longer have such beliefs, now I have grown a little and I have seen that it is not like that. But, what I probably have as a war trauma is that I am very afraid, I am very afraid of these dictators or people who … I am very afraid that my country, or a certain place somewhere may be in the hands of a mentally ill person. Maybe not wanting to justify the deeds that have been done, that when you say mentally ill you can then justify the deeds that have been done, but maybe a man who is spiritually bad or I do not find another definition for a man who can conduct such a great genocide in a country, except that he has not been normal because a sane person cannot perform those things. And I am also afraid for my country that such a leader might come not only harm us all, but also harm a certain community. And what hurts me most probably because of the war is the Roma-Ashkali-Egyptian position, because I was in the same position before the war, probably attacked in some way or stigmatized because I was Albanian. I think the same way we treat them and that immediately puts me in retrospective whenever I see that, and say wait we were like that, ie. when they come or sell or beg, I also remember that there were persons in our family who used to sell cigarettes and were stigmatized by the Serbian society. And now we are doing the same towards this community. This often brings me back and I remember that ok. we are probably not suffocating them literally, but we are suffocating this community in a different way and we are not, for example in Mitrovica the same thing is happening. For example, before the war we were stigmatized and you had Albanian community being together with the Serbs.
Ok. there was a kind, e.g. at school, friendship with these young people but you had always Serbs and Albanians separated. The same is happening in Mitrovica, ie. you have Roma-Ashkali-Egyptian community who are ghettoized in some form in that environment and have no contact with us. Before the war we were the same, ie. we were divided Serbs and Albanians, even though you may have had Serb neighbours very good people, even though you did not have any bad relations with them, but as the war started we were separated. You went with your community, they with theirs, the same thing happened except that we are not physically suffocating them like that, the same is the Ashkali community, I think. And they mostly remind me, maybe this is a little bit of trauma, I don’t know, but the other thing that scares me is when, maybe every time I see in the movies, we see people lying on the ground without arms, without legs, I was a child to see them even though I did not know what is happening to them. I think once I asked my father what is it, wether they are pretending, are playing like that .. and I know, I have that picture that appears in front of me like this when I see it sometimes, especially I remember when I watch movies, it appears to me as a memory, and something that hurts me is that we did not dare to stop, nor to look at them or to bury them, or to take care of that victim, immediately you had the Serbs all the time while being in the queque they escorted us, you did not dare to stop, nor to look at who he is or what he is, you had to pretend that this does not exist, I am saying it is a human body and you are already leaving it there. This has been quite serious. I am saying again that there was not only one Milosevic, but there were other very bad people, those who left those bodies like that, those who massacred. I do not know how I or you or another person as a leader could push me to commit such a crime. I had previously admitted ok. suffocate me rather than I go to commit such a crime. And sometimes when we try to justify this by deciding that only one person Milosevic, I think we are wrong that it was not only Milosevic, these people could have said no to someone. Somebody could say stop, you know they were not 1,2,3 or 4 persons who committed crimes, you had more, you had an army. Even if the army had fought with another army that is fine, but they fought with civilian population. Ok. this is something that is not good here why all this hatred for a community like Albanians, because you really had to have too much hatred to kill people in that manner. I do not know, but I think it is not just one Milosevic, there are more. Maybe with us, on the other hand, I also think that our Party could have committed crimes, and you can not blame all, e.g. as the issue of KLA, to say KLA like this, no, there are individuals who did those. But, when we get the report, because here it was a genocide with the directives coming from the State, we were not a State. We were people who had an ideal that wanted to get out, in fact I am alive because of some KLA soldiers, not me, but that part in that village that I said we were somewhere 1000-2000 persons or more. Serbs wanted to enter, ie. with infantry entered there as well and there were some KLA soldiers who had very few weapons but while fighting with the Serbs they did not surrender and they thought that they were very much armed and they withdrew. If they had entered ie. we those 1000-2000 had been dead. And somehow, sometimes when you think about this, you cannot say that KLA, so they were all individuals, I also think that there were Serbian individuals who probably did not want to commit crimes, they are now Serbs who show that they were pushed by the Serbian Army to commit crimes. Some of them who rejected they were beaten or tortured, I can guess, but for example when they went out on the field it is not because someone has seen what they are doing. For example, rapes which have happened as I said previously, it is not that Milosevic came there and said rape this or that, rape them in order, enter into them, I do not think those directives came directly from there, but I think that these people here did this themselves, even when I think many Serbs were “drunk”, drunk during the war, e.g. all the time you saw Serbian Police who were drunk, sometimes I think that maybe even many times they were not aware of those serious crimes that they committed, they were committing those crimes, because I think they had directive from above to commit crimes, maybe to intimidate this people with assimilation, or to expell them abroad, therefore there will be no more Albanians here, but I do not know. These are just thoughts, sometimes I make comparison like this what could have happened, trying to find something …
BG: To justify more or less what has happened…
NF: We cannot justify them, but at least you can justify another part.
NF: To share things, do you know … to have hopes, that if we do it all together then there is no hope to .. .. (the following min. 35:13 text is not clearly understood), again the war will explode. I do not think that all of them are like that, but I think that there are many good people, today I work with them and I know that there are good people, many good people. But, sometimes the issue of this dictatorship that has functioned, because even today I think they are in a kind of democratic dictatorship, here democracy is being pretendend, but on the other hand are other things that work differently. Often times they do not even dare to talk about many things, and maybe even then they did not dare to speak, maybe even at that time they did not dare to speak, to express against Milosevic regime, but also having the spirit that Albanians are the ones doing to us, maybe this has made them even to be more silent, to not talk, I do not know. Even we sometimes here in Kosovo have this mass pressure, or we have threats or e.g. you as a civil society every time we talk we receives a message, hey … there are such things that want you to be silent, even not to let you speak. But, in some way when people are killed up to that manner of “I do not know” maybe … even I would react, I would say stop that I am not that one, at least I would distance myself from all those crimes which are being committed, and that even today a large part probably do not distance themselves from those crimes. Maybe this is a nationalist narrative which is used all the time by the Government of Serbia, but at the same time of Kosovo, because we are also not very good with this issue of the nationalist narrative, quite a bit, they have recently increased it a lot, perhaps even these from KLA who went there to be judged. But, a language is being used a lot and you have been working for a while now to lower the tension a bit and now BAM again, ok. Now again.
BG: Yes, definitely, the suffering of civilians is being used a lot for the benefit of a certain direction, so it is also quite problematic. But, hopefully will be maintained by time, because it looks like it is still a fresh wound.
BG: And perhaps time will help us. Thank you very much Neri, if you do not have something to add we will end it.
NF: Yes, it is not, it is not a problem. Added to that maybe, I have a memory from the war that I recall and that I have always mentioned in some places since when we were there in the mountains, we, children were playing and we also had a bicycle that we used it and we went a little deeper which was closer to the Serbs, but I do not know why we went there to play, and the bullets came, ie. from down Serbs were shooting and we were taking those bullets, it was very hot, then I also went to my father and told him “look I found a bullet and it is still warm”. I always remember that terrified face of my father, where did you find this, where are you going, then I recall that my father really shouted at me, you know he shouted very much, I was very touched as a child. As much as I recall the war, I remember that terrified face, those opened eyes and like “where are you going”? This is probably one of the memories from the war.
BG: Thank you very much for sharing this experience with us.