This story starts with Adrienne Baumann, whose family lives in the Chileno Valley. She was a reporter for The Point Reyes Light in 1994 and later moved to Albino, Italy. When the Kosovo War broke out, Adrienne accompanied a Catholic aid group, Caritas, to do relief work at Kosovar refugee camps in Albania where she heard stories from the victims of Serbia’s ethnic cleansing. When she returned to Italy in May 1999, she sent The Light an account of the horrific events in Kosovo.
In one refugee camp, an 18-year-old girl, Albana Berisha, gave Adrienne a journal she had written in broken English about what had happened to her family as the Yugoslav government under Serbian President Slobodan Milošević tried to drive ethnic Albanians out of their formerly autonomous province of Kosovo.
NATO missiles on April 21, 1999, set fire to upper floors of Belgrade’s CK skyscraper, where Milošević’s Serbian Socialist Party was headquartered. Air strikes also destroyed numerous buildings elsewhere in the capital and ultimately knocked out the city’s power grid, forcing Serbia to accept defeat.
In March 1999, NATO warplanes entered the fray to stop the ethnic cleansing, and in June, the Yugoslav government pulled its soldiers out of Kosovo. In September 2001, Milošević was turned over to NATO and put on trial at the UN Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, where he was charged with numerous war crimes. In 2006, he died of a heart attack before the trial concluded.
Albana and her family returned to Kosovo after the war to find much of their homeland devastated. The “International Red Cross listed 16,000 killed, 2,047 missing, and 20,000 cases of sexual assault,” she recently wrote me. “The territories of Kosova were filled with mines, and almost everything was burned.” (In Albanian, Kosovo is called Kosova, and its capital Pristina is called Prishtina.)
As for Adrienne, she married an Italian and returned to West Marin where she became executive director of Marin Organic. In May, Adrienne resigned from that post, and this summer she and her husband (who’s with Apple), along with their two children, moved back to Italy.
Here are: 1. Adrienne’s original account published in The Light on May 27, 1999; 2. Albana’s wartime diary published in the same issue; and 3. Albana’s post-war account, which is appearing here for the first time.
By Adrienne Baumann
At a refugee camp in Derven, Albania, I met Albana Berisha. She’s a bright, assertive young woman who had been an enthusiastic student, aspiring to become a teacher.
That was two months ago. Today, Albana’s plans have been shattered. Torn from her hometown Slattina, Kosovo, she has been robbed of her youth and hopes for the future. At 18 years old, the victim of a war she does not understand, she has witnessed atrocities that surpass imagination.
Adrienne Baumann at right.
I also met Albana’s brother Kushtrim Berisha (an overly thin, timid 12 year old with a quick, endearing smile that belies his haunted eyes) and Albana’s older sister Arta; she can speak nearly impeccable English but rarely utters a word. They all have seen their lives ripped apart.
Another family member, Bardha Berisha, is my age, 27. Two months ago she worked in her hometown as an art instructor and painter. If you inquire about her profession, Bardha’s usually stoic demeanor crumbles. “My paintings were a part of me,” she whispers, covering her face with her hands. “The Serbians burnt everything to ground. There is nothing left.”
Refugees helping refugees
Today the Berisha siblings volunteer their time teaching and providing aid to other refugees at a camp in Derven, close to where their family now stays. Thanks to an Italian humanitarian organization, Caritas, an abandoned elementary school now houses and feeds approximately 400 refugees. Donations help supply food, clothing and medicine while volunteers assist in running a newly built kitchen, infirmary, and makeshift classroom.
From afar, the refugee camp seems a pleasant enough place. Children play in the shade of the trees, adolescents engage in a game of soccer, women wash clothes and hang them up to dry.
But a close look reveals crowded rooms where people lie motionless in oppressive heat, where silence reigns except for flies buzzing. Sanitary conditions are poor; crabs and body lice infect children and adults, fumes from burning garbage choke the air, and no one knows how long the well will hold out or if it’s contaminated.
NATO & KLA the heroes
Paging through drawings done by the camp’s children, I counted 70 pictures, each identically gruesome: burning houses, decapitations, hangings, rape, bombs, blood, tears… Serbian militants appear as grotesque giants with machetes and guns; Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) soldiers and NATO forces are portrayed as heroes.
Unfortunately, for the refugees who have escaped Kosovo, the suffering does not end here. Even the Berishas, who have found shelter in a building that was abandoned unfinished, live in poverty. Their “home” has no window panes, electricity, or water. Two rooms are shared by 25 family members from five to 70 years old. A patch of earth serves for a latrine.
Albania holds no hope for Kosovo’s people. This desperate country, ravaged by unemployment, bankruptcy, communist sentiment, and Mafia control offers opportunity to no one. Here – where abandoned World War II bunkers dot every hillside – the unpaved, bumpy roads, piles of garbage, and omnipresent misery serve only to remind refugees of what they have lost.
“In Kosovo we led a normal life,” remembers Bardha. “We had a nice house. I had my own room. We had everything we needed.”
Milosevic’s wrath against Kosovars
Driven into exile by Serbian forces, Kosovars have lost their homes, their relatives, their friends, their very roots — that is, the identity that comes from having a place of one’s own. And while humanitarian missions aid in their survival, no one can erase the refugees’ memories of brutality, torture, and death inflicted by Slobon Milošević’s wrath against Kosovo’s Albanian population.
Albana’s diary gives one person’s account, and more than 800,000 other refugees, young or old, could tell similar stories of atrocities and fear. With vacant eyes, the victims look at the future with little hope. Perhaps an old woman huddled on a camp’s steps expresses the sentiment best. Beating her cane methodically on the ground, she repeats over and over again: “Better dead and under the ground, better dead and under the ground.”
Since the war, Albana Berisha, now 31, has earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Prishtina and, thanks to a scholarship, pursued a master’s degree in Norway. Her English has significantly improved since she wrote the following journal entries as a teenager.
My Story During the War in Kosovo 1998-99
By Albana Berisha, 18 years old, born May 26, 1981, High School: Eqrem Çabej – Prishtine
March 22, 1999, Monday. It was monday when they stoped the whole city. They stopped everything. The cars, the buses. They stoped me and my friends to go to school, that was so [such a] lonly day for me. Since that day I never saw my friends again. Our lives was in danger, the time was come to say “to be or not to be”
I am 18 years old and I lived in one house with 8 members of my family. I started to study and I was happy about my profesion but sudenly something came up and I had to forget all that, and I had to fight, to run, to suffer, to cry!
I had to leave my best friend and go away. I had to leave my books. I had to leave my life behind and to start another one.
All day they shoot at people, people who has no guilt. The people who wants liberty and independent world. We had demostrade so many times but I guess it was no use.
One day as we were going to school a civilian Serb, a strong boy beat my best friend in front of my eyes. I was standing there. I haven’t done anything. In that moment I became a killer because it was the first time that I wanted to kill somebody. He ran away when he beat her, and she was laying by the ground.
A USAF F-15E takes off from Aviano Air Base in Italy to carry out air strikes in Serbia.
March 23, 1999, Tuesday. The tuesday came with bombs and airplanes, with police and dead peopel, it was unforgetable… We Albanians were so happy that day. NATO started the war with Serbs and we thought that the war will (would) finish for [in] 2 days, but that was not it.
We prayed to god that the police will run away, but they were getting closer and closer us.
We were so afraid, we stayed one week in the basemant, in there we didn’t sleep al night. Because NATO faught with Serbs all night and we just lisen to them in the cold and darkness room.
It’s hard to explain something like that, only Albanians knows those moments.
One day as we were staying in the basemant dirty, frighten, we heard that somebody was screaming. Yes, it was an old man who screamed. He and his grandson has been killed in the street.
His granson was already dead but he lay there screaming for 8 hours and no one helped him because it was dangerous to go in that street. So they stayed there lying in the blood all over the place.
Slobodan Milošević, president of Serbia (right). In 2010, the Life magazine website included him in its list of “The World’s Worst Dictators.”
The other day was so danger [dangerous], so we decided to go away. When we decided that, I was thinking about my life and I was willing to die, my hopes run away, out of my life, my body was aking [aching] all the time, everything was black and cold.
March 29, 1999 Monday. We made 1 week in basemant until we decided to run away because the situation was getting so dangeres. That night I said to my self, “I will sleep,” but I slept so little because I heard them calling my name. I woke up to see what’s up. I saw that everybody was getting ready to go away.
Sudenly… they started, the police started the war with Albanian peopel who is not guilty. They started the war with children and women, with peopel who has no guns, no force, who has nothing.
It was one a clock at night when they started to shoot. They didn’t stop al night so we had to leave our houses. When we get out and everything was burning, the houses, the school, the hole country.
That’s the night wich I was born again!
So we started to run in the midle of the night. It was raining and cold, but the most painful part was that we left my grandmother al alone because she refused to come with us. The raod was danger and hard. We were very tired and we just kept walking and walking until we knew that we have lost our way.
The other peopel stayed in the wood. Some alive, some dead. I cryed so much and I just kept walking and crying with my family. We have heen walking for 8 hours until we arrived in one house.
Albana today (at right)
In that house we stayed 9 day. These was happy times for me because my grandmother was alive and she returned to us. 9 days, and then we had to run again from that place, because the Serbian police was all over the place in Kosovo.
Where would we go? That was an easy question but difficult answer. The time was running fast and the police was getting closer and we were there standing thinking what should we do? The only way was to go in woods to live there.
Yes, we ran away from that place and we went in the woods, we lived there, in one plastic house we slept 15 members of our family. It was hard for us, we didn’t have nothing to eat. So bad place to sleep, we eate one time a day. NATO fought with Serbs every day and night. Everything was like a dream. A bad dream…
So we made 7 days in woods. 7 days I never washed my hair and my body. I never eate enough and I never slept. I started to lose my mind.
The police came again, but this time I was not afraid and I said if they want to kill us let them do it. I just can’t run any more. Those times reminds me of a song of Soul Asylum, “Run Away Train.” Like these words:
I think that this song is for Albanians cause it has the same meaning and the same touch.
The Serbian police came again like always with the most teror way. Killing people and shooting people and all that…
They didn’t want us even in the woods. They considered us like animals, peopel who works hard and get nothing.
When they came, they started to shoot. One man took the white flag and saved us all. They said that we have to go in Albania or they will kill us all.
In the 1990s, the former Republic of Yugoslavia began unraveling and by 2006 had become seven countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Serbia, which considered itself the successor to Yugoslavia, at first tried unsuccessfully to thwart the breakup with wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
We started to travel in the most dangeres road of our lives because during the way police tortured people in the most terrible way. They still [steal] money, cars, gold. They do what ever they want. Kill, rape, beat and all that.
So the way to Albania started that day. I saw them. I will never forget them as long as I live. I saw their faces with black hats [on their heads], red eyes, skin heads, guns, bombs. I had my little sister near me. I close her eyes, she was afraid to look at them. They [took] all our dokuments.
In the start our truck passed by but some other trucks didn’t. Only god knows what has happen with them.
During the way a boy 12 years old was killed by them. I knew that boy. He was so smart, every day he drove a bicycle around and around. He was a friend of my brother.
When I heard about his death I couldn’t stoped myself thinkin about him, one minute he exist, in another he don’t.
In one truck we were 25 members and as we were traveling we heard an explosive that was from NATO and so the Serbs got mad and they started to shoot at us. They got so mad that they through bombs in the trucks. We were more than hundred trucks the [column] was so long.
Minute by minute we were getting closer. But when we arrived in a placed called “Gy” they turned us back. But the [column] found another way through the place called “P.” [For reasons not clear, but perhaps to avoid revealing their escape route, the writer uses the initial "P" to refer to a town.]
The way through “P” was with dead horses and with bags who peopel left. Running away we saw blood all over the streets but I don’t know that it was a blood of animals or somebody else.
I’ve asked my father, he said that it’s nothing, but I didn’t believe him.
During the way among [through] “P” was killed two women. They were in the truck. We at that time lost our way and 10 more other trucks [or, "at that time we and 10 other trucks lost our way"]. It was something like 12 o clock at night.
We have been traveling 2 days trying to find the way to Albania. Our truck was so old and one of the gears was broke so we had to drive three gears.
God wanted to show us the way and he did, the hope came. When we saw an old woman. She told us the way and when I saw her I thought about god. God send her and she showed us a way. She was like a saint to us that night.
God wanted that we should arrived in Albania so we did.
April 12, 1999. I don’t know what exactly day it was but it was a big day. A day that me and my family finished the most dangerous road of our lives. I was happy…
But now I am sad because I would like to return. I would like to go back to my friends, to my books, to my place where I belong.
May 15, 1999. Now, I’m fine. Everything is okay. I live in one house with two rooms and no bathroom. In this house we live 25 members of my family but still, we are fine. We are lonely but fine. We are living a strange life but still its peace and we don’t have no more dangeres road. We don’t see dead peopel and Serbian police.
We hope that one day we will return.
Back home in Kosova. Albana lives near Prishtina at her parents’ house, which is in the village of Sllatina e Madhe within Fushe Kosova Municipality. After the war, the name Sllatina was changed to Albana, “so the village has my name, but it hasn’t anything to do with me. It’s just a name,” she notes. “We still call it Sllatina, though. It sounds a bit strange to call it Albana.”
After the War
When we got back from Albania, we found our house in a terrible state, and our dog was lying dead in the garden. We checked carefully the surroundings before we entered in case there might be any mines around. The grass had enormously grown everywhere. We weren’t surprised. It’s not like we have been expecting something good.
I only thank God for being alive together with my family. Shortly after our return in Kosova, the priest of Italian Caritas came and visited our family. He thanked us for all the help we provided in the refugee camp in Albania, and he wished us a new beginning in the land of Kosova.
Every time that I stepped on the streets, I saw plenty of peacekeeper patrols around. My sister Arta was working as a translator/interpreter for them [and for awhile supported the family].
I have always loved languages and especially English, so I enrolled at the University of Prishtina where I earned a Bachelor degree in English Language and Literature.
Albana’s view of a cold Norwegian winter.
After graduation I pursued a Master’s degree in Norway, where I also learned the Norwegian language. I enjoyed being in Norway, learning Norwegian, and meeting new people there, but I don’t miss the cold weather and rainy summers in Norway. They have extremely cold winters; however, Norwegian people are nice and warm. I do miss my friends there.”
I am a language lover, traveling the world and communicating with other foreign cultures is my passion. In the future I want to learn how to play a piano, travel the world and write poetry and literary criticism.
I like to write poetry — sometimes because I think that poetry is the language of our soul. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” they say. I have become pretty much what my parents have done with their lives.
Today we find Kosova in crisis and critical situations, always suffering from something whether it involves politics, corruption, the weak economy or high unemployment. The government has turned into business. This country does not belong to its people.
How life functions in Kosova today is not normal. We need our government to think and work for people, not against them! I personally despise corruption; it bothers me profoundly, and living in such society makes me unhappy.
There have been plenty of [foreign] missions, supervisions and [political] transitions; we’ve had them all. Obviously the critical situation in this country suits the government as well as Serbia, who is not recognizing us [as independent]. Kosova has been independent since 2008, with a new flag and 91 countries recognizing us. There is no turning back, and Serbia is only wasting time.
Visa liberalization is more than necessary. It annoys me that this process is not being approved and practiced yet. We shouldn’t be considered a non-integrated part of Europe any longer. We are the young Europeans, and the world should view Kosova as a partner.
— Albana Berisha