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Anduena[1] looks affectionately at her son sitting snugly in her lap, and says, “For him the war is like a fairy tale. He often asks, ‘Mother, tell me about the war.’ I don’t like to talk about it, but I tell him what happened. When I finish the story, he says, ‘Oh, I am so glad that I wasn’t born then.’” This moment prompts Anduena and her mother-in-law, Lule, to share their memories of the Kosovo conflict. Sitting on the brown shilte[2]opposite me, the two outspoken women tell me about the spread of violence and fear, and the deep insecurity they felt. They describe how hastily they fled their compound to seek refuge with family members in neighbouring villages, and about how it felt to return and find their home partly burnt. Lule pauses and reflects, “Hanna, we constantly talk about the war. We start to talk about something else and then, before we know it, the conversation goes back to what happened during the war. One simply doesn’t forget these things.”

They vividly recall how, in the autumn of 1998, the news that Serbian forces were steamrolling through the municipality of Rahovec, attacking village after village, spread like wildfire through the community. The women remember seeing uprooted people, discovering that friends and acquaintances had been killed, and heard stories of disappearance and torture. They knew their village, Pastasel, would not be spared – it was just a matter of time. Hugging her son a little tighter, Anduena says, “We were so frightened because we did not know when they would start to attack us. When we prepared the dough for bread in the morning, we weren’t sure whether we would have the chance to eat it.” Their fears were not unfounded. Anduena’s bread would remain unbaked on several occasions.

The unfolding violence appeared to be simultaneously barbarous and perversely social. The social nature resulted from the extraordinary ways in which the Serbian military and paramilitary forces appeared to hijack local conventions of communication and symbolism to defile people’s everyday lives. Attacks, villagers told me, used blunt force as well as intimate knowledge of place and people’s daily routines, gender roles and values, and material assets.  Armoured vehicles would, for example, approach villages, shelling them persistently to drive villagers out. Once the population had fled, the troops would enter the villages, searching houses for remaining residents. The people they found hiding were then rounded-up, with the men separated from the women and taken to the nearest police station for interrogation, which included threats, intimidation and physical violence. The villages were then invaded, houses burned and livestock killed, with snipers shooting residents who refused to leave.[3]

Similarly, Lule remembers the time Serbian soldiers, police and paramilitaries were edging closer to Pastasel. They had already shelled the neighbouring village of Drenoc, where all but three of the 180 houses were burned. From there, the armed forces moved on to Pastasel, attacking the village and its inhabitants. Lule recalls clearly how everyone was forced to flee to the hills, but to no avail as they were later surrounded and detained. The men were then taken to the school in the village centre – a hugely symbolic place for learning, disciplining and assembly – not only for students, but also for village elders and neighbourhood representatives. Here, Lule explains with a shaky voice, the captured were beaten and severely mistreated, and then interrogated about the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) before being released the following day.

Interestingly, a few days before my meeting with Anduena and Lule, a former KLA fighter had given me a similar account. He outlined these events to me as follows: “During the first offensive in Pastasel, many of the houses were burned. Only five or six houses were unaffected. We had to leave the village and went to the hills. We slept one night in the hills. The next day, the Serbs took all of us to the school. I was not with my family since I was on the other side of the hills.” He continued to explain that the village elders had ordered the young KLA soldiers to go into hiding so as not to endanger women and children. The Serbian military and paramilitary, however, discovered the men and forced them to walk to the school. He recalled that about thirty people were rounded-up. As he had somehow managed to separate himself from the group, he witnessed the unfolding atrocity. He said, “I went back to the school to see who else was inside. Around the school were thirty or forty Serbian army tanks. I passed them and saw Serbians beating people with anything they had in their hands.” Four of the men died.

Shortly afterwards, Pastasel was attacked in what is now known as the “First Offensive.” Anduena and Lule, like so many other villagers, found their homes ablaze. They remember the trauma of being homeless and tell me about the insecurity they felt as well as how supportive their neighbours had been, inviting them to stay in their homes. Other families, they say, moved from neighbour to neighbour, relative to relative, carrying the few belongings they hadn’t lost in the flames. Fear and panic were uncontrollable. “We didn’t know where our family members were because the escape was messy,” they tell me. The two women describe how everyone was on the move trying to escape the outbreaks of violence: “We will go here, we will go there, we will go to this site…”  Nevertheless, Anduena and Lule did not abandon their home for long. Together with others, they returned to Pastasel to try to rebuild their homes and routines while living under immense stress and uncertainty, never knowing when the next attack was going to come.

Another attack was indeed looming, and in January 1999 the Serbian army and paramilitary groups moved into Kosovo in even greater numbers. They continued to terrorise the population by using extreme violence, and moreover they deeply unnerved the local people because they were so familiar with their everyday lives. Using this tactic, the Serbs powerfully magnified, questioned, violated and revised the rationalities structuring the lives and social relationships of people like Anduena and Lule. The war was, therefore, as much about violence and force as it was about relationality, communication, social structures and place, which had to be constantly interpreted, negotiated and reinvented by people in the face of great insecurity and  uncertainty.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] All names are pseudonyms

[2] Thin foam mattress

[3] See also the No Peace Without Justice (1999) report