In Memory’s Painful Grip

War was on everybody’s lips. There was an impending sense of anticipation as Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia loomed large.[1] Television news reported on the steadily increasing tensions between Albanian and Serbian communities, public events were staged by both sides to remember the losses and atrocities committed during the last war, and KFOR – the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo – patrolled the streets in armoured vehicles. Would the declaration go smoothly? Would there be demonstrations? Would Serbia intervene with military attacks? It was hard to know.

These questions haunted Pranvera[2] who had just returned from the kitchen balancing a tray with Turkish coffee, glasses filled with fruit juice, and cookies. As she distributed the cups and glasses, her 18-year-old son Agron asked me provokingly, “Where will you go when there is another war?” Uncomfortably and somewhat awkwardly I responded, “I hope there won’t be war and that I can stay right where I am.” With a sombre face he insisted, “No, there will probably be one. When you run, we’ll follow.”

Taking a sip from her strong coffee, Pranvera cut her son off saying gravely, “We have known war for five hundred years. However, in the old days, war was fought between men – man to man. Now it is different, it is fought with and against women and children. They say that Serbs will also fight against animals.”

With this interjection, Pranvera seemed to enter a distant space from which she began to draw on her memories. Interweaving stories of her own personal experiences with those of others, of her family members and fellow villagers, she produced, for her two listeners, disturbing images of the sheer horror that had occurred in the village of Pastasel. “In my family many people were killed. My husband was killed, my brother-in-law, several cousins and so on.” She paused. “Twice we fled into the mountains for two days. There was a tractor with several people on its hanger. Serbs had set the hanger on fire and burnt the people who were sitting on it. I think that most of the soldiers were on drugs. I saw only one young Serbian solider who cried. It was interesting; he was the only one who cried.”

Like photographic snapshots, her stories seemed to be pegged in a row on an invisible string, each one showcasing brutal images of killings, people fleeing, burning corpses, and insane soldiers. Images starkly revealing the atrocity of war, the horror of what human beings are prepared to do, chilling images that will not permit forgetting. She told us how Serbian military and paramilitary had herded the villagers past their homes and the school toward the valley, robbed them of their money and jewellery, and separated men from women. “When I turned my head I looked at some of the Serbs,” Pranvera said, “They looked terrible; their faces were distorted. They looked as though they were completely crazy.”

As she spoke, her voice became louder, rising in a crescendo, whilst her gaze seemed to get distant, as if it was retreating inwards. She exclaimed, “I was standing behind my children and my husband who were all sitting on the ground. I wanted to be killed instead of my husband and children. I was ready to die.” I could imagine her towering, almost superhumanly, over her family: A fearless matriarch spreading out her wings of protection in the face of death. Yet, within moments, this image collapsed, giving way to more scenes of brutality and horror.

“All of a sudden a boy tried to flee.” Pranvera continued. “He was running but was surrounded pretty soon by Serbian soldiers. He had lost his mind and couldn’t go back or forth. The Serbian soldiers took their machine guns and started to beat the boy to death. I never knew that a body could jump like a ball, up and down.”

I felt my stomach cramp and my throat tighten. The image was unbearable. Agron appeared distraught as well judging from the rasping metallic sound that he was extracting from a toy rooster which he had wound up while forcefully pushing its little legs in and out of its metal shell. Pranvera did not appear to notice or maybe she simply ignored it. “They took our men and forced them to kneel on the ground. I heard how one of them said, ‘Let’s take a little boy and slaughter him in front of all of them.’ They wanted to terrorize us. When they were taking the men from us, I remember how the women and children screamed. When they took my husband, my children screamed loudly. They just screamed.”

As overlapping images of apocalyptic angst and terror formed in front of my inner eye, I quietly interrupted Pranvera suggesting, “Maybe you should stop talking about these things. You will have nightmares from this.” It was probably as much her nightmares as mine and Agron’s that I was concerned about. I wanted her to stop. But to no avail, it was as though she was just getting started.

“I remember everything, everything!” Pranvera almost shouted. “My sister-in-law took my children but I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay and die with the men. This was my place to be. I was not scared of this.” Adjusting her blouse and sitting up straight she repeated “I was not scared.” Nevertheless, she was forced to walk away when the soldiers started shooting into the air. “When I reached the others, we were not far from our men, they started shooting brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr; we heard the machine guns. I started screaming ‘They killed all of them! They killed them all!’”

“Can you find me a girl in Germany?” Agron now brutally cut through his mother’s monologue. At a loss for words, I remained silent.

Ignoring the interruption and her son’s distress, Pranvera carried on albeit more quietly, “I remember nothing of the flight. No memory is left. In the village where we had ended up I became conscious again and started screaming at the people around me.” For a week, she was in and out of consciousness, all the while losing hope of ever seeing her husband alive again. “I told the people ‘If he were alive, he would find me. Since he hasn’t come, I know that he is dead.’”

This memory seemed to free Pranvera, bringing her back to the little room where the three of us were sitting. Pouring us more juice and passing around the plate of cookies, she tried to engage us in small talk of more mundane matters. Doing my best to participate, I wrestled with nausea and guilt. Nausea from the gruesome images that were swirling through my mind and guilt from my crude attempt with which I had tried to escape the images and to silence Pranvera.

(By Hanna Kienzler)

[1] Declaration of independence: 28 February 2008

[2] All names are pseudonyms

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