“Now I know how the movies are made”. Living through the horrors of war

“When I think about the war, I imagine that it isn’t real,” Valbona tells me during one of my frequent visits to her family home. “It seems like a movie. I mean, now I know how the movies are made. I saw houses burning, cows lowing frantically in their stables, people running…” Interrupting her sinister preface, Valbona pours us coffee and lights the first of her Marlboros while settling on the light brown shilte placed along the wood-panelled wall of the large empty living room.[1]

As if preparing for a monologue, she leans forward, rests her elbows on her knees and takes a deep drag from her cigarette exhaling the thick smoke through her nose. “It had been March 1999 when my brother-in-law announced that it was time to go into hiding in the hills surrounding Krusha. The Serbs were already in the village burning and shooting at houses. My husband wasn’t around and I had no means of reaching him, so I took my bags and our two small children.” Anticipating the flight, she was well prepared having packed an emergency bag with band-aids, big and small injection needles, a litre of raki, some thread, wire, and pliers. In the hills, they joined numerous other men, women, and children from Krusha and the surrounding villages hiding in the dark trying to escape the violence and death that was unfolding below in their village. Meanwhile, Serbian police and military forces began to close in on them from the direction of the villages of Nagavc and Celina. Tanks were positioned at the top of the surrounding hills shooting down on the village and marsh areas. At the same time, soldiers and paramilitary harassed and killed several of the remaining residents, looted their homes and set their property on fire.[2]

With frustration, Valbona recalls how angry she had been with her husband abandoning her like this in the hills among fellow villagers and strangers. She confides, “I thought, ‘he should just die right down there!’” When he finally showed up in the woods, they quarrelled as she announced that she would be heading back to the house.  Raising her voice, she recalls the conversation: “He shouted, ‘are you crazy?! There is nobody in the village and the houses are burning!’ But I was determined and responded stubbornly, ‘If I have to die, I would rather die in my home than here. If I have to die on my own, that’s fine.” After some more arguing back and forth, she managed to convince him and the rest of her extended family to follow her on the track back to the family compound. As it was getting dark, they sneaked, like burglars, inside hiding in their rooms.

“When sleeping we laid next to each other like sardines,” she remembers the first of two nights at home. “All of a sudden, we heard soldiers banging on the compound door.” She thuds her fists down on the floor shouting, “Bang, bang, bang!” Lowering her voice to a whisper she continues, “We didn’t say anything. But the banging became fiercer and I asked the elders, ‘Should I open the door for them?’ I was worried that if they got angry, they might kick the door in, search the place and kill us. The old men didn’t think that it was a good idea and advised me to keep the door shut. Finally, the soldiers left.” Valbona tells me that the children were crying throughout the night, making it difficult for her to fall asleep. Instead, she wandered through the house, up the stairs to peer outside through one of the small rooftop windows. Krusha was burning while downstairs fear was spreading among the men. They were well aware that they would be the first to die execution style should they be found by the Serbian troops. One by one, they left to hide even further in the stable among the cows while the women and children ventured into the basement.

In the early morning hours, Valbona pushed a chair to the bathroom window and saw that Serbs had managed to break into the compound. “I was scared thinking, ‘what will they do to us if they find us? I mean we had young women and pretty girls in the basement.” Composing herself, she decided to confront the soldiers. “The Serbs (…) asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ They also asked if there were men around. I didn’t know what to respond. If I said ‘yes’, they would have shot all of them. If I said ‘no’, they would have started looking and shooting them as well as me and my children.” Impossible decisions to make…

Valbona opted for pretending that she didn’t understand Serbian until fear overcame her and forced her into the conversation. She looks me in the eyes and with passion in her voice tells me how the soldier had pointed a machine gun at her. “They asked if there were other people around. I said, ‘Yes, there are women and children in the basement.’ My sister-in-law heard me and whispered through a crack in the door that her husband had remained with them. I didn’t know what to do and felt like a traitor. I told them that there was in fact a man downstairs. They asked me to bring him upstairs. With horror I saw that my brother-in-law came outside followed by my little son. Just when the Serbs were about to take my brother-in-law, I picked my son up to pinch him sharply in his arms. He started to wince and twitch in pain. The Serbs asked, ‘What’s wrong with him?’

I replied, ‘He is scared.’

‘What is he scared of?’

‘That you will kill his uncle.’

‘Don’t be scared’ they said. They demanded money from my brother-in-law.”

While negotiating with the soldiers, she endured fear and harassment until she provided them with the requested money and jewellery which she collected “like a beggar” from the women in the basement. Throughout the day, other Serbian soldiers intruded requesting money and jewellery while Valbona tried to preserve some form of normality by baking bread to feed her family. “I started making a fire in the yard to bake bread for everyone. I prepared a mixture of milk and bread for the men, filling a big metal pot. I pretended to feed the cows. Inside, I served it to the men but my husband told me that he couldn’t eat.

‘Eat it,’ I said.

He responded, ‘I can’t. For days I have been carrying your gurabije[3] in my pocket and can’t eat them. I can’t eat if I can’t protect my wife and children.’”

The moment soon came when there was no more money, no more necklaces, no more earrings and no point in baking bread anymore. Valbona made the difficult decision to give up the hiding place asking women, children, and men into the courtyard. “As soon as all of us were outside, they separated the women from the men. The men stood lined up against the wall and I was certain that they were going to be executed.” Valbona pauses as she lights another cigarette and then carries on saying, “But none of this happened. Instead, they commanded, ‘Get your trucks, put white towels on the windshield and get going!’”

I hear myself exhaling.

“Now I know how the movies are made…” While listening to Valbona, I had inadvertently held my breath anticipating torture or a blood bath on every narrative turn. I had been gripped by the chilling way in which the minutia of their daily routines became immersed in the unfolding scenes of uncertainty, violence, and terror. How the familiarity of domestic quarrels, children’s bedding, baking of bread and feeding the family were perversely ensnared in a web of horror with these people who were forced to gamble with their lives. And, it had been a gamble indeed. Valbona’s decision to persuade her family to leave the hiding place in the hills and return to their compound had been lifesaving. Only two days later, on 26th March, the Serbian military and paramilitary discovered between 200-600 civilians (the numbers are contested) hidden in the hills and marsh around Krusha. They separated the men from the women and children, robbed the women of money and jewellery and sent them to the village mosque. The men, on the other hand, were ordered to lie face down on the ground, whereupon paramilitaries carrying sticks walked up and down the column tapping certain individuals. Those who had been tapped were taken away and never seen again.[4]

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] Shilte: Thin foam mattress

[2] International Crisis Group. (2000). Reality demands. Documenting violations of international humanitarian law in Kosovo 1999. Brussels: International Crisis Group.

[3] Crumpets

[4] International Crisis Group. (2000). Reality demands. Documenting violations of international humanitarian law in Kosovo 1999. Brussels: International Crisis Group.

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