Living in Ruins

After a long day of pickling peppers and cooking ajwar in the yard, Arieta[1] joined me on the shilte, a foam mat spread out on the veranda. As we took in the last rays of the evening sun Arieta reflected on her day’s work and the hopes she harboured for the little pepper factory she was building. She shook her head and sighed: “I could have never imagined this only a few years back…” Only two years before, a humanitarian aid organization had arranged a meeting with other war widows on her compound to set up a business to process peppers for commercial sale. Since then, Arieta’s compound had turned into a lively place where women came together to clean, cut, cook, and can peppers, to sell their produce, and to make business plans. It was a stark contrast to the place of mourning it had been before. As we spoke, Arieta reflected on these changes and as she did, she gradually immersed herself deeper and deeper into the past edging towards the day she had returned to her compound from her refuge in Albania following the Kosovo War in the summer of 1999.

Together with her three sons and her in-laws, Arieta had joined thousands of other refugees returning to their homes in Kosovo.[2] She was still harbouring the hope of finding her husband and eldest son alive. Upon arrival at the Albanian – Kosovo border and seeing the KFOR soldiers and their tanks, she couldn’t contain her emotions any longer. Arieta looked at me saying, “I just started crying while feeling joy. I knew that the wish of my son had been fulfilled. Kosovo was free.”

Following the bombed-out road, passing looted and destroyed villages they finally arrived in Krusha. It was already dark when they entered the compound of Arieta’s in-laws which had been spared from destruction.[3] After a restless night, Arieta got out of bed and walked outside into the yard. She recalled the terrible smell that had greeted her that morning. The smell of dead bodies. Shuddering as she recalled her memories, she told me “Inside a neighbouring house sixty-four people had been burnt alive. When I stepped outside into the yard, I saw some Germans working in that house wearing white coats and masks. It was truly a bad smell.” While the forensic team was working next door, Arieta took her few belongings and walked through the burnt out streets to her own compound. She was not sure what to expect when she got there. With tears running down her face she whispered, “When I arrived, I saw that everything had been burnt and destroyed, the house, the tractor and everything else.  There was only a plastic cup and my son’s pants. I took them and I hugged them.”

Blinking into the evening sun; tears glistering in her eyes, she remembered the scene. Her husband’s greenhouses had been burned and destroyed while the equipment was exactly where they had left it. “Taking it all in, I just said ‘Oh my God’ and I escaped.” Instead of returning to her in-law’s place, she moved in with other widows living next to her compound. She felt better understood among them. “We shared the same problems,” Arieta explained. “We cried together for our dead people. At the other house, they were worrying about ‘I lost this thing, I lost that thing.’  It was something completely different.” United by their loss and grief, the women supported one another to create makeshift shelters in which to live and to somehow exist despite their suffering. Arieta borrowed a shporet, a stove, from a friend who was still in Albania, asked her neighbours for a pot and four spoons and said ‘Bismillah’ to mark the beginning of a new endeavour.[4]

Arieta’s story resonated with many other stories that I heard from women who told me how hard it was to resume life among the ruins of the war while trying to survive day by day. Selvete described her sense of disorientation as we were walking along the dusty village road one day saying, “When we came back, we walked through the destroyed streets with our children. There were only women and children. We had nothing and didn’t know where to go.” Lorida explained, “Our house was completely burnt and destroyed.  We found shelter in a kind of stable. The wind was blowing and the rain was dripping in and my husband was very sick.” And Marigona told me with bitterness in her voice, “They burnt our houses, killed our dogs and when we came back we didn’t have a place to stay. They wrote ‘Serbia, Serbia, Serbia’ on the walls of our house.” Places that were once homes to families had been turned into repugnant and inhospitable shells with their roofs gone, the interiors destroyed and looted, the walls desecrated with graffiti and besmeared with faeces.

Initially, most of the women felt paralyzed by the enormity of the devastation and the sense of simultaneous hope and hopelessness about the return of their missing family members. And yet, life continued. Women who carried insufferable knowledge and grief, busied themselves with making the everyday liveable again. It was thus through daily struggles and the daily grind that new possibilities were not only imagined but created. The everyday would routinely occur.[5] Building shelters, cooking meals, caring for children all seemingly took place effortlessly and yet at the same time each involving great determination, uncertainty and often fear.

The women felt unsafe despite the military protection and aid that started pouring into their village providing building materials and first aid in the shape of food, clothing, medication, and household items. For most women, especially for those whose husbands were dead or missing, it was an entirely new experience, making decisions for their families and dealing with foreigners most of whom were men. Arieta recalled how Dutch KFOR visited to assess her living conditions. “I saw Dutch soldiers approaching. I was so scared of soldiers, because of the war, you know, so I escaped.” The soldiers waited until she finally returned. Shaking her head, Arieta said, “They had come to my place to build a house for me – the house in which we are sitting now. When they came, I asked them what they wanted as I was scared. When they said that they wanted to build a house for me I asked them in surprise ‘What kind of a house?’  I wanted to repair my old house that had been burnt. They said that they couldn’t do that as they had calculated the costs and it was too expensive.”

Arieta accepted their aid and lived for years in the little one-room house with her sons and ageing mother-in-law. Yet she knew that if she wanted to rebuild her house, she had to roll up her sleeves and get to work. With her sons, she worked the land, rebuilt her husband’s greenhouses, enrolled in development projects, and applied for grants. She rebuilt her house and brick by brick reimagined and recreated her life in the remains of the ruins of war.

Author: Hanna Kienzler

[1] All names are pseudonyms to protect the identity of people.

[2] During the war, the majority of refugees, between 300,000 of the 480,000 of them had fled to Albania where they ended up in hospitable families and refugee camps.  Yet, as soon as the repatriation response started, people were returning to their homes in Kosovo at the rate of 20,000 to 30,000 per day.

[3] See also: Commemoration: The Massacre in Krusha e Madhe

[4] “Bismillah” is an Arabic phrase meaning “in the name of God.” It is the first word in the Qur’an, and refers to the Qur’an’s opening phrase. Colloquially, the phrase is used to mark the beginning of an endeavour or a new task.

[5] The notion of the “every day” and its potentiality are inspired by Veena Das and Elizabeth Povinelli’s works

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