Forced departure from Pristina

Leaving: A woman tells of being driven from Kosovo and sheds some light on what is happening to ethnic Albanians there.

April 06, 1999|By Gjeraqina Tuhina | Gjeraqina Tuhina,GLOBAL BEAT SYNDICATE

SKOPJE, MACEDONIA — (The following first-person account of the scene in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, since the latest wave of ethnic cleansing began there was written by a young Kosovo Albanian woman who has been working there as a free-lance journalist.)

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Even after 10 days of NATO air attacks, I didn't think it would happen. Even after the trains began running to Macedonia (the line to Skopje hadn't run for ages), I didn't think it would come to this.

But suddenly, after Dragodan, an Albanian district of Pristina, was cleared, it started. Everyone was somehow told to go to the train station. We could see them from our window. There was shooting in other parts of town, but here people walked down the street to the train station.

They walked in silence, their heads down, thousands of them, hour after hour, escorted by the police.

The first day we saw them, we thought, "Amazing." The next day, we said, "Oh, here they are again." By the third day, it had become normal. Everyone just wanted to know which neighborhoods the people had come from so they could know when it would be their time to leave.

Still, it didn't become real until they came to our house. By then, I was desperate to leave -- I was frightened and wanted to live. But I still had some kind of hope. I could never imagine myself and my parents just walking like that to the station, with our dignity and pride destroyed, losing everything.

It was a "normal," quiet day. We had three other families living with us -- 15 people crammed into our small flat. We had become an extended family. It was lunchtime. My mother was preparing a meal of meat and rice. Then we heard a commotion on the floor below and we knew.

I wouldn't say they were polite but they weren't abusive. We were surprised. There was no shouting, no pointing of machine guns. Four young soldiers in the dark-blue uniforms of the Ministry of the Interior just knocked hard on the door and said, "You have to go. You have 15 minutes."

The soldiers waited patiently. We quietly moved to pick up some things. My computer was still on, so I sent off one last, short e-mail to say I couldn't file a story that day: "Pray for me," I wrote.

When we got to the street, while everyone else turned left toward the train station, we turned right. We weren't ready to leave yet. Like those who had come to our apartment seeking refuge, we walked over to stay with friends in another neighborhood.

When we arrived, our host and his friend were having a heated discussion. "When they kick me out, I'm leaving," he said. His friend argued he didn't want to give up his life and become a refugee. "As long as I am not forced, I will not go to the train station," he argued. They talked for a long time. We just waited in the dark.

A day passed. It was a horrible feeling, just counting the time. We were disappointed because there weren't even any new NATO airstrikes near town. We discussed ideas for leaving, but nothing seemed safe. I refused to take that train that would mean three days in the field, and losing all my documents. Never.

I could never imagine myself and my parents just walking like that to the station, with our dignity and pride destroyed, losing everything. Gjeraqina Tuhina,on being driven from Pristina

The day before, I heard that the authorities were burning all the civil records -- birth, marriage, death certificates. The message was clear: We were about to become nonpersons. I just gave up emotionally. I wasn't afraid but I was sure I would never see my friends again, sure that nothing would ever be the same.

I had to get out of that house. My brother came with me. We put hats on, kept our heads down and walked quickly. By now, this city of 300,000 was half-empty. You could feel the emptiness, as if you were the only person breathing in a room. Pristina was dead.

A car stopped in front of us. The driver was a Serb but someone I was friendly with. "Hey," he said, "you are still around? What the hell are you doing? Don't you know your life's in jeopardy?"

I thanked him for the reminder. He said he knew of a way out of Kosovo. Two of his friends were heading to the Macedonian border right now. He promised it would be safe. His friends had already left, but if we hurried, we could catch them. I didn't have time to think. I wanted to believe that he wouldn't harm us. We jumped in his car.

We caught up with his friends. There was a brief conversation, and we got in the other vehicle. There were no introductions. The driver and his friend didn't seem interested. They were Yugoslav customs officers.

As we drove toward the Macedonian border, I got a proper view of Pristina for the first time in 10 days. There were tanks and police everywhere. There were armored vehicles in front of all the government buildings. Except for the shops, the center of the city itself didn't seem too badly damaged. Even the traffic signals were working, although no one stopped.

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