Adelina's long journey

While NATO bombs fall on Yugoslavia, an Albanian teen-ager in Kosovo records in her diary the fears as well as the small joys of life during war.

May 09, 1999

SKOPJE, MACEDONIA -- School let out early in Pristina two days before the NATO bombings began. The teachers said goodbye. Some were crying. "See you all soon," Adelina Imeri told her instructors and classmates at the Hassan Pristina high school in Kosovo's provincial capital. "Yes, see you soon," most replied.

No one dared suggest that the life they knew was drawing to a close. They didn't want to say it because maybe it would come true, Adelina recalled. But superstition couldn't freeze events. Everyone, including 15-year-old Adelina coming home from school, felt it, breathed it -- this stifling dread among the ethnic Albanians.

She stopped at a kiosk and picked out a green leather notebook for 2 German marks ($1.10). On March 22, she began her diary -- what became a sampling of the fear, hopelessness and hunger suffered by Adelina, her family and her friends when their lives were shattered.

"The fear is increasing," she wrote. "What will happen?"

Adelina's journal, written in Albanian in her slightly tilted script, is direct. The observations are sharp, and emotions often muted. This is also how she carries herself: simple, unadorned chestnut hair. She might occasionally wear a light shade of lipstick, but that's rare. Adelina, whose father wouldn't allow her to be photographed by a journalist, speaks in clipped sentences, never rambling. She wants to study medicine, perhaps become a pediatrician.

March 23, the day before the NATO attacks began, she wrote: "They are giving only 2 liters of milk to each customer ... Even the vegetable market is being emptied out. I met [friends] Arjeta and Arlinda at noon. They were going to Skopje to an uncle's place. I was asked: 'Where are you going?' I've got nowhere to go ... The older people are whispering something between them. What are they saying?"

The opening NATO bombardment shook their entire building, a 15-story apartment tower near the Fountain of Ulpiana, a favorite meeting place for teen-agers. Adelina's family huddled together in their living room on the seventh floor. At 8:10 p.m. they heard the first blast. A half-hour later, the power went out. Adelina counted a dozen explosions, two of them so close that the windows rattled and the building swayed. She fell asleep at dawn.

March 25: "Tired from previous night ... Dad bought groceries. I'm wondering whether to go to the fountain or not. Few people are on the streets. Some relatives of ours told us that robbing and burning of the houses and shops has started ... Dad is trying to calm us down, telling us NATO will not hit civilians areas ... This seems unreal."

Adelina heard that one of her friends left for Montenegro. People on her block were packing their cars and heading south toward the Macedonian border. She began spending more time playing with her 8-year-old brother, Arzenin. At least it helped distract her. The news reported the slayings of ethnic Albanian human rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi and his two sons. Adelina curled up in bed with her clothes on.

March 26: "I heard one explosion I thought was going to demolish the building ... God, where did they hit this time?"

They left the apartment the next morning. Adelina's father, a construction foreman who could not get a job with Serbian contractors, found room for the family in a friend's home in a neighborhood called Bregu i Diellit, or Sunny Hills. Surprisingly, the phone worked. Adelina tried to call friends. Many had left Pristina. She watched people trudging toward the train station five miles from the center. But they were turned back by police for some reason. They felt safer on the first floor of the home. The basement -- safer still -- was allotted to a Serb family in a government welfare program.

March 28: "Psychologically, we are prepared for the worse. The explosions are coming more."

March 29: "I ran into two of my friends. They looked very pale and scared. They told me how they spent the terrible nights in the high-rises. I pass the time looking for food ... We are more scared hour by hour ... We can see the glowing explosions. They are like mushrooms of fire. We are scared the police or military will come for us."

Yugoslav authorities claim that most of the more than half-million Kosovo refugees fled NATO bombing raids and not reprisals from Serb police and paramilitary units. Adelina's family packed up because of both. They heard that Serb police were clearing out nearby neighborhoods and moving in their direction. But the bombings, too, had them on edge from stress and lack of sleep. On the last day of March, Adelina, her parents and two brothers joined 17 others walking to the train station. Adelina's family was too fearful of Serb police to return to their apartment. Each of them took only two changes of clothes, a sack of bread and apples, and about 450 German marks ($250). Adelina left behind everything but her diary.

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