Kosovo carries costs but no regrets for N.Y. volunteers

An ethnic Albanian loses a foot, another innocence to a war against the Serbs

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 25, 1999|By NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

NEW YORK -- Haxhi Dervisholli lost a foot to a Serbian mortar. Isa Kodra lost his innocence.

Both were among several dozen New York City volunteers who went to fight for Kosovo as part of the Atlantic Brigade.

Neither has regrets.

"People I know feel sorry for me," said Dervisholli, 29, holding the stump where his right foot used to be. "But I feel proud of what I did."

Kodra was a 17-year-old from Brooklyn when he left two months ago to fight the Serbs. He returned home a battle-hardened 18-year-old man with Serbian blood on his uniform and horrific tales from his time fighting with the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Kodra, an ethnic Albanian and high school graduate, was a National Guard cadet considering a career in the U.S. Army when he decided to fight for his homeland. Because he had some knowledge of weaponry from his brief stint as a cadet, Kodra found himself leading rebels into skirmishes.

In phone calls home, he described how the Serbs tortured unarmed ethnic Albanians -- and the rebels' revenge.

"He told me how he found some girl who'd been raped by a Serb and how the KLA found the guy who did this and cut his fingers off," Kodra's sister Kymete said.

The war also took a psychic toll.

"He said he had to bury hundreds of people," Kymete said. "He can't look at his fingers because he sees the dirt under his fingernails and it reminds him of burying the dead."

Dervisholli moved to Brooklyn two years earlier from a Pristina suburb and found work as a roofer. But with the Serbs engaged in "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo, Dervisholli joined the rebels. After two weeks of training, he was sent to the front.

For the first few weeks, the war consisted of skirmishes with Serbs. At night there were sing-alongs by bonfires accompanied by mandolins when the rebel fighters would marvel at the "beauty" of NATO's aerial assault.

"It's beautiful to see cluster bombs in the night," Dervisholli said.

On June 2, near Prizren, the rebel forces were trying to take Mount Pastrik, drawing Serbian forces out of their bunkers and making them easy targets for NATO bombs.

"They [the Serbs] started shelling, and the first shell hit my leg," he recalled. "I saw my boot opened from the bottom. The sides were peeled out. I tried to tie it because it was bleeding."

Dervisholli said fellow soldiers dodged Serbian sniper fire as they carried him to safety. "When I woke up the next morning I saw my leg was gone," he said.

Now, as Kosovo begins to rebuild, the two men will try to resume their lives.

Kymete Kodra said her brother says he's OK, but he sounds "like someone who has been to war."

Dervisholli said his insurance won't pay $15,000 for a prosthetic leg, and he's not sure how long he can afford to pay for his thrice-weekly rehabilitation sessions. "I knew this could happen," he said.

Time may dull their memories of Kosovo, but it won't erase them, an expert warned.

They will "always be living with these memories," said Yehuda Nir, an associate professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College, who counsels Holocaust survivors and Vietnam veterans. "Time does not heal."

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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