Struggling with the past in Kosovo

The walls are scarred with bullet holes from the generic 7.76mm

The walls are scarred with bullet holes from the generic 7.76mm

Belfast journalist, Ciarán Bartlett is in Pristina, Kosovo. He’s travelled there to produce a video documentary about the internal reporting of the war there twelve years ago and the political progress since then.

It must have been cold in Prekaz in March, 1998.

The wind would have rushed across the sorrel-green Drenica valley, kissing the bricks and slates of the Albanian village farmhouses, freezing the water and pounding the livestock.

Rifat’s hands must have been aching in the cold as he sorted through the bodies of his friends, the Jashari family.

He looks tired today but happy. His sixty year old eyes dart around looking for things to do, to talk about and they sit, sunken beneath an ever-greying furrowed brow.

I think to myself that he looks like a Balkans David Dickinson, but I know he won’t get the joke, I know their lives couldn’t be more different.

Prekaz is home to the national monument in honour of the Jashari family, 56 of whom gave their lives when the Serbs massacred them in three farmhouses around the village.

The houses have been preserved by the Kosovar authorities as a reminder of the Albanian struggle for freedom.

The walls are scarred with bullet holes from the generic 7.76mm to the much more formidable wounds inflicted by RPG fire and shells from tanks and Serbian mortar teams.

The farms housed Adem Jashari, his two brothers and their families. After being attacked in 1981, members of the village including Adem swore to protect the village and they were instrumental in instituting the KLA or Kosovo Liberation Army.

By 1998, Adem had become a formidable local commander, conducting guerrilla attacks on the Serbian authorities to such an extent that he and his brothers had each removed one of their own sons from the family so that the family name could go on, should they all die in combat.

When the attack came in the middle of the night, Serbian anti-terrorist units surrounded the village and began shelling and firing on Jashari’s house. The women and children could not escape, they were ‘terrorists’.

They huddled into the basement in one house and into the kitchen in another. The fight continued.

After three days, it was done.

The whole in the wall of the basement came from a tank, much too big for RPG fire, but three or four such rockets had struck the other side of the room. Everyone died here.

In the kitchen across the small space between the houses, more women and children were slaughtered. Only one survived, Hamza Jashari’s daughter, Besarta, just eleven. She identified the bodies while Rifat sorted them. He had laid down his KLA uniform, retreated from the mountain’s in his science teachers’ white coat and begun to contact the media.

Altogether 63 villagers died, including 56 members of the Jashari family. Today, the airport is named after Adem, his image is ever-present, on road signs, advertisements and his statue is everywhere present.

The massacre at Prekaz was not a one-off but it is seen as the turning point, the KLA’s membership actually grew almost exponentially afterwards. People here think it convinced NATO to intervene.

The family are heroes for Kosovar-Albanians and still terrorists for the Serbs.

Rifat shows me the photos he took of the bodies. Too graphic.

My mind flicks back home. I think of my own family, my six year old niece, my parents. It’s hard not to feel something.

Rifat says he has therapy and pills to help him sleep at night. He still sees the mangled carcasses of his neighbours. He sees the face of little Besarta, the only one who survived the shelling.

I’m shocked. I don’t know what keeps him going. Genuinely. So I ask.

He shows me a horrible photograph he recovered from a raid on a Serb outpost. It shows a Serb soldier laughing through sunglasses as he slits the throat of an Albanian teenager. I’ll never forget that image.

“These people that took part in the massacres, we do not want to see them in Kosova ever again and if we do, we wouldn’t need weapons, we would just kill them with our bare hands. I am eternally grateful for NATO and the West’s intervention. If NATO didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist here today.

“But I welcome the pleasure to have a friendship with the nation of Serbs who did not take part. We need that if we are to ever move past this war, this past repression. I want to be able to wish Serbs the best for themselves, their families and more importantly, their children, but I need them to at least wish me the same.

“As a teacher, I feel like I am connected spiritually with the kids I teach or used to teach. I’m even moved when I see movies where kids are mistreated, so when I see the massacres I have seen, it is important for me to think of the future, to think of my children.”

I can’t help but think that massacres like Prekaz in Kosovo, Srebrenica in Bosnia militarise the moderate. I wonder if Bloody Sunday fits the model.

There comes a time when a nation’s children must become its focal point. For us in Northern Ireland, perhaps this happened in 1998 when across the continent, Rifat was photographing the carnage at Prekaz.

I used to think I knew something of adversity because I was from West Belfast, the last of eight children and son of a hard-working industrial engineer. Having a big family meant we didn’t have foreign holidays, it meant squeezing into the back of whatever car we had at the time.

Having a big family in Kosovo meant being a bigger target and sending kids to Germany to keep the lineage alive. I can’t believe what I dared to think about hardship, even just a few days ago.

Maybe now though, I see in Adem Jashari a more extreme form of what I see in my father, when he defended our house and kept us all safe from terror. I mean, I don’t have children yet, but I already know I would lay my life down for them and maybe being here at Prekaz and thinking about my own family in a different way has helped me to see what it means to love, take risks and make sacrifices for one’s children.

I look back across at Rifat. If he was the Kosovar David Dickinson, he wouldn’t be so concerned with small ornaments and vases, for here it is life, not poorly fired porcelain which is cheap as chips. Rifat looks at me and I ask him what it’s like to work at the monument to his friends.

“It is a difficult job to be the guide here because I relive these times when I talk of them. It is very difficult, but compared with those 63 heroes who gave their lives here, from six years old up to eighty, it is but a drop in the ocean.”