I am 13 years old, in a neighbourhood in Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina. It’s March 1999. I’m out playing with friends, and I have a very beautiful wooden gun in my hands. I made it myself, and I even wrote UÇK [Kosovo Liberation Army/ KLA] on it.
I have to hide it though, we can’t really talk about UÇK in Prishtina. They are the good guys but we cannot mention them. This is our secret at the playground.
My friends never saw any of UÇK soldiers. I’ve seen them and I’m so proud I can tell my friends that they’re real.
We were set to travel with my parents and two brothers when close to our house in the village we were stopped by soldiers at the bridge. I was quivering because every time Serbs stopped us, I never understood what they told my father, and they looked scary with those blue uniforms and long guns.
This time it was different though; the soldiers said “Miredita” [Good day, in Albanian], asked how we were doing, and they were not wearing blue uniforms.
My mum told us it was ok and they were our boys, they were UÇK, my father’s friends.
I will never forget the way my body trembled at that moment. It wasn’t because I was scared anymore, but because my HEROES, the heroes of all the children of Kosovo exist, and they are going to protect us.
Now we are playing a UÇK-against-Serbs game we had invented, and the city defense sirens begin to ring. We all have to run into our houses and quickly get into the basement upon hearing the sound.
Today’s first bomb is about to drop so we have to stay with all these people in the basement and keep the windows a bit open so the glass won’t break. It is very noisy outside from bombing and shooting, while inside no one talks.
I can only hear some news in Serbian but the only thing I understand is “Za Slobodna Evropa iz Prishtine…” [reporting for Radio Free Europe from Prishtina…]. My father never came with us to the basement. Little did I know that he was part of UÇK headquarters.
The news in Serbian is coming from his radio in the first floor, and I keep repeating in my head that only Serbian phrase I could understand by adding my name: “Za Slobodna Evropa is Prishtine, Die Morina”.
This would be the last night we could stay at home. As the day starts suddenly there are people shouting, shootings everywhere and getting closer and closer to us. We should leave as soon as possible as the Serbs are coming for us.
When we leave the house my mum keeps repeating “don’t look behind”, but I am too curious not to. I turn my head to see these men with knives, guns, even raki bottles, some with beards, and scarfs on their heads, chasing us. As we keep running we arrive at a property with metal fans. Mum keeps shouting “sit behind the fans and keep running”, “keep your head down”, while bullets hit the fans; luckily none hit us.
That’s where my dad has to leave us and go to help his friends, our heroes. The way my brother cries for my dad at that moment, I still have that image in my head.
We end up in a house where our typical green curtains (every house in Prishtina had those curtains back then) had to be closed all the time, lights off and no sound, so the Serbs don’t find us.
My mum bakes some bread to make sure we can eat wherever we end up next. She keeps telling us “UÇK is out there, they will never let anyone harm us”.
As we silently wait for the Serbs to come inside, my mum gives me (and my two brothers) two golden rings. She puts them in my jacket’s pocket and says “If at some point I won’t be close to you and you see these guys with guns approaching, you give them the rings so they let you go”.
Only now, being a mother myself, can I feel the pain she was feeling at that moment.
They’re here now, Serbian army shouting at us asking where UÇK is. My mum tries to make Leonard, a 2-year-old boy who is with us, stop saying “UK [UÇK] paw paw” while trying to touch their guns.
Under their commands with guns pointed on us, we end up at the train station where we see the WHOLE city forced to get in these old trains.
Ironically, it is my first time to travel in a train, leaving my city in terror with dead bodies in streets. I’m sitting on the luggage place with more than 20 people in one cabin. An actress we’ve seen on Saturday’s theater plays for kids, is now playing “the bunny” for us.
I still know that the UÇK is out there, they are out there to help us and nothing bad can happen.
Even during the next seven days in the neutral zone between Kosovo and Macedonia, with heavy rains under a black and white blanket, we keep thinking of how strong UÇK guys are. This keeps our spirits high while we kids jump between the huge crowd to get bread, if lucky, handed out by volunteers of humanitarian organizations in their vans.
Finally we’re in Albania, after a very long journey through Macedonia.
We’re at the stadium in the southeastern city of Korca, where a police officer very politely asks us IN ALBANIAN “how do you feel?” My youngest brother, 9, looks at mum, confused, and says: “he is talking Albanian and he has a uniform”.
The first time I see mum cry is when local kids of our age come to give us a plastic bag with one onion, a garlic, a pepper, a tomato and a piece of bread in it.
By June we are back with our HEROES. Kosovo is liberated by our LIBERATION warriors and NATO. At one point we are even stopped by UÇK military police to just say “welcome home” while hugging their families.
Our house is burned to the ground, with thousands of books inside, all family pictures, all letters my parents exchanged while my father was in prison for organizing an armed force against Serbia, (Fronti i Rezistences per Bashkim Kombetar) that would later culminate with the UÇK.
We take a picture in front of our burned house. Even though the physical proof of our all our memories is lost, it did not diminish our happiness.
We’re free! We’re alive! We can speak in Albanian and we can BE Albanian!
In my memories and in every Albanian child’s memories from the war, UÇK will forever be our Liberation Army who fought for our right to EXIST!