Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 23 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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By eight o'clock every morning, several hundred Kosovar men gather at the bus station in Ulcinj, Montenegro, and storm the glass doors to the tiny dark room where they are signed up for buses to the Albanian border. There are never enough seats--only 200 to 300 a day--and the looks on the faces of the men who are locked out of the room are of sheer desperation. "You'll go tomorrow," the station attendant mouths, and they knock on the glass until he opens the door to let them have their say. "Tomorrow is too late," they shout. "There will be a rally of Milosevic supporters in Podgorica! It will be dangerous! It may be impossible!"

Djordjie Scepanovic, the Montenegrin commissioner for refugees, assured me there was no reason for Kosovars to leave Montenegro. "I have been to Albania," he said. "The conditions there are much worse." I could still think of a few reasons. Kosovars will never be given permanent residency in Montenegro. They have the right to send their children to school, but these are Serbian-language schools, and one of the main objectives of Kosovar resistance, the reason they have operated a quasi-underground school system for the last eight years, is education in the Albanian language. But the main reason is fear: The Kosovars fear a Milosevic takeover in Montenegro, and they fear the Yugoslav army, which is already here. Yesterday, Montenegrin television reported that Yugoslav soldiers in the north of Montenegro, near the refugee haven of Rozije, had shot and killed six Kosovars, including a child and an old woman.

The men who manage to get tickets are soon joined by their families, who bring the meager baggage: plastic bags with blankets, a few toys, and several loaves of bread. I am traveling with the family of 37-year-old Bedri Lushtaku, a middle-school economics teacher who is that Eastern European phenomenon, a man who learned his English from the BBC. He speaks very slowly, very carefully, and very correctly.

The Lushtakus are from the Drenica region, from the village of Prekaz, where everyone says it all began. Serbian police and Drenica patriots have cooperated strangely in portraying Prekaz as the birthplace of rebellion, but that's not the point. The point is, the people of Prekaz have been displaced longer than anyone else. Thirteen months ago Prekaz was a village of empty houses, partly destroyed and largely looted. The dogs of the village had had time enough to form a wild pack and to have eaten most of the cattle: The gunfire coming from the police base, located conveniently on the hill overlooking the village, had been indiscriminate enough to fell most of the cows. The only human presence in the village was a Red Cross worker wandering the ruins, and 27 fresh graves, with a shovel left alongside one.

Yes, Bedri confirms, they left the village then, but they returned two months later and tried to rebuild. In another couple of months, "it started again," and they went to the city of Mitrovica. They returned in October, after the cease-fire announcement. Three weeks ago the police came and took all the men. Along with men from a couple of other villages--200 or 300 in all--they were taken to Mitrovica, interrogated--mocked but not beaten--and set free. A few days later their families were also taken to Mitrovica and found Bedri and his 26-year-old brother Nemzi at a relative's house.

Bedri has three daughters, ages 7½, 6½, and 4½, and a son, 3½. They all have the same eyes. These are eyes from a child's drawing, the pure concept of eyes. They are shaped like perfect almonds, they take up half the face, their whites are like fresh milk, and the color is that of a pristine lake with a bottom of sand. Nemzi, Bedri, and Bedri's wife have them, too. I don't know where these eyes come from, but I have seen them all over the former Yugoslavia. So much for ethnic purity.

"I was a lucky man," says Bedri. "I had a beautiful wife, beautiful son. and beautiful daughters. And now it's war. War is the worstest thing possible because it serves no political aim and nothing depends from ordinary people." One of his daughters wears a puffy pink jacket with a red starburst patch on the left part of the chest with the word "POW!" Any way you read it, it gives me the creeps. Bedri says the children's clothes and toys were given to them by the family who took them in in Ulcinj. "When people see a lot of children, they become sentimental," he explains. It turns out he still considers himself a lucky man, because when they were in Mitrovica, a bullet entered the house and flew right over the children's heads--missed by just a few centimeters, he says, tousling a daughter's hair. Nemzi has a 1-year-old daughter, and his wife is pregnant. Bedri's wife looks like she might be pregnant, too. She is wearing sweatpants with the words "Champion USA" written all the way down the leg. Bedri thinks "it will be all over by autumn, because NATO cannot lose." Meanwhile, he would like to get the women and children to Germany, where another brother lives. But first they have to find their parents: They were too afraid to leave Mitrovica, and in the end had to walk to Albania. The plan is to call Germany when we get to Albania and find out where to look for the parents.

Nemzi takes on the role of bus manager: assigns seats, distributes clear plastic sick bags--you never know what might happen on these mountain roads, what with all the pregnant women. This could be a bus in any poor rural area: creaking along, a few people talking, a few sleeping, a baby crying, a child choking on a hard-boiled egg. The difference is the tension: Everyone sits still and ready in the hour and a half after the scheduled departure time that it takes the bus to start moving. The engine wheezes and coughs before catching, and all the passengers heave with it. Every time the bus stops at a police checkpoint, everyone, including the older children, wakes up. Every time it leans precipitously away from the mountain, the passengers hold their breath. It seems the driver can't take it after a while, so he stops the bus in one of the scariest spots and lets the men out to smoke, looking down at the birds flying far below.

It's an old bus and a hard road, and it takes more than three hours to cover the 80 kilometers to the only open border checkpoint. Then it takes another hour to make the last three or four kilometers: That stretch is wide enough for only one vehicle, and our bus keeps backing up to let empty buses return. We are finally let off into the long line to the checkpoint just after 3. A Yugoslav soldier with a walkie-talkie struts around ordering refugees to straighten out the column, to split up into families before walking through. Just in case, Bedri and Nemzi hide their documents, money, and address-books in boxes of cookies. But the procedure is simple and impersonal: A policeman straddling a low stool writes down everyone's name and year of birth and waves the next batch through. But the wait is long, nervous, and cold. It is raining, and we can't see Albania for the fog.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

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