Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 21 1999 10:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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The palette of misery dwarfs me. I hesitate to ask questions, I am reluctant to write stories that are all about unadulterated suffering, and I am afraid of falling into the trap of searching for the account of the most painful details. I think Edita saw me thinking this as I sat with a smile of idiotic gratitude on my face after interviewing her adults. I don't think more than a couple of journalists have been through this camp--it does not provide quite as picturesque a landscape of pain as the places in Albania and Macedonia do (a colleague in Podgorica said, "But I heard that Ulcinj is just Club Med gone to seed!")--but I guess Edita has a journalist's nose. "Do you want to meet a man who's been shot?" she asked.

"Yes, that would be very good," I agreed.

She grabbed me by the hand and dragged me along to a set of tents, peeping into them until she located the right family, and triumphantly parted the folds to let me in. Valdet Haxhia (kha-ZHEE-yah), 23, comes from the village of Rakos between the cities of Peja and Mitrovica. He readily pulled up his sweater to show the long vertical scar on his abdomen and was about to peel off the small gauze pads that covered the spot on his stomach where the bullet entered and the one on his back where it came out. I assured him that I had seen enough and needed him only to tell the story. His family seemed disappointed by my lack of appetite for gore.

Valdet's house was about 200 meters from the police station. Three weeks ago bullets flew from the station toward his house. One went through the window and then through Valdet and then hit the wall. His mother went to the police station to ask for permission to take her wounded son out of the village. I could imagine this clearly: A year ago, when I was last in Kosovo it was already exceedingly difficult for Albanians to move around the province. Once, I went to the village of Llausa, hoping to interview some KLA members, and the first person I met was a woman whose baby was near death and who had been unable, for days, to leave the village to get a doctor. Using my Russian passport and the charm effect a woman behind a wheel seemed to have on Serbian policemen, I drove her and the baby to a hospital in Mitrovica. She was checked in, but from what the doctor told us, I very much doubt that the baby survived. I hate to think what the woman must have faced trying to get back to Llausa, where she had left her other three children unattended.

So, Valdet's mother asked and the police thought about it for a bit and then allowed the family through. Valdet's uncle drove, and his mother and a couple of other family members came along. Because of tanks, police, and gunfire everywhere, it took 10 hours to cover the 30 kilometers to Peja. An Albanian doctor at the hospital operated immediately. The operation lasted five hours. The next day, all Albanian staff had to leave the hospital. The remaining doctors and nurses, said Valdet, "were very aggressive, because they were Serbs. They said, 'You're a terrorist, you should go to Albania!' " But there was a Montenegrin doctor who spoke Albanian and who took care of Valdet, and he hopes I mention that he is indebted to this doctor for saving his life.

Ten days after the operation, a cousin came to get him at the hospital. They drove to Rakos, but the village was empty. They found the family in another village, and the next day the 12 of them walked the 13 hours to the Montenegro border. They took a footpath through the mountains, through the snow, so they would not encounter any police. Valdet was quite tired but had to keep walking. There's a nurses' station here at the camp where he can get his wounds dressed. Am I sure I don't want to see them more closely?

I thank Valdet and his family, including his wife, who is nursing a baby who can't be more than 4 months old, and leave the tent. My feet are freezing, and I was there for only half an hour, and that in the middle of a sunny day.

I dreaded to think what Edita would suggest next, but then, as though to save me, there appeared two nuns from the church where Edita's family hid out for a few days. Sister Linda looked very young, in her early 20s at most, a clear white face with clear freckles and a bit of fuzz on her upper lip. Sister Graciana looked like she was in her 50s. She was wearing a black down vest with a white Nike logo over her black clothes. They were a bit taken aback by my request for an interview but then agreed to go back to my hotel to talk. The priest drove us but stayed outside in the car. He didn't feel like talking. He was the one the police threatened to shoot if he didn't clear the Albanians out of the church.

My interpreter, Merita, a Muslim, had some trouble with the religious terms, and I, being an atheist Jew, was not much help. Merita's English is not brilliant, but she tries. When she anticipates linguistic trouble she precedes her story with the words, "This is very funny," like: "It was funny. Before I left Pristina, I applied for this Ron Brown fellowship to study journalism in the U.S., but now I don't know how I'm going to know if I won." Or: "It's very funny. When NATO bombed the post office in Pristina, they hit the social-services office, where my father worked, so I guess he doesn't have a job now. But I don't know, because when they called, they just say they're OK." Merita left with her two younger sisters, ages 14 and 19, but her parents did not want to go, and since then they have tried to leave, but the police won't let them. Merita's boyfriend stayed in Pristina, too. Very funny, but some people said they saw him in a town in Serbia.

As for the nuns' story, it was very similar to the others. Except they and the 150 people who left with the church used a few cars and tractors to make their way to Montenegro. Along the way, they saw quite a few policemen who were not violent but were laughing a lot, and they saw people leaving their belongings on the side of the road because they could no longer carry them, and they saw people who had been forced out of their homes in the middle of the night and had neither proper clothes nor shoes, but they could not help them because their vehicles were already overburdened. The night before they left the church, the priest held a special service that is something like a collective atonement, and then he read each person individually his last rites. In Podgorica, they spent one night in a church, and a group of Serbs came in--five or six people in civilian clothing but carrying guns and hand grenades--and said that "this garbage" did not belong there. The priest called the police and they spent the rest of the night in peace, surrounded by Montenegrin Special Forces.

Montenegro is the only place where the tens of thousands of Kosovar refugees are actually on the same land as the Yugoslav army. Very funny.

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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