Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 20 1999 10:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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Ali Rexha was born in Ulcinj. His family emigrated to the United States when he was five, 31 years ago, but he drifted back and has spent the better part of the last 20 years in the Balkans. He talks like an Italian from New York, or, if his assertion that all Italian restaurants in New York are operated by members of the 300,000-strong Albanian diaspora is true, then maybe he just talks like people who I thought were Italians in New York. He used to live on Staten Island. I managed to refrain from making comments about secessionist boroughs. He used to be in hotel management. I guess he still is. His main task is finding accommodations for the 30,000-plus Kosovars in Ulcinj, plus the uncounted thousands who will be flooding in. On the way to Camp Neptune, in the UNHCR's Nissan jeep, he dictated a letter to his secretary; "Take down the names of the campsites; Joy, Coastal Grove, Brotherhood, and Unity. Now, possible transit sites ..." On the scale of refugee misery, Montenegro in general, and Ulcinj in particular, do not rate very high, and this is testimony to the human ability to survive, on the one hand, and to the human ability to read and to watch on television the extent of others' suffering. Most Kosovars arrived in Ulcinj from Rozije (RO-zhay), a mountain-Muslim (Slavic Muslim, not Albanian) village in the north of Montenegro, where they received their first refuge after crossing the border from Kosovo on foot. I came through Rozije on my way from Belgrade. I saw factory warehouses of corrugated aluminum, where hundreds of mattresses were laid side to side under a ceiling as high as the sky. It was freezing inside the building; the only difference from the outside was that it was not snowing in the warehouses.

At least Ulcinj, being down by the sea, is warmer. Camp Neptune is just a couple hundred meters from Ulcinj's famous Long Beach. Showing it to me proudly, the Rozije driver, Arben, a 26-year-old local Albanian, said, "It's nice for the IDPs (internally displaced persons). Most of them can't afford to come here in the summer." The beach stretches 12 kilometers from mountain to mountain. The mountain to the left of us--the first genuinely black mountain I have seen--is in Albania. Arben has never been to Albania; he thought of going once, but then there was the uprising there. What about Kosovo? Oh, yes, he has been to Kosovo. His fiancee is from Pristina. He got her here in time, a few days before the bombing began, because he was already working for UNHCR and he knew there would be trouble when the humanitarian organizations started pulling out of Kosovo.

A girl named Edita wearing Diesel overalls and a checkered red-and-white flannel shirt came up and informed me I was the most beautiful girl in Camp Neptune. I thought she was: short black hair, puddle-size dark eyes, blanketed by dramatically wide cheekbones, and a smile that could open borders. We continued the flattery by guessing each others' ages. She thought I looked 18, I thought she looked 10 1/2. In fact, she is 9. She is from a village near Pec (Pech, the Serbian name) or Peja (PEH-yah, the Albanian name). The police told them they had to leave, so they went to a sports hall and slept there, and then the police said they had to leave again, so they walked to Montenegro. It took a long time--12 hours--because her granny can't walk very fast. No, they couldn't bring much with them; Edita carried just a backpack, and that had bread in it.

She invited me for coffee at the family trailer, where I was greeted by three women with the same wide cheekbones: Edita's plump, blushing, 19-year-old sister Shpresa, their 42-year-old mother Maria, with strawberry dyed hair, and their wizened grandma, who can't hear or talk. The coffee was prepared in cooperation with another trailer: Edita's family has an electric Jazveh (turkish-coffee pot), the other family has an electrical outlet. I said I didn't want coffee; just conversation would be fine. Shpresa insisted she wanted to make it--and made just one cup, only for me. "We were rich people in Kosovo," Shpresa told me. "Now this is all we have." This was a fiction. Kosovo's class structure has been transplanted to Ulcinj with few adjustments, complete with the contrasts, the envy, and the resentment. Those who can affored to--about 90 percent of the IDP--are staying in private houses. Some are paying as little as 100 deutsche marks for a room in which eight people sleep; a few are renting rooms in hotels or private houses where they used to stay when they came here on vacation. Camp Neptune has a hierarchy of its own: Those who arrived two or three weeks ago, like Edita's family, live in trailers that were given to Montenegro by international relief organizations 20 years ago, in the wake of a big earthquake. The later arrivals are staying in round tents for five or six people or long rectangular ones for 12.

Shpresa tells me how they walked for 12 hours; they prayed as they walked, and this helped. Like a sizable minority of Albanians (the most famous being Mother Teresa), they are Catholic--this I already know from Edita, though everyone assures me it doesn't matter (but Edita could not believe a nice boy like Arden could be Muslim). At length, my interpreter arrived, Merita, a 22-year-old from Pristina, and I am amazed by how sparse are the details one can tease out in a shared language (we have been communicating in my oversimplified Serbian).

They originally came from the village of Dugojeva, not from Peja. It was a mixed village, mostly Serbs and 13 Albanian families--200 people in all, who carried the last name Gojani. Last June the police told the Albanians to leave, then looted and torched their homes. All the Gojanis moved to Peja, where they stayed with relatives and received assistance from an international Albanian relief organization called Mother Teresa. Some returned to Dugojeva in September, presumably to rebuild, though Maria does not know what happened to them.

Three weeks ago, more than 2,000 people, Catholics and Muslims, had gathered in a church in Peja. But then the police came and threatened to shoot the priest if the people did not leave. They went to a sports hall and slept there, but in the morning the police doused it with gasoline and set it on fire. Maria's family ran to a relative's house and spent the night there. There was a lot of gunfire, houses were being torched. There were also bombs, so some of the people who had been in the sports hall hid under the bridge. In the morning, the police came to the house and threw everyone out. They left at 11 in the morning and arrived in Rozije at midnight, which makes a total of 13 hours. The people of Rozije are very generous; a local rich man invited them into his house and gave Edita 20 deutsche marks. Edita passed the time while her mother was telling her story by playing with my lighter, showing off what you can do with bubble gum, and, every couple of minutes, coming over to me for cuddles. Shpresa has added a few details: When the police came in the morning to the relatives' house, she recognized a childhood playmate among them. "I asked, 'Are you the one I played with?' He said, 'No, I'm from Pec.' But I knew him very well."

Now that they are here, they will just wait. Maria has a cousin in Switzerland: He sent 500 deutsche marks for Easter, but that money has run out. She has a son in Germany, but he's just 17, a high-school student (kind people helped him get to Germany last September), and he cannot help them. Her husband is very ill, a nervous condition he has had for 10 years, after he spent 5 years in prison for an accident on a railroad where he worked as a station manager. He functioned somehow in Kosovo, but here, where he has no medication, he just lies in bed and has to be convinced to eat. There are some rich people here; they can go anywhere they want. If I go to Albania, would I ask after members of the Gojani family?

Ali Rexha is worried about possible tensions between the locals and the Kosovars, or among the IDPs. On the way to Camp Neptune, Rexha brooded at the sight of IDPs clogging the town center. "Why do they have to all come into town, why can't they just stay where they settled? It doesn't need just a sparkle." I think he means "all it takes is a spark," but he's been away from English for a while. I've grown fond of these accidental multiple meanings. On a building wall in Podgorica, someone had scribbled, "This country is suck." Now, that is just one letter letter away from a whole three meanings: "This country sucks," "This country is stuck," or "This country is sick."

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.