Against silence: A meditation on Kosova

The word djak in Albanian means “blood.” It is from this root that the town of Djakova derives its name, though Julie does not recall why. Something to do with slaughtering of sheep, she says.

There are four of us in the car: Julie, a translator for the International Organization of Migration; her husband, a high school science teacher; their sixteen year-old son; and myself.

They are traveling to Djakova to visit Julie’s childhood home; I am traveling to Djakova seeking answers to a riddle called “ethnic cleansing,” to the riddle of human suffering.

The route, for Kosovar Albanians, is littered with bitter memories, with dark tales that wound at each retelling. From the main highway to Pristina, we must first go north, past Raças. If you glance through the window, on the left-hand side, you will notice mounds of loosely packed dirt set against the side of a hill. The mounds are overlaid with wreaths and crowned with rectangular wooden placards.

In a forest not far from here, on January 15, 1999, Serbian security forces massacred 45 unarmed ethnic Albanian civilians. Among them were two children, one woman, and dozens of elderly men. A little beyond Raças the road snakes back, heading southwest. Burned homes and farms dot the landscape. A United Nations survey of 1,500 Kosova villages taken two months after the war found that more than 78,000 homes were either seriously damaged or completely destroyed.

As a final act of spite, retreating soldiers often painted obscenities and epitaphs in large black letters on the walls of the gutted buildings. Shiftari is a favorite. It means “kike.” It means “kaffir.” Or “spic.” Or “nigger.” It means “Albanian.”

When the war ended, Julie tells me as we drive, her husband returned to Kosova while she remained in Stankovic, a Macedonian refugee camp. He soon sent her an urgent message: She shouldn’t come home, he said. Not just yet. Militiamen had used their house as a barrack. He didn’t want her to see the words left behind on the walls. Or the dead cats in the bedroom. Or to smell the excrement on the carpets.

Yet these things are not so bad. Carpets can be washed. Words do not explode in your face.

When 18-year-old Ram Sulejman returned to his home in Klina after the war, there were no obscenities on the walls. All was intact. He was one of the fortunate ones. Then he opened the door and the mine went off.

His best friend, Kushtrim, told me about him as he swept up broken glass in Pristina. He was fighting back tears. “You should have seen my friend,” he said. “He was so beautiful, so strong. Why did they do it? Why? I hate this war. You don’t understand—I hate this war.”

It is not just the war that aches. The assault on Kosova began at least a decade ago when the Yugoslav government in Belgrade issued repressive new policies in the region. These laws amounted to a systematic degradation of Albanian social, cultural, and political life.

That was when, Julie tells me pointing to the eroded mountainside we are driving across, they began to cut down the forests. The trees on the once densely covered hills were then trucked to mills in Serbia, leaving behind a desert-scape of shrub and stone.

Like so much of Kosova, the story here lies in what is absent, not in what is present, in what has vanished more than in what is seen. Take for example the hospitals where the drugs and medical equipment were looted. Take for example the mosques that were torched to the ground. Take for example the shops and businesses that disappeared in smoke. And the farm animals that vanished. And the legal documents that disappeared. And the personal possessions that could not be located. And the people who were no longer around.

War-crimes investigators estimate that approximately 10,000 Kosovar Albanians were killed during the conflict. In a nation of less than two million people, still closely knit together by family and communal ties, there are few people in the region who do not know someone by name among the slain.

Once over the mountains, the road to Djakova curves west, flattening into a nearly straight line. We drive in silence until we cross the River Erenik. Julie smiles as she recalls childhood summers spent swimming and fishing here. Then, a little further, over a low hill, as we descend into the basin, Djakova.

The first sight that greets you as you enter the city is the police station. It is a massive, four-storied building that now gapes on all sides, the handiwork of NATO missiles. Slabs of concrete dangle high in the air from tangled steel rods. Abandoned and charred documents litter the surrounding yard.

Julie cringes as we drive past. She tells about the screams that used to come out of this building in the middle of the night. She tells about the blood-soaked garments, the unusual instruments, which were discovered here after the Serbian army fled. We make our way slowly down the main street of the city. The destruction along this road appears arbitrary, random; some buildings are untouched, others have been reduced to rubble. What was the process of selection? What was the method? How did the perpetrators decide where to vent their hate? And did it satisfy? Was their hatred quenched by more hate?

Luljeta Fajzaj, a 20-year-old nurse from the village of Radvaç, told me about a fellow student, Afrim Gjuraj, whose body was discovered with 82 bullet holes.

What, I would like to ask someone probably still living somewhere in the Balkans, do 82 bullets accomplish? What was he thinking after the second bullet? What was he thinking after the 10th bullet? And the next? And the next? And the next?

Tragically, the shooting and burning continues. Albanians intent upon retribution have returned scorched earth for scorched earth, laying waste to Serbian homes and Orthodox churches, and terrorizing the minority Serb and Gypsy populations that remain in the region with grenade attacks by night, summary executions in the fields by day.

At the border between Kosova and Macedonia, a Gypsy boy fleeing the country, together with more than 250 members of his village, shows me the soft scar on his cheek, an unfortunate souvenir of his homeland left by Albanian snipers. Or, perhaps, a fortunate souvenir—a few inches to the right and the boy would not be standing before me at all.

Late one night, I watched a Serbian home burn in the town of Ferizaj. The wallpaper blistered and bubbled before catching flame. Chunks of ceiling periodically crashed into the interior, punctuating the scene with bursts of hissing sparks.

Both the occupiers and the arsonists had long since fled, leaving behind a mob of children who danced gleefully in the eerie light of the blaze. “NATO, NATO,” they chanted, and “UCK, UCK”—the acronym of the grassroots Kosova Liberation Army. Albanian men and women gazed on from a safe distance, impassive, tolerant.

Then the wind changed. The fire, which to that point had burned safely skyward, moved horizontally, lapping the eaves of a neighboring house, the home of an ethnic Albanian. As the second building began to smolder, the townspeople rushed for buckets and hoses. The swarm of children, oblivious to the new development, meanwhile continued their chilling din, “NATO, NATO, UCK, UCK!”

As I observed this surreal spectacle, I must confess I felt a strong desire to see the fire consume both houses. Perhaps, I thought, that would convince the Albanians battling the blaze—some of them my fellow-workers and friends—of the pointlessness of the self-destructiveness of revenge, no matter the atrocities they endured. The fire, however, was contained, and the volunteer fire brigade set down their hoses to watch the Serb home finish burning.

I walked back to the apartment in which I was staying, past houses still inhabited by Serbians with nowhere to flee—one, the home of a bedridden old man who receives bread and milk once a week from ADRA community services; another of a grandmother who gives me a bouquet of flowers whenever I visit. There are about 40 such elderly Serbs remaining in Ferizaj, the most recent victims in a seemingly endless round of hate.

In Djakova, Julie and I at last arrive at the edge of the city’s old quarter. The road is sealed off with oil drums and wooden planks, so we get out of the car and begin to walk while Julie’s husband seeks an alternate passage. We are in the neighborhood where Julie grew up and we are in one of the most devastated locations in Kosova. The buildings here date back to the fourteenth century. They were constructed in classical Turkish patterns of architecture during the Ottoman Empire and were prized by Albanians as historical and cultural landmarks.

As we walk through the remains, Julie acts as my tour guide. This was an excellent bakery. There was a jeweler’s shop. Here was a dressmaker who did very fine work.

If you stop to examine the contents of the rubble you can often decipher the occupation of the shops’ owners. One pile is filled with charred clocks—a watch repairman. Another reveals glass bottles melted into sinuous shapes—a café. Poking through the wasted artifacts I discover a fragile tea cup somehow perfectly intact, a fragment of civility from out of the flames.

At the heart of the old market, flanked on all sides by the ruins, stands a fifteenth century medieval mosque. Its minaret was partially destroyed when the Serbian army used it for artillery practice. The soldiers, unable to force their way through the massive doors, then set the wooden entrance on fire, though the blaze somehow didn’t reach the sanctuary.

As we pick our way across the burned floor panels, an object catches my eyes. It is an unobtrusive article, a blackened shard that might escape notice among the more salient pieces of debris. Still, as my glance falls upon it, it exercises an unsettling hold upon both my imagination and my conscience. It is a nail, approximately six inches long, covered in rust, slightly curved near the middle and tapered to a treacherous point. It is hand-wrought—one of the original artifacts of the building and at least 500 years old, Julie told me—the work of a medieval iron smith.

What she didn’t realize was that, for me, in a peculiar sense, it is many years older. As I turned this nail over in my palm, I was struck by the jarring thought: wasn’t it this, exactly this, that pinned the Christ to the wood? Wasn’t it this, exactly this, that tore—and tears—the hand and heart of God?

Where do we find the suffering of the Lord of the Universe if not in the suffering of our fellow human beings? In Julie, in Luljeta, in Afrim, in Ram, in Kushtrim, and all those like them.

In the burning of their homes and shops; in the torture and rape and murder of the innocent; and even in the destruction of their houses of worship, their mosques and minarets?

As followers of Jesus living at the close of the most blood-soaked century in earth’s history, we are confronted today with an urgent choice: we may either remain passive in the face of human rights atrocities, or we may speak and act to defend the Creator’s image in those who cannot defend themselves. We may turn a deaf ear and a stone heart to the cry of suffering; or we may reach out, however we are able, to those who suffer—to those who, through their wounds, give us opportunity to relieve the suffering of the crucified Savior of the World.

Wasn’t this what Jesus meant when He said, “‘Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these..., you did it to me’”?

Ron Osborn spent five months in 1999 as a humanitarian relief worker in Kosova with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency and International Medical Corps. He is presently preparing for graduate studies in English literature. He may be contacted by e-mail at: ronaldosborn138@cs.com