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Originally published in Redbook Magazine, September 1999
Macedonia is a beautiful country, green and mountainous, with acres of lush landscape and picturesque tile-roof houses dotting the countryside. Except for a spot along the road where Macedonian police stop you for a passport and document check, you would never know that just three miles away lies the border of a country ripped apart by bombs and warfare. It takes no more than 15 minutes from the capital city of Skopje -- with its bustling traffic, high-fashion dress stores, and business people rushing down the street with cell phone -- to reach the wire-enclosed Stankovich refugee camp, home to thousands of Kosovar refugees.
At first glance, Stankovich looks like a prisoner-of-war camp. Armed soldiers stand guard at the fence that surrounds it; just inside, families clutch at the wires, staring out blankly. Some are waiting for relatives to bring them bags of food or clothing, others are simply waiting. They aren't allowed to leave the camp, and few visitors are allowed to enter.
A television reporter with whom I talked at the border earlier that day had taught me her method for counting the refugees. Holding a hand up against the horizon, against which a parade of people could be seen filing into camp, she explained how -- from a certain distance the number of people covered by the length of your thumb translates to about a hundred. Using this method, we estimated that we'd seen a couple of thousand refugees crossing the border that morning alone.
An armed policeman checks my passport and papers thoroughly before waving me through the gate with my Kosovar interpreter, Violja. She had been a sociology graduate student in Pennsylvania when the bombing began. Rushing home to Kosovo, she learned that her husband and two young children had fled the country with just the clothes on their backs. Miraculously, she found them in a refugee camp and smuggled them out. She's now Working as a translator for the foreign journalists pouring into the country so she can pick up some extra money.
We make our way down a dusty footpath lined with tents. Outside nearly every one, women are washing clothes in buckets, men are sitting on the ground smoking, and children are playing with stones. Apart from a makeshift soccer field where refugees gather daily to watch or play soccer (some of them barefoot), there is little formal recreation here. There is no music, no sound of children's voices raised in play, or even, oddly enough, the sound of crying. As I will learn over the days ahead, children in refugee camps cry very seldom.
How do I first meet Kimete? A small group of children surrounds me, wanting to try out their few words of English. "How are you this morning?" one says proudly. Another girl wants to carry my backpack for me. Kimete simply comes up to me and takes my hand. "America?" she says. And then she begins to recite the only English words she knows "January. February. March. April. May...." We go through the whole year and start over again. "English," she says, and smiles. I point to her. "Albanese?" I ask. She nods, then tells me the names of the months in her language. Then she links arms with me.
She's a strikingly pretty child, not only for the fineness of her features, but for the liveliness of her expression. Wanting badly to communicate but having no words of their language, I take out a drawing pad to sketch pictures of the children. (I'd stuck a pack of markers and some paper in my suitcase, along with a couple of Beanie Babies, a bag of Gummi Bears, and a bunch of hotel shampoos. It's hard to know what to bring to people who have just lost everything.)
When it's Kimete's turn to sit for her portrait, she has a hard time keeping still, she's so anxious to see the results. She points to her ponytail with a certain urgency, to make sure I put it in the picture, and heaves an exaggerated sigh of relief once I do. Then she bursts into giggles.
You would not know, to watch her, what she has seen in the last six weeks of her short life. But with Violja's help, she tells me.
Kimete is 11 years old, almost 12, the youngest in an Albanian family of four children. "Back in my village of Lipjan," she says, "my family had a house with a little terrace and a garden," right next to the homes of her uncles, aunts, and cousins. She had her own room, two Barbie dolls, a best friend. She loved reading and going to school and taking drives with her father.
"I knew things were getting very bad with the Serbs." she tells me. "Every time I'd come into the room, my parents would stop talking. My school closed down a few months ago. My parents told me they were sure things would work out, but it would still be a good idea to pack a suitcase with a few possessions." Just to be safe. With rumors that Serbian soldiers were breaking into people's homes and opening fire, men of fighting age began fleeing into the woods to escape or to join the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
"My father decided to take us children to our uncle's house in Pristina where we'd he safer," she says, "but my 16-year-old sister refused to leave our mother. My oldest brother said he needed to stay home, too, to tend our cows." So only Kimete and her 18-year-old brother, Mirsod, made the 20-mile trip. "Once we got there, my father turned around quickly to return to the rest of the family. I didn't even get to say good-bye." That was two months ago.
When Kimete tried to call her parents back in Lipjan, she discovered the phone lines had been cut and the road closed. Then one day, "when we were drinking our tea in my grandmother's special cups," she tells me, "the shooting drew closer than ever. We could hear the soldiers pounding on the door of the next house, singing all the while. My uncle told me to grab my suitcase and run out the back door, over the fence." They had no way to inform Kimete's parents.
Kimete, her brother, her two uncles, their wives and children, and her grandmother made their way by bus to the border at Blace, where they slept outdoors for a few nights in the rain. "We had one blanket," she says, more by way of explanation than complaint. "We were wet all the time." Another bus brought them here. They were given a couple of tents, side by side, to house their 13 family members. They've been here for a month now.
As we talk, Kimete leads me through the camp. Khaki army-issue tents stretch in long rows, broken up by the occasional line of portable toilets, easily located by the smell. Their plastic walls, stapled to plywood frames, flap in the breeze, often with a row of Macedonian soldiers stationed on the ridge directly above, easily able to catch a glimpse of the women squatting inside. I watch as a young woman heads over to a lean-to to wash herself. When someone points out to her the three soldiers standing above, all she can do is shrug.
There are not many other landmarks to note: the tent where a volunteer teaches school for an hour every day, and the spot where Kimete goes, almost daily, to study the faces of the new arrivals, hoping to spot her parents or her sister and brother. Though nobody has heard from them in weeks, Kimete remains certain that they'll make their way out of Kosovo and find her here. When she speaks ahout her parents, she says, "when they come" -- never "if." Given the endless stream of refugees fleeing Kosovo and the ensuing chaos, no one can estimate the number of children like Kimete who've been separated from their parents -- and who, in all likelihood, will never see them again.
Kimete brings me back to her tent and introduces me to the members of her family, who are sitting inside on foam pads covered with blankets. Sitting on their one piece of furniture -- a plastic chair -- is Kimete's 76-year-old grandmother, Faharia, who, like many of the older refugees, is dressed in traditional Muslim garb. (The rest of the refugees here wear the kind of clothes you'd find in a Goodwill store -- a Leonardo DiCaprio T-shirt, a pullover from the Boca Raton tennis club, a T-shirt advertising Camel cigarettes. Someone must have donated several hundred shirts bearing the words "Free Kuwait." They are everywhere.) Although it's hard for Faharia to get around, she rises from her chair when her granddaughter introduces me to her. "If we were at my home, I would serve you tea," she says. Instead, she takes out a Mars candy bar from a little bag tucked under her blanket and presents it to me. "I wish it was more," she says, with a regretful smile.
With her husband, now dead for over ten years, Faharia raised six children. Only two are with her in the camp. She has no idea where the others are. "Do you think they're alive?" she asks me.
The older of the two sons here is Shefqet, a quiet, thoughtful-looking man in his late thirties. He and his wife, Fexhrie, have no children. Then there is Agim, a younger brother, and his wife, Vahide, and their seven-year-old son, Artan. Before the war began, Vahide was on regular dialysis for severe kidney problems, but it's been months since she has has seen a doctor and she is not doing well. Artan sits in her lap as she talks, playing with an empty can that once held a ration of processed meat.
Also here is Kimete's aunt, Hasmir, with her four children, 16-year-old Mirsima, 14-year-old Toto, 12-year-old Ipatete, and four-year-old Endrete. Hasmir's husband, like Kimete's parents, is missing. "My husband is in the woods," she tells me. "It's very dangerous there. They have no food or supplies. It's hard to eat, knowing he has nothing."
The last member of the family to whom Kimete introduces me is her tall, sweet-faced brother Mirsod. Watching the tender way he takes his grandmother's arm and helps her into her chair, bringing her water, I think about the angry, alienated teenagers whose violent acts occupied the news just as I was leaving the United States. I could try to tell Mirsod about what happened in Littleton, Colorado, but the idea of shooting your friends and teachers would be unimaginable to this solemn young man, who has risen from his spot on the mat to offer me his jacket to sit on.
I ask Kimete's family if they'd mind telling me what life was like in Kosovo. One by one, they begin to share their stories. "The Albanians and the Serbs have a long history of trouble," says Agim, who worked as a mechanic back home. "We wanted to live in peace, but it was also important to us that we should be able to speak our language and teach our children our history. Our children need to understand who they are."
He realizes, he says, that his home has surely been destroyed, along with everything he and his wife ever owned. All the money they have are the few bills he has tucked into a hiding place cut into his shoe. "We will have to start all over again," he says. "Still, we must go back to Kosovo."
As the family members recount their story, they speak with a surprising absence of self-pity or bitterness. But when Kimete takes out her little booklet of family photographs and begins to show me the handful of pictures -- their old house, a family wedding -- the eyes of every member of the family fill with tears, and the tent becomes very quiet.
"I'm so sorry," I murmur. What can I say?
Hasmir shrugs. "We go on," she says. "What choice do we have?"
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