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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Peja was different. It was a ghost town. Eighty thousand ethnic Albanians had lived here before the war; now, we soon discovered, only 83 families remained.

"Fuck NATO. This place is mine," read spray-painted Cyrillic graffiti on a concrete wall. Visar's house was a three-story white stucco building that had been torched by the Serbs in late March, three days after he had escaped to Montenegro, and his parents had fled to Albania. We stepped over the rubble of burned bricks, roofing tiles, and half-melted shards of glass. Water from a broken pipe trickled through the ceiling and puddled onto the ground. The acrid smell of charred wood was overpowering. We climbed a shaky spiral staircase to Visar's third-floor bedroom, where he surveyed the wreckage and began to weep quietly.

Up and down the street, people emerged from their ruined homes. A handful walked tentatively toward us, around downed power lines, and told us to stay away from a white Renault parked nearby. It was booby-trapped, they said. They were pale and seemed wary and bewildered. For two and a half months they had been surrounded by the Serbs. A paramilitary force manned by a cruel commander named Frenkie had prowled the neighborhood, and Serb snipers had occupied the roof of a white mansion on the corner. Many people were venturing outside for the first time since March, and they hadn't known which of their neighbors were alive until they saw them in the street just now.

"Visar!" a pale, goateed young man shouted, rushing to embrace him.

"My God! Ram!" Visar cried, hugging him close. "Everyone said you were dead."

"I felt like I was dead," Ram said, tears running down his cheeks. He had been on a Serb death list and had been in hiding for 80 days, living in basements, moving about only at night.

Visar spotted a mustachioed man with a large belly. "Isa!" he exclaimed, rushing over to greet him. "You're alive too!"

"I am alive, but three of my children are dead," Isar replied.


"Three nights ago, the Serbs came to my home. 'Is everyone here?' they asked. Then they opened fire. I jumped out the window with my youngest son. The rest were killed. I took the brain of my 12-year-old daughter off the floor."

Visar shook his head, distraught, and wandered back to the car.

The road back to prizren was lined with gutted factories and Serb outposts that had been bombed by NATO. Kosovo had once been more affluent and sophisticated than neighboring Albania, with automobile and electronics plants, universities, and a thriving middle class, but the Serbs had destroyed nearly everything.

Now Kosovo was truly in solidarity with Albania: It was mono-ethnic, brutalized, pauperized, spiritually shattered. And no one—not the Kosovars climbing out of their basements, nor the refugees pouring back in tractors from Kukes, nor the KLA—knew where they were heading.

The guerrillas had taken over the abandoned cultural center in Djakovica, and we stopped there on the way back to Prizren to talk to the zone commander. Outside his office, on the second floor, I fell into conversation with a man named Nexhot, a former interpreter for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He had survived the war by hiding for weeks behind KLA lines in the mountains, and he was thankful to be alive, he said, but apprehensive about the future.

"We don't know who we are," he said, offering me a Monte Carlo cigarette. "We're not Albania. We're not Serbia. For the time being, we're just NATO."

Just beyond Djakovica lay Bela Crkva, the site of the massacre described to me by Yusuf Zhuniqi in Kukes. A farmer who had survived the Serb onslaught by hiding in a nearby hamlet led Visar and me along the Bellaj stream to the railroad bridge where Zhuniqi said the 50 men and boys had been killed. The path was overgrown with weeds and grass and wildflowers; on either side of the stream, fields of corn tinted with a haze of lavender blossoms extended to distant mountains. After a 30-minute hike we reached the bridge, which uncannily looked just the way Zhuniqi had described it and almost exactly as I'd imagined it. Across the stream was the mass grave, marked by a large mound of upturned earth upon which lay pieces of a broken spade and three blood-stained children's parkas. A faint smell of decomposing bodies hovered in the air.

Joshua Hammer is a longtime correspondent for Newsweek and a frequent contributor to Outside


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