March 24, 1999 — The U.S.-led NATO troops begin the 78-day aerial campaign against Serbia and the so-called Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to stop the genocide in Kosova (Kosovo). I remember the evening of 15 years ago when Western jets hit the first enemy targets in the Alliance’s first humanitarian campaign.
It was an unconventional night by any standards. We didn’t hide underground, for we didn’t fear the bombs from above. Our horror came from the drunken policemen (yes, they were all men), soldiers, and ex-convicts turned paramilitaries who patrolled right in front of our house. An intersection on top of the hill, this would be a favorite position for any armed force that wished to control the town.
My immediate family moved from the first floor to the second. My Grandpa and uncle lived on the upper floor, where we were soon joined by neighbors, friends, and relatives who thought our house was a safer place for them to stay. Each story was in essence an apartment on its own and had a separate entrance, and the backyard entrance into the second floor gave us an emergency exit away from the eyes of the patrolling forces.
The house was big, but it soon became overcrowded. Our wealthy neighbors came to stay with us, for they knew that a Serb gang would soon be marauding their abode. Among the many visitors, a cousin from another town had also moved in with us as of a week before the bombings. (He was finishing up school for engineering back then, and he taught me how to do math with fractions. Of course, there was no more studying once the bombings started.)
But of all the people who gathered at our house, the one who was surely “fair game” for the Serbian forces had come from a whole other continent. Sometime before the NATO campaign started, most U.S. citizens flew out of “FRY”. Ambassador William Walker, who had exposed many of the atrocities of the Serbian forces against the Albanian population, also withdrew along with his OSCE monitoring team. But our American friend, Leeann, was too nonconformist to leave.
She was one of the foreign reporters that my cousin, also a journalist, had invited to stay at our house during those troubled weeks leading to the bombings. Leeann remained with us for longer, and she was great company as well as a source of amazement in many ways. She took a cold shower after the water boiler went down, said things that were twisted in translation, and even alerted us to the first strikes just minutes before we heard the first explosion. In anticipation of the bombings, the Serbian authorities cut off electricity. Leeann, however, had a satellite device that put her on notice of what was to come.
That sure was a dangerous thing to possess. Maybe much more dangerous than illegal narcotics at the time. The satellite device, my Grandpa’s once-licensed handgun, and two military helmets that a Danish reporter had left in one of the bedrooms were enough to get anyone executed on the spot.
As if to add to the drama, I, too, developed a weird habit: meandering in excitement from one room to another, I rapped my bare heels against the hardwood floor, just as everyone else had fallen into a long hour of silence. Needless to say, the adults didn’t like my way of “celebrating,” and I was verbally scolded many times—just like Serbia had been prior to the first bombings. And then someone tucked me in bed, against my wishes.
The grownups gathered around the window overlooking the front yard. Our house being on a hilltop, one could see as far as the military installments on the faraway fields, where we thought the NATO bombs would land soon. And they didn’t take long. While everyone kept silent, someone would whisper the occasional question of whether the sound or the light of the explosion should arrive first. Someone said that what we were experiencing defied the laws of physics.
As the strikes intensified though, the adults became more relaxed. One of the braver ones didn’t hesitate to get outside on the balcony facing the backyard. Someone from our group had seen our next door neighbor, who was a Serb. He was a good neighbor to us, and once he offered to take the bullet when soldiers held my cousin and math tutor at gun point. But the trust was not there. For weeks, we had seen Serbian troops bring in weapons and ammunition into his house. At first, they did so secretly, and later in the open.
Quite pathetically, our guy shouted, “We’re scared.” We weren’t. For the first time since the war had started over a year ago, we began to feel safer. The sound of the explosions was as reassuring to us as the purring of mama cat is to newborn kittens.
But we were still surrounded by fierce predators on the ground. A week after the bombing campaign began, paramilitaries entered our house and ordered everyone to leave. They let my Grandpa stay behind. The fifty-mile journey to the border took us a full seven days. We were deported from our country as were about one million people from all of Kosova. That was half of the population then. Of those who remained, the majority were internally displaced.
This was our exodus in the spring of 1999—the spring of the triple nine. That our people began to return less than three months later was indeed a miracle. The enemy’s old plan to cleanse ancient Dardania of its indigenous Albanian people came to an end thanks to the Allies’ humanitarian campaign.
Photo: Carol Guzy, “Fleeing Kosovo” (1999), 2000 Pulitzer Price.
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