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Memories of Kosovo

As part of our series on Kosovo's future, we asked BBC News website readers for their memories of life there before and after the 1999 war. Here we publish some of their accounts.

VLADO, SERBIA

I did not grow up in Kosovo but I travelled a lot and had many friends who lived in Pristina, Pec, Djakovica and other cities. Driving through Kosovo it was scary during the night because of kidnapping or the great chance of being killed.

I also remember while I was in Pec (Peje) I met an Albanian girl who was beautiful and I wanted to make a relationship with her and she liked me a lot. However, she told me that her family would kill her and me if we continued to see each other, she went home crying and I never saw her again. She married somebody that her family wanted even though she did not like him but that is family tradition and rule. I was very sad and soon after that problems arose in Kosovo and I stopped visiting friends and they moved to Serbia to save their lives. Those are my memories from Kosovo and I think Kosovo is beautiful especially the area that we call Metohija. On the one side mountains and on the other clear rivers and a nice landscape.

NICHOLAS FROST, ST AGNES, CORNWALL

I was working for the UN in the year 2000 when the pain of the conflict was still raw. I remember the clothes of the dead being laid out in a large garage so that they could be documented and help identify victims often with relatives visiting. Autopsies of young children were especially harrowing, the whole atmosphere became very sombre for days. Orthodox churches had to be guarded by Nato or else they would have been destroyed.

MIRO DZELETOVIC, ORIGINALLY FROM KOSOVO, NOW IN TORONTO, CANADA

I was born in Pristina and lived in Kosovo Polje and Pristina until age 13. Like many other Serbs at the time, my family decided to move in 1981 after violent demonstrations organized by Albanian separatists in what was then Yugoslavia. These were the times of the Brotherhood & Unity officially declared by Tito and his policy-makers.

I remember watching from my building situated in Pristina's centre scores of mobs throwing rocks and bottles at downtown stores & buildings and vandalizing them. Riot police intervened using shields, water guns and tear gas. Many of the police special units were from all over ex-Yugo: Slovenia, Dalmatia, Macedonia and Serbia.

I ever since wonder why the Albanians hated us so much. Maybe because Serbs were Christians and they were predominantly Muslim? Or maybe because they had explosive birth rates which made them the majority in Kosovo and that gave them the right to expel us?

DUGGI NIKAJ, NEW YORK, USA

I am Albanian and grew up in Kosovo. I was born in 1978 and by the time I attended elementary school, everything was changing so fast that it was hard to understand what was really going on in the country.

I really hope that my teacher Ratko has survived as well and is doing well somewhere in this world

By 4th or 5th grade, we started learning Serbian. It was such a pleasant class because our teacher Ratko was Serbian or Montenegrin and the only teacher that did not beat us for not doing the homework, and his teaching was so different from the Albanian teachers. I remember how teacher Radko used to say that "you Albanians are going backward not forward" but we really didn't know what that meant, so he used to walk backward and then forward in class to explain it.

I remember how we used to practice Serbian by asking "What's your aunt's name?" and we really didn't want to answer that because other kids would laugh if they knew your aunt's name and would make jokes with your aunt's name so we always used to say "nemam tetko" - "I have no aunt".

Then by 6th grade we stopped learning Serbian. I remember going back home and asking my parents why teacher Radko is not coming to our class anymore but I never got an answer. I finished elementary school in my school, but when I went to high school, we had to go to an evening private school, because our real high school in Gjakova had Serbian refugees from other parts of Yugoslavia.

I did not learn anything during high school, because my class was overcrowded and it was late in the evening. I also was scared that Serbian police would show up anytime and beat us up in school. But what hurts me the most even today is that we didn't have an Albanian TV station. The TV stations were all in Serbian language so it was so hard to understand what was going on, because i wasn't able to understand Serbian.

Looking back, I don't think it was a healthy childhood at all for me, but I think since I survived, I should never look back. I really hope that my teacher Ratko has survived as well and is doing well somewhere in this world...

I just wish I could meet him one day and enjoy a good conversation with him.

SRECKO, ORIGINALLY FROM KOSOVO, NOW IN USA

I am a Serb and was born and raised in Kosovo and in that Godforsaken place every decade brings another power and another regime. I see many comments here which outline the suffering of the Albanian population in the Milosevic years and I am not surprised one little bit. Moreover I am sure that it is all true.

For all of those who feel so bad for the Albanians, cry me a river, we all have lost

On the other hand, as I said I was born and lived in Kosovo until 1990, when I got a chance to leave and go to the US. I also had 14 other members of immediate family living in different towns in Kosovo until July of 1999 when they all became homeless and dependent on me. So for all of those who feel so bad for the Albanians, cry me a river, we all have lost.

Also what Milosevic and his regime tried to do for the Serbian people during their time could not be more wrong. I mean you do not just dispose of people as they thought they could do. You do not fire people en masse, you do not take their housing rights, you do not ignore 2 million people as if they did not exist, and most of all you do not run them away from their homes and their property.

On the other hand what that regime did was not new to Kosovo at all, it had all been done before by the Albanian side. Not as drastically and not in such a short time but it was all done between 1974 and 1988. And let me tell you, it was not easy to be anything but Albanian during those years in Kosovo.

I was born in 1969 and believe me I know. There were plenty of raped young non-Albanian women, we mostly heard about the ones that were Serbian but I am sure there were others. There were also plenty of properties the owners of which were forced to sell and move out of Kosovo.

Having said all of this I can say the place is cursed and will never be peaceful. Any one who gets a chance to leave it regardless of their nationality should do so for their own good. Good luck to all of those who live in Kosovo and if I have offended anyone I apologize in advance because that is not my intention.

LAZAR MANSVETOVIC, BRISTOL, UK

It pains me to read these accounts of Kosovo. I am a Serb, albeit from the diaspora, and have to say there were obvious mistakes made by the Yugoslav authorities in the eighties and then by the Milosevic regime in the nineties. My Montenegrin uncle who grew up in a village near Pec summarised growing up there like "The Wild West", recalling constant fights between Serb/Montenegrin and Albanian kids, harassment of the former and so on and so on. Ultimately Serbs and Albanians must live together, whether there is independence for Kosovo or not, we will still all be neighbours. The comments I have read today give me some hope at least that we can live together, as long as those in power share the same views.

MENTOR KRASNIQI, NEW YORK, USA

I grew up in Pristina and my best friend was Vesko - a Serb. He taught me Serbian Cyrillic writing, I was interested in learning. He was never interested in learning Albanian. So we always spoke Serbian, even when there were ten Albanian children, and he was the only Serb, we all spoke Serbian! It was for respect, not for anything else. We had a great time.

Fast-forward 12 years, in the middle of the Yugoslav crises in late 1990s, Milosevic's apartheid regime, police raids and demonstrations, I was walking in the street, when suddenly two dangerous-looking Serbian policeman stopped me to check my ID. One of them was my best friend Vesko! I almost collapsed right there and right then. I just could not believe that he had agreed to be part of the brutal Milosevic machinery. I never saw him again. I wonder what happened to him.

Today, no-one speaks Serbian, only English. I am glad though Serbian is very beautiful language. On the other hand Serbs never learned Albanian. This is why they lost everything, they always thought of themselves as better than everyone else, especially better than Albanians.

MAJA W KRAUZE, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

I did not grow up in Kosovo. I remember a morning in 1974 (at the age of 13) when I walked down the main street of the Kosovan town of Peje, with two friends of similar age. Some local boys, our age, shouted abuse, all lost on us since the abuse was in Albanian, a language I could not speak. We tried not to react. That seemed to provoke them a bit further. The bravest of the three came closer to us and spat at me. A lot of water will have to pass under the bridge until the deep-rooted distrust between the Balkan peoples vanishes.

JESSE MUSLIU, ORIGINALLY FROM KOSOVO, NOW IN ANCHORAGE, ALASKA

"Speak a language that God can understand," I was often told by Serbs during my high-school years in Ferizaj in late sixties and early seventies.

My dad could not understand why these decent people that he had known for so long and respected and loved were on this path of destruction eroding the few human bridges that were still left standing

They were a wonderful time to be young in Kosovo. Tito's Government was finally allowing and even encouraging Albanian Kosovans to be part of the promising future in multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. And we took that green light in droves. Schools were full of children and the University of Pristina were I went to study was among fastest-growing universities in the region.

Our country, we felt, was heading in the right direction toward prosperity and we wanted to be part of it. One thing was always obvious: even though Serbs were less than one tenth of population they refused and ignored anything that had to do with Albanian language and culture. In the famous Pristina Corso they walked on the other side.

They always seems to feel superior towards us in the way whites felt towards blacks in South Africa during Apartheid.

If you dated a Serbian you were expected to speak Serbian and almost never expected her parents to know. I remember once, a mayor's daughter falling in love head over heels with an Albanian musician. Unable to break it up, the Serbian mayor took her out of school and send her to Belgrade to live with relatives.

Once visiting Belgrade, a girl, a bank teller that I spoke to for a while, asked me to take her out. I was so excited. Upon seeing my ID, I could not miss the disappointment in her face. She took her offer back. As I set on a park bench on a beautiful spring day in Belgrade, a retired teacher who overheard me speak Albanian to a friend, came and asked me if it was true that Serbian kids can learn Albanian as part of the curriculum in Kosovo schools. Upon learning that you could, he walked away shaking his head in disgust.

My father who fought Germans as a young partisan had many Serbian friends. Our families helped each other through thick and thin. That all changed when Milosevic started to radicalise Serbia. All of a sudden my father's friends were organizing huge anti-Albanian rallies in Kosovo towns that were 90% Albanian.

I remember my now deceased father, watching his Serbian friends on TV in disbelief as they spoke words of hatred. My dad could not understand why these decent people that he had known for so long and respected and loved were on this path of destruction eroding the few human bridges that were still left standing.

As he lay in his bed, sick, I saw him crying one night after he watched the news. After that, we kept the TV off.

SHKELQIM, PRISTINA, KOSOVO

In 1989 I remember I was nine years old. Serbian tanks were making their way into Kosovo through the main street of Pristina. I remember my father and mother being kicked out of work (and my cousins). I remember my father's apartment being taken away because he was kicked out of his job because he was Albanian. I remember being chased from my school by Serbian cops and my teachers being beat up every day. I remember massacres on TV. I remember refugees coming to our grandfather's house asking us for a place to stay because Serbs had burned their houses. I remember what my grandfather told me once: "A Serb is always going to be a Serb - never trust one." I try to forget but memories keep bringing that quote back. All these memories that some people think can go away just like in Men In Black, by flashing a device. I cannot forget the pain that Serbs have caused in Kosovo. and if you asked me, I wish I had better memories but It wasn't my choice.

NENAD, CHICAGO, USA

I never hated Albanians, and I'm sure I can claim that for a lot of people that I know. We used to love going to the Albanian candy stores and eating baklava. But Albanians were and still are very closed people. Their homes used to have these high fences, it almost makes you feel that you are passing by a prison. They never liked Serbs, and always wanted Kosovo to become part of Albania. The problem with the Western world is that they don't really know what was happening in Kosovo before 1999. I am not trying to justify Serbian Army and Police, because these atrocities deserve to be punished. But the same should be true for the Kosovo Albanians.

FEMI NGA, MITROVICA/LONDON

It was really proud to tell others in Kosovo at that time that you were from Mitrovica. This was the industrial city of Kosovo with many factories and mining. It had a life of mixed ethnicity like no other city in Kosovo.

Thousands of workers would finish at 5 pm and later the students finishing the lectures would fill the city shops, cafes, and clubs.

From 5-8pm the city would be so overcrowded with people. Often you would meet parents while you were with friends - it was the right time to ask for extra money, without having to explain in detail why you need it.

The Edi-Club just across the bridge on the northern side was the place were most of us would spend the time and money that we had, playing computer games, snooker, and table-football. Edi-Club belonged to an Albanian (to my knowledge) and was always full.

To me and my friends it never mattered whether you were a Serb or Albanian. The aim was to win whoever you challenged.

Milosevic's apartheid came and effectively ended the dynamism and pulsating time of the city. Hardship followed. My family was not alone. Thousands of Albanians lost their jobs. People with money were those who had a close relative working in the West.

In 1991, I received the letter to join the Yugoslav Army. Of course this was not an option for me. I would not go and join an army that was involved in fighting other ex-Yugoslav states (Croatia, Bosnia). No Albanian would. The Serb regime knew that all to well but they also knew that once you receive the letter we had to leave the country.

Just like many of my friends, I too decided I could not go on in hiding forever. In 1992, at only 18, I left Kosovo and sought refuge in Germany. I did not complete high school, had no general knowledge, no real education, no skills. Really I had nothing but my simple soul and body to do jobs that no German would. After a year, I finally decided to join a good friend in London.

London suits me better, but increasingly I am realising that Mitrovica is the city where I want to grow old. When I visit now, everybody there seems so friendly. It saddens me enormously today the city is so quiet and so divided. Not much movement, no dynamism. I often sit in a cafe close to the bridge and wonder what happened to that entire pulsating city that I used to remember. I wonder how boring life must be in the North without the noisy Albanians.

CHRISTOPHER SIMMERSBACH ('THE DURGAS'), LOS ANGELES, USA

In 2003, the UN invited our band called A Drastic Measure - we have since changed the name to The Durgas - to play a series of concerts in Mitrovica, as an attempt to reconcile Albanian and Serb Kosovo.

The first series of concerts were staged at the main Auditorium on the "Albanian side" of the river, right adjacent to the infamous bridge. The UN set up a "protective corridor" that enabled the Serb Kosovans to come over the bridge securely and enter through a different entrance into the main hall. Once in the hall, both ethnicities met up.

As soon as the performances started, we witnessed old neighbours and friends, having been separated only due to their ethnicity, meet for the first time since the war

Naturally the tensions were high at first, but as soon as the performances started, we witnessed old neighbours and friends, having been separated only due to their ethnicity, meet for the first time since the war. It was truly amazing!

The second series of concerts were a few month later, only this time the UN organised the concerts without the theatre group, and added two Finnish bands, instead. They set up a stage right on the bridge of Mitrovica, itself, with the Albanian Kosovans arriving to the concerts from one side and the Serb Kosovans from the other.

As soon as the concerts started, both sides met up and again the same positive feelings rippled through the crowds. After the end of all concerts, we were told by UN workers that it was the first time they had witnessed such immediate positive results, although they emphasised that they had been quite unsure of what the outcome would be like, initially.

To see so many Albanian Kosovans and Serbian Kosovans dance and laugh together had been "amazing" and a "first" for such a big group of people (1,500-2,000).

During both our weekly stays in Mitrovica, we also played at the Black Lady, a music bar situated on the Serbian side, and frequented only by Serb Kosovan and military personnel stationed in Kosovo as part of Nato's K-For peacekeeping force. Although we tried hard to encourage Albanian Kosovans to join us, only one dared to do so, the others feeling that the risk of a confrontation was too high.

Naturally, we will always remember this experience, and the courageous people we met. The general feeling was a strong desire for peace and as soon as possible!


DAN, ORIGINALLY FROM KOSOVO, NOW LIVING IN VANCOUVER, CANADA

Multi-ethnic harmony might have once been the case in Bosnia, but in Kosovo that was never the case. Albanians never attempted to create a multi-ethnic society based on tolerance of others. For example, they were few inter-ethnic marriages. Albanian girl dating Serb? Never.

It is amazing how much they are immersed in their own affairs, excluding other ethnic groups, and unable to empathize with others' experience. I found them exhibiting interpersonal rigidity, insisting that their opinions and values are "right", and they tend to be easily offended and would take things personally.

In interaction they often blame Serbs and would feel rejected, humiliated and threatened when criticized. They would often react with disdain, rage, and/or defiance to any slight, real or imagined threat.

NASERI, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

I grew up under Tito's regime, as an Albanian in Yugoslavia. I was told I was a Yugoslav and that is what I accepted. As a child I pledged allegiance to Tito and the state and was a model Yugoslav embracing "brotherhood and unity" which my teachers all preached, at least superficially. Though, at the slightest provocation, ethnic tension rose to the top.

There was never peace, we fought each other like wild dogs, every chance we got

I remember locking myself in a classroom clutching a sharp umbrella as a weapon after a mob of Serbian kids chased me through the school yard. As soon I had the upper hand, I did the same to them.

There was never peace, we fought each other like wild dogs, every chance we got. By the end of the 1980s the hatred was overspilling all over the place. There can never be a happy coexistence between Serbs and Albanians. At least never in our lifetime.

URAN, LONDON, UK

I have had very happy memories growing up in Kosovo. It was an innocent society and a very healthy one to grow up in. However not all was hunky-dory. I now look back at my secondary school years and get very frustrated. Not because I had a bad time at school, but because I don't remember learning anything during those years.

We were a disorientated generation, who was not allowed to attend lessons at school. Instead the teaching was done in overcrowded private houses and basements, while a handful of Serbs attended the "empty" school. You can only imagine what kind of teaching took place in these overcrowded private houses and basements.

Another thing that has stuck with me is how we would go on a night out to listen to live music, talk about music and art or whatever and dream our little dreams, when suddenly a handful of Serbian police would burst in and raid the place, multiplying all our dreams with zero. They'd slap a few people around and ask everyone for ID. Most of the people lived a few metres away from the club yet they needed to be identified by a policeman from Serbia.

I was caught up in the war in 1998 when two of my friends died, while I was lucky enough to survive and flee to Albania.

I now live in London. The most important thing I have seen happening is the world "becoming smaller" in many aspects and with Kosovans and Serbs, I think that there is no reason to hate or fight each other anymore. Civilised people compete with each other, they don't clash.

BLERINA, PRISTINA, KOSOVO

I remember when we went to clean the schoolyard once, a couple of hours later police turned up in the class. We were 10, a 10-year-old Serb had claimed that another 10-year-old Albanian (who was in my class) had attacked him with an axe. The Albanian kid was really a troublemaker, and this is why he was chosen as the scapegoat. However, the Serb kid and his teacher were unaware of the fact that the mother of the Albanian boy was a Serb, which helped him and his family - the police released him in 5 minutes.

I remember then my father being taken by the Yugoslav Army at 0300 in 1981. Most important, I remember when I was a 1st year student, the army and police came and arrested many professors and threw us out of the university. We were not even allowed to go near the university building later. I remember my sister and my brother going to primary school in winter. It was cold, there was no heating. But in the Serbian classrooms next door there was plenty of heating.

MARINA CVIJOVIC, GOTHENBURG, SWEDEN

I remember the trips to Greece with my family in the mid-1980s. We would always plan it so as to drive through Kosovo daytime because the attacks on vehicles and kidnapping of travellers from other parts of Serbia were a normality even then. I think we, the Serbs, need to start dressing as giraffes to avoid being killed in Kosovo. That has been our faith since long before 1999. If this is progressive thinking in Kosovo, I thank God for airplanes.

VAL, WASHINGTON DC, USA

I am an Albanian woman born in Pristina in 1981. Many of those who were born before the 1980s might still have memories of living together with the Serbs but my generation was never given the chance to create such bonds with the Serbs, because by the time we grew up and became socially and politically aware, the inter-ethnic divide was already running too deep and Albanian-Serb relations were exacerbated.

There weren't many avenues to establish relationships, especially because we attended different schooling systems (as an Albanian I attended an underground schooling system when the existing schools were closed to Albanians by Milosevic in the 1990s).

Nevertheless, there were times when we made efforts, as children, to cross the ethnic boundaries established at that time. When I was growing up, I had a Serb neighbour with whom we shared a similar taste in music; we came to know this by reading each other's backpacks which contained printed names of different rock bands. We became friends through music and we used to share albums of U2 and learn the lyrics together. But all this ended in the late 1990s.

ILLYRIA, PRISTINA, KOSOVO

I grew up in Pristina and had Serb friends, we used to play football and basketball together. Now it sounds politically incorrect but I used to cheer for Partizan Belgrade football club (a Kosovan striker played for them too) as well as Yugoslavia when they played international fixtures. But Belgrade authorities ruined it all by taking away Kosovan autonomy, throwing our parents out of their jobs, and just in general kicking off this massive anti-Albanian campaign.

DRITON, MITROVICA, KOSOVO

Yes, I grew up in Mitrovica, Kosovo. I had two Serbian friends when I was about 10 years old, Sasha and Lubo. We would hang out all day long, and play soccer. We actually did really many "crazy" things as children - I remember once we trespassed on a neighbour's property, we took his dog and we played with it for like four hours and then brought it back without its master ever understanding it.

As a ten-year old I had to see dead bodies on the streets, see men cry, see houses burning

It all changed when the war began. Both, my father and brother (9 years older than me) were beaten on the main bridge in Mitrovica by six Serbian policemen. Several months after that we were driven out of our homes and were forced to go to the nearest mountains to escape from Serbian soldiers and police - we spent eight days there with very little food and water.

A few weeks later, my uncle and a neighbour, who refused to flee their homes, were beaten to death when Serbian police found them. A few months later when I came back to my home, everything was burnt to the ground - the entire neighbourhood, therefore we had to live in tents for several months - everything was destroyed, people suffering the consequences of the war, no money, no jobs, it was a complete chaos. I did not live my childhood normally. As a 10-year old I had to see dead bodies on the streets, see men cry, see houses burning. So yes, the trauma has definitely changed me forever - I don't think I could ever befriend some Serbian again.

BESNIK KAJTAZI, COLCHESTER, UK

I was born and grew up in Pristina. Many foreigners who visit Pristina for work or business do not have the best opinion about the city, however, Pristina is a brilliant place to grow up in and I dearly miss it.

As far as life with other communities goes, there was not much interaction between different ethnic groups even before the Serbian oppression. Albanian and Serbian languages are so different that most Albanians preferred to go to an Albanian-owned bar or club and Serbs to a Serbian-owned bar or club. In this sense, for a Serb to go out with Albanians, or vice versa, was an exception, not the norm.

I do hope that inter-ethnic relations in Kosovo will improve, nonetheless, the different communities in Kosovo never lived (as in, there were very few inter-ethnic marriages) together, but rather tolerated and respected each other. But, as most Albanians, I am very optimistic about the future and want to see a small, yet powerful state in the heart of the Balkans - the va-va-vroom republic, as I like to call it.

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