A refugee tale: Memoirs of a European refugee

Eki Rrahmani fled Kosovo in an oil tanker, but what will become of this century’s refugees, he asks.

Magazine - Please do not use - A refugee tale
Kosovar Albanians flee Pristina in 1999 [Afrim Hajrullahu]

As the Ottoman Empire dissolved and the First and Second World Wars came to an end, Kosovo was swallowed up and turned into a province of Marshall Tito’s Yugoslavia. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, to be precise, at your service, since 1963. In Marxist terms, it was a rather marvellous idea. In Groucho Marx terms, well, it was more like: I refuse to join any club that wants me as a member.

Although a communist autocracy, Yugoslavia was the most ‘liberal’ in the Eastern Bloc. Its subjects weren’t really supposed to comprehend the word ‘dictator’, and its iron-fisted ruler, Comrade Tito, was the darling of the sanctimonious West. Communism Lite was at play here and even Sophia Loren and Richard Burton were happy to grace its shores, bedazzled by the shimmering blue of the Adriatic and the affluence and generosity of their host.

A decade later, in 1973, just after The Dark Side of the Moon was released and George Foreman beat Joe Frazier to become the world heavyweight boxing champion, Kosovo had slightly more modest ambitions. It was destined to be my birthplace. Yet another ethnic Albanian child who would do little to imbalance the Slavic push that gathered on the margins of Kosovo and boxed us in, while wanting to squeeze us out.

Then, in 1979, I became a ‘Tito’s Pioneer’, as we were called after pledging our allegiance to Marshall Tito in primary school. That was also the year in which Tito made his last ever visit to Pristina, my beloved hometown.

We wore red Tito’s Pioneers scarves across our shoulders and our best smiles on our faces that day, as we duly lined the roads to welcome our Supreme Leader.

Tito waved from his Mercedes-Benz 600 with a smugness he was neither able nor willing to conceal. The joy of the common people was tangible and the entire affair so spectacular that it must have turned Kim Il-sung and Leonid Brezhnev avocado-green with envy.

The place where I grew up seemed, at least on the surface, harmonious and serene. But there were those among us who were aware that the whole thing was simmering inside.

The first eruption came in April 1981. In my hometown.

Tito had finally proven that he was not immortal, and less than a year after his death, Kosovar Albanian students took to the streets, fists in the air, demanding no more and no less than equal rights to those of the other nations that had created the Federation of Yugoslavia. Our people were essentially demanding that Kosovo become a republic.

But history would show this to be a perilous and almost impossible mission to bring to fulfilment. 

Childhood cut short

Our house was on the north-eastern hills overlooking the entire city of Pristina.

My younger brother and I took turns at watching the Yugoslav Special Forces dispense brutality all over the place. The tear gas almost came through our old set of binoculars as we witnessed Albanian students bludgeoned on every corner of our capital. I’m still not convinced that our tears were induced by that remote tear gas, but who knows? In any case, it left an indelible mark on my brother and me.

Long after the protests had finished, my brother remained scared of the Special Forces. Every time he saw them, the hair on his arms stood up stiff like a regimental salutation. When they appeared on the news, he would run behind the sofa and hide, staying stock-still until someone changed the channel. I wanted to name him ‘hedgehog’ but thought it a bit too cruel. And iniquitous too, considering that my own hairs would come through my shirt as if trying to abandon ship. I didn’t tell anyone about that.

From that day on, politics became a big part of our lives; the six o’clock news an event to stare at with eyes wide open, ears pricked and no sound uttered – a national sport for everybody, regardless of age.

The news told us what we had already known from a different perspective. The demonstrations were crushed. A great number of people had been killed. Hundreds were injured and thousands imprisoned. A foreboding new era had arrived. Nothing would be the same after this. The trust between the Albanian majority and the Serbian minority in Kosovo had vanished overnight, and with every day, the ‘us and them’ chorus grew louder – and nastier.

Milosevic ate my homework

Slobodan Milosevic delivers his speech at the Cultural Centre in 1987 
Slobodan Milosevic delivers his speech at the Cultural Centre in 1987 

April, 1987.

I was at my grandmother’s place, just outside Pristina, riding my brand new Yugoslav-made Pony bike, when I noticed that a crowd had gathered and was moving towards the centre of town, where a cordon of police awaited them.

A local Albanian man stopped me. The Serbs were angry, he said, I had better go home. I cycled past the crowd and to my grandparents’ house. On the way, I passed the Cultural Centre, where people were throwing stones at the police. The policemen raised their batons and plowed into the mass. A tall man came out of the building, followed by a small crowd. “No one will dare beat you ever again,” he told those gathered.

The notebook became clammy in my hands, until Milosevic jumped out of the TV, snatched it and gobbled it whole. It wasn't the only thing he would devour.


A few minutes later he climbed onto the top floor of the Centre in order to make himself heard.

The six o’clock news revealed that the man who had so adeptly climbed a building and delivered a speech before a euphoric crowd was Slobodan Milosevic. It was the first time I had heard of him. But the concern on the faces of the adults who gathered at my granny’s home told me something was wrong. Milosevic’s speech affected them in a way that suggested things would never be the same again. I could almost smell the stench of dark days to come.

That evening, I sat listening to the adults exchange worried thoughts. They were so deep in conversation that none of them noticed that the kids were still awake.

I was supposed to do my homework, but the notebook became clammy in my hands until Milosevic jumped out of the TV, snatched it and gobbled it whole. It wasn’t the only thing he would devour.

The fall of communism 


Events across Europe unfolded. We followed every development, keenly; through television, newspapers and our brothers and sisters who worked abroad and diligently sent remittances, information and words of comfort home.

The fall of the Berlin Wall. The Death of Ceausescu. McDonalds opening in Moscow. Things were happening. The steady collapse of communism throughout Europe inspired us and gave us, the youth, a clear objective. We wanted freedom – freedom to think and to breathe, to be treated as human beings, at least. 

Eastern Europe was moving hurriedly on. But Milosevic was taking us in the opposite direction, revoking the autonomy of Kosovo, dismissing all Albanians from work in public sector posts, banning university and high school education in our native language and preventing us from attending classes in public school buildings. He was gradually establishing apartheid.

He tightened his grip using the Special Forces and the Yugoslav Army. The director-general of RTB (Radio Televizija Beograd) was behind him with all the necessary propaganda. Subsequently, RTB, RTNS (Radio Televizija Novi Sad) and RTP (Radio Televizioni i Prishtinës) were merged into a centralised Serb State Television RTS (Radio Televizija Serbija), which would do wonders for the enlightenment of the Serb people, who were convinced that they were the victims here.

Stones in our hearts

This was not on. It was about time that the Albanian students took to the streets. I was a tall 16-year-old, and instead of watching the students from my balcony, I joined in.

The march started peacefully. I remember walking through the streets of my hometown with firm steps, calling for equality, justice and freedom and thinking to myself: I am a grown up now, and I am demanding what is rightly mine.

But my contentment didn’t last long. The Serbian Special Forces descended. Skirmishes ensued. And we soon found ourselves replying to tear gas with stones. When they began to use live ammunition, we fled. There was more shooting, more tear gas, more howling, more screaming. It was sheer mayhem.

People shouted at me from the distance: “Get away. Leg it, the police are coming. Run.”

I watched them take their lives into their hands, stumbling, running blindly, and jumping into the white mist as if hiding beneath a duvet.

I could just about make out the black wall: a police cordon approaching, unearthly gas masks covering countless faces. They were getting closer and closer .... Then out of the ethereal haze, a little voice. A kid, no older than six. He held out an onion


I vividly remember the moment the tear gas hit me. I couldn’t breathe. My movements were limited to a wobble. The ghosts of death started to whisper in my ear. A final sway slammed me down. I had hot rods in my eyes and my body was stuck in neutral; I was paralysed with fear. Eventually, I turned and looked up. I could just about make out the black wall: a police cordon approaching, unearthly gas masks covering countless faces. They were getting closer and closer, only about 100 metres away now. Fortunately, the world moved in slow motion.

Then out of the ethereal haze, a little voice. Then a shape. A kid, no older than six. He held out an onion.

An onion?

I looked back again. The police were only 50 metres away and were getting closer.

I’m done, I thought to myself. Goodbye cruel world, I’ve had it.

And yet, the kid remained by my side.

Who is this kid with the face of an angel, just standing here, his legs apart like a fearless nobleman in a duel, holding an onion?

Am I hallucinating because of the gas? I wondered.

Then through the screams I heard a voice shouting and getting louder:

“The onion. Take the bloody onion and eat it. Eat it!”

A second felt expandable. I could see the hand of a clock cascading: bang, bang, bang. The police were close now, their stomping feet in time with the seconds. I took the onion and took a bite.

I don’t know who first discovered this, but it works. After a bite or two you can feel the blood rush through your veins. You can breathe. You can move.

And without giving it much thought, out of honour or duty, an instinct that fills you with the conviction that you are right propels you forward and you shout with all your might:

Kosova Republikë!

Kosova Republikë!

Kosova Republikë!

And then you leg it.

You run and run until you reach the brothers and sisters who want the same thing as you, until you reach out and feel the tenacity in their arms and shoulders and neck and sweat and tears, as someone leans with her back on yours and you feel each other’s heavy heartbeat while your eyes scan for danger from all sides, until you feel you are in this together. All of you. Every single one of you. Together as one.

And then you start all over again – throwing stones, screaming away the injustice, blaring with the ache that has settled in your heart like a stone. The burden of lost childhood. You take that stone and clench it in your hand and you raise it and aim.

Police on the ground. Police in the air. Shooting at you from the safety of helicopters.

You see young boys and girls getting shot at, injured left, right and centre, but suddenly fear dissipates. You become immersed in pride, into one purpose, and your resolve grows greater. You’re in the right, you’re fighting for freedom and nothing can stop you. You are untouchable. You are invincible. You stand in front of the police cordons and the Pinzgauer’s like they were flakes of snow, comforted by the coldness of the stone you’re holding in your hand.

As the stone gets warmer and the blood is spilled you let it go. The boy or the girl next to you is lying dead in the street. It could have been you, but it doesn’t matter; in a way it is you. Some part of you. It has left forever but it will never leave your thoughts. Your anguish. Your dreams.

Nine people were killed that day. God knows how many were injured. We carried on with our demonstration until late at night.

The Special Forces laid siege to the area and cornered us in the Kodra e Trimave, the neighbourhood aptly called the Hill of the Brave.

For some, the stones of the cemetery hill had become their bed. Heroes. For an eternity.

I made it home, somehow, at dawn. Worry had devastated my mother.

I felt guilty for causing her such grief, but still, all I could say to her was: “Did we make it in the foreign news?”

The world had to know our plight. If the free world saw what was happening then someone, somewhere, would do something to help.

My mother took me into her arms and said: “The world means nothing to me if I lose you.”

The warmth in her embrace would mean nothing to me either, if I lost faith in humanity.

Demonstrations in which the author participated in Pristina in 1989 [Afrim Hajrulahu]
Demonstrations in which the author participated in Pristina in 1989 [Afrim Hajrulahu]

Please, look this way, world

We continued our demonstrations throughout 1989.

In the civilised world they had fashion seasons, sports seasons, seasonal holidays, seasonal fruit and vegetables, and seasonal love. These occasions occupied the minds of diverse peoples, whereas in Kosovo, the tear gas occupied ours.

We hardly saw the joy in summer. We moved but stood in place; from spring to autumn and then straight into winter. Our resolve did not diminish; our cause did not sleep. It became normal, a habit, second nature. We did not relent, we would not; we were getting somewhere with this. It was make or break time.

And then, something happened – far away, in a big place with a large group of people: the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The attention of the entire world turned towards China. It felt as though we were a child having an asthma attack while a school bus had crashed nearby, drawing everyone’s attention in that direction. We were abandoned, left gasping for air on the frozen ground – alone. We vanished from the international news bulletins immediately – and didn’t return for a long time.

Our town grew gloomier and more frightening than ever. Milosevic’s forces had free reign to practice their terror. Blameless blood gushed throughout the country. It only increased our resolve; our fight would carry on.

And then, another event – nearer this time, and less bloody, more constructive: the unification of Germany.

And then another: Lech Walesa became the first democratically-elected president of Poland.

The proximity of change planted the seed of optimism. Perhaps it would spill over and trickle down to us, we thought. We dared to hope again – that the world would take notice of us. 

And it did. The first sign came in the summer of 1990, in the form of a US delegation. The former Republican Congressmen Joe DioGuardi and the late Democrat Senator Tom Lantos led a visit of congressmen and senators. Their meeting with local politicians was held in the Grand Hotel Pristina.

We ran fast, up towards the Hill of the Brave - a stampede through quiet suburbia .... We had avoided the immediate danger, I thought .... Then something hit me on the head. I kept falling and falling, floating in an eddy of musty air. I hit the ground. I was dead


Teary-eyed masses of young Kosovars gathered outside, holding up two idealistic fingers and shouting ‘freedom’ and ‘USA’. I was tempted to break into Born in the USA, but on better judgment, decided against it.

After an hour or so the Serbian police had had quite enough of this blasphemous chanting. Using tear gas and batons they pushed us back and drove us out. They didn’t shoot though. Well, not until we had been forced far from the city centre and all the international cameras and curious eyes had been left well behind.

We ran fast, up towards the usual protection of the Hill of the Brave – a stampede through quiet suburbia, funnelling through its narrow roads, charging down its labyrinthine alleyways and concealed passages.

Once we had dispersed into smaller groups, we slowed down a little. We had avoided the immediate danger, I thought, smiling at the two boys and one girl running with me.

We were near my uncle’s house when something hit me on the head. I kept falling and falling, floating in an eddy of musty air. Then I hit the ground. I was dead.

I opened my eyes in agony. Indistinct voices, a violent pulse, a heavy heartbeat. There were faces I knew, saying things. But nothing came through. And then gradually, the voices became audible again. They were shouting. More people huddled over me now, making breathing all the more difficult.

Surely the other world doesn’t look like this, I thought to myself. I move, therefore I am.

Someone talked to me: a calm voice, a clever face – a student engineer, most likely. The bullet had hit me on the upper lip and chipped my front tooth, he said. It caused a blood spill that looked more dangerous than it was. I would be okay. I was alive.

With such a powerful delegation in town, the Serbian authorities had decided to avoid any fatalities that day. So, for the first time since Milosevic had climbed the Cultural Centre, they had used plastic bullets instead of the preferred live ammunition.

My death was postponed. My future had resumed – for the most part thanks to the American delegation. Joe DioGuardi and Tom Lantos had saved my life. Thank you, men.

A few students grabbed me by any available limb and carried me to my uncle’s house. As soon as we entered the garden my granny raised her head, then straightened up. She said: “My son….” And then fainted.

To be honest with you, I was rather upset with her reaction.

By dinnertime, my hero status had already faded. And by the time the TV news began, my family paid no more attention to me – except for my poor granny. She saw what I felt and I felt what she already knew. Her past experience with the Serbs was etched in the sad glaze of her eyes. She knew. The road to freedom was going to be long and hard.

Fight, flight or suicide


First up, Slovenia and the Ten-Day War. It was nothing. Skimming stones on a still lake was more dangerous than that. Croatia and Bosnia were next. Now these guys meant business. Hard, long, bloody, ruthless business. Bombing, massacres, pillage, mass rape. It was brutal. The Yugoslav wars had begun, and I was of conscription age.

According to the logic of territorial and federal state belonging, Kosovars were supposed to join the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army (JNA) to fight Milosevic’s dirty wars. It was a lose-lose situation for the Albanians, though. History had taught us that we would be the first on the firing line – the expendables.

Up front, when they weren’t fighting each other, we would have the Croats and the Bosnians facing us, defending their livelihoods. Behind us we would have the original antagonists: the Serbs and other deferential minorities. But, if you didn’t become part of the compulsory military service for Milosevic and his JNA forces, then you had better find yourself a good hiding place. If caught you’d be punished for treason. Out of the frying pan and, well, you know the rest of that molten lava scenario.

The Yugoslav Army was a vindictive monster, so whatever you decided to do, if they found it disagreeable, you put not just yourself at risk, but the rest of your immediate family, too.

In the grand scheme of things, I thought the most reasonable option was to run away. And I did.

Life as a fugitive was hard. We had to adapt. Friends, cousins, acquaintances, all in the same boat – draft dodgers. We travelled across remote rural places; moving from safe house to safe house in constant fear; going from one village to another, hoping that those who harboured us wouldn’t get into trouble.

Eventually, I had enough of scampering like a mouse; it was time to decide: Leave the country or serve in the JNA army?

An answer came in just a matter of days.

We were on the way to a safe house in the town of Ferizaj. It was en route to Skopje, where we would either flee or fall into the hands of the army. We entered Ferizaj from the east and immediately overheard talk about a dead Albanian soldier. His remains had been returned by the JNA earlier that day. It had issued a statement, to the soldier’s family and the public, declaring that he had committed suicide.

The coffin was metallic and sealed. And like the contents within, the property of the state. As such, the entire affair was considered a state secret. And you were not allowed to open a state secret under any circumstances.

But the father of the deceased soldier wasn’t going to accept the official explanation. He broke the law and the coffin. His son’s body was riddled with bullets. They counted them. There were 23 bullets inside him.

My mind was made up. I resolutely did not want to enter the Guinness Book of World Records in the category ‘Suicide with the most bullets in the back’.

The Great Escape

My dad arranged my escape from Kosovo. I would travel in the trailer of his friend’s lorry. He would drive me to the relative safety of Skopje, the capital of the newly independent state of Macedonia, and then I would take a bus to western Europe. The first leg was the trickiest. Passing through Serbian checkpoints was daunting. Draft evasion guaranteed 15 years in jail, and considerably increased odds of ‘suicide’.

My dad amended the details of the escape like an international spy. He thought the best way out would be hiding inside an empty oil tanker. Done. We were all set and ready to go.

I asked my entire family not to cry as we parted. I couldn’t stand tears, and used to think that crying would bring bad luck. And so it was, nobody cried.

I said my goodbyes as quickly as possible and went on my way.

But amid the heart-wrenching hugging and kissing and best wishes for a safe journey, I forgot to take my bag with my identification papers. Less than an hour after the painful business of saying goodbye to the entire Rrahmani clan, I returned home for the bag.

The courtyard was still full of people. They were all over the place – lying down on the lawn, sitting outside on kitchen chairs, smoking, weeping, and consoling each other. On one side were my mum and dad. Further down were my uncles, closely followed by my aunties and my granny. A manifestation of grief. For the entire time that they failed to notice me standing there, I felt like a ghost. In a way, I had died. There is no other way to describe it. And the image haunts me to this day, for that is the real picture of what it means to live the life of a refugee, immigrant, exile, or whatever you want to call it.

You stop existing in that original, happy, naive form. Another you will quickly take over – one with thicker skin and a different mind-set. In a different world; an alien world.

Computer says, No!

I lay in the back of the oil tanker, my body constricted. I got out for just long enough to breathe in some fresh air, a little respite from the lethal fumes, before getting back in to avoid the Serb forces at the checkpoints.

I was lucky to make it out of the country unscathed. Well, outwardly I was unscathed. But inside? Inside, I was a complete mess. 

I left Skopje just as they shut the borders for Yugoslav passport-holders.

Once out of Macedonia, I made it all the way to Scandinavia.

The bus journey took three days.

But even in the relative safety of the West, tough times were waiting.

Being so far from the natural comfort of family was hard. And dealing with the ups and downs of the West, after growing up in a socialist country, was baffling.

I still remember my very first trip to the supermarket.

“Where is the detergent?” I asked the shop assistant.

In good old communist Yugoslavia, we had had just one brand of detergent. But he showed me a whole isle of goods. I felt lost in this world of colour packaging.

But by far the most difficult thing was the not knowing: not knowing when it would all end, if at all, and if I would ever be able to return and see my family again.

It is this type of horror that can ruin you from the inside.

Still, I thought:

This is Europe after all!

Europe will not allow the wars to drag on!

Not on its doorstep!

And then another event, a travesty. A genocide: the Srebrenica massacre.

The joy of living in western Europe didn’t last very long. By the time I settled in Scandinavia things had worsened.For the first time in my life I experienced racist attacks, not based on my nationality but the colour of my hair. And it was ugly. I’d be walking down the road with heavy feet and a heavy heart, missing my family, doing nothing, talking to nobody, bothering no soul and then I’d hear the calls: “J***a svartskalle. Åk hem j***a svartskalle!” (“F*****g black skull. Go home, f*****g black skull!”)

As this name calling grew louder and more frequent, I became more and more disillusioned. Had it not been for the kindness of my newfound Swedish friends and the majority of peace-loving Scandinavian people, I don’t think I would have been able to survive it. I knew I had to leave Scandinavia. Even if I stayed, I couldn’t live a normal life as a stateless person. Such mundane things as opening a bank account or gaining access to a public library were too much. It was simply, ‘Computer says no!’

Okay. No, then. No is no.

Then I will leave, I thought. But there was one small problem. My Yugoslav passport wasn’t valid anymore. And I couldn’t get a new one because the country where I grew up was gone. It had just stopped existing.

The former Yugoslav embassies represented only the Serbian state now and there was no way I would go and ask them for help – not because of some deep-rooted principles about their policies, but because I would have been classed as a deserter and sent back on the next flight. And that was, most definitely, the least preferable scenario.

After weeks of intense worry and doubt, the solution came in the form of a fake Swedish passport. Some friends, well-wishers and philanthropists gathered enough money and I was on the road again. This time I was on my way to England’s green and pleasant land.

But first I would have to navigate the ferry crossing and border patrol from Sweden to Denmark, followed by the train journey to Germany, via the most notorious border at the time – Flensburg.

Just a week earlier, a friend had been caught at that border crossing – calling from a detention centre to tell us that more than 500 people had been picked up there.

I felt the pressure. But it was, I kept telling myself, nothing that Joe Satriani’s Flying in a Blue Dream couldn’t fix. That man’s guitar was like medicine for the nerves of the poor, stateless, wandering wayfarer. And it worked. I was super calm. Until the driver announced that the next stop would be Flensburg. Then I went to the toilet.

I checked how red my face was and practiced my new Swedish name – Andreas.

I handed over my fake passport and fixed my gaze on the shiny bit of the lens of my glasses, feeling, somehow, that I could hide there. The guard nodded and gave me the passport back. I slipped through to the other side, desperately fighting the urge to run


Jag heter Andreas. Jag är från Stockholm, I repeated over and over again – but there was no sound. It was all in my head: My name is Andreas. I am from Stockholm. My mouth kept failing me, producing only weird eeh-eeh sounds. Even the mighty Joe Satriani couldn’t help here.

It was late in the evening. There were another seven passengers with me: two in front and five behind. We were about to cross the Danish-German border, which was right in the middle of the train platform. I was next in line, and trembling. I slowly approached the border guard. I kept talking to myself, swearing at myself, hoping I might pass for Swedish based on what I was wearing – orange trousers, a purple jumper, thick geeky glasses, and a NY Knicks hat (a tribute to Patrick Ewing, the NBA legend).

Finally, as my turn came, my voice returned. I could speak, albeit with a squeak. I handed over my fake passport and fixed my gaze on the shiny bit of the lens of my glasses, feeling, somehow, that I could hide there. I felt I was calmer than the rest of Scandinavia put together. The guard nodded and gave me the passport back. I said Tanke and slipped through to the other side, desperately fighting the urge to run.

Two days later, I was in London’s Victoria station walking with a friend from back home. Once I realised he was real, I could hear myself laughing. I laughed all the way to West Hampstead, where he lived and which would become my home for years to come.

My next trip was to Croydon, and the UK Home Office to seek asylum. I soon settled in London. I had temporary papers, a national insurance number and a job. I’d become a successful asylum seeker, and despite what the tabloids said about us, I was enjoying my status. Compared to being stateless, this was regal.

No matter where you were from, everybody was at home in London, and in no time I, too, became a proud Londoner.

In-between wars

The war in Bosnia ended with the signing of the Dayton peace agreement. I had a brand new passport now, issued from Her Majesty’s government. I had been recognised as a refugee. Thank you Queen Elizabeth for allowing me to rebuild my life.

This gave me the opportunity to get one over on Milosevic as I managed to enrol myself into university. It seemed the worse was behind me; I had turned a new page and life was sweet again. I could even travel.

The first call was Holland. I was walking down the street in The Hague at the time the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia established its offices.

What a waste of time, money and a nice building, I thought to myself, what a joke. Nothing is ever going to happen.

And while I was enjoying my newfound freedom, another war started.

As news of massacres and rapes reached London, Kosovars took to the streets to protest, calling on the world to help their families back home [Besim Gerguri]
As news of massacres and rapes reached London, Kosovars took to the streets to protest, calling on the world to help their families back home [Besim Gerguri]

Losing hope in humanity


I had become a film student in Farnham by the time the war in Kosovo broke out. Slobodan Milosevic had become president of Serbia. His forces and the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) were having it out. When war happens in your homeland, there’s no manual on how to deal with it. It grabs you, shakes you, and turns you upside down and inside out. Every single moment of every single day.

News of massacres, rapes and killings was the daily norm. And the world was doing nothing. Every passing hour seemed like an eternity. We came out onto the streets of London begging the world to intervene. My friend Fisnik had designed a strike sign resembling the Nike swoosh NATO – JUST DO IT. We all gathered under that banner.

And just before the free world finally decided to take action, my mate Fisnik went back to fight. I just couldn’t believe it. He was leaving his family and everything behind in London. No matter how much I hugged him and begged him not to go he wasn’t going to change his mind. He had war and freedom on it.

Mixed emotions

The Kosovar Community was worried; our families back home were in danger. We could feel that Milosevic’s reign was coming to an end, but we knew that the situation would get worse before it got better. And things did get worse – and it got harder and harder to get on with life.

Friends from back home all hung out together; we were all in the same boat – finding solace in each other’s company. We’d spend hours and days in Soho’s Bar Italia, overdosing on caffeine and scanning the daily papers, hoping somebody somewhere would mention a name or provide any information on what was happening to our loved ones. But Kosovo had become a massive black hole.

One day, my friend Arianit screamed from the top of his lungs like a lunatic: “I found dad.”

He kept pointing at the front page of The Times. His dad was in the picture, in one of the camps in Macedonia, queuing for a loaf of bread. We greeted his excitement with jollity and elation but also envy. I don’t know what the rest of us would have given to experience the same thing.

When the daily newspapers and TV show you rapes and death, and you have no knowledge of the whereabouts of your loved ones; that is what hell on earth means. The worst thing by far is that you gradually lose hope in humankind. And when you’re down you have to look after your sanity too. It isn’t easy. In desperate times, you seek desperate solutions. So, I said to myself: Right, I’m going to go. I am going back to Kosovo to fight.

As news of massacres and rapes reached London, Kosovars took to the streets to protest, calling on the world to help their families back home [Besim Gerguri]
As news of massacres and rapes reached London, Kosovars took to the streets to protest, calling on the world to help their families back home [Besim Gerguri]

Last night the DJ saved my life

I was ready to leave. Having no news of my family was killing me.

It would be easier to be together, even if that meant being shot by the Serb forces.

Dying together seemed better than living on my own and in exile. After all, if they were gone there would be no point to my life.

But late one night after work in the newly opened Bartok Bar in Chalk Farm, I had a conversation with one of my Iranian colleagues, Poorang Shahabi.

“You go there son, and you’re just another number,” he said to me. “Gone.”

Poorang convinced me that doing something practical in London was much better than entering a war zone. He knew what I was going through and I trusted him. After all, he was a refugee himself – a creation of the Iran-Iraq war.

It was during our conversation that I came up with an idea – a charity concert. Our boss at the time was Mean Fiddler’s Vince Power, who supported us from the beginning. We gained free access to two amazing venues: The Forum and The Complex. Less than five weeks after that conversation with Poorang, we hosted two charity events and raised £52,000. Nicky Weller, Russell Reader and Lulëzim Mripa were my partners in crime. Paul Weller, Nicky’s brother, was one of the first artists who liked the idea and, thanks to these two intrepid siblings, the Forum gig took shape very quickly.

Soon enough a plethora of artists joined in: Noel Gallagher, Stereophonics, Travis, Ray Davies, Top Loader, Kate Moss, Goldie, Keith Allen, Robert Carlyle and many others. And once Carl Cox had said yes to the gig at The Complex, it was only a matter of how many DJs we could fit in the bill. They were lining up to show their support. 

These artists saved my life, but they were also the people who restored my faith in humanity. There was nothing more joyous than seeing The Forum packed and all the people coming together for one cause. This was London at its best.



Just days after the gig I got news from my family. They were deported at gunpoint to Skopje, Macedonia, but were alive. To make things better, the British government gathered my entire family from the refugee camps in Macedonia and flew them over to the UK for a fresh start.

And that is what you call a democracy, a nation and a country.

NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days and Kosovo was liberated at last. After eight years of forced exile, I could visit home.

There are no words that one can use to express the feeling of being free.

To me it came in a very simple manner: standing in front of the notorious police building in downtown Pristina, where, over the years, many of my friends and relatives had been beaten and tortured. Just by standing there, still, I felt free. I was doing nothing, absolutely nothing but staring at this monster of a building and I was the happiest man on earth. Yes, I could just stand there, for however long I wanted. I was free.

Milosevic going for Dutch holidays

You can do whatever you want when you’re free. So I shot my first documentary that year. I had found a village in the north of Kosovo that, just like the rest of the country, had been smashed to pieces. But instead of running away, the villagers had decided to go back and rebuild their lives.

Çabra became my 20-year project and all thanks to my ‘Angel from the South’, as I call Clare Barwell, my teacher at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design. It was because of her support during some of the darkest hours of my life that I prevailed and finished my studies.

My first documentary was followed by a job offer to co-direct Macbeth at the National Theatre of Kosovo. Three days before the premiere something remarkable happened: Milosevic was arrested and was transferred to The Hague.

I ran to the local TV station to get the footage. In the play when Macbeth dies we turned the lights off and then projected the real tyrant on his way to Holland. The crowd loved it so much that we had a 12-minute ovation on the opening night. For me, the little refugee had won. I had finished my studies and Milosevic was jailed.

Eki 1 – Milosevic 0.

Independence – 20th century European refugees in arms

The author, left, and his friend Fisnik on the eve of Kosovo's independence, in front of one part of the Newborn statue that Fisnik had designed for the new state
The author, left, and his friend Fisnik on the eve of Kosovo’s independence, in front of one part of the Newborn statue that Fisnik had designed for the new state

But this wasn’t the end. This was just the beginning. Kosovars had to pick themselves up, heal and then carry on. 

The true party happened in 2008. We declared independence. Kosovo was a Republic.

Kosova Republikë echoed in my head.

Two hours after independence was declared, I met my friend Fisnik again. He had designed the Newborn statue for the new state. We hugged again, just as we had in Trafalgar Square 10 years earlier, before he left to fight. The memories flooded back. The world was ours. Two twenthieth century European refugees in each  other’s arms. And this time we wouldn’t let go.

The rest is whatever we and others made of it.

But our story is very different from the plight of refugees today. Looking at the pictures of refugees dying in the sea, being tormented by Macedonians and Hungarians, I feel ashamed of being European. I feel ashamed of being a human being.

One of the main values of Europe and being European is welcoming refugees in the hour of their need. This value is tarnished today. This is not the Europe we know and the Europe that makes us proud. We must fight for our principles. We cannot fail the present-day refugees. If they lose hope in humanity, then they are lost forever. And that way, we all lose.

Kosovo's Albanians celebrate independence in the centre of Pristina on February 17, 2008 [REUTERS/Hazir Reka]
Kosovo’s Albanians celebrate independence in the centre of Pristina on February 17, 2008 [REUTERS/Hazir Reka]

Jeton Kulinxha contributed to this article. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy. 

This article first appeared in the latest issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. For more compelling human stories, download it here for iPads and iPhones and here for Android devices.

Source: Al Jazeera