The homecoming

On 3 April, Bajram Morina and his family were given five minutes to pack and get out of Kosovo. This weekend, after an extraordinary journey which took them from Pristina to Bury in Lancashire, they returned home at last. This is their story
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ajram Morina, a wiry old man in a crisp new suit and highly polished shoes, is first down the steps from the plane. A toothless smile splits his face, as his feet reach Kosovan soil.

"How are you, sister?" Mr Morina, who is 64, asks a young translator, the only Albanian who is there to witness his return home. For while the airport is heaving with Nato soldiers heading off for a two-week break from duties, for security reasons it stands achingly empty of relatives.

So the translator must become a surrogate daughter to an old man desperate for contact with home. "Does your heart beat free?" Mr Morina asks her. He beams, as she smiles and nods.

It is an emotional moment for Mr Morina and his wife Shehide, 60, in her traditional peasant scarf and print skirt, who follows him down the aeroplane steps with 19 other family members. There are seven women and a posse of children, the youngest of whom, Albulena, aged one, is slung across the hip of her mother Bahtie, 35, one of Mr Morina's six daughters. Bajram and Shehide also have four sons.

It is four months since the Morinas were airlifted to Britain from Stankovic II refugee camp, on Kosovo's border with Macedonia. The camp itself, despite its high wire fences and Nazi-sounding name, was the least of an ordeal that began on 3 April when Serbs in green uniforms with black-painted faces gave the family five minutes to leave Pristina.

The Morinas were herded on to trains, with tens of thousands of other Kosovar Albanians, and dumped at Brace on the Macedonian border. The world then watched in horror as they struggled to survive amidst mud, rain and squalor, while Macedonia and members of the international community argued about who would bankroll their care.

Mr Morina is still haunted by Brace and by the death of a three-year- old girl, who was crushed when Macedonian guards beat back the crowd. Two sick, elderly refugees also died there. "We passed out the bodies to Macedonian Albanians," he says. "We did not trust the authorities to give them a decent Moslem burial."

The Morinas are among the first to return home from Britain. It is odd to think that Bury in Lancashire, where the family was placed, will probably become a legend to future generations. But the seeds are already being planted.

"Bury saved our lives," says Mr Morina, before clearing his throat to display his newly acquired English. "Bye bye," he says, suddenly hesitant and shy. "Good morning, hello and thank you very much."

The family's gratitude is humbling. "We thank you British so very much," adds Beslime Dobra, 66, Bahtie's mother-in-law, as she waits to be bussed home by the International Organisation for Migration, which has just flown the refugees in from Manchester.

"You took us into your homes and you let your children play with our children," she says. "You carried our children on your shoulders and you would not let us buy a thing. You gave us everything." To this old woman, who until her airlift to Britain had never ventured from Kosovo, that is how it must surely have seemed.

For as a Kosovo Albanian she has lived a large part, if not all, of her life being despised by her Serb neighbours. And for the last 10 years, since President Slobodan Milosevic removed the province's autonomy - and tens of thousands of Albanians, from company directors to factory workers, were thrown out of their jobs for refusing to accept this - her children and grandchildren have been pushed to the fringes of society, dominated by the province's Serb minority. It is unlikely that Mrs Dobra has ever experienced much kindness outside her own community. For a tiny little bundle, she has a vice-like grip. She kisses me as if I were Tony Blair and Jamie Shea mixed together.

The Morinas cried when they left Britain. But there is no doubt that they are glad to be home. With a dozen new, matching green suitcases - a reminder that they left Pristina with virtually nothing - they are ferried to a crumbling concrete bus station in downtown Pristina for their reunion with other members of the huge Morina clan. Pristina was not as devastated by Nato bombs and Serb mortars as other parts of Kosovo. But, like the rest of the country, it is drastically changed.

Bahtie, who had her four youngest children with her when expulsion by the Serbs separated her from her husband and three older offspring, knows that her own home has been destroyed. All the Morinas have seen Kosovo's destruction on TV. But the drive to the bus station is still sobering. For Kosovo is a land under military occupation. Huge tanks, and long convoys of Nato's armed personnel carriers dominate the roads. Nato, and the Kosovan Albanians, have been clearing up for two months. The result is a tidy kind of devastation, but devastation all the same. On both sides of the road, houses lie abandoned, roofs blown off, walls caved in. In the capital's besieged Serb enclaves, blackened, burned-out homes are evidence of new destruction and the frenzy of revenge attacks.

Assaults on Serbs - particularly on the old - are condemned by the UN, which is struggling to keep Serb civilians in Kosovo in pursuit of that elusive Balkan dream, multi-ethnicity.

But as the bus passes through the Serb stronghold of Kosovo Polje, and past an Orthodox church that is guarded day and night from arsonists by a Nato tank, Mr Morina tells me that the Serbs now have no place in Kosovo. "How can they stay, after the massacres?" he asks.

A dozen Morinas are waiting at the bus station, led by Bajram Morina's brother Aruc, 54, who himself only recently returned from Britain.

Aruc, a driver at a city kindergarten, was taken prisoner by the Serbs at the start of the Nato bombing. He was beaten every day for three weeks, before being dumped at the Macedonian border. Then, with serious internal injuries and some broken ribs, he was evacuated to Britain for medical treatment. He stayed in Doncaster, but was taken regularly to Bury to see his family. "I never thought we would be together in Kosovo so soon," he says, shaking his head. "I thought it would be years."

First there is kissing, and then tears. Shehide Morina weeps quietly as she clings to her son Naim, 32, whom she has not seen for seven years. Naim returned from Germany to fight for the Kosovo Liberation Army, after Nato began bombing. For months his family did not even know whether he was alive.

In the tangle of embraces, Naim's brother Milaim, 35, also a KLA fighter, is hugging his wife Emine, 29, and their four children, who spent the war in Bury wondering whether they would ever see him again. In this family, which hails from the KLA stronghold of Drenica, in the idyllic countryside west of Pristina, everyone has suffered, whether they stayed at home or were airlifted abroad.

After their village was destroyed by Serbian soldiers, Mr Morina's eldest daughter Berisha, 38, tiny and birdlike like all her sisters, spent the war hiding in the mountains with KLA fighters, along with her husband and five children.

This is a day for celebration. But Berisha makes passing, casual reference to what sounds like post-war trauma. In the mountains the family all but starved, but its spirit endured. "We were all so strong then," she remembers. "Now we are not coping very well, although the aid agencies make sure we have plenty to eat.

"I am so happy to be alive, but I have constant pain all over my body, particularly my stomach. I was never sick before. My daughter has the same headache every day. It is not just my family. Most of my neighbours feel sick, too."

As post-war euphoria wears off, stress-related illness must be expected. For the post-war reality is harsh. With the Morina refugees home, for example, more than 20 members of the family must now share Bajram's little house in Pristina. Like Berisha and her children, they have nowhere else to go.

But it is Bahtie's second journey, an hour's drive from Pristina bus station to a little hamlet near Glogovac in Drenica, that lays bare just how hard times will be.

She, and her sons Samir, seven, and Amir, 11, and daughter Adilja, 12, fall silent as they head for home in an IoM minibus, with their grandmother, Beslime, and baby Albulena. They are excited that their father Mehmet, 42, and two teenage sisters and a brother are waiting for them there, along with Mursel, 70, Beslime's husband of 46 years. But they are apprehensive. They have been told to expect the worst.

The little bus whizzes past a bombed-out chicken factory that was a base for Serb paramilitaries, and the spot where British Gurkhas died trying to make safe an unexploded bomb. Homes flash past, roofs gaping or covered by