Kosovo girls want to kill

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The Independent Online
SHOTE wears the uniform of any modern 14-year-old girl: black combat pants, boots, leather jacket, baseball cap. But instead of a backpack or a handbag, she has a Kalashnikov, its yellow wooden stock carved with an intricate pattern, slung over her right shoulder - for Shote is a fighting member of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, known by its Albanian acronym, UCK.

"When you see your home town at war, burning, you have to come with your brothers to fight," she says when asked why she has become a soldier, one of a significant number of women fighting with the UCK.

Hamide, 21, is another soldier from the village of Obrinje, which sprung to notoriety last month when more than 20 members of the Deliu family were massacred by unknown hands. "We feel so sorry about that family. But this is war," she says, standing by the charred ruins of her family's house. "We are going to avenge them."

Both women received a month's military training in single sex groups, but both now work in mixed units. Shote is a military policewoman, which makes her more than an ordinary fighter. Hamide, who is dressed in a camouflage T-shirt - again for practical rather than fashion purposes - and black jeans, says she has done five tours on the front line. Shote claims to have taken part in all the big battles around the Drenica region, and yes, she has killed. "That's normal, we're in a war," she says. "When we know who we are killing, it's not difficult."

Neither woman will admit to fear. "With every battle I become stronger," Shote says. "I'm not afraid. We are prepared to fight. We don't do the cooking here, we fight with our friends," she adds, with a laugh - this last comment because I told her that when I asked an Albanian man if there were women in the UCK, he replied that they did the cooking.

Despite Balkan men's reputation for machismo, the women say they are treated with absolute respect by their male comrades, and as equals. As Hamide puts it: "They treat us like their sisters." And any man attempting to patronise or harass either would be, one feels, on dangerous ground.

Shote especially, despite her dark roots and dyed blonde hair, is a tough prospect - she trained in karate as a kid. "Yes I played with dolls," she says. "But I always played with toy guns. I liked them." She never had much time for discos or the movies. "We have our cinema here: this film is for real. When my friends talk about boys, I just look at them."

Neither she nor Hamide has a boyfriend now, though Hamide plans to marry at some point. "I want to have children in freedom, so they can go to school and have fun. Our only plan is to bring peace here."

Hamide admits she has considered the prospect of being wounded or killed. "I have thought about it, but I don't feel fear when I think about my people, and when I see how my friends fight." She finished high school but was unable to go on to university so she stayed at home for two years. One of her cousins was killed last month in action, on the same day as the Obrinje massacre. "Now we are much stronger, we are going to fight and we are going to avenge our dead, because the Serbs treated us not as human beings, but as fodder. They cut our people up like meat."

Shote, whose nom de guerre comes from Shote Galica, a famous Kosovar partisan killed in the Second World War, has also suffered losses. "Mentor was a student, he was killed fighting in Balacev. When you lose a friend, that is the hardest part."

Both women live with their comrades, sharing the chores. "I never imagined I would be a soldier," says Hamide. "I wanted to study music, I play qistelia [a traditional instru- ment]. We don't have the time to play now, nor the desire."

For Shote, living with her family in Germany when Kosovar rebels went to war with Serbian forces, the choice was easy. "My father is a soldier here - he came first, then I came to join him," she says, as if going to war with one's father was an everyday thing to do, as if most teenage girls fought alongside their parents.

"My mother is happy that I'm a soldier, but she's frightened when I go out on the front line," she explains. Her father is her best friend and her comrade in arms, but they do not allow themselves to be distracted by worry for one another during battles: "You just focus on the enemy. He cares about me, but he can't think about me when he's fighting. In the last offensive, in those hills, we were in a dangerous situation, so when we saw each other after, we were really happy."

It seems that Kosovar parents are proud of the children - Hamide says her family support her and her two soldier brothers in their work. As we are talking to Shote, two middle-aged soldiers stop to chat. Is Shote a typical teenager? I ask. "I can say with all my heart that she's different," says Adem Kiqina wryly. "He has a daughter and she's a fighter," Shote retorts, pointing at Osman Elshani, who adds: "She is 15 years old." Are you proud of her, or worried about her, or both, I ask.

"Just proud," he says. "I'm a soldier, my son is a soldier, my daughter is a soldier, and all my 11 children are going to be soldiers. We will continue this until we win our freedom."