An ordinary family now pariahs in their own land

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The Independent Online

"This is the third year of our journey through the Balkans," said Afrim. "It is ironic that we've ended up in Sarajevo, but at the moment this is the best place for us."

"This is the third year of our journey through the Balkans," said Afrim. "It is ironic that we've ended up in Sarajevo, but at the moment this is the best place for us."

Afrim and his wife, Safeta, are both 34, yet still seem like the high-school sweethearts they once were. He retains a somewhat vague, student-like air; she, with her librarian's glasses and ponytail, still looks a bit like the best pupil in class. Neither appears old enough to have a daughter already in her teens. Apart from the willowy Rina, 13, the couple have an 11-year-old son, Rron, who is podgy, bespectacled and shy. You can see the other three feel a bit protective towards him.

An ordinary family, then - but they cannot find anywhere in the Balkans where it is safe for them to live together.

Imagine growing up in Britain with an English father and a Scottish mother, thinking nothing of it until you reach adulthood, when violent changes in the country suddenly mean that an English or a Scots accent could have you killed. That is what has happened to Afrim and Safeta.

Anyone hearing their names would assume they are Albanian, but both have an Albanian father and a Serb mother. Crucially, Afrim's parents each spoke to him in their own language, but Safeta heard only Serbian at home. She cannot speak Albanian, and that now makes it impossible for her to live in Kosovo, where she and Afrim grew up, met and married at the age of 19.

For safety, Safeta and the children live with Afrim's widowed mother in Belgrade. Rina and Rron have had no problem at their school in Serbia, but Safeta's Albanian name has caused trouble. "I was working in a shop selling leather goods, and Serbian refugees from Kosovo have made a fuss when they hear my name," she said. A qualified teacher of Serbian literature, she cannot find a school that will employ her. "One headteacher told me: 'I am sorry, you are Albanian. The parents might complain'." (One of the many ironies of this story is that Afrim had said earlier: "When we were young, I would say I was Albanian, but Safeta always called herself a Yugoslav.")

Nor is there any question of Afrim being able to join his family in Belgrade. Last September, when he was travelling from Bosnia to Kosovo, police took him off the coach in Serbia, put him in handcuffs and held him for 12 hours without food or drink. "They questioned me about where I had been, why I had gone there, and who I knew in the Kosovo Liberation Army. They tried to recruit me as an informer. After they let me go I returned to Sarajevo and went to Kosovo another way."

He found work in Kosovo with the international organisations now running the province, but at New Year he chanced a visit to Belgrade. The police were soon round, however. "They came to my mother's home to arrest me," he said. "I was in the kitchen. Safeta was asleep and the children were at school. They held me for four hours that time." Afrim is reluctant to talk about everything that happened to him in custody, but clearly he cannot risk any return to Serbia.

A visit to Kosovo was equally fraught for Safeta. "I went to stay with Afrim for a few days, and I was going to bring the children, but it was impossible," she said. "When he was at work I couldn't go out, because you can be shot for speaking Serbian in the street. Things have changed completely. Rron has forgotten his Albanian, and he wouldn't be safe there either." An attempt to settle in Croatia, where Safeta's parents have lived for more than 10 years, was also fruitless: they were refused residence papers. Bosnia, where everyone speaks Serbian, has accepted them as refugees, but Sarajevo does not make things easy for people who appear to be Serbs. Safeta said her sister's 15-year-old son had been beaten up because he spoke the Serb rather than the Bosnian dialect.

At one point the family were promised residence in France, but that was withdrawn after Nato went to war with Yugoslavia. They are hoping to go to Canada, where Afrim's older brother lives, but if permission has not come through by the time the summer holidays are over, they may have to leave their rented house overlooking Sarajevo - Safeta to take the children back to school in Belgrade, Afrim to return to Kosovo, the only place he can get work.

"When we were younger we weren't very politically minded," said Afrim, who dropped out of university to work as a journalist with state television in Pristina. He was one of a handful of Albanians who stayed on after Serbian nationalism drove out hundreds of his colleagues, but he says his friends did not hold it against him. The family's odyssey began in 1988, when war erupted in Kosovo. "I could see what was going to happen," he said. They spent a year in Turkey, but could not make ends meet, and have been together only intermittently since.

There are millions of people in the Balkans, like Afrim and his family, who do not fit neatly into the national boxes created by a decade of ethnic cleansing. "Maybe we are lucky we are from mixed marriages, because we see more clearly what is happening here," he said. "But if you think like that you can't stay."

Afrim is teaching the others as much English as possible. "I really do hope we can go to Canada, and the children can become Canadian," he said. "It would be best for them not to live under pressure, not to have to be Albanian or Serb." "Or Muslim," Safeta added. Her husband sighed: "If you live anywhere in the Balkans, you can't help thinking about your background."