"My whole house was burnt down and 10 of my relatives killed, two of them were burnt also," said one man, who then paused. "I recognise you," he exclaimed, "You interviewed me when we found the last body."
And then it dawned: Ymer Delija, father and husband, lost his wife and four of his five children in the Obrinje massacre last September, when Serbian forces swept through a wood where more than 25 people, mostly women and children, were hiding. Twenty-two were killed as they ran, leaving behind a pathetic jumble of possessions scattered around the plastic tarpaulin under which they sheltered. A photograph of one of the victims, a baby, sparked an international outcry and prompted the first serious threat of Nato air strikes against the Serbian military machine in Kosovo. Twenty bodies were found at once but three weeks later, another man was discovered, stuffed down a well. It was then that I met Ymer, who was caring for his three-year-old son Albert, and his brother's children, Liridona and Besnik. They were the only survivors.
"We came here to take this wood," he said. "It's a kind of revenge." Was he planning to burn the house down afterwards? "Well, we have burnt two or three today already and it's enough for today."
But would he not rather move into an intact house, abandoned by Serbs, than burn it down? "I have land, so I cannot turn my back on my destroyed house," he said. "No one is interested in moving into Serb houses ... Everybody has suffered so much that they cannot even go in to their houses."
In a village nearby, several houses were smouldering, the hay stacks blazing and spewing forth great plumes of black smoke. Tractors loaded with goodies - sofas, chairs, fridges, stoves - were much in evidence, but their passengers looked first sheepish and then, when no reprimand was forthcoming, gleeful. No one would admit to burning buildings, though an acrid smell hung over the charming, wooded countryside.
Mohamed Azemi, stooped and carrying the two bundles with which he fled to the mountains, walked past one blazing house, its roof snapping, crackling and popping. "I don't care about this, they burnt my house and now I'm happy in some way," he said. And as for the usefulness of any "enemy" abode: "I would not live in a Serb house, I would rather sleep in the garden."
And in an Albanian garden, not too far away, Bekim Ymeraj, a teacher, and six of his seven children are lying in the grass, rotting in the sun since being shot dead in May by Serbian forces. No one has buried them yet, for fear of Serbs living less than a mile away. Across the main road lie the graves of 11 other relatives killed the same day. Every house has been razed. Such scenes help to explain why so many Albanians, having lost everything, are helping themselves to anything they can find in Serb villages, which can often be identified by the presence of pigs and intact roofs.
Back in Veriq, the men were sifting through the house, taking useful coils of wire and hose but leaving the livestock and vegetables. "I don't need the chickens," said Ymer, "so I leave them because some other Albanian will."
A few letters and an old black-and-white photo lay discarded on the steps. The back of the photo was inscribed: "For many memories, to my sister Momirka, from Branko Vesic." It showed a young man in Yugoslav uniform, taken perhaps 30 years ago.
A few family photographs are all that Ymer has left. Since the massacre, the children have improved somewhat, he says, although they are still severely traumatised. As for him: "Sometimes I forget what happened but other times it is very bad. I had four and now I have only one. Losing 10 members of a family is not like losing 10 chickens."
Not that he has any material possessions left either. The Serbs stole his tractor and burnt his nice car, fruits of many years' labour in Slovenia. Ymer stayed in Obrinje throughout the war - the last man, he says - sometimes hiding out from the Serbs. "I wrote a letter and stuck it on the door: `You can burn it 100 times but I am going to re-build again'."
And now an anonymous Serb family has provided him with the means to fulfil his pledge.Reuse content