Notebook: A hard lesson in the art of survival

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The Independent Online
THREE DAYS into my first visit to Kosovo in January this year, I decided it was time to sack my incompetent Albanian interpreter and find another. That is how I met Laura Kajtazi.

Only 22 she might have been, and not entirely at home in English, but she was able to talk us through Serbian checkpoints where our previous companion would have had us spread-eagled in the snow for a body search. She could masquerade as a Serb when necessary, adopting the name Sandra (though never with officialdom, which could have demanded her identity card).

One night Laura invited us home to meet her family, headed by her father, Shaban. At 76 he is the same age as my father, and I am more than twice 22. A former partisan fighter with Tito - there is a photo of the two of them on a British battleship - and later a political commissar in the police who was forced to retire at 45 in an ideological schism, he had married Ismije after his first wife died. He was 60 when Laura's younger brother, Arben, was born.

I remember asking the patriarch whether he still believed in communism. "Of course," he replied, and why not? The only time Albanians enjoyed anything like equal rights in Kosovo was while communism suppressed Yugoslavia's ethnic rivalries; they began losing them as soon as Tito died and Serbian nationalism reasserted itself. Laura had to receive her secondary and tertiary education in private homes after 1990, when the price of state education was an oath of loyalty to Serbia.

Flash forward five months to June, when I returned to Kosovo and took up the invitation to stay at the Kajtazis' hilltop home in Pristina. Anxious phone calls and e-mails during the time of ethnic cleansing had established that Laura had escaped with her mother and brother - but that Shaban had insisted on remaining behind. Now I was able to hear the whole story.

"The power went off on the first day of bombing," said Laura. "Two days later the Serbs set off a car bomb near our house, breaking many windows. Afterwards I was sure I could hear boots crunching on the glass, but we were too scared even to light a match."

A few days later, having got wind of what the Serbs were planning, she told her family it was time to leave. "My father refused to go, and my mother was torn," said Laura, "but in the end she went." They set off in a convoy with four other cars, but before Pristina was out of sight all the rest had been stolen or turned back by the Serbs. The Kajtazis got through because of Laura's coolness.

"At the checkpoint a man approached us with a knife and demanded DM5,000 (pounds 1,650)," she said. "I got out and asked what the problem was. He said: `Get back in the car or I'll slap you.' I said: `Slap someone else,' and got back in, but we didn't give him any money.

"Another man came up, so I climbed out again. My mother was sitting with her head down, saying, `Don't look at them. Get back in,' but again I asked what the problem was. The man said I used to work for OSCE [the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe]. I denied it." A more sinister note was struck when a third man said he was "looking for a bride", often a prelude to rape, but Laura made a joke of it, saying she'd come back for him. "Finally he stuck his hand through the window, I put DM100 in it and he let us go."

While Ismije and Arben went to Turkey, Laura stayed in Macedonia and Albania, translating for journalists and aid organisations. She has seen a lot, and her English is now fluent: it even includes the word "dodgy". But what of her father, alone in the house?

Two days after the others left, everyone in the district was turned out of their houses, but he managed to slip away and return home. Then a group of policemen with an armoured vehicle was billeted in the house, and he was ejected a second time. He went from one friend's house to another, but everyone was too afraid to open their door. He slept for two nights in the front yard of a mosque before finding shelter.

After a week the policemen left, and Shaban went home again. His third, and worst, encounter with the Serbian forces came 20 days before the end of the bombing. "They threw him on the basement floor three times, saying they were going to kill him," said Laura. "Suddenly one soldier asked him: `Do you know my grandfather?' My father told him: `Yes, he was my friend in the partisans.' At this the man said: `Look, I'll see what I can do.'" Finally they left, threatening to kill him the next time if he did not hand over his presumed arsenal of weapons.

Those 20 days, waiting for them to come back, were worse than anything he experienced in the partisans, Shaban told me through his daughter: "My nerves have gone." He has aged sharply in five months, and the old air of authority sometimes gives way to querulousness. When I returned the house was a bit of a mess and Laura, the family breadwinner, had moments of impatience at his domestic demands after a long day in the field.

But she told me of the day of her return with the Nato forces. "My father said `I thought I'd never see you again,' but he did not want me to see him cry, so after 10 seconds he started to go upstairs. After 10 minutes he was berating me for not waiting until the Nato troops came into town."

Ismije and Arben returned while I was there, and things are beginning to get back to normal. Laura's mother immediately started scrubbing the house from top to bottom, and just before I left a truck from Albania pulled up and disgorged the sweet old lady who lives next door. Kosovo is still unstable - on Friday Laura witnessed the shooting of a carload of Albanians by British paras - but for the sake of people like the Kajtazis, I hope it pulls through.