In the Hills, Scraping to Survive |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 1999; Page A1
GREJCEVCE, Yugoslavia, June 14 There are still people hiding in the high hills of central Kosovo, too broken by the war to come out. To find some of them, go up the dirt path to the dead horse and turn right, and when the road narrows and there's no other choice at the dead cow, drive over it. And there they are in an unexpected valley 30 people who came here in fear and will stay here because they have nowhere else to go.
"This is my house now," says a 32-year-old woman named Sabrie Hajrushi. Dirty and hungry, she is standing outside a tent fashioned from plastic sheeting and sticks, which she shares with 13 family members.
There is her 3-year-old daughter, whose scalp has become infected with eraser-size bumps that are so tender she screams when her mother touches them. There is her 1-year-old, who is playing with a pan filled with creek water that is dirty from soaking diapers and infested with flies.
There is her pregnant sister-in-law, due in a month, and her brother, who wears a Kosovo Liberation Army patch on his shirt in honor of the rebels who control these hills and bring in a bit of food several times a month.
And there is her father, Zymber Kadria, who stands on torn shoes with a wooden cane and a metal crutch and says of what his life has become: "How can I be good? My wife got killed. I'm an invalid. I have no house. I don't even have my shoes to wear."
It is a beautiful place, this little valley, and what is going on here is refugee life at its worst.
There is no way to know how many people are still in the hills. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled their homes during the fighting and became, in the lexicon of relief workers, IDPs, or internally displaced persons. Since NATO's arrival in Kosovo over the weekend, they have been coming down, slowly, cautiously, gratefully, pushing wheelbarrows full of their meager belongings to burned-out houses. But the hills remain alive with them as well.
"At least I have a place to sleep here," says Hajrushi of why she will stay, rather than go back to the burned-out village that holds the ruined remains of her home. She left the house two months ago, running while holding her two children. Her father was behind her. Her mother was behind her father. Serbian police were behind them all. One of them threw a grenade, and after the explosion Hajrushi helped drag her mother's body up into the mountains where they buried her. Then they slept for a week, ate what they could find and made their way to this valley.
At that point, she says, hundreds more people were here, perhaps a thousand. There were at least 60 ramshackle tents filled with people who also decided this place might be safe. And in some ways it was. No one died. No one was shot. No one was captured.
But the costs of such safety were days with no food and cold nights on bare dirt and the constantly unnerving sound of not-so-distant gunfire between government troops and Kosovo rebels. This is the way it was not only in this valley but in others near here. All have been abandoned in recent days, but strung along the banks of Topilo Creek are patches of charred ground where, if rib cages and teeth are to be believed, people had reached the point of cooking horses.
Since news of NATO's arrival reached here, Sabrie Hajrushi's valley has been mostly abandoned as well. Here, too, are the remains of fires, and emptied tin cans, and a single broken egg shell, and stripped corn cobs, and pieces of airdropped leaflets from NATO that say in part: "Units and commanders, the world is watching you." And a few blackened bones of a goat, of which Hajrushi says, as if to apologize, "It had a broken foot."
There are now three tents left, three families. There is also a scabby dog, which has kept a cautious distance, a dozing calf that Hajrushi's brother found and is keeping for the day the food shortage gets worse. And there is a small trailer the calf is tethered to, which, over the past several days, has been Hajrushi's salvation.
The trailer is filled with the belongings of the man who, for whatever reason, left it behind. And Hajrushi, in turn, has been scavenging from it since, turning her sheet of plastic into something more resembling a home.
The dirt now has a rug over it.
There are foam pads to sleep on.
There's a wood-burning stove, upon which Hajrushi's family is heating water for bathing and for a thin, greenish soup for the children.
Life in the hidden hills, away from NATO, away from aid workers, away from everything, where another night is starting to settle in:
A child is screaming.
A pregnant woman is sitting under a small tree.
A husband is breaking sticks.
An elderly man is scratching his skinny arm, which is covered with a rash contracted when he slept in the mountains next to the grave of his wife.
And a 32-year-old woman is breastfeeding her 1-year-old and explaining what will happen next in her life.
"Who knows?" is what she says.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company