For One Grandmother, Tenacity Triumphs |
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 18, 1999; Page A33
PEC, Yugoslavia Every day for the past seven weeks, Yugoslav soldiers pushed open the metal gate to the courtyard of the house where Naxhie Salihu lives and jeered at her while she sat on the front stoop.
"Hey, Granny. Are you still here? Are you waiting for us to kill you?" they would taunt. Sometimes one of them added, "We will burn you alive and eat you if you don't leave."
Salihu, 82, was alone on the street, which winds through one of the wealthier ethnic Albanian neighborhoods of this devastated city in western Kosovo. One neighbor, Agim Gjakova, who owned a jewelry business, fled before his house was destroyed. Myftar Shala, who ran an upholstery shop, also fled, as did Agim Kada, a teacher, and Xhevdet Nalbani, a shoe salesman.
Salihu hated being left alone and was terrified she would be executed, or worse, burned inside the house at night. Three times last week, soldiers set fire to the roof, but each time she doused the flames with a garden hose attached to the kitchen sink. The house today smells of smoke and has several holes in the roof and black scorch marks on the dining room wall.
But she refuses to leave. Ask why, and she starts smiling and waving her arms as she describes a city where she had what she calls "a good life." A place where her deceased pharmacist husband was well known and respected. A city where she and her friends could chat as they walked through a picturesque neighborhood of wood-frame shops or buy cookies and ice cream from "Jadran," their favorite shop.
The city Salihu remembers no longer exists. A systematic and highly efficient, government-sponsored campaign of demolition and burning has virtually eliminated Pec and all traces of its 60,000 residents. To walk Pec today is to find street after street of blackened, waist-high rubble stained by graffiti, instead of graceful one and two-story homes.
The city had been a popular tourist attraction and prosperous trading center. Many of Kosovo's best-known artists and musicians were born here and studied at a local art school. Kosovo residents once spent their summer holidays in Pec and took afternoon drives into the green Rogova hills to the southwest.
Now it is an uninhabitable concrete mess, the ground littered with broken guttering, electrical lines and roof tiles. "This is now a dead city," said Gina Gashi, 68, as she wandered aimlessly through its deserted streets.
Salihu picks her way through the debris on her street each day with the aid of a cane fashioned from a broken table leg, so she can reach the homes of two Bosnian women Zuna, 85, and Xhiva, 75 to share some tea, bread and ill thoughts about Serbs, most of whom have fled Pec since NATO peacekeeping troops started arriving last weekend.
Salihu was at her son's home on March 28, the day that Serb-led forces began the systematic looting and burning of Pec. He promptly packed up the family car, put his children inside and urged his mother to accompany them to the ethnic Albanian city of Ulcinj, in the neighboring Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. But she said, "I decided to die in my home."
Told by a soldier as she tried to make her way to her house that "you don't have a home anymore," Salihu went to her daughter's home nearby, a red-roofed stone structure with three small rooms decorated with clowns to please her 5-year-old granddaughter. Her daughter and family had already fled, and they have yet to return.
The shelves in one room held a collection of more than 25 dolls collected by Salihu, her daughter and her granddaughter, and these were the first items stolen by Yugoslav troops, men with shaved heads and black bandannas who burst in several times a day.
Later, they took tools, clothes, a radio and a television set, then searched for liquor and sat on the upholstered wooden chairs on the front stoop. "Shall we kill Granny?" asked one of the soldiers lounging there one day, Salihu recalled. "Yes, let's kill her," another said. But a third said, "Let's let her stay longer."
On the telephone, her granddaughter pleaded with her to leave the house and let the troops burn it, but Salihu taunted them instead. "It's easy to kill an old grandmother," she would tell them. "They would think about that and go back into the street."
One young soldier a "good one," she calls him tried to talk his colleagues into leaving her alone as they rampaged through the neighborhood. He posted a simple sign on the front door in Serbian: "A person lives here." But his view did not hold sway, and early on the morning of June 6, another soldier set fire to the roof.
Panicked and sleepy, she ran to the door and cried out to the policemen outside that she needed help because the house was on fire. They stared blankly at her. Several blocks away, however, Enver Ramoni, 45, a gaunt man who was able to stay in the city because he had worked for a state-owned company, heard her cries and helped her use the garden hose. "I don't know how I found the courage to do it," he said.
On the day after the first fire, Salihu heard a noise on the charred roof, and looked up through one of the holes. One of the soldiers was standing on the roof, setting fire to neighbors' roofs. When Salihu's roof caught fire, another neighbor, Shemsedin Kasapolli, helped her put it out with the hose.
The third time the soldiers tried to burn the home was last Friday, but Salihu had prepared by filling several pails with water, and again she stifled the flames.
The final insult came Monday, when one of the soldiers who had frequently stopped at the house saw her on the street talking with Ramoni about buying bread. The soldier, who was dressed in civilian clothes because he was preparing to leave Kosovo, said he would buy the bread, and followed her back to the house to take her money.
Terrified, she gave him $42, the last money she had in the world. She never saw him again.
Salihu said she does not regret the departure of Pec's Serbian civilians. "I hope I never see the bastards again," she said. She has washed her granddaughter's favorite stuffed animal, which the troops had tossed in the dirt, and put it on a clothesline over the stoop "for when she comes back."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company