Ilir Namani, 12, raced through winding alleys this morning to a two-story house on the edge of a wood. The young ethnic Albanian paid no mind to the random shooting, or to the houses newly torched by bitter Serbian police. For 11 weeks he hid in deserted villages and on barren hillsides, evading bullets and bombs, separated from his parents since the night NATO airstrikes began.
His house here had been burned, but a school friend told him his parents were staying at his uncle's. He entered the front gate and looked up to the balcony: "Poppa. I'm here."
"I saw him, but then thought it was an illusion," his mother, Linda, recalled, her eyes welling with tears.
Ilir Namani has had enough trauma for a lifetime, and his story is shared by tens of thousands of other Kosovo Albanians who stayed in the province while so many others fled to neighboring countries. These tales can be fully told to outsiders only now that the tide of Serbian power is receding under the weight of defeat by NATO, whose peacekeepers entered Kosovo early today.
The red-haired, freckle-faced boy would liked to have spent this spring puzzling over the math homework he enjoys, playing volleyball and following the NBA basketball playoffs. Instead he scavenged for wood and flour and cried himself to sleep, wondering if his parents were still alive. He watched surgery performed on a wounded young Kosovo guerrilla in a field and saw him die.
On March 24, the date that NATO airstrikes began, Namani was spending the night with uncles and cousins in Dobrotin, a village northwest of Podujevo. His parents, Aliu and Linda, were at home here in Pristina. The fate of all would be the same. NATO airstrikes were like a starting gun for the Serbs. Soldiers, police and paramilitaries -- the latter wearing white headbands inscribed "Serbia" -- went door to door ordering people to leave. As houses were abandoned, many were torched. Bullets sounded throughout the town, as they did in cities and hamlets all over Kosovo.
Namani fled with his uncle and 14 other relatives. They took the clothes on their backs, some bags of flour, oil and blankets and piled it all on a trailer meant to haul hay and pulled by a little red tractor. They went in darkness to Pakastrica, north of Podujevo. His parents went through the same terror, and fled south with their other son to Ladovac.
"I cried," Namani said unashamedly, "It wasn't for me. It was for my mother and father."
Pakastrica and its few houses provided refuge for only three days. The army approached and pursued the rebel guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army with big-wheeled armored cars and mortars. There was shooting, just like the first night in Dobrotin. No one had to tell Namani's relatives to move. They headed for Kolic for a few days. There was more shooting, and they headed for the hills, to Kacandol. The tractor was useless. They walked for days. Namani's boots were heavy. "I [had] used them in the garden," he said. "They weren't good for the mountains."
They settled on hardscrabble near a place called Cenog, a collection of a few houses that were still occupied. Namani's desperate group wasn't the first; about 1,000 ethnic Albanians already had fled there. The rocks and boulders provided some protection, because they were hard going for tanks and jeeps. It was the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army more than the elements that the ethnic Albanians feared. Some brought plastic sheeting and set up lean-tos.
Namani took on a job: collecting firewood. The forests above provided plenty. Supplies of flour were turned into bread, sometimes mixed with dried corn to give it heft. Water was siphoned from a pipe that ran down the hillside from a spring. A kind of routine set in.
"Some of the kids wanted to play; I didn't feel like it," Namani said. "I dreamed all the time about my parents. I dreamed about our house. Once I woke up and said, `They're here!' I meant the police."
The hillside was only partly safe from the poison of war. Once in a while, young, gaunt men in faded fatigues came. Some were sick and begged for medicine. Other rebels came and went from the valley below or to hills and mountains beyond. Some were wounded. Namani saw a hole in the side of one. He was very pale.
"A woman doctor from Dobrotin cut into him. He was screaming, but his friend put a rag in his mouth. He later slept. He seemed to sleep for 10 days. He turned white. He was dead, they told me. I had never seen that," said Namani, shrugging and looking down.
The encampment kept producing bread, which came out black when cooked flat on a metal sheet over coal. "It was hard." Namani said. Sometimes, scavengers snuck into villages to find loose bottles of oil and bags of flower and perhaps dig up a vegetable from a weed-filled garden.
The war was getting closer. NATO jets poured bombs on hills and in the valley. The rat-a-tats echoed closer, day and night. Guerrillas marched silently through the camp.
Finally, it happened: The army reappeared. "We were scared. I cried again. Everyone said, `Let's give up.' "
The soldiers threatened them -- "We're taking you to Clinton's house to die" -- but let them go to Polat. It was desolate, filled only with burned houses, but soldiers gave them bread. Paramilitary gunmen demanded money. The group produced 1,000 German marks ($537), and they were marched to Metohjia, a collection of farm houses about five miles northwest of Podujevo. A convoy of refugees formed and they traveled at gunpoint. "I got on a tractor, but I got off right away. Some of the police and the men with headbands hit us with sticks. If you were on a tractor, they could get you easier. So I got off," Namani said, with pride at having been tricky.
That was three weeks ago. In Metohjia, Namani picked up a new job: begging for flour. He wondered if he would ever be a pilot, as he hopes to be. He knew nothing of his parents. They, meanwhile, had made a circuit of villages: Kacikol, Kolic, Hertiza, Orlane, Saikovac. They knew nothing of him. "It was something I couldn't accept," said his father, a mechanic and plasterer.
About the same time that their son was escorted to Metohjia, the parents and their other boy were told they could return home. It was part of a program of letting some of the internally displaced ethnic Albanians go back to the places they came from. One of those places was Podujevo.
Home was not what it had been: The house was burned to the ground. They went to live at a relative's on the outskirts of the city. Linda, Namani's mother, made a daily vigil to their old neighborhood. She searched for her son, squinting hard at every reddish-haired boy she spied. "I believed I would see him. I prayed so," she said.
Then Yugoslav troops began to leave. NATO was coming, the radio said. Namani could sense the shift. He observed the tanks and missiles parading out of Kosovo and the sudden disappearance of police checkpoints. True, there were still armed men shaking down Albanians for money and burning their houses as a last farewell. But Namani had had enough. His relatives said, "Wait, you shouldn't go home, it's not allowed."
"I wanted to find my parents," he said. "I wanted to know."
He left Metohjia early this morning on foot. He walked to his street. "I was surprised. The house was black and flat."
He was paralyzed. His mind raced through the names of relatives in Podujevo. He would go to Radovan's house, Alban's. Then a school chum came up to him.
"Ilir," the boy said. "Your father, mother and brother are at your uncle Isret's."
When he was back with his parents, Namani said, "Everyone cried but me." He talked today to a reporter in Isret's living room. The uncle ordered away other children during the scary parts.
The afternoon meal featured flat bread -- food is still scarce. Namani was amazed at its whiteness. He chewed rather thoroughly, everyone else thought, as they gulped the food down. Eat slowly," Namani said. "So it lasts longer."