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  •   Exodus: One Woman's Choice

    Kosavar refugee Vjosa Maliqi ponders her future. (Lucian Perkins — The Washington Post)
    By David Finkel
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, June 9, 1999; Page A1

    SKOPJE, Macedonia She awakens one more time, in a tent on a patch of land that is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed police. Tent 37A, Stenkovic II Refugee Camp. That's her address. To find it, look for the 23-year-old woman with the dark blue dress and the bright blond hair who three weeks ago kissed a man for the first time in her life and now is sadder than even she believed she could ever be.

    "I don't know what to do," Vjosa Maliqi is saying.

    Because the man she kissed, and then kissed again, and then told she loves, has arranged to get her out of this place by bringing her to his home in France. To marry her.

    And her father, whom she also loves, and whom she has never disobeyed, is telling her she cannot go. That her place is with her family. Here.

    Vjosa's choice:

    "If I decide to go, I'm afraid I'll lose my family," she says.

    "If I don't go, I'm afraid I'll never meet him again."

    The plane leaves tomorrow.

    "Family or him."

    In two days there will be news of a peace agreement. Not that Vjosa knows that.

    What she knows is she has one day to decide.

    Yeltsin spacer
    Vjosa Maliqi and friend Zafira Mirouidou, right, commiserate with each other on the day that Vjosa must decide whether to leave for France to be with the man she fell in love with at the camp, or stay with her family in Tent 37A. (By Lucian Perkins – The Washington Post)

    Who would have expected love in such a place? It is hot, without shade, except beneath the brittle leaves of runty bushes or inside tents where the air feels thick. It is lines of people waiting for whatever there is to wait for, which is everything. For news. For water. For food. For doctors. For phones. For toilets that are holes in the ground. For showers that are nothing more than buckets of water heated over scraps of wood, scraps that lately have been coming from the frames of the latrines. The latrines are near the tents. The tents are staked inches apart. The stench is unavoidable. The noise is without pause. There is nowhere to hear silence, nowhere to feel alone, nowhere to find relief. Occasionally there's a bit of cloud cover and a teasing burst of wind, but the wind merely stirs up the dirt, and the dirt, in turn, covers everything, including Vjosa's dress, which is what she was wearing when the Serbs came to her door and told her family they had 10 minutes to leave, and her hair, which is turning from blond back to dark brown, a reminder of how long she has been here.

    Two months.

    On April 1, she was at home in Pristina, playing cards with her family.

    On April 2, she was being forced onto a train so crowded with panicking people that they were pushing their way on board through the windows.

    On April 3, she was in a field just inside Macedonia with 60,000 other refugees, all begging for bread and water, and all without shelter from a steady rain that was turning the field into a mixture of thick mud and raw sewage.

    And on April 4, she and her family fought their way out of the field and onto a bus that delivered them to Stenkovic II, Tent 37A, where they've been since, and where, every day for two months, her father has been saying the same thing.

    "We'll go home soon. And we'll stay here until we go."

    And then another day comes to an end and they are still here, only 40 miles from home but living a life that feels borrowed. They live in a donated tent, and they sleep on donated blankets, and they eat donated food, and they sweep out the dirt with a donated broom, and they own nothing except what they were able to pack in 10 minutes into a single suitcase while three Serbs wearing masks and aiming rifles stood in their doorway.

    Her passport. Her ID card. A toothbrush. A little bit of money. A few pieces of clothing. That's what Vjosa (VYOH-suh) thought to pack as she scrambled around the only house she ever lived in, crying from fear. And a bottle of perfume. "But it's finished now," she is saying.

    She is on a plateau overlooking the camp, in a tent set up by a relief organization where people can come to write letters. This is where Vjosa works, and where she was when she met the man from France. She had been in the camp for two weeks. By then, she had stopped crying. She had gone from depression to the subset of depression that is numbness, had stopped greeting the new buses to see if anyone was from Pristina, was settling into this place, when the man asked her her name.

    She, in turn, asked if he wanted some tea.

    How do these things happen?

    "This just happened," Vjosa says. "It's not my fault."

    His name, he said, was Gilles, and he was in Stenkovic with a team of firefighters from France to help build tents. He spoke no Albanian. She spoke no French. But they both spoke some English, and that's how she learned that he was 33 and lived alone and wasn't married and had a dog, and that's how he learned that she was the daughter of a man named Aziz who, 30 years ago, when he was Vjosa's age, lived briefly in Paris.

    So Gilles decided to meet Aziz Maliqi and suggest to him that his family resettle in France. Such resettlements, in fact, were what Stenkovic II was set up for, as a transit camp where people would stay only until they could be evacuated as humanitarian cases to countries such as France and England and Germany and the United States.

    They shook hands. They talked. And after Gilles was gone, Aziz Maliqi, who expects his daughters to marry Albanian men, turned to Vjosa and said, "He wants you, my daughter."

    So many weeks later, Vjosa can still hear him saying that, and what he said next. "He said, 'French men are no good. They are like Serbians.' So I said nothing, and I left the tent, and cried, and walked, and thought, 'Maybe it's better without this man. Too many problems.' But I can't stop. I can't stop myself. When they bring me the phone and I hear his voice, I'm so happy."

    The phone. That's what their relationship is now. It went from learning names, to talking tentatively, to talking every day for hours, to a kiss late one night while they sat on the edge of the plateau overlooking the tents. "What are you doing?" she said. Which led to another kiss, which led to using the word love and then using it every time they talked, and then it was time for him to return to France. He has been back now for two weeks, but he calls his French colleagues every day, and they get in their trucks and climb the hill and bring Vjosa a mobile phone.

    "My French man," she calls him.

    Her family doesn't know this.

    No one knows this, except a few friends and the French delegation.

    She brushes the dirt off her dress. Gets up. Wanders down the hill, toward the French compound, where everyone is busy. They are packing. They are leaving tonight. Their time in Stenkovic II is done and they are taking everything away, including the phone. So there is that, too. Starting tomorrow, if she doesn't go, she won't be able to talk to Gilles at all.

    "Hello, pretty girl," one of the firemen says as she approaches. He reaches in his pocket, takes out a phone, dials, hands it to her.

    "Gilles?" she says. "Hello? . . . Fine, and you? . . . Are you all right?"

    She listens. Whispers something. Realizes he is no longer there.

    "Gilles?" she says. "Gilles?"

    The line has gone dead. She redials. Dead. She gives the phone back and begins walking toward her tent.

    In the Tents

    Her father is out front. Doing what he does. Sitting. Waiting. Sitting. Waiting. He is 54. He worked in a university registrar's office. He has a stubbled, sunburned face. He has a quiet voice. He is unfailingly polite. When he saw the three masked Serbs approaching his house, he opened the door as if they were guests. He is fiercely protective of his family. "Just to save my children," he says of why he left his house.

    That was the easy decision.

    But now what?

    How does a man who decides everything for his family decide what they should do next, when they are living in a tent and there is no possible way he could know? How does a man act the way he is used to acting, as if there were a single best decision to make and he will steer his family to it?

    So he sits. And thinks. "He thinks, he thinks, he thinks," Vjosa says. And? "Sometimes he goes out of the tent and walks." And? "Sometimes he listens to the news on the radio." And? It is news that peace may be coming closer, sometimes delivered in Albanian but other times in languages he doesn't fully understand. But he listens anyway, as do his neighbors, none of whom understands any better. They pick up what they can, and then, based on such things, they talk about what they've heard. What might happen. Where they should go. How long they should wait.

    Refugee calculations.

    The conversations occur every night with the neighbors to the left, five men, none of whom knows where his family is, and the neighbor to the right, who is approaching now to say that he wants to go home, but to what he isn't sure.

    "Everything is destroyed," he says of the home he left behind.

    "Everything is destroyed," Aziz Maliqi repeats, thinking, of course, of a different home.

    He doesn't know what happened after he left.

    He doesn't know when he'll be able to go back.

    He just knows that his father was born in Kosovo, and died there, and that he wants to do the same, and that, "I want to live here, in the tent, just to be able to go," and that, "Every day I think we're going back, soon." And it is that last word, soon, that causes him to begin crying, which causes his wife of 28 years, Miradie, to begin crying as she sits behind him, watching him, waiting to hear what he has to say, waiting to do what he says to do, because that's the way so many Albanian families work. The father says, and that's what the family does.

    Even though, in this particular family, there's so much the father doesn't know.

    He doesn't know, for instance, that Gilles the French man would drive up to the plateau every morning and say, "Hello, my darling," and Vjosa would wave nonchalantly, just in case her father was watching from down below, and that she and Gilles would then spend hours together in the Post Office tent.

    He doesn't know news of a peace settlement is less than two days away.

    He doesn't know that Gilles, when he went back home, began making calls about the humanitarian evacuation flights, and that yesterday someone from the French embassy came to the camp and told Vjosa that she and her family would be put on the next plane to France. Which is the one leaving tomorrow.

    The List


    She is back up on the plateau. The French have brought her the phone. It is 5:30 p.m.

    ". . . The list is not up . . .

    ". . . No. The list is not . . .

    ". . . Do you understand me?

    ". . . Yes, but . . .

    ". . . Yes. Yes, my love.

    ". . . Yes, Gilles, I'm here . . .

    " . . . Gilles?"

    The line is dead.

    She waits for the phone to ring.

    Oblivious to the sound of stapling a few yards away.

    Oblivious to the sight of her younger sister, Arieta, squeezed in the middle of a suddenly formed crowd, looking at the bulletin board and now running toward her, shouting:

    "Vjosa! France! Vjosa! France!"

    But now her sister is hugging her, and now she knows the list of tomorrow's evacuees is up, and now the phone is ringing, and now she is saying, "My name is on the list . . . Don't worry . . . Yes, yes, yes, yes . . . Yes, I am sure, don't worry, I will do everything, don't worry," and now she is looking at Line 13 on the list, which says, "Maliqi, Aziz, 37A," and now, scared, truly scared of the gentle man who has decided everything in her life so far, she is going down the hill to ask Maliqi, Aziz, 37A, if they can go to France.

    Night Thoughts

    "He said no."

    It is later. Dark. After dinner, which was tins of chicken and glasses of warm milk, and a family eating in silence. The light came from two candles, burning low to the ground in the center of the tent, casting exaggerated shadows on the white canvas walls. A father on one wall. A daughter on another. The tent flaps were down. The radio was on. No news. Just soft music. Vjosa excused herself. She ducked through the tent flap, and as she did a sudden wind gust coated her anew with dirt, and then, without warning, every light encircling the camp went out, and from every direction came the eerie response of thousands of unseen people whistling. Into such noises and darkness went a silhouette, walking along a pitted dirt path, not even slowing down. "I know this road," she said. "With my eyes closed, I know this road by now," and she kept walking, and hours later is walking still.

    Thinking, thinking, thinking.

    "Everybody comes here to go away, and my father doesn't go," she says.

    "I'm going to break the heart of my French man. I'm going to be with my father, but it will never be the same as before," she says.

    "Why does he not let me go to see what life is?" she says.

    "For two months, I've not slept in a bed," she says.

    Long after midnight, she winds her way back to the tent. Everyone is asleep. She doesn't want to see them. But she does want to be near them. So she sits outside the tent, just outside the opening, never once looking inside, until sunup, and leaves before they awaken.

    She makes her way to the center of the camp where a bus is being loaded for an evacuation flight to Sweden. The bus is full, and it is ringed by people here to say goodbye. Women are crying. Men are crying. This is what happens every day. The buses go to the airport, and the refugees disappear. On the left side of the bus, third seat back, is a friend Vjosa has made here, whom she confides in, who is leaving with her family, and she is crying, too, and so is Vjosa. The bus engine rumbles to life, and Vjosa's friend uses these last moments to draw letters onto the window with her finger, a final message. "Go to France," she writes, and the bus leaves, and it is 9 a.m., and Vjosa has three hours left to decide.

    She goes back up to the hill and into the Post Office tent and sits in a chair in a corner.

    "It's impossible. If I go, maybe my father will die. I've never been out of my country. I've never been more than two days out of my house."

    Refugee calculations.

    "If I marry an Albanian boy, maybe he'll be like my father. It's hard to be an Albanian woman. You have to wake up early. To make breakfast. To make coffee. To do everything. And the husband, he does his job and sits down.

    Outside the tent is a water truck, and behind the truck is a line of people with plastic jugs, hoping to catch any overflow.

    "I'm going to talk to my father now, and I'm going to be angry, and I'm going to be strong, and I'm going to say, 'Take your clothes and come with me,' and he's going to say no, and I'm going to say, 'You are old, and I'm going to do this,' and I'll promise him I'll come back to Kosovo."

    Outside the tent are more tents, tents that are coffee bars, tents that are schoolrooms, tents next to tents next to tents.

    "Maybe he's going to ask me, 'Are you going to come back to Kosovo with your French man?' 'Yes, father, if you want me to.'

    "Maybe he's going to say, 'Okay, my daughter, go alone. Find your future. But if you do something bad, don't come to me.'

    "Maybe he's going to say, 'Sit down and shut up your mouth.'"

    It's 10 o'clock.

    "I think, I think, I think, I think better is to go."

    Ten thirty.

    "But maybe I change my mind. Maybe I stay here."


    "In two months, look what's happened to my life," she says, and down the hill she goes. Past the two-hour-long line for the phones. Past the stinking latrines. Past a tent where bath water is being heated over a fire made from cardboard. Past a tent where two boys have just had their heads shaved because of lice. Past a tent where a woman is sweeping the dirt off her donated blankets. Past a tent where a little boy is rolling a donated toy truck over the bare chest of a man who is looking up at the cloudless blue sky. Past a tent where the three people inside are doing nothing at all, which is next to a tent where the eight people inside are doing nothing at all. Past 50A and 45A and 40A, and on toward 37A, where, earlier in the morning, unknown to Vjosa, a man was sitting out front, alone, in the spot where his daughter had been the night before, with his head in his hands.

    Like a Bird

    While in France, a man with a dead father, a distant mother, no brothers or sisters and an empty house wonders if a woman will leave a refugee camp for him.

    He calls the police station at the airport in Skopje. No, he is told, the plane hasn't left yet.


    And here comes Vjosa, out of the tent, purse over her shoulder, shoes freshly wiped clean.

    Followed by no one.

    "I'm going," she says. "Alone."

    She walks toward a bus that, like everything else in this place, looks like it's sagging.

    "My father said, 'If you want to go, go.' My mother cried. My father said, 'Let go. She's never going to be my daughter again.'"

    There are 53 seats on the bus, six of which are for the Maliqi family, five of which will remain empty.

    Except here comes Vjosa's mother, and here come her sisters, and here comes her brother, toward the bus.

    "Don't go," the brother says.

    But she's going.

    "Don't go," he says again.

    And she is wondering: Where is her father?

    In the tent, dreaming of being in Kosovo? Making his way once again in his mind to a house that may or may not even exist any more?

    It doesn't matter.

    She has decided.

    "My heart," she says of how she decided.

    She puts her hands over her chest.

    "I'm so happy," she says. "I'm like a bird now," and maybe she is, but as she leaves this place where she has been for two months, away from her mother and brother and sisters who remain watching behind the armed guards and barbed wire, she doesn't seem happy at all.

    "If you want to go, go."

    That's what she is thinking of. Not of the man ahead of her but of the one behind her, and of his last words, and of his anger.

    "She's never going to be my daughter again."

    Those were his last words, and his voice is never loud, but it is loud now, in her ears, and now she is crying, and now she is at the airport, and now she is walking toward the plane, and now a policeman is looking at her, at her blue dress, at her blond hair.

    "Vjosa?" he says.

    "Yes?" she says.

    He motions her to follow him. He leads her to the police station. To a desk. To a phone. There's a call. For her.

    "Hello?" she says.


    The voice goes right through her.

    "I love you," he says.

    "Come back," he says.

    "No, father," she says, and she hangs up the phone, and gets on the plane, and goes to the other man in France.


    Who is waiting for her, as he said he would be.

    Who is crying because he didn't think she would come.

    Who sees that she is shivering, and listens as she says that she is frightened, that she has made a mistake, that she wants to go back.

    Who hugs her and says he will take care of her.

    Who takes her to a temporary refugee center where she will wait for her papers, a place that has a shower and a bed and electricity and a door that closes, allowing her, for the first time in two months, to be alone.

    Who gives her a ring.

    "For you, my love," he says.

    And now she is the one crying.

    And meanwhile, at Stenkovic II, Aziz Maliqi, who knows none of this, is the one with his hands over his chest, saying, "My heart."

    He is having a heart attack.

    He is on a stretcher.

    He is being taken to the dirt-coated tent that is the hospital.


    Four days later.

    This past Monday.

    "I begged her," Aziz is saying.

    He is still in the hospital. His breathing is better. His temperature is better. His heart, according to the doctors, is better, though damaged. So many things collapse in this part of the world. Peace talks. Daily hopes. Human hearts.

    "But she left," he says with a sigh.

    She left, and he had a heart attack, and now, as far as he's concerned, she is gone for good.

    "All the time," he says, of whether he has thought about her since she left. He turns away, begins to cry, covers his eyes.

    "Never," he says, of when he will talk to her again.

    "She was my first child. I loved her very much," he says, as if she is dead, and in France, his daughter is crying too because of a phone call she received from her sister.

    "Violetta!" she said, and there was a pause because Violetta didn't know what to say.

    Should she tell Vjosa about what happened to their father after she left?

    Should she describe how sick he is? How angry he is? How hurt he is? How sad he is? How, when someone mentions Vjosa's name, the pain in his chest is so sudden and severe that he gasps?

    Should she explain that the family has been forbidden from ever speaking to Vjosa again? That she shouldn't even be making this call? That when they go back to Kosovo and they will go back because Aziz says they will that Vjosa won't be welcome there?

    "He is sick," she finally said. "His heart. He is not doing well."

    "Violetta," Vjosa said.

    "You did something very bad," Violetta went on.

    "Violetta, tell father he must be strong," Vjosa said.

    "You are not my sister," Violetta said, hanging up, and in France a woman with a bed and a shower and a ring and hope and an address that is no longer Tent 37A makes another choice, this time of what to believe.

    "My sister, she's lying," she says.

    "I know my father's okay.

    "And I know I'm going to be happy."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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