Witnessing Yugoslavia’s

fall | Stories on staying sane throughout war and apartheid

1990 - 1998


Interviews and translation Anduena Hajdari

A series of war crimes were committed during the Kosovo War (early 1998 – 11 June 1999). The forces of the Slobodan Milošević regime killed many Albanian civilians during the war. According to Human Rights Watch, the vast majority of the violations from January 1998 to April 1999 were attributable to Serbian police or the Yugoslav army. Violations also include abuses committed by Kosovo Liberation Army, such as kidnappings and summary executions of other minorities and Albanians.

10 years before the war 90 percent of the population, which are the ethnical Albanians, were ruled in brutal apartheid style by the ethnic Serbs. These are two stories about life before and under the war.

4 sisters and their aunt, age 37-46:

We are 4 sisters, and we are best friends with our aunt, who is just like a sister to us. She is the same age as us, that’s why. We lived near each other for over 20 years. There were 3 state-owned stores in the city. One of the stores had some very pretty shoes; there were sneakers and high heels. All of them new and good material. We had about 5 pair of shoes each: One pair of sneakers, one pair of rubber boots, one pair of high heels, one pair of sandals and one pair of fur boots. We were lucky, because both our parents worked, so we had enough shoes. Some of our friends didn’t have half the stuff we had. But to be fair, most of our clothes were hand made. Our winter clothes were hand knitted by our grandmothers and aunts. We never bought anything for the winter, only for the summer. And we worked a lot! Every day was a workday. Even after school, we had to help out at the house. The 3 months of summer where school free. Those 3 months were the best months of our lives, and we had so much fun dressing up, curling our hair and putting on makeup on each other. This was life!

 The aunt to the left, the sister and their mother in the middle. Sometime in the early 90’s.

Our relationship with the Serbian people was very neutral. That is until the war broke out in 1992. That war changed everything. The trouble started already two years before the war, the year 1990 till 1998, where we were forced to flee. It was total chaos. Albanians were fired from their jobs, university students were dismissed and Albanian TV channels canceled. All language had to be written in Serbian. The children had to be taught only in the Serbian language. Our father/ brother in law opened his own barber/textile shop in our garage after he was fired as the Mayor’s driver for simply being… well, Albanian. We had enough money for food, so we didn’t suffer. But we did definitely not have enough money for clothes, shoes or other things. There was no apartheid while growing up, but when it came, it hit us hard.

It was them vs. us now, and it felt so, so wrong.

We did still go out once a month. We needed to stay sane after all. Everything was suddenly very expensive. We used Nivea, the old blue ones. They smelled good, and I (oldest sister) think they were German-owned, which made them more desirable. Everything was divided: the Serbs had their own cafés and restaurant, and we had ours. The Serbs had the fancy places, we had the old buildings with fragile chairs and mold on the walls . There was suddenly a cold feeling around the city, hell, around the whole country. It was them vs. us now, and it felt so, so wrong. Everything was now also owned by Serbs: the hospitals, the schools, the stores. Albanians all around the country boycotted all of them. We had Albanian doctors who practiced medicine in their basements. We studied at our former teacher’s houses. These were insane times, had the Serbs found out about this, they would have executed us. Nothing ever became the same. The war was disgusting, something we wish we could forget. So much death, so much hunger.

Their father at the secret barber/textile shop.

We are so thankful for the life we have now. We live in France with our children. 4 of us are divorced. Maybe it is because our relationships with our ex-husbands died along with the life we once knew. Not a day goes by where we don’t miss our old country. It is truly a shame what happened in Balkan in the ’90s.

A married couple, age 46 and 50:
The married couple, 3 years before the war.

We fled the war in 1998. We didn’t have time to pack anything, so we only had the clothes we already had on. Our children were 1 and 3 years old. I (wife) was placed in a car with my husband’s family. My husband had taken his mother, my parents and 4 younger siblings (all under the age of 23) with them on a bus. We were so afraid that something would happen to my family, that is why we chose to split up. Our whole family lost and found each other multiple times during the war. The ugliest part about losing someone in plain sight is the kaos that consumes you. It makes you lose control over yourself. 

We were 9 people in the car. 3 grownups, 5 children and one baby. We held still at the border for 2 whole days. We only left the car at night if we needed to go to the “toilet”, which were mainly sidewalks or bushes. We couldn’t change our baby’s diaper for 2 days and 2 nights, and this wasn’t even the worst thing: we had no water or food for 2 days, so the dirty diaper was the least of our problems. Fortunately, the baby had only been drinking my milk, so the diaper was “only” wet. After what felt like forever, we found refuge in Macedonia. We never thought that we would be this glad to see food. We were so hungry, the pain in our stomachs was unbearable. Never have I ever eaten so fast and so eager, it was such a shameful feeling – to eat like animals. 

I (husband), my mother, and my wife’s family were traveling on a bus towards Macedonia. I hoped to find my wife and children at the border, but that was nearly impossible. There were over half a million refugees at the border. We had no mobile phones at that time, those were for rich people. I had therefore no way of getting in contact with my wife.

We were finally placed in a UN refugee camp in Macedonia, Bojana, and lived in small white tents. Macedonian Albanians helped out at the camp with food, blankets and other things that made life a little easier for us. I had saved a small piece of paper in my pocket with a number on. It was my brothers’ number, who at that time lived in Germany. I asked him if he had heard anything from my wife and elder brother, and he answered YES. I was unsure if they had survived. For almost 2 weeks of searching, I finally had hope that I would see my family again.

We stayed sane by not having time to reflect on what the hell was happening.

We had to look for food and shelter every day, all the time. This took all of our focus, which kept us from going insane. It was pure survival. We don’t understand how people could start a war like that. We can say a lot of bad things about the Serbs, but we are also very divided on that topic as well, because not all Serbs we met through our lives were bad. We never had any conflict with them before the war area. And when our girls were born, the Serbs treated them and us very well. It is a shame that this hate between Albanians and Serbs still is so fresh. We have suffered so much under this hate. Enough is enough.

We live in Denmark now, and we have had many years of intense therapy to overcome what has happened to us. We are very fortunate to be here today.  

In memory of the fallen people of Ex-Yugoslavia.
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