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Going Home to Kosovo
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Antigona Betechi, 12, hangs the KLA flag from the family's Pristina home, but her mother was afraid to leave it flying. The bright red flag is known to all Kosovars -- cherished by ethnic Albanians and hated by Serbs. [Times photo: Jamie Francis]

Column by SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

Times photos by JAMIE FRANCIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 1999


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Members of the Betechi family share a laugh as they talk about how good it is to be together and back in their home: from left, grandfather Dema; Agnes, 4; Arta, 16; Arton, 13; Qamile, 20; and Antigona, 12.
PRISTINA, Kosovo -- The 5 o'clock evening news has just come on and Agron Betechi hears something that immediately draws his attention.

British NATO troops have moved into Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and are firmly in control of all parts of the city except the airport. Although the presence of 200 Russian soldiers there is giving NATO fits, the war that has driven nearly 1-million ethnic Albanians from Kosovo finally appears to be over.

Betechi looks at his father.

"I think it's time to go home," he says.

"Yes," comes the reply through clenched teeth. "It's time to go home."

Ten weeks earlier a Serbian soldier had slammed Osman Betechi in the face with a rifle butt, injuring him so badly his jaws had to be wired together. An otherwise handsome man, he now has so much metal in his mouth that he brings back memories of the villainous Jaws in old James Bond movies.

However grotesque his smile, there is no mistaking the joy behind it as he watches NATO soldiers on TV. Since April 2, the family has been living among strangers in the Macedonian city of Gostivar. They are luckier than many other Kosovo refugees. They are staying in a private house instead of a tent. But they have no money, no jobs and, until this moment, little hope.

It is time to leave.

On Wednesday, they spend most of the day trying to find someone to take them back to Kosovo. Authorities are warning that it might be weeks, if not months, before all the land mines are cleared and it is safe to return. Agron finally locates a man with a Ford minibus who agrees to drive them for 300 German marks, or about $175. One of their new neighbors, another ethnic Albanian, gives them the money.

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Antigona Betechi, 12, swears not to touch anything as her grandmother cleans up. The smell of rotten food, human waste and other garbage left by the Serbs was nearly enough to make the young girl sick.

On Thursday, they get up early and spend the morning packing the back of the bus so full it is impossible to see out the back window. Blankets. Clothes. Bread. Canned goods. Bottled water. All donated by relief organizations, and enough to get them through the next few weeks no matter what they find when they reach home.

At 1 p.m. it is time to get ready themselves. The eldest daughter, 20-year-old Qamile, puts on her 6-inch, white platform shoes and the sleeveless flowered dress in which she was married three weeks ago. Then she sweeps her hair into a Grace Kelly-style bun and strokes on eyeliner with a dramatic upsweep.

Her father dons a tweed jacket; her mother, the black-and-white dress bought specially for the occasion with money from another neighbor. For almost a week after being forced from Pristina, they wore the same filthy clothes. Now that they are going back, they will look respectable.

Finally, all 11 of them -- 78-year-old Grandfather Dema down to 4-year-old Agnes -- climb into the blue minibus and arrange themselves as best they can. The bus sags noticeably and lists a bit to the right.

A dying thunderstorm hurls its last bolts of lightning as the bus approaches the Macedonian-Kosovar border shortly after 4 p.m. Perhaps because of the weather, perhaps because it is late in the day, there are hardly any cars here, unlike another crossing point where the line of returning refugees stretches for miles. Macedonian police quickly check their paperwork and German NATO soldiers wave them through.

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Agnes Betechi, 4, hugs her brother Agron, 22. When the family was forced from its home in March and herded by masked Serb paramilitary, she had told Agron that she would gladly die for him.
But this road, while less crowded, is also more dangerous. It enters Kosovo over a high mountain pass, with sheer cliffs on one side and a drop-off of several hundred feet on the other. Rock falls are common; what hazards nature didn't create, humans have.

The van zigs-zags around holes in the road where just two days ago the Germans removed land mines set by Serbian troops. Did the Germans miss any? The consequences are frightening, as the bus inches its way across a large section of collapsed pavement where an anti-tank mine exploded.

At one point the driver gets out and -- violating a cardinal rule in mined areas -- heads into the overgrown grass to relieve himself.

"MINOS!" the children shriek, calling the man back to safety.

The narrow road is further choked by dozens of rusting cars, abandoned three months ago when they ran out of gas as they carried refugees in the other direction. Several trees downed by bombs partly block the way, their scorched orange leaves providing a ghastly paradox of fall color against the lush green of Balkan summer.

Still, the family is in high spirits. At least they are back in their beloved country.

"Oh, Kosovo, you are my mother, you are my land," 12-year-old Antigona begins singing. The others join in.

Then the minibus rounds a curve and the Betechis see them. Two houses, or what were two houses. Now they are blackened ruins, their roofs gone, their walls crumbling. The Serbs have shelled them and burned them and stripped them of every last thing that could be carried out.

Everyone grows silent.

Is this what they are going home to?

'10,000 marks or we'll kill your son'

As he looks back on it, 22-year-old Agron wonders about the three masked gunmen who came to his house in Pristina on March 30. They were dressed in Serbian police uniforms, but they were unusually tall and didn't speak Serbian very well.

Could they have been Russians?

Ordered out of their home, the family went to a relative's house nearby. But at 5 the next morning the police came there too, smashing the front door and firing several shots into the air.

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Agnes playfully tells her father, Osman, to get out of the way so she can find a box full of stuffed animals she was given while the family lived as refugees in Gostivar, Macedonia.
Four-year-old Agnes was terrified. But she got into Agron's arms and pressed her face against his so the police couldn't tell that he was a strong young man. Those were the kind of Albanians that the Serbs were known to shoot.

"I will give my life for you," she told her brother. "It's better they kill me than you."

Qamile, meanwhile, covered her long brown hair with a scarf and hunched her shoulders so the police couldn't tell she was a pretty young woman. Those were the kind of Albanians that Serbs were known to rape.

As the family joined thousands of others being forced from their homes, a Serbian TV reporter asked if they were leaving because of the NATO airstrikes. To help get the right answer, a policeman pressed the barrel of a rifle to Osman's neck.

"We're not leaving because of the NATO bombing," the father replied defiantly. "NATO is not shooting us -- the Serbian paramilitaries are shooting us." For that, the policeman whacked him in the back with the rifle.

They had gone only a few hundred feet when they were stopped twice again. First, an officer demanded 400 German marks. Then police threatened to kill 13-year-old Arton unless his father handed over 10,000 marks.

The police finally settled for half that, but not before firing several shots. Arton's mother, separated from the rest, heard the gunfire and thought the worst.

"I was going insane, because there is no hope, no life for me anymore," Bedrij says.

The family was shaken down yet again -- this time for their last 2,300 marks and all their jewelry -- before they crammed onto a train. The teenagers, afraid of being seized by police, hid in the overhead luggage racks and under the seats. The car was so crowded that Qamile, still pretending to be an old woman, could stand on only one leg at a time.

After two hours, they began to move. People were screaming, crying, fainting. A baby, apparently overcome by the heat and the crush, died in its mother's arms.

It was close to dawn when they stopped in the village of Kacanik, about 10 miles from the Macedonian border, and were ordered off the train. They had hidden their passports and ID cards on little Agnes, but the Serb soldiers quickly found and took them.

Two by two the Betechis walked along the railroad tracks. The soldiers demanded more money. When they didn't get it, one hit Osman with a rifle, smashing his jaw. He collapsed, and his two oldest sons half-carried, half-dragged him the remaining miles to the crossing point at Blace.

There they spent three days with 50,000 other refugees, sleeping in the cold and rain with no shelter, no toilets and little to eat.

On April 2, luck finally began to break their way. While many families were separated in the mayhem at the border, all 11 Betechis managed to get on one bus that took them not to a squalid refugee camp but to a mosque in Gostivar. Townspeople gave them food and blankets, and a day later they moved into the empty home of an ethnic Albanian who was working in Germany.

Osman endured the pain in his mouth for two weeks, then went to the hospital. He stayed there a month after doctors wired his jaw and put him on a liquid diet supplemented by intravenous feeding.

Qamile was stunned to hear from her fiance, whom she feared had been killed by Serb police. He gave her a gold ring and paid for a new dress; they were married in the Macedonian town where he had taken refuge. Her parents didn't attend the ceremony because they didn't have the bus fare to get there. They were sad, too, that they couldn't give her a proper Muslim wedding.

There was little to fill the family's days except watching TV or going to the huge refugee camp in nearby Cegrane in hopes of finding old friends from Kosovo. So when word came that the British were in Pristina, they thought of only one thing:

Home.

'How can they do this?'

The blue minibus has made it down from the mountain and is speeding through the yellowish-green fields that lie south of Pristina.

Here the road widens but the traffic sharply increases. A small convoy of U.S. NATO jeeps approaches from the opposite direction, and the children wave madly as it goes past.

"NAH-TOE, we love you!" they shout. "Rambo! Americano!"

On their side of the highway they spot the first of what will be many cars, trucks and tractors loaded with Serb civilians heading north out of Kosovo. The Serbs look stone-faced as the children flash "V" for victory signs and clap with glee. Agron, a mechanic by trade, points out a large filling station. "Serbish," he says in disgust. Undamaged by fighting, the station remains open, but it is clear that Albanians returning to Kosovo will not do business with many Serbs.

The children begin singing the "Oh, Kosovo" anthem again and wave as they pass a house with the blood-red flag of the Kosovo Liberation Army flying from its roof. Two KLA soldiers in camouflage wave in return.

At last the bus crests a small hill and a collective "ahh" is heard. Spread before them is the city of Pristina.

As they enter town, they look nervously in all directions. Here's a factory, every last window broken. There's a high-rise building, the top several floors gutted by fire. Satellite TV trucks from around the world line the entrance of the Grand Hotel, the only hotel still open. There are few cars on the road and many stores appear to have been looted.

Now the minibus heads up Jabllanica Street and turns right down a narrow dirt road. It comes to a stop at a white house.

Home.

The iron garden door is partly off its hinges, but at first everything looks surprisingly normal. The roses and tiger lilies are in full bloom, if somewhat snarled with weeds. The roof is intact and there is no sign of fire.

Then Agron sees his Nissan Prairie, every window smashed. Qamile, smiling broadly just seconds ago, sticks her head through a broken bedroom window and breaks into great, wracking sobs.

The place looks like a trash dump. Looters have ripped all the clothing, shoes and linens out of the closets and dumped them ankle-deep on the floor. There's a deep slit in the living room sofa where someone hoped to find money or jewels. Drawers have been ransacked, furniture overturned, pots and pans thrown around the kitchen. Serb graffiti mars the white-washed walls of the living room.

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Qamile Betechi, 20, curses and cries upon discovery of her ransacked home in Pristina. Looters ripped all clothing, shoes and linens out of the closets and dumped them on the floor. Drawers were ransacked, furniture overturned, pots and pans thrown around the kitchen.
"Oh, my God," Qamile screams in English, followed by a string of what sounds like Albanian curses. She is in a near-hysterical rage, flinging pillows and slamming a suitcase against the wall. Then she sinks to her knees and buries her face in her hands.

"How can they do this?" she weeps. She gags and almost vomits.

Tears in their eyes, her parents wander dazed and silent through the house in which they have lived for 26 years. Mrs. Betechi kneels down and scoops a dead mouse into an empty box of tea bags. Almost mechanically, she gathers up a bunch of 3-month-old onions with sprouts almost a foot long.

Then, their shock fading to relief that things are not worse, they begin reclaiming the pieces of their lives. Qamile's sisters squeal in delight as they root through the clothes and find family photographs and old report cards. Their father smiles his metallic smile at the sight of his international driver's license, which somehow has wound up in the stove. Little Agnes hugs a stuffed animal to her chest.

Even Qamile smiles when a favorite platform shoe surfaces from the mess.

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Arta Betechi, 16, washes the kitchen windows. To clean up destruction from looters, the family had to disassemble the kitchen. They removed the fridge, stove and all the dishes that were left. They do not know if any of the appliances work because the power is out.
For the next four hours, a frenetic cleanup is under way. The men right the furniture and drag out the few pieces too damaged to be saved. The women straighten and sweep and scrub with a vengeance, trying to erase every last trace of the Serbs.

By 10 p.m., the house is in reasonable order. Everyone sits down to a candlelight dinner of bread and sardines, followed by tea and Turkish coffee made on the wood-burning stove.

It may be weeks before they have electricity, garbage pickup or mail service. Who knows when the schools will reopen or when Osman, a master bricklayer, will be able to go back to work? He still is on a milk-and-soup diet and has lost almost 20 pounds.

But for now, in a place where so many people have lost so much, the Betechis realize they are very fortunate. They all survived, and once again they are living in their house, in their country.

In his eight decades, Grandpa Dema never learned much English. But this is what he says to an American visitor:

"NATO. Britain. Germany. France. Italy. America."

Then he doffs his white skull cap and bows.

"Thank you."

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