I just returned from the small town of Mt. Shasta, CA. It was the first time in 10 years that my family (8 siblings and my parents) plus new found family members gathered at the home many of us grew up in. There we were – the wooden floors, tall ceilings, skylights -each corner and plank of wood told a story of our early years. It was the 10 year anniversary of a significant shift that occurred in many of our lives.
10 years ago this year, NATO dropped over 20,000 tons of bombs on Yugoslavia as an ultimatum for Milosevic to withdraw his troops from Kosova. That year, my family visited Kosova former Yugoslavia. With no previous ties to the region, we decided to sell our home in Northern California and move to Peja/Pec for an open-ended period of time. I was 13 years old.
When our family arrived in November 1999, refugees were returning from the war, 90% of the homes were destroyed in the city of Peja/Pec where we stayed, and the streets were lined with NATO military and UN cars. The region was a UN protectorate. Tensions were high between the Albanian majority (who were suppressed under Milosevic’s regime) and the Serbian minority (who found themselves in enclaves protected by international military). The smell of bloodshed and terror was nearby. But the abundance of love, Turkish coffee, families of 24 living in two bedroom apartments and stories and dancing to unfold until dawn kept my heart pumping faster than it ever had. I lived there for 4 ½ years.
One of the first Kosovar people I fell in love with was named Antoneta. Her sister was Sevdije. Beauty exuded from their eyes which glistened with both sadness and rejoicing. They soon became like new found sisters.
In 1999, following NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia, some of the most brutal massacres occurred. Not far from Peja/Pec is a village by the name of Zahaq (Zahach). On June, 1999, paramilitary troops entered the village. Just as other days, when Antoneta and Sevdije heard the trucks, they ran into the surrounding hills. One of Antoneta’s sisters and her mother remained in the house on this day to prepare a traditional meal for their family of nine. As her sister stepped outside to fetch water, the paramilitary saw her and took her. Her mother followed. The paramilitary took her as well. They rounded up women and children into a village home. Antoneta and Sevdije were in the hills running. They heard gun shots from not far away. When night came, they returned to their home. Their father, sisters and relatives were all gathered. Her sister and mother never returned.
When internationals entered Kosova following the crisis, Antoneta started volunteering as a translator for an organization named Balkan Sunflowers – a children’s organization that my eldest brother was organizing with. From the moment I met her and her sister, I felt like I knew them for a very long time. Together, we made our first documentary film which highlights the experiences of women in conflict and post-conflict Kosova.
Antoneta just completed her masters in journalism and film. In 2003, she married my eldest brother and is now mother to my two beautiful nieces. Sevdije, after receiving multiple awards for the best cinematographer in Kosova, was just accepted into a master’s degree cinematography program at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles as the first student from the Balkans ever to matriculate at AFI. We had much to give thanks for this thanksgiving. Ten years ago we left our home in northern California to move to Kosova. This year, we gathered back in our home - this time with new members of our family and new stories to tell. Our two new sisters from Kosova were with us. My two half Kosovar nieces saw the place I grew up for the first time. The home glistened in a way it never had.
My Kosovar American niece of four-years-old held me tight the first night. She took me to the outside of the house and pointed to the wood. In Albanian she said to me “This is the most beautiful home I have ever seen. This is the most beautiful home in the world.” With all of the people who gathered in this home and the culmination of ten years of memories in one place, it became one of the most beautiful homes in the world.