BARI, ITALY — Toma N. has a tattoo on his chest the size of a cereal box. It's a double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "Seven years ago," Toma says, jabbing his chest proudly. "Didn't feel a thing."
His friends laugh. "You had it done last year!" one of them yells. Toma stands up to face the jeering crowd - all of them ethnic Albanians, all of them on their way to Kosovo from this southern Italian port town. "I had this done seven years ago," roars Toma, who quit his job in Germany two weeks ago to join the KLA. "I had it done with a needle, not a machine like you!"
The waiting room for the ferry to Durres, Albania, is filled with roughly 400 Albanians who left Kosovo to look for jobs elsewhere. They're now going back, hoping to cross the border from Albania on foot and fight against the Yugoslav Army of President Slobodan Milosevic.
"I will kill at least 10 Serbs before I go back to Germany," says Toma. "I said to my boss, 'It's my home, it's my land. You keep this job for me maybe two, three months. I'll be back.' "
Ismet, also from Kosovo, says he struck a similar deal with his employers in a factory near Lucerne, Switzerland. "I have three months' leave," he says, tapping his watch. "Not much time." Next to him, a flamboyant Albanian with long hair and a fedora hat with a KLA symbol on it leans over with a sarcastic grin. "The world has no time for human rights," he says. "You think you will get your job back? They won't even know your face. They will say Ismet? Ismet who?"
Where's my family?
Ismet checks his watch again, then takes off his military cap, which he bought in a shop in Switzerland when NATO started its bombing campaign almost three weeks ago. He left a Swiss girlfriend behind and a job that earned him "enough money" to support his mother and father in Kosovo.
He is not sure where they are now. He heard from a friend of the family that they were forced out of their homes, along with more than 500,000 ethnic Albanians. "Maybe they are dead," he says. Talking with bravado and exaggeration, as many here do, he continues, "The Serbs like to kill. They kill children."
At the mention of Serb atrocities, the man in the fedora hat pipes up again with his own hyperbole. "They kill Albanian children, so we will kill their children," he screams, provoking general hilarity.
A few minutes later, Ismet confesses in a whisper that he had little appetite for the war: "But what is my choice? There are hundreds of us here. Yesterday there were 8,000 of us who left here to fight the war. They all came by train from Germany."
According to the port authorities in Bari, the figures are much more modest but still significant. "Yesterday, there were 800 Albanians, the day before 300," says Giovanni Cerruti, an Italian journalist with La Stampa daily.
Ismet's private lamentations came to an abrupt end with the first sighting of the Palladio, the ferry headed for Durres. A KLA commander with a striking resemblance to Marlon Brando, who refused to give his name but assured everyone he could speak nine languages, started barking orders. "He's the leader. He's in charge of rounding up Kosovo Albanians in Europe and shipping them out to war," says an Albanian who exports meat from Italy and travels regularly on the ferries. He, too, refused to give his name. According to him, there is little spontaneity involved in the conscription effort of Kosovar expatriates.
He says: "There is now an unwritten law: All the men in good health between 18 and 50 must go. If they refuse, they are in trouble. I have seen thousands of them in the last week alone. Some of them want to go, but believe me, some of them don't."