One was a college senior, another a taxi driver, and two worked in their families' restaurants - all pursuing the same promise of prosperity that has drawn generations of immigrants to the United States.
But that was five weeks ago and half a world away. Now Florim Lajqi, Tonin Gjetaj, Sadria Mehaj, and Bruno Ukaj make their home in an Albanian training camp deep in the mountains. There they are learning a new way of life: how to spot and defuse booby traps, move under fire, and set ambushes.
Taught by Albanian Army officers and professional instructors from Israel, Europe, and the United States, the four are among a few hundred Albanian-Americans being molded into the Atlantic Brigade of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
In the coming weeks, the all-Albanian-American detachment will head north with other fighters from their camp to join the KLA's struggle against Serbian control of Kosovo.
Their training is far more rigorous and comprehensive than the four to 15 days of instruction given to other rebels now fighting on the Albania-Yugoslav border. Yet it remains to be seen how much of a difference they will make in the uphill battle for the province.
The US-led NATO pact remains unwilling to invade Kosovo or arm the outgunned rebels despite its failure to compel Belgrade to withdraw its forces and admit armed peacekeepers.
Pressure on the Clinton administration to reassess that strategy rose further with the deaths Friday of some 80 ethnic Albanians in NATO's third errant strike on a refugee column since the bombing of Yugoslavia began March 24. The latest blunder came a week after China's embassy in Belgrade was mistakenly hit.
Problems also persist within the KLA. It has been battered by Serbian forces since October, and its hierarchy is beset by disarray, with some commanders resisting the orders of superiors. A power struggle between Kosovo's exiled ethnic Albanian political leaders is deepening the rifts, hindering efforts to consolidate the command chain and improve coordination among KLA units.
The Albanian-Americans are disturbed by all this as well as what they see as the failure of their adopted country's government to anticipate the Serbian expulsions of 790,000 ethnic Albanians. Western officials fear thousands of others have been killed, and US Defense Secretary William Cohen said Sunday that as many as 100,000 ethnic Albanian men had vanished.
"What they [NATO] are doing to the Serbs would have taken us thousands of years. But the purpose was to stop the genocide, and they did not do enough to save the civilians," says Mr. Gjetaj, who immigrated to the US from Kosovo in 1972. A taxi driver, he left his wife and two children in Stamford, Conn., to join the KLA.
He and his comrades spoke for 90 minutes outside the Albanian Army camp where they are training. The Monitor was barred from the facility, near the northern town of Burrel. The visit came as celebrations began inside after a ceremony in which the Albanian-Americans and some 2,000 other recruits swore their loyalty to the KLA. As cheers, traditional Albanian music, and occasional bursts of gunfire floated out of the tree-covered valley in which the camp is located, NATO jets racing toward Kosovo painted white contrails across the azure sky.
The rebels say they were among hundreds of Albanian-American citizens of the US who signed up to fight in Kosovo after Serbian "ethnic cleansing" began. "They turned many people away. Some did not have the proper documents. Some were illegally in the US, or their cases were still pending," says Mr. Lajqi, a student at John Jay College in New York City. Like the others, he wears a surplus US Army camouflage uniform, boots, and cap.
The recruitment drive was organized by KLA operatives in the US, who chartered an airplane that flew the volunteers to Albania via Ireland and Italy. The Atlantic Brigade's only non-American is its commander, Gani Shehu. A Yugoslav Army officer in the former Yugoslavia, he was brought to Texas last year for treatment of wounds he suffered fighting for the KLA in Kosovo. After recovering, he agreed to help select and lead the detachment.
"You know what made me come back? I watched [Kosovo coverage on] TV every night. I could not watch any more," says Mr. Mehaj, a father of three who co-owns a Yonkers, N.Y., pizzeria and two apartment buildings.
Unlike the others, Mehaj is originally from Montenegro, which with Serbia makes up Yugoslavia. He immigrated to the US in 1983 after spending three years in prison, where he says he was tortured for organizing anti-Serbian protests.
"Every free hour, we train," says Lajqi, whose parents moved to the US from Kosovo when he was 3. "I will definitely go back to the States," he asserts. "But if I'm still alive [when the war ends], I will first stay on for a while, visit my father's land, see if I can build something."
Mehaj says the Albanian-Americans get along well with the recruits from Kosovo, who are not as well equipped. "I feel sorry for those people," he says. "I had four uniforms, and I gave three away."
Asked if they believe they are ready for combat, Mr. Ukaj, who has only lived in the US since 1993, speaks for the others. "I feel like I am ready to go," he says. "I can't wait to go inside Kosovo. I don't want to call my family and tell them I am still in Albania. I want to go inside."