A Kosovo village struggles to overcome losses of war

Damaged homes have new roofs, and a new school opens in the fall, but rebuilding lives has proven more difficult.

Hanumsha Batusha hauls out a cushion for her visitors and steers them to the shade of a cherry tree in her yard. A spry septuagenarian, she has not forgotten the traditions of hospitality that continue to grace life in her village, even today, after so much suffering. She sits down on the grass, propping her elbows on her knees.

"I'm fine," she says, smiling, then adding, "But how could I be fine when I have lost three sons and five grandchildren?"

Few places in Kosovo endured more than Krushe e Vogel, a farming village of about 800 inhabitants, during the war here that ended with NATO's intervention in the spring of 1999. On March 26 of that year, Serbian military, police, and paramilitary forces rounded up ethnic Albanian villagers, apparently in retaliation for NATO bombing, and drove the women and children on foot toward Albania. They herded the men and older boys into a stable, gunned them down with automatic weapons, and set the building on fire. Afterward they looted and burned the village.

One hundred and two men and boys died in the stable, and in the three years since, the survivors have struggled to move beyond their loss. International relief organizations helped them rebuild their houses, often to a higher standard than the destroyed homes.

Once-burned houses sport new tile roofs and new doors and windows. Still unfinished houses of block and concrete rise above broken walls of sun-dried mud brick. The village has a new day-care center, a women's center, and a small factory that turns locally grown peppers into powder. A new primary school is set to open this fall.

Rebuilding lives has proven more difficult.

Almost every family in the village lost one, and often several, members. For many of the survivors, grief is compounded by new, unsought responsibilities. And yet even here, the passage of time has helped.

"When we came back, we talked about the war and our losses all the time," says Shpresa Shehu, a schoolteacher who runs the woman's center.

"There were days we didn't eat anything because our minds were so much on what we lost," she says. "Now we can't say our sorrow is gone. But we've gotten used to it. We have everyday problems. We have to live. We have to take care of the children and the houses. That is the difference. Somehow these things take our minds away from what happened."

For the women of Krushe e Vogel a turning point of sorts came in late spring. On June 11, two survivors of the massacre testified at the war-crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The trial has been televised throughout the province, and on that day almost everyone in Krushe e Vogel was watching.

Most villagers already knew details of the massacre.

One of the witnesses, Lutfi Ramadani, said that after the war many people came to his house to ask what had happened. But for others, especially the village women, the broadcast from The Hague was their first chance to hear his story directly.

They had long resisted the truth. The dead had never been found, and others in the village had been reluctant to crush the women's hopes. "Somehow we hoped they were missing and would come back," says Shemsije Batusha, one of Hanumsha Batusha's daughters-in-law, who lost her husband, Milain. "But when we heard the witnesses in The Hague that day tell how they were killed and burned, and how only six survived, from that moment on we realized that they were not alive any more, that they were dead and not going to be back."

In the weeks since, Batusha and other widows have begun filing death certificates with the local municipality so that they might be eligible for pensions. Even before this summer, many had been going to the women's center to learn to drive, to sew, to plant crops, and even to use a computer.

Widow Shkurta Hajdari earned extra money by sewing, and last year she took a job at the village day-care center. "Besides the money, it's good for me," she says, sitting in the twilight outside her house at the edge of the village. "If I stay home, I will think the whole day of my loss."

Not all opportunities for self-help have been welcome.

A few young widows have returned to their parents in other villages to remarry, but this practice is condemned by men and women alike. When Hanumsha Batusha's youngest daughter-in-law remarried, she left behind her 3-year-old daughter. She did this in obedience to ethnic Albanian custom, which assigns children to the husband's family and not to the mother, but custom made it no less painful. "She wanted to take the child along, but we didn't want to let her go," Batusha says.

In many ways, Krushe e Vogel – the Albanian name, adapted from the Serbian, means "little pear" – offers a glimpse of problems that are widespread in Kosovo three years after the war. Few in the village have jobs, and most see few prospects for getting any.

Many families farm small plots outside the village, but their produce fetches little in the glutted local markets. The flood of foreign aid that helped rebuild the village and that employed some of the villagers has slowed to a trickle.

Villagers also are waiting for justice.

Milosevic is charged with the massacre in Krushe e Vogel, among other war crimes, but everyone in Krushe e Vogel points out that he did not act alone. "I do feel a kind of satisfaction when I see Milosevic in The Hague," says Ramadani, whose two sons died in the massacre. "But it will be a greater satisfaction if I see in jail the criminals who committed the crimes here."

Among the guilty, the villagers say, are members of the 30 Serb families who once lived in Krushe e Vogel. The families fled at the end of the war and have not returned. The villagers are furious that United Nations officials want to bring Serb refugees back to Kosovo, perhaps even to Krushe e Vogel, without a broader accounting for war crimes.

For most people, economic problems loom largest.

Hanumsha and Shemsije Batusha share a two-story house that they have partly rebuilt but cannot afford to refurnish. They keep a cow – the gift of a foreign charity – and a flock of chickens. Like other widows, Shemsije Batusha receives a monthly stipend of about $50 from the provincial government. Last summer she also earned $150 by working a month coring peppers in the pepper factory.

The two women grow much of their own food in a vegetable garden next to the house, but not even this simple effort toward self-sufficiency is easy.

Because of shortages, the local water authority forbids villagers to use household water to irrigate crops and has threatened Hanumsha Batusha with a $500 fine. "What can we do?" she says. Defiantly, they water.

In ways large and small, people in Krushe e Vogel are learning to manage, while they defer their hopes to their children.

Shemsije Batusha says she will find peace only when her 8-year-old son, Mevlan, grows up to take a man's place in the family.

For now he is just a skinny boy who likes to climb trees, and she has much to do. She chops wood, cooks meals, looks after her mother-in-law, and waits for the peppers to ripen so she can earn some money.

"I want to work, if I have the chance," she says, with determination.

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