Love Under Fire: How an Ethnically-Mixed Couple Survived the Kosovo War

NATO launched its bombing raids to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his campaign of repression against Kosovo Albanians. But during the 78 days of air strikes, Yugoslav forces intensified their armed attacks before they were ultimately made to withdraw into Serbia.

Despite all this, Zeqaj, Kerezovic and their family would be the last to leave his home in the village of Strellc i Ulet/Donji Streoc, on April 2.

Speaking to BIRN at his home in Strellc i Ulet/Donji Streoc, Zeqaj, now 85 and retired from his job as a teacher, said he wanted to tell the story even though his wife is currently has serious health problems after having a stroke that left her unable to speak.

“I owe her this [to tell the story],” he said. “Inter-ethnic animosities can devastate any family, no matter which side you are on.”

Zeqaj and Kerezovic have experienced this devastation first-hand. Their son was one of the casualties of the Kosovo war.

Son shot after joining guerrillas

Ali Zeqaj at home in Strellc i Ulet/Donji Streoc. Photo: BIRN.

During the war, the couple gave refuge to many displaced people in their small house in Strellc i Ulet/Donji Streoc. They also gave shelter to animals – a displaced family brought 100 sheep with them and Zeqaj had to build a barn for them, which was also used by the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA to hide some arms.

On April 2, when he, his family and the displaced people staying in the house were the only ones left in the village, he called on his children to jump on a tractor and head for safety in Albania.

But his son Rexha, then 30, declined to join them; he had decided to stay and fight for the KLA.

“I shouted at him, trying to convince him to come with us. I felt I would never see him alive again,” Zeqaj said. His wife Jelica simply gave him a hug.

“[Rexha] had graduated from the Belgrade military academy and had recently joined the KLA, after being rejected more than a year earlier by a branch of the FARK [Kosovo Armed Forces, the military faction of the Democratic League of Kosovo political party]. Maybe it was because of the fact that his mother was a Serb,” Zeqaj said.

A month after the family fled the village, on May 1, 1999, his son Rexha was killed by a bullet, although Zeqaj only heard about what happened on July 1, after the war officially ended, while he was still a refugee in Albania.

‘Drive away or I’ll kill you’

KUKES, ALBANIA: Ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo near the town of Kukes, northern Albania, Monday 29 March 1999. EPA PHOTO/ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/

A few kilometres after Zeqaj, Kerezovic and their other children fled on their tractor on April 2 in a convoy of ethnic Albanians heading for the border, they faced their first ordeal.

“We were stopped [by Serbian police] in Decan, and all the young people were taken inside. A police officer put a gun to my head, saying: ‘Drive the tractor away, old man, or I will kill you,’” he recalled.

The policeman said he would open fire in two minutes if Zeqaj didn’t get moving. But he refused: “I said to him, I can’t do it because I can’t [drive].” The young man who was driving the tractor was held by the police officers and never seen again.

After several hours there, one of the police officers lifted up a plastic sheet that they were using to protect themselves from the weather and shouted at them. “Then Jelica shouted at him, saying ‘You should be ashamed’. Minutes later, they allowed us to continue, without the boys,” he said.

They were stopped again near the city of Gjakova/Djakovica, and a Yugoslav Army soldier took their identity cards. “When he saw Jelica’s ID, his eyes widened.,” recalled Zeqaj. “Maybe he didn’t expect a Serb to be leaving as a refugee for Albania.”

Zeqaj’s eyes filled with tears as he remembered an elderly Serb man he met in Prizren during his three-day journey to safety in Albania.

“My tractor ran out of oil. I went to a small shop to ask a Serb if he had a litre to sell. The old man said to me: ‘I have a lot of bread, please take it and no need to pay, but I don’t have oil,’” Zeqaj recalled.

“Then he said: ‘Remember, friend: you are going but you will come back. When you return we will leave, but we will never come back.’” After Yugoslav troops and Serbian police forces pulled out of Kosovo in June that year under pressure from NATO’s campaign of air strikes, many Serbs fled in fear of revenge attacks.

When the family finally got to the Albanian border, some French journalists interviewing refugees from Kosovo asked to speak to Kerezovic.

“I just heard her saying what Milosevic is doing is the same as Pol Pot [the dictator who led a genocidal regime in Cambodia],” Zeqaj said.

“When they asked for her name, they were surprised. They didn’t expect a Serb woman who has a son in the KLA.”

But even after the family arrived in Albania, he didn’t feel fully safe, fearing he might be targeted by KLA members because he had a Serb wife.

“I was in a café in [the city of] Kukes waiting for someone and a person with a KLA uniform came and sat close to my table. I spent three hours waiting and I felt he was looking at me all the time,” he recalled.

“Suddenly two men came in who knew me, but also knew him. After they hugged me, they turned to him. Soon they left the café,” he said.

A few minutes later, the two men he knew came back again after speaking to the KLA guerrilla, who had told them that he was intending to arrest Zeqaj “as a person connected to the Serbs”.

A summer holiday romance

A Serbian policeman during fightings with Kosovo Liberation Army KLA) troops in the region of Srbica, EPA PHOTO EPA/RISTO BOZOVIC.

The couple first met in the summer of 1965, when Zeqaj and his classmates were a school trip to various locations around Yugoslavia. On a train to Zagreb, they met another group of young students. Among them was a girl called Jelica Kerezovic from Brcko in Bosnia.

“She was very beautiful. We started to exchange letters and soon got married,” Zeqaj said, his eyes filling with tears again.

“She was so brave and so loyal. I could hear her several times shouting at Serb officials at the police, at the municipality or other administrative institutions,” he recalled.

His marriage, like other mixed marriages during the Yugoslav period, was regarded as normal by his family and other relatives, despite the fact that in Kosovo, marrying outside one’s own ethnic group was generally uncommon. The boundaries between Kosovo’s ethnic groups, Albanians and Serbs, were less close than their low intermarriage rates suggested.

But as inter-ethnic relations deteriorated and divisions deepened in the 1990s, many people would start to regard Zeqaj as a “person connected to the Serbs”, he said.

His wife worked as a Serbo-Croat language teacher until 1992. Then secondary schools and universities and were closed to ethnic Albanians by the regime, so they set up their own parallel education system, in which Serbo-Croat was not taught anymore.

“It was a hard time. Sometimes I had to buy notebooks or pencils for pupils because there were many from extremely poor families,” Zeqaj recalled.

With repression increasing and the war looming in Kosovo, his wife frequently helped people who had been detained or jailed by the Serbian police. “There was barely a day when someone did not come to ask for some help from Jelica,” he said.

Meanwhile, he had to put up with being labelled a “spy”, a “traitor” or “pro-Serb”.

“There were people who avoided me in the street for years and didn’t want to talk. Then suddenly when they needed to get someone released form custody or get any [official] documents, they came begging,” he said.

After the war and the loss of their son, he and his wife returned from Albania to their home in Strellc i Ulet/Donji Streoc, but found it difficult to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the conflict.

Despite all he has been through, he remains philosophical about what has happened, however.

“We didn’t choose this history,” he pointed out. “It was imposed by the situation.”