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The Lleshis of Kosovo
Terrible things should never happen in springtime, and it was almost spring. March had arrived on the Plain of Dukagjin, and even though most days were still bitter with the raw dampness of late winter, they were getting longer. Today had been one of those rare, bright days promising that spring would eventually come. The afternoon sun fell warm on Meli’s hands as she took in the wash Mama had hung out this morning. In the light breeze the multicolored plastic clothespins danced like little people atop the line. She should remember that thought—put it into a poem, or at least tell Zana at school the next day. They shared silly thoughts, she and Zana. That’s why they were best friends—that and the fact that both their fathers had come from farm villages and so weren’t proper “citizens” in the eyes of their classmates whose families had long lived in town. They weren’t looked down on like Gypsies or hated like Serbs, but still, there was a difference, and she and Zana knew it and shared it.
Meli dropped Baba’s best shirt into the basket at her feet and took a deep breath. Was there a smell of spring in the air? She longed for spring, when the two cherry trees in the back corner of the garden would bloom and the storks would return from their winter vacation in Africa. She tried to imagine the great birds flying over that immense continent, across Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Or did they choose a more daring flight over the Mediterranean Sea to come home to Kosovo? She’d have to ask Mr. Uka. Their teacher liked to be asked unusual questions. It gave him a chance to show off a bit, tell them about his trip years ago to the shore of the Adriatic Sea.
Meli had never seen any sea. She had never been anywhere, really. But she had seen pictures on television of oceans larger than the Mediterranean. Mr. Uka had said that there were birds that crossed those oceans in their migrations—tiny birds, far smaller than the white storks. How brave that seemed. The thought of traveling as far as Prishtina made her stomach flutter.
Meli finished taking in the first line of clothes and started on the second. Beyond the bounds of the town she could see green patches of winter wheat and, in the distant west, the snowcapped Albanian Alps—the “Cursed Mountains,” people called them, but no one seemed to know quite why. To the south was the Sharr range, where, she had been told, wild horses ran free. She had seen them only in her imagination, but that didn’t make them less real, their manes streaming in the wind as they raced about joyfully, unseen, unheard, unthreatened by the petty hatreds of humankind.
It would be a long time before spring came to those heights, but the snow was already beginning to melt on the hillsides. The gold cross and red-tiled roof of an old Serbian Christian church stood out starkly against the grays and browns of late winter. Why do the Serbs hate us so? Though, to be honest, most Albanians hated the Serbs just as fiercely. Some of the girls at school could, and would, recite terrible poems against the Serbs. She could never understand hate like that. Baba had always taught them to respect, not to hate. But he was not like other people. Even now, just a few feet away, her two little brothers were playing war.Was that fun? It must be. They played it every day, although they knew Baba disapproved. She tried to think of spring and blossoms and the return of birdsong to the garden.
Adil’s yell broke her reverie. “Meli! Tell Isuf I’m the KLA man!”
“No,” Isuf said with the practiced authority of the older brother. “You’re a Serb. I’m the KLA soldier.”
“Meli!” Adil begged. “Isuf always makes me be a Serb policeman. Tell him to let me be the KLA man. It’s my turn.”
Meli sighed, keeping her eyes on Vlora’s frilly new dress as she took it off the line. She wouldn’t want to drop it; the ground was still muddy. “Stop fighting, boys. If you can’t take turns, find some other game to play.”
It was Mehmet’s fault. Their older brother was convinced that the Kosovo Liberation Army would soon save the Albanians. No matter what Baba said, Mehmet worshiped the KLA. Baba said they were more legend than fact, but Mehmet was convinced they were simply biding their time, waiting for a chance to free Kosovo from Serbian domination. Even Mr. Uka, pointing to the picture on their classroom wall of Skanderbeg, the Kosovars’ fifteenth-century hero, predicted that out of the KLA would arise a new Skanderbeg who would liberate Kosovo.
She must have heard the familiar rattle and roar without realizing it: Uncle Fadil’s ancient Lada Niva. Baba, as elder brother of the Lleshi family, had tried to convince him to sell it and buy a new tractor, but Uncle Fadil had refused. The Lada suited him. He had taken out the back seat so he could load the car for market. Ten years of carrying vegetables, chickens, and the occasional goat had not dealt kindly with the old Russian made vehicle. It was something of a family joke. “Well,”Mehmet would say, “you can always tell when Uncle Fadil is arriving— if not by the noise, then certainly by the smell.” But the truth was, Meli was distracted, and she wasn’t aware that the car had driven up until the brakes squawked and it pulled to a stop on the street in front of the store.
She dodged under the clothesline and ran around the edge of the building to see. Yes, it was Uncle Fadil’s car, but what was it doing here in the late afternoon? He should be home milking his cow and goats at this time of day.
“Isuf, Adil, run into the store and tell Baba that Uncle Fadil is here,” Meli said.
“I don’t want to go in. It’s my turn to be the KLA man.”
Just then the driver’s door opened. It took Uncle Fadil three tries to get it slammed shut again. Meanwhile, the passenger door opened, and his wife stepped out onto the curb. Why had Auntie Burbuqe come and left Granny alone on the farm? She never did that.
“Come on, Adil, let’s get Baba.” Isuf’s eyes were wide with fear. Even at eight he was old enough to realize that something was dreadfully wrong if both his aunt and uncle arrived unannounced.
A chill went through Meli. She called out to her uncle, “Is Granny all right?”
Uncle Fadil looked up, startled. “Granny? Yes, yes, of course.”
So it was something else. “I’ll—I’ll tell Mama you’re here,” Meli said, and raced around the building and up the outside stairs to the apartment above the store before slipping off her shoes at the door.
Before long, the whole family was assembled in the parlor: Uncle Fadil and Auntie Burbuqe took the two upholstered chairs, while Baba, Mama with Vlora on her lap, and Mehmet sat on the couch. Adil and Isuf propped themselves against their father’s knees. There was no place for Meli to sit except for the tiny stool in front of the television set, so she chose instead to lean against the frame of the kitchen door. Everyone was still, waiting. Even her long-dead grandfather and grandmother seemed to be staring out of their black-and-white photograph atop the television set, watching Uncle Fadil as he nervously rubbed his large black mustache.
At last he put his hand in his lap and cleared his throat. He half nodded toward the two little boys and Vlora, as though signaling to his brother, and jerked his head toward Meli.
Mama looked puzzled; then she caught Baba’s eye and said, “Meli, take the little ones into the kitchen. If there’s no mineral water in the cabinet, send one of the boys down to get some. Your aunt and uncle must be thirsty after their trip.” She paused, looked at both men, and then added, “Oh, and while you’re out there, make some coffee. We’d all enjoy a cup, I think.”
Uncle Fadil nodded, obviously relieved that he had been understood. Baba gave the little boys a gentle shove, and Mama put Vlora down from her lap.Meli took Vlora’s hand and started for the kitchen, but not before she saw the smug expression on her older brother’s face. Mehmet was only thirteen, less than a year and a half older than she was.Why could he stay for the grownups’ talk and not she?
“Come on, Isuf, Adil,” she said, and pulled a reluctant Vlora behind her.
“I want to stay,” said Isuf. “I want to know—”
“Come on,” Meli said gruffly.
“And shut the door after you,” Mama called out.
Meli left the door open a tiny crack. She couldn’t help it. She had to find out what was going on. There was a bottle of mineral water in the cabinet, but even before she poured out two glasses, Mehmet got up and pulled the door completely closed.
Why was Mehmet a grownup all of a sudden? It wasn’t fair. She was nearly as tall as he was and every bit as responsible. But then, her mother had asked her to make coffee—a job Mama usually reserved for herself.
The boys were huddled against the kitchen door. “Come away from the door, Isuf, Adil,” she said as she ground the beans to a fine powder. “You mustn’t eavesdrop.”
“Why not?” Adil asked. Isuf ignored her and kept his ear pasted to the wood.
“It’s grown-up business.” She put the coffee and sugar into water and started the flame under the pot. “Isuf! You heard me. Come away from that door.”
But Isuf kept his ear to the door, wanting desperately to hear the muffled conversation from the parlor. Meli tried not to worry—to concentrate on her task. She stretched on tiptoe to get four coffee cups off the top shelf. Mehmet might be there, pretending to be an adult, but she certainly wasn’t going to serve him a cup of the best coffee Baba sold in the shop.
“Isuf,” she said again, “I told you to come away from the door.”
Isuf did turn toward her, but his face was ashen, his eyes full of terror. “Meli,” he whispered. “Something terrible’s happened. Somebody’s dead.”
“Somebody named Adem. They killed him. Uncle Fadil said so. They killed him and all his family. Even the children.”
Before Meli could think who this Adem person might be, Isuf pushed the door open, and both boys ran into the parlor and flung themselves against their father. Vlora was right behind; even at four she knew to be frightened. She ran for the safety of her mother’s lap and buried her face in Mama’s apron. Mama picked her up and held her close. The other adults sat in stunned silence. Baba began to rub the little boys’ backs with his big hands.
“Seventy people.” It was Mehmet who broke the silence. “Adem Jashari and his family. Those Serb butchers just went in and slaughtered them all.”
Uncle Fadil’s head was down, and Meli could hardly hear him. “It is said that one child escaped—one of the little girls.”
“They said he was part of the KLA—that he was threatening violence,” said Mehmet. “How dare they accuse us of violence?”
“Meli,” Mama said softly, “the mineral water? And it smells as though the coffee is ready.”
Meli put the coffee cups on the tray with the glasses. Her hands shook as she poured out the strong, sweet liquid. They aren’t just killing a few men here and there. They’re slaughtering whole families.What does it mean? She tried to steady herself, but the cups rattled in their saucers as she brought the tray in and passed the mineral water and coffee to her aunt and uncle and the coffee to her parents. “Fix a cup for Mehmet,” Mama said as she took her cup, “and one for yourself, too. You will have to be grown-ups now.”
“Me, too,” said Isuf. “I’m almost nine.”
“You may have a sip of mine,” Baba said. “And you, too, Adil.”
“Does it have lots of sugar?”
“Yes, of course,” Baba said, rubbing Adil’s hair. “Meli made it just right.”
Meli poured coffee for Mehmet and herself in the everyday cups and then sat down on the low stool in front of the TV set. They sat in silence for a long time. Even the youngest were quiet. What would her grandparents think of this, she wondered. But they just stared out grimly from their silver frame,
Uncle Fadil took a noisy slurp, smoothed his mustache, and cleared his throat. “We came,” he said, “we came because we want you to come home. No place is safe, but if things go—go badly, at least we will have each other.”
But the house in the country isn’t home. This apartment is my home. How can I leave here? Leave school and Zana? Meli couldn’t bear the thought. Besides, she reasoned, if no place was safe, why not stay right where they were? It’s true that the Serb family next door no longer shops in Baba’s store, and they never speak if you see them on the street. But they have been our neighbors for my whole life. Why, just four years ago, when Vlora was born, Mrs. Jokic brought over a huge cake. Surely they would never harm us. The police are annoying, but we know better than to provoke them, and they’ve never seriously threatened us. Still, this Adem Jashari person and all of his large extended family were dead. What does that mean for us? For any Albanian in Kosovo? But to leave our home . . . ?
Everyone was looking at Baba. It was he who must decide. He took a long sip of his coffee and gave a taste to each of the little boys before he looked directly at his younger brother and answered. “Thank you, brother. You are always kind, but how can I leave my apartment and my store? My children have never known another home, and every Albanian in the neighborhood depends on me, on our store, for food.What would we do in the country? I don’t even know what kind of school there is in the village.” He shook his head. “On the farm we would only be a burden. Here we are among friends. Here we are needed.”
“I am not being kind,” Uncle Fadil said, his voice rising. “The farm is your home, brother. It is your home I’m talking about. It belongs to you as much as to me. You know that!”
Auntie Burbuqe half rose to her feet. “Come on! I swear to God. Are we family or not?”
Meli was startled. She’d never seen Auntie so agitated.
“You are right, Burbuqe,” said Baba. “We are family, and family is more important than anything. But”—he gave a little laugh—“I grew up in that house. I know how small it is. And look at us. After those long years of waiting, Sevdie and I now find ourselves blessed with all these children. Besides, you must think of your own Nexima. With Hamza’s people dead, they have no family home to go to except ours. Suppose they decide to come back from Prishtina. They have three children. That little house would burst like an overripe pumpkin.”
Uncle Fadil shook his head. For a moment Meli thought he might argue, but he just stood up. “We must get back. Mother is alone. And the milking . . .” He looked about for a place to set down his empty cup and saucer, so Meli quickly fetched the tray for him. “If you change your mind, my brother, there is always room for you.”
“Yes,” said Auntie Burbuqe. “Please know we want you with us. All of you.”
As soon as the car pulled away from in front of the store, Meli ran down to the garden to finish bringing in the clean wash. Maybe if she did something ordinary, the day would untwist itself and life would seem normal again.
The cherry trees put out their pale pink blossoms against the brilliant blue of the spring sky. House martins built a new nest under the eaves. The storks made their long journey home. School went on much as usual, though everyone seemed to have a touch of spring fever. Meli was sure her father had been right to stay. Oh, in town there had been some anti-Serb graffiti sprayed on the front of the town hall (“a schoolboy prank,” Baba had said), and some hand grenades had exploded in a nearby village, but on the whole everything was quiet. Too quiet, perhaps. They all began to believe that the worst was over. After all, what could be worse than the massacre of the seventy members of the Jashari family?
The warmth of spring turned too early into the heat of summer. The ubiquitous crows were squawking over territory and bits of food like old women squabbling in the marketplace. Even with all the windows open, the classroom on that last day of May was stifling. All Meli wanted was to be outdoors—not crowded with fifty other upper-grade children into a room of the house the Albanians used for a school. All the regular schools now belonged to the Serbs.
It was so hot that Meli found herself nodding as Mr. Uka droned on and on. To keep awake, she began to study the teacher’s nose. It was so big. It occurred to her that Mr. Uka reminded her of a pelican. He was so patriotic that he should have looked like a proper Kosovar stork, but his nose was bulbous, not long and patrician. Alas, much closer kin to the pelicans she’d seen in books than to a stork. In her boredom, she drew a picture of a pelican that looked surprisingly like Mr. Uka. Zana, who shared her desk, peered over Meli’s arm. She began to
giggle. It was contagious. Meli couldn’t help herself.
“Zana, Meli, come to the front,” Mr. Uka ordered.
Meli tried to slip the picture into her pocket, but it was too late. Mr. Uka held out his hand. He studied the picture for a minute. Don’t let him see the resemblance. “Very clever,” he said. “But what do pelicans have to do with the history of Kosovo?”
“Nothing, sir,” Meli mumbled. Even with her back to Mehmet, she could feel his disapproval. She didn’t dare look. She knew how angry her brother must be.
“Then we will keep the pelican for science class,” the teacher said. “And I would like the two of you to stay after
school to catch up on history.”
When Mr. Uka finally dismissed the girls, Mehmet was nowhere to be seen. He ran home to tattle on me, Meli thought. It wasn’t fair. Baba would want an explanation as to why Mehmet hadn’t waited—why he was letting the girls walk home alone. Baba had told him months ago that he was to look out for them. Their father would be angry with them both.
As always, the girls had to pass the police station on their way. A Serb policeman was loitering outside. “Where are you girls headed?” he asked. He spoke, of course, in Serbian, and Meli had sense enough to answer in the same language. “Just home,” she said. The man shrugged. Out of sight of the station the girls walked faster, and once she had left Zana at her house, Meli broke into a run. She was very late.
Yes, there was Baba waiting outside the store. “Meli,” he said. “Praise God, you’re home. But where is Mehmet?”