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Kosovo conflict leaves mental scars

Suvivors of the Kosovo conflict are struggling to overcome post-war depression.

By Fatos Bytyši in Drenice

Lean and unsmiling, Labinot Gashi's face speaks volumes about the post-war trauma still engulfing many in Kosovo. Leg wounds sustained during last year's ethnic cleansing campaign have left him unable to move freely. He watches television in bed, his crutches lying redundant on the floor.

Labinot's family say he is regularly overcome by attacks of depression. When that happens, he is reduced to only two words, which he repeats over and over again, "Rexhe, Rexhe, ik, ik (go, go)". Rexhe was a close friend, shot dead in front of Labinot while trying to flee from Serb paramilitaries. "I still do not believe Rexhe is dead. I see him quite often, I speak with him, I..." Then, tears trickling down his panic-stricken face, he blurts out: "Oh, God! Why did he have to die? What did he do?"

After fleeing and hiding with a group in the mountains surrounding Obrije village, west of Pristina, Labinoti was arrested in April 1999 by the Serb paramilitaries who later shot his friend. "They took us into battle areas to retrieve their dead policemen and bury them. We also had to bury the dead Albanians, whom the Serbs called 'rotting animals'," said the 18-year-old. When the Serb retreated from the area, they took him with a small group of men to be executed. But Labinoti was hit in the legs and not fatally wounded. Along with another villager, he survived by feigning death and was later taken in by local people.

Post-war depression is one of the less obvious problems survivors must endure. Now the British NGO Child Advocacy International has arrived in Kosovo to work with the many traumatised Albanians under the age of 20. Their first job is to convince people to talk about their experiences, so psychologists can start working with individuals. "Some people are communicative, but most of them are anguished and frightened. They do not want to talk about their experiences, they try to keep it to themselves," said Kathy Brocks. The NGO intends to work with clients over a long period time, so they will be able to gauge the results of their work.

Only about ten per cent of the houses in Obrije survived the war. Locals believe the reason the village was so heavily shelled and grenaded was because it has never had any Serb inhabitants. There is still no building for a school, but in the spring the UNHCR erected some tents as classrooms. Out of a population of 2,000, over fifty people died and scores more disappeared during the Serb attacks.

As part of their work, the NGO encourages victims to consider pardoning their attackers. A mother whose two sons aged 19 and 23 years old were taken away and killed, was angered at the very notion that she might be asked to pardon the Serbs. "Are you mad? We hid in a valley and some masked Serb soldiers came and took my sons. Should I pardon those who killed my sons? Never!" she said. Crying for her two dead sons is now the only activity she has left.

Another problem is that many Kosovo Albanians are not yet ready to pardon or live with those Serbs who committed no crimes against them. "I did not experience the war and maybe I am wrong to comment, but let me say this. England had enemies years ago, now it is friendly with those same countries and the past has been forgotten. That is what Balkan countries should do too. I know it is hard to forget the war, but the present - and the peace - is more important,"said Brocks.

"That is true, but it took a long time, didn't it? So what about the Balkans? How many years will it take before the same thing happens here?" was the response from a group of Albanians.

With the help of a humanitarian organisation, Labinoti Gashi has rebuilt the ceiling of a two-room house for his six-member family. Life is also made easier by money sent from his brother, a migrant worker in Germany. "Pardon the Serbs?" he asks, his grim expression temporarily displaced by surprise. "I don't know if I can pardon Serbs. You can see what they have done to me," he said, avoiding my eyes as he speaks. "Maybe I can, but I don't know."

Fatos Bytyši is a student of the Faik Konica journalism school in Pristina

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting


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