Giving birth during wartime in Kosovo

Prepared by: Ornela Kurtaj, Beat Sexism USA

The birth of a child should be a time of joy. But for some women, who were pregnant and displaced in war-torn Kosovo, the danger and uncertainty all around obscure the hope that new life brings. They were overwhelmed with worry for the child who is due any day: How will I protect my baby from danger? How will we survive when food is so limited? Will we have to flee? Will we ever be able to go home?

During 1998 and 1999 many Albanians went through traumatic experiences. Many of these stories go untold and not many people have read about the struggles women faced during this time. Here is a story about what an Albanian woman went through in Kosovo during the war.

It was March 5th, 1998 and that was the first time I saw the Serbian army. I had visited my family and was returning home with my husband. While we were waiting for the bus, the Serbian army was passing by, with hundreds of soldiers on foot and intimidating tanks. Other than the army, my husband and I were the only people out in the streets. Two soldiers came in front of us completely covered in black dye and black uniforms. One of the soldiers asked the other in Serbian what they should do with us. I didn’t understand what they were saying but my husband did. The other soldier said to just leave these “f***ing Albanians alone”. We decided to keep waiting for the bus hoping nothing would happen to us. Night finally came and there was no bus in sight, so we decided to walk home. We finally arrived, turned the news on and learned that a family of 54 in the city of Drenica had been killed. The Serbian army raped the women and slaughtered the men. They killed the family of Adem Jashari, the founder of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) because they were seen as a threat. We were warned that war was coming, and we must stay safe. April came and I was six months pregnant. My husband, who only came to Kosovo for a brief visit, had to return to America. By this time, everyone else was leaving their homes to go to safer places. My husband’s family went separate ways, some to the Rugova mountains and others to nearby countries. I couldn’t go anywhere; I was to give birth in a few months. As everyone fled, I realized I was left alone. I decided to go to my parents’ house because I was told it was safer there.

I met my parents and the rest of my family and felt safe. Just as I thought nothing would happen, the Serbian army invaded the village. They placed bombs around the area and told us if we didn’t leave by tomorrow, they would shoot us all. Two hours after the Serbian army left, the KLA arrived and said it was unsafe to stay there. They took my family to another town completely surrounded by forests. My sister stayed so she can help me. When my family left, I felt like that was the last time I was going to see them. I couldn’t bear the thought, so I grabbed my belongings, grabbed my baby’s clothes and walked away from the place I spent most of my childhood. I prayed they wouldn’t destroy my home, prayed they wouldn’t destroy my village, and prayed for the safety of my family. My sister and I walked through forests and rivers to finally arrive in the city of Peje where my sick uncle lived. He was kind and sweet, but he was an old man who couldn’t offer us any protection.

I stayed there for a week but had to leave when the KLA warned us it was not safe. I could hear bombs and guns going off and I prayed none of those hit the house. My uncle had to stay back in the city near the hospital. It was known that the Serbian army wouldn’t attack the hospitals. My uncle told my sister and I to go to a zone where the KLA was controlling so they could protect us. On our way to the zone, I stopped by my cousin’s house to see if they were still alive. Thankfully they were, but they were preparing to leave as well. My cousin offered to take my sister and I near the safe zone with his tractor. I could hardly breathe from my bloated stomach, so I was glad I didn’t have to walk for a little. We rode for an hour but had to stop because a river blocked our way. The water looked deep and rushed way to fast, but it was safer than walking on roads where the Serbians could see us. Before leaving my cousin’s house, he had called my brother on the phone to meet us by the river and help us get across. I jumped in the river and swam with water covering my body up to my neck. The stream was so powerful all I could think of was how this might harm my baby. I didn’t have the strength to move but thankfully my brother arrived just when I needed him. He dove into the river and helped me cross it. We walked to the safe zone where the KLA were waiting for us. They immediately took me to a nearby hospital where only one doctor remained. The doctor completed my checkup and said everything was normal. He told me my due date was August 1st.

I was going to stay in the zone until I gave birth in that same hospital. It was July 29th, and I had to get another checkup to make sure everything was normal. When I arrived at the hospital, I was told I had to go to another hospital because they didn’t have the basic materials to help me give birth. All the roads were blocked, and the doctors had no way of getting the basic necessities. I needed to go back to where my sick uncle lived as it was the only place left with a functional hospital. August 2nd arrived, and the Serbian army invaded the safe zone and bombed every house and hospital in their way. I was already a day late and I had to get to a hospital as fast as possible. My brother took a car and left the area to go back to the city of Peje where the hospital remained unharmed. As we were driving away the Serbian army threw a bomb and the back of our car caught on fire. We all ran out of the car, but I ran back to get the money and the baby’s clothes that I had. My brother was holding me back saying the car will explode with me in it. But at that point, I didn’t care if the car exploded, I was tired of running, I was tired of the Serbians and I was tired of the war. I ran in and quickly retrieved my things. Fortunately, I got all of my bags safely yet the second I ran away the car exploded. We ran away and finally got to the city of Peje. My brother told me they couldn’t come with me to the hospital because if the Serbians saw any Albanian men, they would shoot them in the sight. I had to run in the midst of bombs and gunfire and pray that the Serbian doctors, who had taken over the once Albanian hospital, would help me. I went in and told one of the nurses I needed to give birth. I was 10 days late and my water was already broken. She took me to one of the Serbian doctors, but he said his help would come at a price. I gave him all the money I had and prayed he wouldn’t just take it and abandon me. He took me to a delivery room, and it was just him, me and a Serbian soldier guarding the door. I was fully aware of his automatic rife and his long machete. I thought to myself how easily he could come in and murder me. I was in pain, my contractions made it hard to breathe but I was afraid to scream. I was afraid I would piss the soldier off, and he would come and kill me. I endured the pain and finally gave birth to my baby girl. After ten agonizing hours, she was finally born, my light in the midst of war.”

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