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The Princess of Kosovo: A memoir

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Old 11-29-2010, 06:24 AM
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Default The Princess of Kosovo: A memoir


Kamenica, Kosovo in the summer of 1999 looked like any other Eastern European town from a distance: hundreds of crowded red-roofed homes idyllically surrounded by rolling green hills. A model display of serenity. Within the town, however, the obvious signs of recent tragedies quickly overwhelm the senses with disgust and pity: the smell of torched homes mixed with decaying animal carcasses; the sound of children kicking a soccer ball through glass, rubble and bullet casings; the sight of storefronts, concrete walls, and burnt-out vehicles spray-painted with Cyrillic slogans—all peppered with bullet holes. The excruciating atmosphere would've forced any reasonable person to quickly high-tail it back to the Macedonian border without looking back.

Most ethnic-Albanian owned structures in town received what the Serbian Army dubbed the “Sarajevo Shake”—a tank round directly blasted through the front door. Others were destroyed by masked Serbian neighbors living across the river, usually by resorting to the old-fashioned “torch-and-run” technique. Decaying animal carcasses had been stuffed down water wells, a ancient way of poisoning water supplies. Like most other towns and villages in Kosovo, Kamenica had just endured a vulgar war that had been waged on the population—a fanatical attempt to rid the Albanians from the Serbian province.


The population on the Albanian side of Kamenica was mostly made up of women and children. The majority of the men had either been executed during midnight home invasions or killed fighting the Serbs in the mountains. Some men—if they were fortunate—escaped and were now working low wage jobs in other European countries. Boys, most of them younger than ten, stood around by the main road begging pedestrians for food in hopes of bringing a decent meal back to their mothers and younger siblings. It was a donkey-kick into adulthood and responsibility. Brutish-looking teens, male and female, prowled the streets and alleys in small gangs with contemptuous expressions; they were frequently seen bullying outsiders and returning refugees into buying black-market cigarettes and Macedonian beer. Even though the Serbian Army had returned to Serbia, and the paramilitary had taken off their masks and blended back into the population, the ramifications of post-war Kosovo was just beginning.

My platoon had taken over the town’s municipal building that was located on the main street in Kamenica Center. Conveniently, it was within eyesight of the Kamenica Bridge, the “clashing point” between the Albanian and Serb populations; tensions in town could easily be predicted by watching this man-made ethnic divide. Unlike most other buildings in Kamenica, the municipal building had been untouched by the war. Only a month prior to our arrival, it had been occupied by the Serbian mayor and his subordinates. Images of the defiant-looking Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, were still displayed in all of the offices. For my platoon, it was a pleasant upgrade from the rat-infested warehouse where we had just spent the last few weeks.

Our peacekeeping mission in Kamenica was simple but relentless; it turned out to be a vicious cycle that left us with little time for us rest. Long and apprehensive around-the-clock patrols, broken up by hours of guard duty, extracted all of our energy. Firefights between the two ethnic factions were a nightly certainty; deadly clashes that we had little power in preventing or stopping. The squad out on patrol would usually burst into the middle of the chaos like teachers responding to a playground braw, hoping to either chase away the combatants or arrest them. Most times, thankfully, the fighting would instantly cease when we were spotted, but occasionally the guns would turn on us.

Assassinations of politicians, war criminals, and zealous activists were also common. In the dawn hours we would sometimes ride around in a cargo humvee picking up bodies. A gruesome task, to say the least. Sergeant Armargo, known for his black humor in inconceivable moments, would sit up front and repeatedly shout the infamous line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Bring out your dead!”


It was the humor that uplifted morale. One day, I remember, someone found a box of black Sharpie markers and thought that it would be a good idea to have a contest with the Milosevic pictures. Whoever could alter his photo the best would be awarded a week off from guard duty. The markers were distributed and everyone got to work. Images of the war criminal desecrated with absurd facial hair, demonic horns, and genitalia were proudly displayed in the main meeting room to await judgment day. The person selected to judge the contest was the local Albanian barber who used to come in once a week to buzz our hair. The platoon medic, Doc Rise, enthusiastically gloated for days that his “Milosevic Oompa Loompa” would, hands-down, be the winner. To back up this bold claim, he began taking people up on hefty bets. He even tried to bribing the barber. Finally the day came. The barber slowly walked back-and-forth studying each illustrated exhibit. He stopped at “The Sucker” portrait—a stern looking Milosevic creatively transformed into Mr. T—and broke out in a hysterical laughter. He declare it the winner and started doing his best “I pity the fool” impersonation in broken English. While everyone patted the grinning winner on the back, Doc Rise snatched up his picture, tucked it under his arm, and sourly stormed out of the room.

One moonlit evening outside of our quarters, I sat in a sandbagged guard post with Gus Canyon, an upbeat rodeo clown-turned-paratrooper from Kansas. Both of us kept an alert eye on the hustle and bustle of Kamenica’s main street—especially the bridge. It was getting dark, and we were preparing ourselves for the certainty of a firefight. Drunks passed by sputtering slurred Albanian phrases, offering us a swig from their bottles or a drag from their cigarettes. Mothers wearing short, scissor-cut skirts, who felt that selling themselves sexually was their only hope, attempted to put on a sophisticated strut as they passed by our post. Across the street, the usual group of children stood around harmlessly watching and mimicking us. Aside from the occasional attempts to sell us black market items, the kids left us alone. Sympathetically, we would often give them food. They would show their thanks with polite waves or nods. We always kept the little rascals back at a good distance. Nobody wanted to see the kids get hurt or killed if someone decided to take a shot at us.

It was then that I noticed an angelic young girl with a bashful, doll-like smile looking at me. She was thin with short brown hair and was dressed in shabby, oversized clothes. Her left arm was cradled in a sling, which looked like it was made out of an old, stained T-shirt. I smiled back at her, pulled out a bag of M&M’s from my pocket, and walked across the street. She shyly accepted the gift with a little giggle and thanked me in Albanian. For the rest of the evening, she stood across the street admirably watching us. I thought nothing of it.

The days dragged on, and every day when we assumed our guard post, the cheerful little girl would be there waving and smiling at us. I would always have something for her, usually a candy bar or a small toy. I began to get a little curious about the girl and grew more concerned over the condition of her arm. One day I fetched Doc Rise and our Albanian translator, Zef. The three of us led her into the municipal building hoping Doc Rise could do something for her arm. She spoke to Zef for several minutes with little emotion, but I could tell by the look in his eye that it was a depressing conversation.

I knew everyone in town had a story, but this innocent little girl’s nauseating encounter with a local paramilitary death squad mercilessly tore through my heart like a dull jigsaw; little by little, each piercing detail slowly ripped out any little fortitude I had managed to retain in Kamenica. It was a story that had carried with me for a long time; a story that forced me into a low-grade depression for the remainder of my time in Kosovo. I couldn’t understand how someone so angelic and harmless could be tormented the way she had been.

Zef told me that the little girl, Majlinda, ran into her parents’ bedroom to tell them that she heard people downstairs. As her father tried to calm her down by telling her the noise was only a passing thunderstorm, three masked men barged into the room and shot him in the face. Covered with blood, she leaped onto her mother. One of the men picked Majlinda up and threw her against the wall, breaking her arm. Her mother was raped for twenty minutes while Majlinda was held down, screaming and kicking. When the men were finished, Majlinda ran over and embraced her mother. As the laughing men began to walk out of the room, one snuck back in and violently slashed Majlinda’s mother’s throat.

The next day, like clockwork, Majlinda was standing by our guard post smiling away at us with a fresh new sling, courtesy of Doc Rise. I noticed that she was holding a book, and I motioned that I would like to look at it. It was an Albanian written fairytale. She pointed to the cover that portrayed a young princess. She smiled for a few seconds and then pointed to herself. She wanted to be a princess. I handed the book back to her, and she ran along with a group of other young children.

As dusk approached that evening, and the fading sun began to disappear behind the green farming hills, sudden gunfire erupted down the road past the bridge. My squad was immediately ordered towards the ongoing battle. Serving as the patrol’s lead man, I walked at a brisk pace toward the sporadic gunfire. I panicked when I looked to my right and saw Majlinda. I motioned to her to go back, but she continued on with the squad. I began to shout at her, but she just kept smiling at me. I called Zef up to the front.

“Zef, tell this girl to beat it, will ya!” I shouted at him in my thick Boston accent. Without hesitation, Zef shouted at her. With a hurtful look in her small face, she began to walk back towards Kamenica Center. There was a possibility that we were walking straight into an ambush, and I wasn’t going to risk the chance of her getting shot.

The shooting had stopped minutes before we had arrived on the scene. In the middle of a field was the body of a man in his twenties. He’d been shot in the mouth, which made for a gruesome sight. His jaw was lodged in the back of his skull and a good amount of blood and mucus had been splattered on his white Adidas running suit. His face looked like a prop from of a horror movie. I thought of Majlinda and the final memories she must have had of her parents.

The next morning, our squad was tasked out to patrol the market. This was always a potential danger; it was the only time the two ethnic groups came together in conformity. Shootings, stabbings, and grenade attacks occurred frequently in Kosovo’s markets. In one booth, a sparkling blue princess dress caught my attention; I thought it would make a perfect gift for Majlinda. Maybe she could forgive me for snapping at her. For three American dollars, and a few side comments from my squad members, I purchased the dress. When I handed her the flashy dress, she was ecstatic. From that point on she would only be seen wearing that dress.

A week later we got the word that we were to hand Kamenica over to the Russian Army, a pro-Serbian/anti-Albanian force. The Russians had complained to NATO that they were being shunned and wanted a sector of Kosovo. Nervous to damage relations with Russia, NATO decided to sacrifice our peacekeeping efforts in Kamenica. The Albanians would once again live out their everyday lives in fear.

When Zef told Majlinda the news the night before our departure, she ran off in tears. I wasn’t the only one who felt horrible; she had grown on everybody in the company. The next day after we handed our posts over to a drunken Russian platoon, I began to look up and down the main street for her. I wanted to wish my little princess friend well, but she was nowhere to be found. A deep feeling of disappointment came over me when the time came to board the trucks. Suddenly, I noticed Majlinda running down the street, weeping and shouting to me in Albanian. When I jumped off the truck, she threw her good arm around me and handed me a picture of herself that included her parents. Majlinda was sitting on her father’s lap, both hands wrapped around her mother’s neck. Looking at the picture, it was obvious that Majlinda had gotten her big smile from her mother.


As the truck rolled out of Kamenica Center, she began to run along with it. I remember her sprinting as fast as she could, almost tripping on a curb. Eventually we picked up speed; I waved and waved until the teary-eyed little girl was out of sight. Taking a deep breath and feeling a lump at the back of my throat, I put on my sunglasses to hide my tears. I looked at the photo for a minute. When I flipped it around, in perfectly handwritten English, it read: “THANK YOU FOR MY FREEDOM!”

For my remaining time in Kosovo, I often thought about Majlinda. As depressed as I felt, she gave me a meaning to my duty in Kosovo. It was as if she suddenly went from being an actual living person to becoming a symbol of the innocent population of Kosovo, especially the children who were forced to grow up in that war-torn environment.

Eight years later, working as a correction officer in Massachusetts, I met a detainee who was being held for a faulty passport who was from Kamenica. Of course, the first person who came to mind was my little friend, Majlinda. Surprisingly, he claimed that he was good friends with her uncle. He even remembered the princess dress, along with the disappointment she felt when she outgrew it. He was just as shocked as I was. He couldn’t believe that I was the soldier who had given her the dress. He told me that she was doing very well and was preparing herself for a reputable academy in Italy.

That night when I got home, I pulled out my shoebox full of Kosovo pictures and quickly flipped through them. Finally, I found the photo I was looking for. It was Majlinda smiling behind a strand of barb wire. It was taken one evening at our guard post outside of the municipal center. She was standing with some other kids who were making funny faces. She had the same big smile that I remembered. Over the years, I would look at the picture and quickly put it back. It was too hard to take: the smile, the sling, the innocence. But this time I stared at it for a for a long time and reminisced: the long evenings when she would pleasantly stand across the street smiling and waving, her hopeful expression when she pointed to the princess on the book, and the exited smile she gave me when I gave her the dress. For the first time ever, I smiled back at the picture.








Last edited by Paratrooper82; 12-13-2010 at 04:43 AM..
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Old 11-29-2010, 06:46 AM
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Fantastic read, and I admit it made me cry a little, as your protrayal of Majlinda is so poignant and so vivid, I can see her clearly in my mind's eye.

Overall this is a detailed, very revealing glimpse into that particular grim bit of history, and extremely well-written. Took me right back to those days when these events were never off the TV news.

(Just two very minor points: in paragraph fourteen, that should be a 'hurt' look, not 'hurtful'? Aso in paragraph eight, would she be smiling and glaring at the same time?)

Great bit of work, thank you! I look forward to seeing more of your writing.
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Old 11-29-2010, 07:00 AM
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Thanks Nadja! I'm glad you enjoyed the story. You're right, I'll make those corrections.
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Old 12-01-2010, 01:53 AM
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Excellent piece, the feel is authentic and it is patently obvious that you were there. I cannot conceive how you would have any problem getting this published, either as a short story or an anthology. You must have more? You have a real talent for this don't let it slip away.
Best regards
David
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Old 12-01-2010, 02:51 PM
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Thanks David! I appreciate the uplifting reply! I've actually been working on a few short stories regarding my military experiences: Basic training, Airborne School, and my deployment to Kosovo in 1999. Finding the time to write is the hard part! Again, thank you for you kind comment.
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Old 12-02-2010, 05:09 AM
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Wow, very well written. I was kinda too young at the time to remember any of the events, but the story brought them to life regardless. Thank you very much.
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Old 12-03-2010, 04:35 AM
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Dragon King. Thank you very much for the kind reply!
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Old 12-03-2010, 04:50 AM
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I also put you up on Member's Choice Nomination - good luck
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Old 12-03-2010, 08:54 AM
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Absolutely wonderful!!!!

Written like a pro, with pacing and impeccable grammar. It caught me from the first and never let go.

I was preparing myself for the little girl's death. That she survived is proof that the story is true. In any fictional account, she would have been killed, the hero finding her just before he shipped out.

I can't say enough about the descriptive quality. The images drew me in. I wasn't reading it. I was watching it happen, the mark of an excellent piece of writing.

I'm honestly thinking of trying to make this my Horror Short Story Of The Month. I know it isn't fiction, but it certainly is horror.

In fiction, the bad guys always get what's coming to them. The true horror is knowing how many innocent people were brutalized and devastated, with no justice forthcoming......

At least in this world.
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Old 12-04-2010, 07:33 AM
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Thank you, Utah! This is the story that inspired me to write. I remember thinking to myself, shortly after leaving Kamenica, that I had to write this down; I had to do my best to recreate the event with words. I was happy to add on the "happy ending" after I ran into the detainee who knew her. Most war stories don't end like this one did. It's a memory I can now look back, and as terrible as things were back then, feel good about.

I have a few other stories that I am working on. Most of them are stories from Kosovo. Unfortunately, many experiences either have horrible endings or no endings at all. How can I explain what it was like to see a seven-year-old die from a gunshot wound with the parents frantically pleading to save his life? Or befriending a peaceful retarded man through cigarettes, smiles and waves...and then see his body shot, literally, to ribbons.

Again, thanks for the uplifting reply! These comments motivate me to write more. Hopefully I can get another one up soon. I hope you can use it for your Horror Short Story of The Month. Thanks!
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Old 12-18-2010, 04:21 AM
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Hi Paratrooper88,
Just came back for another read, It's still as good as i thought the first time! It deserves more time on the forum.
Best regards
David
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Old 12-20-2010, 04:22 AM
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Thanks again, David! Also, thank you for the Member's Choice nomination.
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Old 02-27-2011, 06:22 AM
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I want to use this for my Horror Short Story Of The Month, for March. Is that OK??
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Old 02-27-2011, 06:35 AM
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A PM might be a better way to contact Paratrooper82.
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Old 02-27-2011, 06:36 AM
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I don't have anything to add to the previous comments: good writing, amazing story, I couldn't turn away.

Only thing I noticed:
The squad out on patrol would usually burst into the middle of the chaos like teachers responding to a playground brawl, hoping to either chase away the combatants or arrest them.
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Old 02-28-2011, 08:55 AM
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I tried a PM. I just think this story is important enough to persue.

I'm afraid paratrooper82 has taken a break from the forum. I may not get to him in time to use his story for March. Oh well, anytime jou chek paratrooper, just let me know...
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Old 02-28-2011, 10:45 AM
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Well it was good enough to win members choice and be featured in the WBQ.
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Old 03-02-2011, 03:55 PM
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Thank you, I'm glad everyone seemed to have enjoyed the story!

Uath, I'm sorry. Yes, I was away with the family for a bit. I just sent you a private message. Please let me know if you didn't receive it.
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Old 07-28-2011, 05:15 PM
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First of all I really apologise for my bad English, this is not my native language.. :s
I was watching a video on youtube when I read a comment talking about a "kosovo princess", a memoir of an american soldier in Kosovo.
Being Albanian I really wanted to read this story, I searched it on google, I found this forum and... WOOOW it gave me goose bumps!!
Please keep writing about what you saw there in order to prevent us from forgetting that freedom had a price.
May god bless USA!
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Old 05-09-2013, 05:38 AM
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I joined this forum because of this story because i wanted to comment. I loved it and i just read it to my Astronomy students to bring them intune with the Universe.
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