I was holding them in my hands, but I couldn’t tell if they were my children

When the Serb paramilitaries arrived for the first time at the Hanumshahe’s family in 1998, they fled and took refuge in the forest, where they had previously brought items necessary for survival. After a week they went back to the village, and they found the house burned down by the Serbs. They lived for six months in the basement of the house, without water or electricity, until the NATO bombing began, and then they were forced to go to the forest again.

Hanumshahe at that time had two sons and two daughters; the youngest was eight months old and still in the cradle. One day, while sheltering in the mountains, Serbian forces fired at them with mortars. The grenade fell quite close to the place where Hanumshahe’s children were playing.

Hanumshahe Gaxhiqi

My name is Hanumshahe Gaxhiqi and I am from Klina. I was born in 1973 in Dollovo. I was married and we lived in village Murg, but after the war we came to live here in Klina. I live with my mother-in-law and two sons. My daughter is married, her name is Ardiana. My sons are called Armend and Ardian and my mother-in-law is called Zade Gaxhiqi.

I had a good childhood. My mother took good care of us, she educated us. My dad passed away when I was in third grade. Also, my father took good care of us. We had a particularly good relationship, and our father liked us daughters more than he did the boys. We were four brothers and three sisters: Bajram, Ahmet, Arif, and Mehmet Hoti and Zoja, Mane and me, Hanumshahe. We, the siblings, had a good relationship with each other. We never had any problems. Our mother was very careful and she supervised us. I was very close to my mother; she gave me the right education. I had her support, more than anyone else.

Three of my brothers live in Germany, my eldest brother lives here, also my older sister lives in Kosovo.

At school, in Grabanica, from the third grade up to the eighth grade, children from two villages went all together, boys and girls. We were so good, kids from both neighborhoods went together, they never went without each other. We all went together, and we finished school together without ever parting from each other. People would envy us. We went together for eight years. There were about ten or twelve of us in total. We went together to school, and we came back together. We always stayed together.

We had a good relationship with both the young and elderly. For many years they used to say about me, “How did this tragedy happen to her, she was the one that kept us together” We were all close to each other as sisters. I still have a great relationship with my first cousins. They respect us as if we were their sisters. Our uncles and cousins still come to visit us. Our mother taught us a lesson that we have to be led by goodness. “Even if you see something bad,” she told us, “you shouldn’t talk about it!” I still live by that rule. I do not want to grow negative feelings, I don’t want to do a bad thing.

All four of my brothers attended high school. We, the sisters, did not attend high school. I didn’t even finish the eighth grade. I attended only three months of the eighth grade because I got married when I was 16 years old. I wanted to get married at a later stage of my life because I didn’t want to leave school. I was a little embarrassed when I would see my friends going to school and I was a bride. But then, I got used to it, there was nothing I could do.

Yes, I got married with the help of a wedding arranger. My uncle’s wife had family relations with my husband. I was engaged for three or four months, and then I got married. In my husband’s family, he was the eldest, and they wanted things to happen in that way.

I never met my husband before the wedding day. When I was engaged to him, I was 15 and a half years old. It was 1988. We had kind of an exchange with their family. They have given a daughter for my brother, and I got married to their son.

My sister and I got married on the same day. It was wintertime, snow was everywhere, two weeks before the new year. I went to live in village Murg which was farther from my family, but I was close to my sister. On our wedding day, I woke up early in the morning because we had to fix our hair and make-up since at that time there were no hairdressers in the village. My uncle’s wife did our hair and make-up at our house. While she was doing my sister’s hair, I cleaned the guest room for the groom’s family which was expected to come. As soon as my sister was done, it was my turn.

They came with many cars to pick me up. When I woke up the next day, I didn’t know where I was or if I got lost… but, all in all, I had a good time with his family. It was not a big family and I lived only with my in-laws and their children. They had four sons and three daughters.

So, I stayed for 16 years in my family. I have been living with my husband’s family for 19 years now, and my husband died 12 years ago.

A year after we got married, our child Ardian was born in Drenas. So, I was 17 years old when I gave birth to him. Two years after Ardian, I gave birth to baby girl Ardiana. Then I had Gentiana, and I was very happy when I gave birth to her. If I had to compare, I was much happier when I gave birth to my daughters than sons. After Gentiana, so during the war in ‘98, three weeks after Prekaz was in flames, I gave birth to Armend. He was only eight months old when we escaped to the forest. After the war, Ardian was born, so I renewed the name of my eldest son.

When the war started, I was seven months pregnant with Armend, and he was the fourth child I had before the war. My family was very afraid, they heard that pregnant women are being killed, and they were concerned about where and how I will give birth. They were telling me that the situation is becoming risky and they told me it’s better if I go to my family. My mother came to pick me up and she took me home to take care of me.

I spent two or three nights there, but I got scared because the Serbs were staying near that place. Only a road separated us. So, I woke up in the morning, and I told my mother, “I swear to God, I am afraid that the Serbs will sooner get here rather than in village Murg” and she said,” Why are you saying that?” I said, “I think I’d rather go to my home.” And she told me, “No, it’s much more dangerous in Drenica”. I said, “No, no, whatever happens, it’s better if I stay with my husband’s family and my children”.

She agreed and took me back there. Three weeks later, just as I thought, the village of Dollova where my family was living was in flames. The first village set on fire after Prekaz was village Dollova. Exactly where I was staying. I escaped from there because I could see the Serbs moving around and people started talking about them. The Serbs burned my family’s property in the village but luckily we didn’t lose any family members.

Afterwards, the Serbs came to my husband’s village, and they started setting the houses on fire. As soon as they started setting the houses on fire the entire family escaped. We prepared our belongings such as clothes and flour and we went to the forest. I was giving a bath to Armend in the morning when the Serbs came. As soon as I saw them coming, they were just a few meters away, I quickly gathered all the children and we escaped to the forest. We rushed in a hurry and we left behind the food on the table. If they would have caught us there, they would have killed us all. This time the Serbs set our houses on fire. We went to the forest, we stayed for a week there, and then we came back and all the houses were burned.

We stayed in the basement. We had no place to sleep, there was no water, no electricity, everything was burned. We lived like this for six months. As soon as NATO’s first bomb dropped, the next morning we escaped again to the forest. We stayed for a month in the forest. There we ate, we drank, we cooked, we did everything there.

While we were in the forest, they shot at us with mortars. Two of my daughters and my eldest son were playing in the river. They shot at them with mortars. It happened just as I turned my back because I wanted to go to Armend. He was in the cradle; he was just eight months old. It was as if I had a premonition that something bad was going to happen. They shot from all sides. The mortar fell straight into the river where the children were playing. All the people were there, but the mortar fell exactly where my children were playing. There was also a young woman holding her baby daughter in her arms. The baby survived, but her mother died. Both my son and my daughters were wounded.

When the mortar fell, no one knew where to go or what to do. I had a bad feeling, I said to myself, “Oh my God, my children were shot.” When this happened to me, I couldn’t see anything clearly anymore. I ran towards them, first I grabbed my eldest son, he was in the third grade. I grabbed him and I took him to my mother-in-law.

Then I ran towards my daughters. The eldest daughter was badly wounded. But the youngest daughter was in the worst condition. I remember giving my children to my in-laws, I gave them and at that moment I didn’t know anymore where I was. So, God has given me just enough strength to go take them and leave them in the hands of my in-laws. I became numb, I didn’t know anymore where I am, nor what was going on. I was holding my children in my arms, but I couldn’t tell if they were my children.

For a night we kept them close to us because the police were coming shooting at us, they were insulting us, harassing us, they did everything to us. That night we stayed in the forest, and I kept the children like that. Some of my cousins said, “Let’s protect them.” My son and my daughter died. We took them with us to the forest, we were holding them in our hands. The Serbs came to us again and they took us away from there. We were all women there, there were no men.

They took my two children and they buried them somewhere in the forest. Also, that woman was buried together with them. Early next morning, they removed us from there and we walked to village Shtrubullove. We walked all day long. I was barefooted, I didn’t know anything. My daughter was wounded, and I gave her to my mother-in-law, and I went back. They were looking for gold jewelry, I was afraid that they will kill my other two children. I put my daughter and my mother-in-law on the tractor. A woman was driving the tractor. Those Serbs were shouting at that woman, they were insulting and beating her. They were shouting, “Drive away with that tractor!” She couldn’t drive because she was a woman, and she didn’t know how to. She said, “We need to remove somehow the wounded people from here!”

Those paramilitaries were the same as the ones who abused us in the forest, we had so much pressure from them. They were ripping the jewelry off from our bodies. They were insulting us and calling us names. No one dared to say anything. I took off my jewelry and I gave it to my mother-in-law, I was afraid that they will kill my daughter, so I thought that this jewelry might save her.

And I returned through the flames because I had to put bandages on my daughter’s wounds, on my daughter that survived, I had to clean her wounds. They would tell me, “Don’t go back, they will kill you.” I said, “Even if they kill me, I have to bring my daughter something to drink.” So, I went back, I took diapers, water, milk, and bandages to cover her wounds because she was bleeding, her calf was ripped off, she was covered in blood on the head, face, and hands.

They took us to Shtrubullove, and they placed us in some barracks. When we were there, they said, “Stay here, we will see what Milos tells us, to kill you or slay you.” They left us there for half a day, without water, without anything. I didn’t even know where I was, I was just thinking of my children. We didn’t know what they will do to us. They took us and they left us for a month in Shtrubullove.

We spent the night in the yard of one family. An old man and woman came out from the house and, God save them, they said, “Come inside the house and bring your daughter in, don’t stay in the yard”. Outside was raining and snowing, it was cold.

We went there, and they took care of us for a month. I stayed there together with my in-laws, sister-in-law, my daughter, five members of the family and we all shared just one piece of bread, we didn’t have more than that. We couldn’t find corn, or wheat, nothing. We lived like that for a month.

Then I met a family that was living nearby, there was a girl who finished medical school. She said, “Yes, of course, I will come and clean your daughter’s wounds”. We didn’t have iodine, I didn’t know where to find some, and then she said, “Don’t worry, I will find some, just enough to clean her wounds.” She helped me to cleanse her wounds the whole month because maggots would form from the wounds.

Every morning the police came to check on us. We had to hide the iodine from them, so they would not find it. Every morning they were telling us, “Get out of here and go to the meadow.” They wrote our names on some cards, it was a list of people that will be killed. We were on that list, we had the cards. They were telling us that these cards are used just for information on how many members we are.

The mother of that young woman who died together with my children saved my daughter because for a month she brought milk for my daughter. I couldn’t give her anything in return. She took the cow with her, and I fed my daughter for a month with that milk. For a month, she boiled the milk and brought it for my daughter. She would say, “Let her drink, let her survive.”

And so, as soon as they left a month later, we came back. We walked from Drenas to Murg. We walked back, some were crying, and others were happy. But I made peace with myself because at least two of my children survived. One month later, we re-buried the children from the forest to the village graves. They are now buried in the village graveyard.

After the war, we left immediately, my brother-in-law brought us here. He brought us here because we lived very close to the graveyard, and I couldn’t bear the pressure. After the war, I suffered a lot of pain. After my children died, I had a terrible headache. I was under their supervision, and they took care of me, I would like to thank them because they supported me, because I remained alone, and it was very hard.

At that time all the men went to the forest. My husband would come back during the night after it would get dark. He was kind to me, he tried to calm me down. There was a female doctor there, she gave me an injection, a sedative because I didn’t know how to calm down. My husband would say, “I’m fine, just look after my wife because she is not.”

Then, after the war, I took Ardiana to the doctors, because she had shrapnel in her leg. We took her for an operation and they removed it away. With the help of an association, we took her to Austria, because the shrapnel was touching a nerve. They removed that piece of the grenade. I used to have that piece of the grenade but my children threw it away. It was a sharp piece of metal.

Now Ardiana lives well, she is married here in Klina and she has a two-year-old son now. I suffered more with the children that survived than with the ones that passed away.

When I went to visit for the first time the children’s graves, I went together with all the members of my husband’s family. We go there every year and I change the flag, I put a new one.

Both of my children were very capable. My husband’s family worked a lot with them. The eldest child, the one that died, was in love with studying. He was a straight-A pupil until the third grade, he was very smart. He never went out to play if he didn’t finish his homework. As soon as he would come home from school, at the doorstep, he would say, “Mom, I have homework, I have to learn a poem.” I used to help him learn the poems, I used to help him with homework, and after he would finish the homework, he would go out to play.

And my daughter was four years old, but she was smart as a ten-year-old child. My children were very capable, everyone would envy them. Now also the other children study a lot.

My youngest son was born shortly after the war ended, in 2001. I had so much pressure during pregnancy, I was full of sadness and anger. I had a lot of problems because of sadness.

We named the baby after the eldest son that passed away, Ardian. I wanted to do it. They used to renew the names at that time. But we still don’t call him by his name. When he was just a baby, we started calling him Lum, and now we still call him Lum, we couldn’t call him by his name. Even my mother told me at that time when she was alive, she said, “My dear, you are renewing the name, but you will not be able to call him with that name.” She used to say to me, “Call him Lum”, just before giving birth to him she would tell me, “Give him a different name, because you won’t be able to call him by the name of the boy”.

His friends call him Ardian. And we call him Lum, except for the father-in-law who calls him Ardian. When you have a child, you have a strong will, and that will carry you through life.

We lived together with the in-laws there in Murg and after a year we came here to Klina. My father-in-law died two or three years ago. Now I only have my mother-in-law. Now we are in the brother-in-law’s house. We couldn’t stay there anymore; we couldn’t experience again those pains.

Then in 2008, my husband died in an accident. Sometimes when you think about it, the parent always thinks about the children, God save them, a parent wants to see them prosper. It is what it is. I must overcome the suffering for sake of the children. I never speak about this in front of the children, because then they get sad. They are young, they have their lives ahead of them. I don’t want to burden them.

Armendi is finishing school for craftsmanship, he is trying hard, Ardiani is now finishing high school. Now he is about to continue school in Prishtina as well, but he doesn’t know what to register. He is capable of anything, he understands everything.

I never dream of the ones that have died, because when you are full of sorrow you can’t dream of them. Once, after the war ended, I saw both of them in the middle of the meadow. There was a lot of light around them. Since they passed away, they appeared to me only once. They were laughing, on this side, in the middle of the meadow which was full of flowers, light, and they said, “Mommy, we didn’t die, can’t you see us in the middle of the flowers”. The light was everywhere, flowers everywhere, meadow, they were laughing and running around.

When I woke up, I felt as if I was with them as if I was close to them, I said to myself they are fine. That was the last time I saw them, never again.

Today we live well. A normal life. I receive a little help, a little bit from my brothers, or my brothers-in-law. Now everyone has their own pains. I have mine. But everyone has their own pain.

The story is extracted from the book “Hijacked Childhoods: Accounts of children’s wartime experiences’ and is published in series as part of the framework of coordinated activities of CSO’s in Kosovo, organized to mark the International Day of Enforced Disappearances – 30 August 2023. The book is published in partnership between forumZFD Kosovo program and the Missing Persons Resource Center, and is supported by funds received from the German Federal Ministry on Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) and the Embassy of Switzerland in Kosovo. Prishtina, 2022.