Born into a poor family with eleven siblings, going abroad, and working hard as a teenager, Sabri, now 61 years old, has experienced a lot in his life.
Also, during the war, Sabri had terrible experiences. Sabri joined the KLA and he exchanged fire with the Serbian army while transporting the family on a tractor trailer while going towards the border; he saw his own daughter die from a shot on her forehead; he sheltered his wounded mother, wife, and other family members who were injured by a mortar. He went to look for help, but when he returned, he never found them again; he was caught as a prisoner of war; he was held in prison and tortured; he returned only to find his house completely destroyed and the surviving children sick.
Today, while coping with heart problems, he tries to support the family members of his three brothers and his cousin, who are no longer alive.
My name is Sabri Kelmendi, I was born in Lutogllava on April 19th, 1960. I lived in Lutogllava for about thirty years and then I moved here, in village Zallq, Municipality of Istog, where I bought some land. I built a house on that land. My life has been difficult because we were always mistreated and we didn’t have enough capital. My father had eleven children. He worked hard in order to take care of us. I was 16 years old when I went abroad in order to support my father. I worked for some time in Montenegro, then I went to Slovenia, five years I spent in Libya, three or four years in Austria. I worked up until recently. Life was quite hard for us.
I had a mother, seven brothers, and three sisters. Now have four brothers and three sisters. I got married twice. I had four children, two daughters and two sons with my first wife. With the second wife, I have two daughters. Now my family has eight members, I live with two sons, two daughters, and my daughter-in-law.
I finished primary school at the “Rilindja” school in village Tresenik. As soon as I finished school I went to work in Titograd, Montenegro. I worked there in construction, we were building houses. In Libya, I guarded the hospital patients. In Austria again I worked in construction. Here, too, I worked in construction. I used to build houses. I still work in that profession, but now I am quite old so I don’t dare anymore to climb high.
I was wounded, I have some problems with my heart, and I have a blocked vein so I need to take medicine. I take care of my brother’s wife and my cousin’s wife, and also the children help them, they support them.
We had a poor life when I was a child. We worked whatever we could and we also worked the land. When I grew up, I went abroad and I took my brother with me. From that moment things were a little bit better until the war started. During the war we did some good things, we bought some land, things started getting lively for us but again everything was destroyed. Now times have changed and we are doing something else.
I got married when I turned 27 years old. I saw my wife, we talked with each other and her parents agreed. I had a good life with my wife and we did everything together. But she lived a short life, they didn’t let her live long.
The birth of our first daughter, Albulena, was our first joy. She was a very beautiful and smart girl. Then Albana was born, then Egzon and Veton at the end. I took good care of them. I worked hard and I was pretty good at it because I could afford everything for my children – they all went to schools and they had clothes, they had everything. They didn’t suffer as we did when we were children, because we were too many children and my father had little land.
My brother Bajram and I, went abroad to work, and we helped all our brothers and sisters to get married. The two of us made the entire family capital, both for ourselves and our brother and for the whole family. Also now the situation is not bad. Even now we work a bit, but when your heart is broken it’s very hard to feel fulfilled.
Before the war in Dukagjin started, there was some exchange of fire in Drenica when the police stations were being attacked. We suffered some torture here, up until Commander Stajković came because he used to work at Police Station in Gurakovc. My little brother Beka was abused a lot and so was I. Before the war started in Dukagjin, we were tortured three or four times here.
Once I was digging a well and as soon as I reached the water, they interrupted me. “You’re not allowed to work!” and I asked them, “How do you mean I can’t work on my own land?” They said, “Shut up!” but I didn’t shut up. They kept me locked for 24 hours because I wouldn’t shut up even if they would have killed me. I was digging a well on my own land! They went afterward and they closed the well with an excavator.
Later, the war broke out in Dukagjin, where Ramush was located. I was involved, but illegally. No one knew about it. I participated wherever was needed in the Istog area and up to Glogjan. Until the war started at our place in village Lutogllava. I remember once we were ambushed, and we fought with them all day long on May 6th, 1998, from 6 in the morning until 5 in the evening. Until 3 o’clock we even fought face to face with them. When they saw that they couldn’t break us, they surrounded us from Malushgana and they bombed us from Deçan direction. Then we were forced to leave because we couldn’t hold the line anymore, otherwise, they would have destroyed us completely. We left Zllaq and we headed towards the east and there I joined the 133rd Brigade of “Adrian Krasniqi”.
When I went home, I saw my family members at home. Stajkovic came with a group of twenty policemen and he said, “You must leave Zllaq because you are terrorists. You have five minutes.” They forced us to go out, we couldn’t take anything with us. We got on the tractors and started going towards village Staradran. My brother Beka and I were on one of the tractors. Beka was driving and I was protecting him and my cousin Gani was driving the other tractor.
We took the road with the tractors. As soon as we entered village Tersenik we heard the pistol shooting at us. I was above the tractor. I had the bullets above the tractor. I got off the tractor, took my pistol, and returned fire. When I started shooting back, they got scared. Beka drove the tractor and I was in the back shooting at them and they were shooting at us. But their bullets couldn’t do anything to us. They didn’t want to let us pass, they wanted to catch us alive. We fought back until we passed the range of the bullets. When they realized that they can’t catch us, they took the mortars which can shoot up to a kilometer and a half away. They shot at the tractor with a mortar in the middle of the road in village Tersenik. Everybody who was in the tractor driven by my cousin got killed. And in our tractor, I just saw when they hit the trailer of the tractor where my mother, my daughter Albulena, my wife Fata, Beka, his wife, Bahrija and Bledari were located. And in the tractor of my cousin were Gani, Rinor, and Qerimi, my uncle.
Then the bombing started. Some 10-15 grenades exploded. I removed the victims from the tractors and I hid them behind some fertilizer. My wife was still alive, but she was grievously wounded in the stomach area. I put the tractor in the middle of some oak trees, and I put on it whatever I could save. I left them behind a fertilizer because on the other side bullets were flying. My daughter was shot and instantly killed. She was shot in the forehead with the first bullet they shot. On her forehead. Bahria was alive and she was also wounded in the stomach area. My mother was also alive when I put her down on the ground. She was wounded in the chest area. I was wounded on the neck and near the eye.
I told my mother, “I will take you and put you in one of the rooms” because there was a house nearby that was still not set on fire. She said, “No, my dear. Don’t touch me. If you move me, I will die.” I went to see Fata and then Bahria. Beka was a little stronger than them, and he said, “I will try to come back myself because if they catch me, they will kill both of us.”
My mother was saying, “Son, give me some water, please give me some water.” I didn’t dare give her any water. I knew that she is going to die because you get thirsty when you lose blood. Bahria was also asking for water and I couldn’t give her any water.
I decided to go to village Trubohoc to find a doctor. I wanted to take my mother and my wife with me but they didn’t accept because they were bleeding. At 11 o’clock at night, I left from there. I couldn’t see where I was walking. I went out to find a doctor, or maybe something to carry the wounded. When I arrived in Trubohoc there was no one there. And then when I tried to come back, I couldn’t because the Serbs had taken them.
After this, I spent the night in Staradran. On May 8th, they formed the column, we entered the column of people which was going from Staradran to Klina and then to Albania. When we arrived in village Zllaq, the Serbian police recognized me. I had my little son Veton with me and I was holding him on my neck because I was trying to hide my wound on the neck with his legs. I was also holding him because he couldn’t walk. But as soon as they saw me, they shouted, “Come here!” At that moment both of my brothers and Ramadan stopped as well. People continued walking and we were taken to prison.
I was tortured in prison, I was beaten and abused. They even wanted to kill me because they recognized me. Also, before the war, I didn’t get along with them. They took us to Gllogovc and then to Peja and for a month they kept us in Peja. When I was being beaten up, for two minutes I would sweat because of the heat. Afterward, I would put the wet towel on my body and in two minutes it would dry up.
That day when the agreement was signed, they took us to Leskovac and they kept us there for two months. Two of my brothers, Ramadan, two-three other persons from the village, and myself. There were many of us. Some 150 came out that day. Even along the road, they did everything they could to us. Ramadan was on the other bus and they made him eat a soap. When we crossed the border, the buses would stop and they would open the doors for children to come inside and beat us, “Come in and beat them!” The children were beating us.
We have suffered great torture. When I got out of the prison, I weighed about 42 kilograms. When I came home, my father was talking to me and he asked me, “Where is Sabri?” I told him, “Dad, it’s me. I am Sabri.” I lost a lot of weight because in prison they would give us food only so we would survive and not die. When the day came to let us go, they brought half a bread for each of us. They said, “Eat some bread because we will send you to another prison”. They didn’t tell us that they were letting us go. Afterward, we understood that they were giving us food so we would not collapse when we get out in front of the International Red Cross.
When we got out from the prison, after we entered the buses, an Albanian translator told me, “They are taking you somewhere far.” I joked a bit and asked him, “In a worse prison?” and then he asked all of us, “Who among you smokes here?” No one dared to speak a word. I was exhausted and I said, “I want a smoke.” He gave me a cigarette and then he said, “Don’t worry, you can smoke on the bus.” And then the translator said to me, “Do you know where you are going? Do you know that you are free?” I said, “It is not true.” He said, “It’s true, we are going to Kosovo.”
Then he got up and he asked everyone once again, “Who wants a cigarette?” Nobody responded! He then told me, “Stand up and tell them!” I said, “You tell them because I can’t tell them.” Then he said, “You are all going to Kosovo. Your prison time has finished, Kosovo was liberated “.
He then went and gave a pack of cigarettes to everybody. “Smoke all of it, all the way to Kosovo.” That was the moment we realized that we were free. That day, when I came back from the prison, my family returned from Albania. We came home at the same time.
When we came back all the houses were burned, there was no place to put the children in. The Red Cross gave me a mattress. The children slept on it and I stayed awake all night long. Someone made a tent, others something else, we started to repair a room because they were completely burned. In fact, we still didn’t finish repairing our house but it’s not bad.
I don’t know what happened to my family members which were injured that night. I don’t know what they did to them. Beka was wounded there and the regular army came and first they wanted to get rid of them, to kill them all. Beka’s daughter was also there wounded and also my mother-in-law was there, she couldn’t walk at night. The army took Beka, his daughter, and the mother-in-law and they took them to the hospital in Peja. Initially, they wanted to kill them but their commander didn’t allow them. From there they took Beka to Rozhaje because he begged them to get out. Beka told me afterward, “They would put the knife on my neck, so I begged them – you either kill me or take me away from here. Because they wanted to cut me.” Then he said, “They took me to Rozhaje.” He recovered a little in Rozhaje and then he returned here but he was severely wounded on his leg. He walked by using crutches.
As soon as I got out of the prison, I started looking for them everywhere I could. One day I went to Peja municipality and I asked the mayor Agim Çeku, “Can you tell me if there is any grave of my family?” He said, “Kelmendi’s are in Peja, at the new graves”. And so, I went to that location and I found them just as I lost them, I found all the graves and, on the graves, it was written: “Lutogllave, Lutogllave, Lutogllave, Lutogllave”.
At that time Tahir Dema was responsible for the protection of human rights and freedoms. He took a team of doctors with him and they went to exhume the graves, but how could we recognize them based on the photos when the buried bodies in two months change a lot. We took the bodies, thinking they are our family members and we buried them in village Lutogllava. We raised a memorial stone and then, two years later, UNMIK came and said, “We have to exhume them because they were taken by mistake.” What were we supposed to do? Accept it or not? They took our blood for analysis. They told us, “If they are yours, they will be returned, if not they will not be returned.” But, in the end, they were not our family members.
Then they brought the body of my uncles Gani and uncle Nican. They were brought from Batajnica. The other family members are still missing.
I was once in the Prishtina morgue, looking at some clothes to see if they match with my daughter’s clothes or my wife’s clothes. But I couldn’t tell, I was unable to do it. Some clothes seemed to belong to my daughter and I said, “They look similar to me, but I could be wrong because my child was covered in blood.” They visited us; they took information from us in order to find them but nothing happened.
Nobody was found, neither Albulena, nor my mother, nor my wife, nor Bahria, nor Bledari, nor Rinori none of them.
I often wonder how different our lives would be if they were still alive. Once my wife told me that our daughter said, “I am afraid that they will massacre us.” This was two days before the war started. She was only eleven years old but she was very smart. I imagine that now Albulena would have been a member of the parliament or a minister. There was no better student than her.
I remember once I was working with my wife. Albulena had fallen asleep and when she woke up, she already missed the first two classes at school. When she woke up, I said, “Don’t go to school today. You already lost two classes.” When I went out, my wife said to me, “Our daughter is drowning in tears. Why did you tell her not to go to school?” and I said “But she has only two more classes, and then she will be released home” and then I told her, “If she wants to attend those two last classes, I don’t mind.” and she really went. She loved school very much.
I remember Fata once said that there would be no life for us. The first house they burned in the village was our house. My wife was scared and she said, “We will never be able to rebuild another house.” I told her, “First let’s win our freedom, and then in the name of God, we will build a new house and we will have everything.” She said, “Don’t go to fight, our house has been destroyed, if you get killed then who will take care of the children?” I said, “Don’t worry, even if I get killed the house will be built, I will not stop fighting.” and you see at the end what I went through. I was almost killed same as my wife and my entire family. We would not win the freedom otherwise. Without the bloodshed and without our hearts being broken, freedom does not come.
And my mother … no one can replace my mother; my mother was the pillar of my life. I remember her telling us, “Don’t go to war” because all of my brothers went to war, except for Isa, the eldest brother who stayed at home. We told him, “Stay here and try to transfer as many as you can.” My mother used to say, “It’s enough if only two of you go to war, not all of you”, but we had a very strong father. My father used to say, “All of you should go, it doesn’t matter even if all of you get killed, we must face the enemy.”
My cousins told me, “In Albania, your father forgot about the deceased members of the family because of you and your brothers.” And when I came out of the prison, my father asked me about Isa and Bajram. He said, “Are they alive?” I said, “Yes, father, they are alive but they are in prison.” He said, “It doesn’t matter even if they keep them in prison for ten years, as long as they are alive.” My father had many worries in his life. Many members of his family died at the same time.
When I came out of prison, I tried to comfort him because he was an old man, I would tell him, “Dad, don’t worry, we finally got our freedom.” and he would say, “Yes, my son, yes, but there is a big cave in my heart.” I knew it myself, but I was trying to comfort him.
We suffered a lot. It was a wicked war for the whole of Kosovo; some have suffered a lot and others didn’t suffer at all. Eleven members of our family are gone and that is just too much, war has devoured them.
These three brothers, who have died, were all teachers. Bajram, the second brother, also worked a bit together with me in construction. Beka used to deal with trading. We were doing well, we helped all of our brothers, we built houses for them but they all got burned in the war.
Bajram was wounded during the war and he had two bullets in the leg. One bullet was removed but they didn’t dare to remove the second bullet and from there he got cancer and later he died. Isa died because of prison torture and cancer. Beka was tormented by the torture he endured in prison and his heart betrayed him. All three of them left families behind. And, by God, I also have to take care of Beka’s family members because even when he was alive, he could hardly walk using crutches. He was disabled when he got married. We always had to give him money. He left behind a son and a daughter because he was married for the second time and now, I have to take care of his son until the boy grows up. The boy is now 15 and in two or three years I hope that he will get a proper job. Ramadan, my cousin, also has a young son who is 16 years old now, and it would be great if we could find him an easy job because he is still a young man. Ramadan had older daughters and two of them got married.
The children that were on the tractors, Albulena, Bledari, and Rinor were all dead when we took them off the tractor. I have no hope that we will ever find them. As for my mother and my wife, I think that maybe the bones will appear somewhere because they were a little older. I don’t think that my mother, my wife, and Bahrija are alive, since my two uncles and my cousin were found in Batajnica, Serbia, in the graveyard. They must be buried somewhere in Serbia. I heard that they burned the children in ovens, to delete traces of war crimes. Because a child is a child, there is no law that will protect you if you kill a child, nor is there any law to kill a civilian, but in a war, nobody asks about this.
I wish my daughter was alive and I believe she would become a member of the parliament at least. If my mother were alive, I would tell her, “Mom, look what the Serbs did to us but we will find a way”. I would tell my wife, “Here is the new house, because you were crying about it.” These would be the messages I would give them, and I would tell them, “Take care of the children and raise them now in freedom”, I would tell this to my wife and Bahria.
I dream of Albulena. There was a store nearby our house and she would tell me, “Dad, I bought cigarettes for you because I see that you need one.” She was fast like a butterfly; she would go fast and return even faster. Without lighting the cigarette, without ending the cigarette, she would come. “How did you go so fast to the store?”, “I went on foot, father”. “And you came back so soon?” “Yes.” I once had a dream about this. And, very often I dreamt of her going to school.
Today, when I see Albulena’s friends, they are so tall and two of them are now working in the municipality. They mentioned her very often, “If Albulena was alive, she would be working with us because she was smarter than us”, they tell me.
When I returned from prison almost at the same time also the rest of my family came from Albania. When I saw the children, Albana, Egzon, and Veton, they all had rashes because they slept on the street or in tents. They had some kind of rash; I don’t know what it was. I had to take them to the doctor in Peja, actually, the Italian KFOR intervened and the children were cured.
My son Egzon got some lung illness, because of all the suffering. He was also on the tractor that day. He was young but he remembers, he knows that he doesn’t have a mother, he knows that he doesn’t have a sister, he knows all of that. I took care of him and today he is well and healthy.
I remember I hardly walked after being tortured by the Serbs. In my life, I never had any rest. I rushed to find a doctor for the children, I continuously searched for the missing family members, I went through the burying and exhumation of the bodies, making of the memorials, repairing the burned houses. I’ve had lots of trouble in my life.
When we came, the children were little and someone needed to provide them with food, to wash them, and I couldn’t do it myself because I had to work, I had to provide a shelter for them, a place to sleep somewhere. So, I decided to get married again. My father said, “You either get married or get out of my house. Do you want me to raise your children?” So, I decided to get married.
I went to Xhemila’s family together with a friend and I asked for her hand. I was very straightforward with her and in presence of her family members I said, “I would never get married if I wouldn’t have three children, if you take care of them as if they were your children then we are getting married and we are going to have a happy life, otherwise we’re not getting married”. If I didn’t have these children, I would have never married. Then her mother said to me, “May God bless them in Paradise. And if my daughter doesn’t look after the children, leave her. You need to get married, you are still young.” I was 39 years old. I got married well, in 2003, and thank goodness she raised these children as if they were her own. She is very close to them. They go to our school clean, they come back clean, and she always helps everyone with their lessons and with everything else. She took care of them.
After a year and two-three months of marriage, we had our first child with my second wife. Now we have two daughters. The first daughter is called Albulenë. I named her after the daughter I lost. My wife wanted to give her that name. I named the second daughter Arjeta.
The young Albulena studies a lot. Now she attends the faculty in Prishtina for social sciences, and she is receiving the best grades at the faculty. She reminds me a lot of the other Albulena. She is very smart and she is very dedicated to studying.
Nowadays I can’t complain. I’m working a bit, my son is working and my daughters are helping me as well. It’s not bad, also my sons are helping me. We are living as best as we can. The new generation is not properly employed in Kosovo, their salaries are small, but luckily we still have our land and we are somehow managing with the help of agriculture.
During the war, there were both the army and paramilitary forces. That day when they shot at us, I saw them, the army forces were positioned waiting for the columns of people. They tried to liquidate everyone with bullets, but when I shot back they started hiding because I shot as much as I could at them. It would have been better if they caught me rather than catching those on the tractor. They didn’t dare shoot at us until we went away for a kilometer and when we reached the meadow. Then they shot at us with grenades because they realized that they can’t stop us.
I don’t know what their names were. I know that a person named Sejković, a police colonel, was very committed to attack Lutogllava because he has known for a long time that we are ready to fight back. Then he took the initiative. For a month he was making plans on how to surround us. We were guarding all night long, until May 6th, when there was no other option and when we all went out.
We sought justice at EULEX many times. We gave them names, we gave everything, but they were just telling us, “We will look into it, this and that”. Nothing concrete from them. We also tried with KFOR.
Then they brought the Serbs here. They returned them after the war, about seven or eight years ago. They made tents for them. We protested, in a month we had three protests. Dell, the American ambassador, and the mayor Hajredin Kuqi, and Beqir Shala all came to see me. I told them, “You don’t need to build them houses. We will give them our own houses and we will leave from here.” and Dell said, “We also fought, but we have to reconcile.” I told him, “These people killed my family, they shot at me in ’99 in village Zllaq. If I would kill your family, would you accept me to be your neighbor?” He said, “Isn’t there any way?” I said, “The only way is if we all give up and leave and let them come and live in our houses.” He just told the KFOR commander, “Let’s go”. He said, “Sorry to bother you!” I said, “You are welcome to come anytime, but this is my condition, otherwise no.” Next day the tents were removed. I didn’t leave them alone; I threw them every night. How could I live with them here? When there are ten or eleven thousand slaughtered and families with five or six missing members, and you want to bring them to our door? Mr. Dell removed them from here because if it were for Hashim Thaçi they would never be removed.
We are going to seek justice until our missing members are found. I will never give up. Even if they are not found, we will never give up on them. Just to find out where they are. Were they burned, or just to receive some news about them?
Justice is needed here, but where can I find that justice? Since the state is in charge, why does it want a dialogue? Why do you need a dialogue with them? Forget about the dialogue! We won the war, they should return our missing family members, and then they will have a dialogue. They should do their job and we will do ours. Someone has to be held responsible for all the victims and the caused damage. They attacked us on our soil, we didn’t go to attack them in Serbia. This is Albanian land; they have occupied it. They have colonies in Croatia, Bosnia, all around. Kosovo was colonized. We shed blood for this and now you expect us to go and have a dialogue? All these people are still missing, there are 1620 or 1630 persons still missing. There was so much torture, destruction, and murders here.
I hope we will become a proper state. It is easy to deal with the missing persons – the President or the Prime Minister, they just put their hand on their heart. But no one from the state ever knocked on my door and asked me, “Do you have an unemployed son? I will employ him.” Nobody from the state ever came. Thank goodness we have this freedom, we don’t have any foreigners’ knocking on our heads. But, to be honest, I am not happy with our state. First of all, the Prime Minister should take into consideration the war martyrs. At least one of their family members should have been employed in the government. Even if they are uneducated, couldn’t they work at least as a guard? They should find them a job somewhere. I have to find a connection in order to find a job for my son.
If the state doesn’t fix these things, there is nothing to look forward to. They are changing like dogs, they stay in power for a year, or two, and then a new one comes, and each of them grabs as much as they can for themselves. That’s why things are as they are. The state should prioritize these things. If it weren’t for this blood that was shed, we would never be free. Never. Thanks to America because we didn’t have weapons to fight with them properly. Even if Albania joined the war, it would have lasted long like in Palestine. America has saved us, but I am not satisfied with our people.
Finally, I would like to thank you as an organization for doing some good work in my opinion. A public wider than Kosovo should know. Kosovo knows, but foreigners should also know what happened here. The work that you are doing has a good purpose because this history must be written somewhere.
As for the state, at the moment I’m not expecting anything from them. I made a memorial stone, all with my own money. Some family members that live abroad helped us a bit. We placed it in Lutogllava. We have to maintain it because it can get damaged if you don’t take care of it. And they make memorials only for their soldiers, or their relatives, friends, but not for the others. It’s not in their interest.
Someone has to look after the population and see how they are living because the state as a state is moving forward, buildings are being built overnight and you must have money to build it. The buildings are being built very quickly. Someone became very rich, but it doesn’t matter.
I heard that Clinton once told Rugova, “Can you fight the war for a week or not? Don’t mention America for liberation, because in order to intervene, some blood must be shed. I can’t intervene if no blood has been shed” And here blood was shed only for this land. I hope the following generations will cherish it in freedom.
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.