The last months of 1999 saw the shrinking of Kosovo coverage in the daily news. Chechnya was a fresher tragedy, as were the hypothetical disasters of the 21st century. But postwar Kosovo was--and is--newsworthy. The still-unresolved conflict there remained particularly alive for me thanks to weekly email contact with a friend who had gone to Kosovo in the summer of 1999 to investigate the situation of the Roma (gypsy) population there on behalf of a Czech aid agency.
In late October my friend wrote me that he was returning to Prague. He feared that his Roma translator had become too identified with the aid agency's help to the "gypsies" in the eyes of the local Albanians in Kosovo, and that his life would be in danger if he were left there without any other aid agency contacts. Would I be able to put them both up in Prague for a few days?
That was how I met Hisen Gashnjani.
There is perhaps nothing that throws your life in your own face more than sharing it with someone totally unknown. More importantly, until you meet someone who has lived through war, you cannot fully comprehend what it does to people, and the idea of living in peace takes on an entirely different significance. Living with Hisen underscored the element of choice: what a precious thing it is, limited as it is in reality, and how powerful the illusion of it can be.
Hisen was not in Prague by choice. His fiancée had been killed by a bomb. His house had been destroyed. He had seen the murders and kidnappings of many people. Along with the rest of the population of a primarily Roma camp in Kosovo, his mother and many other relatives had made a march to the Macedonian border when camp conditions grew unacceptable. This resulted in their being accepted as refugees in Macedonia, a temporary bureaucratic improvement over their former status of "internally displaced persons." But they lived outside in Macedonia too, and it was already freezing at night.
When I met Hisen, a small, green-eyed Roma man of 29, he had been busy for months, the pressures of the work in Kosovo keeping him going twenty hours a day. The activity had helped stave off his inevitable reaction to so much loss. Now here in Prague he was overwhelmed. He had just ridden in an airplane for the first time. He found himself in a foreign city after spending most of his life in a village. Until the war came, he had been unaware of the prejudices against the Roma, of their stereotyping as pickpockets and prostitutes across Europe. He had always worked, had always been financially comfortable and had both Serb and Albanian friends before the war, speaking both languages fluently as well as Romani and his rapidly improving English. When our mutual friend left for the States, Hisen was surrounded by total strangers. For me he became a daily reminder, albeit a painful one, of the resilience of the human spirit--and of the slow death being lived by countless people like him in the limbo that is refugee life.
Hisen found himself in a position of relative comfort here in Prague. The aid agency was giving him money for food and other basics, and he was "translating" a handwritten journal, abandoned by its unknown author, which had been kept during the bombing--a dubious endeavor, since his written English was a series of good guesses at spelling and grammar, intelligible primarily to those who had already heard him speak. Most importantly, the aid agency had obtained a visa for him, so he was in the Czech Republic legally; unfortunately, it wasn't multiple-entry, so once he left he couldn't return. A similar agency in Germany was to arrange a visa so Hisen could visit relatives there. As Hisen waited on tenterhooks to hear if this trip would be possible, he was daily haunted by images of his family living outdoors in the Macedonian mud while he was safe and warm.
Hisen had been used to living surrounded by friends and relatives of all ages. In Prague he was isolated and lonely, and he said so in no uncertain terms. I had not realized before how little time I actually ever spent in my relatively large apartment, which has no television or pets to distract visitors. I introduced him to many people, but he initially was nervous about being out in the city and completely mistrustful of public transportation, except when accompanied. There were occasional high points, such as his discovery of an Albanian-language newspaper and his managing to reach various relatives by phone. He learned to use the computer quickly, got an email address and communicated in his unique spelling. But very often I came home to find him seated with his head in his hands, or leafing through photographs of his destroyed house. He had told me about his room in great detail, where he had pictures of his loved ones, his trouser-press, the video player. Now the only photos left were of ruins.
There was an uglier side to Hisen's stay here as well. My boyfriend and I were constantly amazed at the behavior of those who were in theory supposed to be helping him and everyone like him. He had a telephone number for the refugee camp in Macedonia, so my boyfriend tried to help him call through to tell his family what was going on. An American voice came on the line and went on a tirade when asked if he could go to tent 7B and find a relative to come to the phone. There was no explanation given --the man, whoever he was, just kept repeating "I'm not your boy." When he finally went to fetch the relative, he cryptically muttered "This never happened!" into the phone before handing it over. Why helping families contact each other should be turned into such a cloak-and-dagger affair was beyond us. Hisen said that such attitudes had not been uncommon among those who worked with refugees in Kosovo. Language barriers did not stop the communication of attitudes of contempt. Had we encountered someone cracking under the strain, a volunteer or soldier who had gotten more than he bargained for? We had no way of knowing.
A well-meaning attempt had been made to introduce Hisen to a Roma family here in the Czech Republic in the hope that he would temporarily live there. It didn't work. One of the unfortunate effects of the way the years of the Balkan conflicts have been reported has been the strengthening of the expectation that people of like ethnicity must inevitably see eye-to-eye. Why should Hisen, a Yugoslav Rom who celebrated Orthodox Christmas and Islamic Ramadan as well as Roma holidays, drank almost no alcohol, and listened to tapes of Albanian music, feel anything more in common with a Czech Rom than with a Czech Czech? There was not enough of either a common language or a shared experience between them. Hisen's analysis of the situation was most eloquent. "We Roma are not the same," he reported after the visit with a slight shrug of his shoulders. Then he held up his hand. "We are like the fingers of the hand--they look the same, but every one is also different."
Advocacy for Hisen became more difficult, as the idiosyncrasies of those who had agreed to help him here in Prague came to light. The aid agency had done all it could and his fate was now in the hands of volunteers like ourselves. Although one person in particular had agreed to be responsible for housing Hisen and helping with his visa to Germany, the process was all but left in the air. An atmosphere of sabotage set in: phone calls to the German aid agency were placed at times when it was impossible to expect anyone in the office; then the number was said to be "out of order" and no attempt made to find the correct one. Thus it came to pass that what was supposed to be a matter of a few days turned into a month of waiting for Hisen, three weeks of it at my place, after vague references to dormitories, etc., fell through. And it soon became plain that Hisen couldn't take the wait.
Time passing is hell for a refugee. I would never have understood this had I not lived with it. As the weeks passed, Hisen grew more and more unhappy. He was capable of talking for hours on end about returning directly to Macedonia to see his mother. There were a few other tasks to distract him--the aid agency asked him to help prepare a report on a plan for distributing aid to the villages in his region. This occupied his attention for a while, but then it was finished--and not likely to happen. He was bored with his translation. The computer had lost its novelty. He gave interviews to a few journalists, but the results were slow in getting into print, and he agonized over whether to let his name and photo be used. One day I came home and he was packing his bags, ready to go. He didn't want to go to Germany, he wanted to go "home" and he didn't care how. We talked and talked about it, me trying to remind him of what life would be like in the camp, trying to convince him that he was more useful to his family when he was able to contact the outside world and tell their story than he would be suffering alongside them. "Gwendolina, I know, but I feel myself going crazy. I'm so sorry, I feel I am a burden on you." He couldn't sleep, he wasn't hungry, anxiety was eating him alive. We finally took him to the doctor when he told me he thought something was wrong with his mind.
The daily encounters were becoming more than I could handle on my own as his depression sank deeper and deeper. I called on my friends who had met Hisen to help distract him, but still I often dreaded returning to my apartment after a full day of my own problems; no matter how late I returned, he was usually waiting up, wanting to talk, to reiterate his fears, to be reassured that it was the world that was crazy, not him. In the first few days of his visit he had been shown the way to my workplace, and now he took to showing up there as well during the day, completely at a loss for what to do. If the visa to Germany did come, he wasn't sure he could make the train trip alone, he was afraid--could my boyfriend come with him? I think the best adjective to describe his internal state at that time is: wretched.
But the ugliest had yet to come. For reasons best known to himself, the volunteer who had been half-heartedly attending to Hisen's German visa now started painting a picture of our mutual friend, with whom Hisen had worked in Kosovo, as a "rich American." Hisen was told that the man who had brought him to Prague was actually holding out on him, that he not only could but should personally provide money for moving Hisen's family (six people total) from the camp in Macedonia to Prague for the winter. Such a feat would have been a near-impossibility fraught with organizational and legal obstacles--but of course it was Hisen's most heartfelt desire. As this person quite brazenly admitted to me, he wrote an email "for Hisen," manipulating Hisen into signing something he hadn't written and making this outlandish request. Hisen's hopes were thus raised only to be dashed. Although the misunderstanding was soon corrected, Hisen was left more bewildered than ever, more unsure of whom to trust.
Hisen spent his last week in Prague in the home of another volunteer couple, who managed the final stages of picking up his visa at the German Embassy. I was sorry to see him go. In a mere three weeks he had integrated into the household, helping me when I was sick with the flu and finding a new source of delicious bread in the neighborhood. He made the train ride to Germany on his own of course, and still calls from there every so often. His mother and the rest of the refugees in Macedonia were moved into housing about mid-December, so while they have no money at least they are not living outside. I always know it is Hisen on the phone from the peculiar hoarseness of his voice, a hoarseness which I noticed the moment we met him. Even now when he calls, his voice is full of tears.
I don't have a memory of Hisen actually speaking of what he had suffered during the war and its aftermath. His gratitude for the everyday comforts of life combined with his intense anxiety spoke for itself. As with most abuses, there can be no satisfactory compensation for the results of war. The dead do not revive, the damage has already been done. The most that can be hoped for is justice. And the desire for justice is a luxury.
Perhaps the hardest part of meeting Hisen was a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the devastation he had survived. The gravest doubts still remain that it will ever be repaired. We weren't able to do all we wanted for him beyond giving him a place to sleep and listening. We were told that a shipment of children's shoes to the villages which he had surveyed in the Fall was urgently needed, but there was no one available from the aid agency to work on such a task. We tried calling shoe wholesalers on our own, asking for donations, spreading the word--all to no avail. It is highly probable that one of the many aid agencies providing humanitarian relief to Kosovo probably has what those villages need in a warehouse in Pristina somewhere. But no Albanian truck driver will take it to a "gypsy" village. And this whole mess should never have happened in the first place.
There are people living in UNHCR refugee camps here in the Czech Republic as well--stateless persons, caught in a bureaucratic limbo that feeds, clothes and houses them but cannot let them live. Some have been here for years. But the United Nations was not founded to herd the survivors of war around like cattle. It was founded to make war obsolete.
Hisen at least is not in a camp anymore. He ends every phone call the same way: "Gwendolina I hope some day I can see you in Kosovo and welcome you there."
I hope so too.