My new life

21st May 1999 at 01:00
A fortnight ago, 200 Kosovan refugees arrived in Glasgow with sad tales of how they left their homeland. Gillian Macdonald visited the family of one young girl who started at Dowanhill primary last week

Njomza Iseni is 10 years old. A fragile, earnest-looking little girl with mousy brown hair and a sallow complexion, she hasn't been to school for two months. On March 21, 15 soldiers with guns knocked on her family's door in the town of Viti in Kosovo and ordered them to get out. "Either you leave now or we will kill you all," they shouted.

"The children were crying and screaming, because they didn't know where they were going," says Njomza's mother, Sala. "They were terrified," she adds, and demonstrates with her arm how the children shook with fear. But Sala and her husband Afrim had been prepared. For three months, they and their five children, aged 15 months to 10 years, had been expecting the Serbs to arrive at the door. Every night they slept with their clothes on, and a bag lay ready packed.

When Njomza left she was wearing three pairs of pyjamas under her blue jeans and a warm winter jacket. Her mother knew how cold it would be in the mountains.

Sala is 32 and her husband 30. Both walk with a bad limp, because one leg is much shorter than the other. In Kosovo they lived on a disability allowance in the equivalent of a two-bedroom council flat. She completed her schooling but never worked. He used to work with what she described through the interpreter as "an agricultural company".

When they came down from their first floor flat to the street, the Iseni family joined a queue of 500 people, old and young, men, women and children. Those who had tried to take their tractors and cars were ordered to leave them behind.

Together, they walked for three hours without a break, Sala and Afrim carrying their 15-month old baby Laura and their bag, the four older children aged 10, eight, seven and four, staying close behind.

On the bitter, cold trek through the mountains, the little ones "behaved beautifully", says Sala. Though Njomza was in pain with her feet, and her seven-year old brother Milot was "very, very ill" with a burning fever and asthma, they kept going. Soldiers escorted them on either side of the single track.

There were no incidents on the journey, though the soldiers watched all the time for guerrillas. And every so often a group with chalk crosses marked on their backs, who were supposed to be shot, would be taken away. "Some returned. Others didn't," says Sala.

After three hours the exodus from Kosovo was complete. By the time the Isenis arrived at the Macedonian camp, Stankovasz 2, there were, says Sala, 480 people in front of them and another 1,000 behind. Five doctors immediately attended to Milot.

"Conditions in the camp were very bad. It was cold and the rain was so heavy that the mud came up to here," says Sala, drawing a line below her knee with her hand. "But there were no bullets, no guns. So peace.

"We had shelters, but had to sleep on the ground with just a blanket below us and another on top." The French Red Cross gave them tins, bread, milk, cold food. The children were unable to get out to play much, because of the rain. But they were given toys to play with, and classes were set up two days before the family left - "free activity, songs, poetry".

The one moment of great happiness for Sala was discovering her family in the camp. Her mother, father, two brothers and two sisters had left Kosovo three months earlier, but she had no idea where they had gone. She doesn't know where they are now, but thinks they may be transferred to Albania.

At this point, the little woman who has answered so many questions with such fortitude had to stop. Her large brown eyes filled with tears and she could not go on. For a few moments there was a brief glimpse of the emotion pent up inside her, and presumably in all the family. I moved the conversation on. How did they like Scotland? Were the children looking forward to going to school on Monday? Sala beamed. "Oh, yes! Everything is perfect. We are very, very happy. I want to say thank you to everybody."

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