I was in a very severe condition. I didn’t make a sound. A relative of mine covered me tightly and put me in the stove for a few seconds to get warmer. Then my mother fainted, because she was worried about me. At the time I was six months old. My father was 31, and my mother only 21. On March 8, 1999, there was the offensive at Ivajë village. Serbian forces captured people, separated the men and women. The men were taken to the police station, where they were kept for two hours. Whereas the women were kept at the culture center. After the intervention of the OSCE, the men were freed, and so were the women. I didn’t meet my father for about three months, because he was a soldier of the KLA. My mother didn’t know anything about his whereabouts. From the moment we left our house, we kept going from house to house. Also, we moved from village to village, I was six months old at the time; my mother, my aunt, and my 60-year-old grandmother. It was very cold… rain, snow. My mother joined our neighbors. They say that the lines of people were very long. There were around 7,000 of them. Before we got to Bllacë village, my mother stopped at her family house. There were many other refugees there. And then from the cold, I stopped moving. My mother thought I had died from the cold, and she fainted. Then a relative of mine covered me tightly with a blanket, and put me in the stove for a few seconds. Then, when she took me out, I started crying. All the refugees who were present applauded with joy. We continued to walk. My mother said we walked for 24 hours until we got to Bllacë village. We also stopped for 24 hours in the woods. They didn’t let them pass. There were 30,000 other refugees there in severe conditions. There were elderly people, children, women. There was no other food than gurabia, which was also my food, because they last longer without going bad. There were many journalists who were there to report on the war in Kosovo. As they were taking pictures of 99 refugees in severe conditions, they took pictures of my mother and I, as I was being breastfed by her. Then my mother… the journalists wanted to uncover my face, but my mother was very tired, so she ignored their request. It was so cold, she put a blanket on my head. The first time I understood the significance of the photograph was when a group of journalists came to interview me when I was in the third grade. That was when it finally made sense to me, that I am the baby with its mother in an internationally-known photograph. In the image, I am seen covered with a white blanket. I keep it – it is something special to me, because through it a story was told. It is the only thing from my childhood that I still have today.
Besimi dhe Jehona
Besimi: Dad tells us how he heard the children saying: “Do you wanna trade it for Xaja? Do you wanna trade it for Xaja?”, because it was so hard to find the image that completes that album. The war had started to approach the city of Mitrovica. Our dad was working in Migjeni school in Mitrovica as a caretaker. The moment he finished work at the school, he came home and told us: “The war is approaching. Whatever happens, we will be prepared.” The family remained divided because dad was working. At the time, he was taking care of the schoolchildren and staff. Up until April 16, he would open and close the school. The Serbian police arrested dad at the bus station in Mitrovica. They put us in a line of people walking to Drenicë. We were asking for information about dad’s fate, if he was sent to the prison in Smrekonicë or the prison in Pozarevac. Because information among the people was that whoever went to Pozarevac would not come back alive, and whoever went to Smrekonicë, could potentially be sent to Albania. They brought us back to Mitrovica, and I would go out and ask prisoners, who were being released, about my father. Some told me he was sent to Pozharevc, others told me he was sent to Albania. So, we didn’t know about our father’s fate until the end of the war. We thought our dad was missing. And dad was given the same information about us.
Jehona: Our dad doesn’t speak much. We learned many things from our mom. Something that dad told us is that when he was imprisoned, they destroyed the documents that he had with him at the time, except for his Serbian ID card. Another thing dad told us, which is very sad, is how a 12-year-old was with his father in prison, and they didn’t speak Serbian. Our dad was translating for them. He went through extreme torture because he was translating for them. When they were taken to the prison in Smrekonicë, he experienced something else. Close to the prison there was a well, and a bucket for water. He went to get water for his personal needs. However, the bucket had a hole on the bottom. Because of the life that our dad had had in the village, he knew how to deal with this issue. He took off his shirt and placed it at the bottom of the bucket, and filled it with water.
Besimi: Our dad was severely punished because of that bucket. Because of his knowledge, which allowed him to solve this problem, the Serbian police suspected that dad might be someone important, or a politician. In reality, dad was simply a school caretaker.
Jehona: Another thing that dad told us, about his time in prison, was what he went through in a notorious cell. They kept him inside hanging upside down, and every once in a while, a drop of water would fall…
Besimi: fall on his forehead… Dad told us that above the room, above the cell, there was something installed dropping water into the cell, and the chair was placed right where the water was dripping.
Jehona: He said that he stayed there for 12 hours, but it felt like 12 years. Dad was very stressed because other prisoners told him that they were taking some to the prison in Pozarevac, and when that prison was full, they would take others to Albania. Dad was lucky not to be taken to the prison in Pozarevac, and to be taken to Albania instead.
Besimi: They pulled him from the line of people because he helped an old man. That was when this famous photograph was taken. That was where they tied dad up to a street light. All the prisoners were forced to hit him. If they didn’t hit hard enough, they were forced to do it again. When they left, when the others crossed the border, an American journalist asked: “Why has he been left behind?” They told him: “Because he helped an old man who couldn’t walk. The Serbian police forced us to torture him.” You can see that dad’s face in the photograph is a bit red, because of the boiling water that the police threw at his face. At that moment, our dad wanted to take the photos, take them closer to him… you can see in the photograph that he has his wallet. The American… the American journalist… curious to know what happened to him, went and took the photograph.
Jehona: Also, dad told us about how the soldiers asked him while he was at the border: “Why did you go through all that torture for these two photos?” Dad replied: “For you, they might be nothing, but for me, they are my whole. I don’t know whether or not they are alive. At least I have these photos, and I will keep them forever.” Naturally, it was very hard for dad, going through all that torture for these two photos. For us, it was even harder because we didn’t have a single photo of dad.
Besimi: Because of having been tortured, he couldn’t sit or lie down, and the American journalist did something for which we can never repay him. He did the impossible for dad. He called an army helicopter from the hospital in Tirana, and they took dad so that he could be given the best possible treatment. Dad said that he stayed in a mud bath therapy for three weeks so that his muscles would stick to his bones again, as they had become detached because of the boiling water that had been thrown at him and the torture that he had experienced. From the moment we were separated, we didn’t know about our dad’s fate. They put us in a line of people and took us to Montenegro. An American man, an American woman, and an Albanian journalist were walking in the streets of Ulcinj when they noticed that I got sunburned. They stopped me, not knowing that I was the kid from the photograph. They told me: “You have to get treatment.” But we had just escaped war, we didn’t care about being medically treated. I replied: “Let me call my mom.” I called mom, and she explained to them our situation during the war, how we were separated, and how we didn’t know about our father’s fate. They knew about the photograph, and they knew that dad was alive. That was when we found out that our father was alive. But dad didn’t know that we were alive until he came back from Albania after the war. When dad came back, we were living in Tavnik, Mitrovicë, in a rented house. When I saw dad—I was the first to see him, and the moment I saw him at the door is one of the biggest joys of my life—I hardly recognized him. Because of all the weight he had lost. When he saw me, he fainted. We didn’t manage to get close to each other. I said to mom, “Dad is here!” Even the neighbors ran to us with joy. All the neighbors came to see how it was possible that he was still alive. There were… there were neighbors who had been in prison with him. They couldn’t believe he was still alive.
Jehona: For me, as a child, although I don’t remember much about the moment when dad came back… however, after two or three days, we naturally experienced great joy. Waiting for so long for our father, and not knowing whether or not he was still alive, was very difficult for us. Even though we were just children, it was very hard for us. As far as I can remember, during the demonstrations in Mitrovica in 2004, Besim, being a very lively kid, went to the demonstrations. On the way, Besim saw a red Opel Vectra. In the back, through the window, he saw dad’s photo. At that moment, the journalist who had taken dad’s photograph, as well as a translator, were inside the car. They were going around Mitrovica looking for us.
Besimi: When I saw the photograph in that car, it was a very special feeling for me, because I noticed myself, and dad. When I found out that that photograph had been taken, I was very sad, because it was a result of the torture that dad had gone through because of these two photos.
Jehona: After we saw the photograph… after we saw it on a big poster, it was interesting to find it inside a brand of chewing gum from Turkey, which had NATO as a theme. Finding this photo was very hard in that series, or within that album. My dad, being a school caretaked, would hear children in the school or in the streets saying: “Do you wanna trade with Xaja? Do you wanna trade with Xaja?” This photo was… very difficult to find… that’s why children would say: “Do you wanna trade with Xaja? Do you wanna trade with Xaja?” so that they could complete their albums. This photograph is special in our family, in our photo albums. It is one of our most loved photos. Although it was not taken in normal conditions, it is still one of our favorites. We are very proud to have such a father, who went through so much for these photos. We will always be proud.
Today, when I see news about refugees around the world, I get goosebumps, because I know that in 1999, my family also experienced what refugees today are experiencing around the world. I got the name Agim from my grandmother and grandfather, because my uncle had an accident and passed away. I was born one or two years later. They wanted to pass on their son’s name to me. I was the special one in the eyes of the family. They really kept me really close. When the war started, once the situation started to worsen in Prizren, in March and April 1999, Serbian soldiers would come to our houses and ask for food and other things. They would be looking for men. Our mothers would say: “Our men have gone abroad.” But, in fact, our men had fled to other neighborhoods where it was a bit safer, until the Serbian soldiers would leave. Then all the men would come back home. We decided to flee from there, to go to the Arab camp in Kukës. At first, they didn’t let us cross the border. We had a Serb neighbor who would ask for 500 Deutschmarks per family to get them across the border. Ten of us got into a car. It was my family and the family of my uncle, the family of my father’s cousin. We set off on the road close to the village of Zhur. There, the Serbs would stop us and confiscate our cigarettes. We did this trip multiple times, ten of us in a car, heading towards the border. Every time the Serbian soldiers sent us back, our neighbor would give us back the money… This happened multiple times. My mom tells how… before leaving, she would prepare gurabia because it was the food that would keep the longest without going bad. Before leaving, she would bake more, as we didn’t know for how long we would be away from Kosovo, but each time we would return. She would prepare lots of them, so that we would not starve along the way. On April 23, when we finally crossed the border, my family, together with 80-90% of the population of Prizren had left… On that day, April 23, the border was opened. At the border, they took our documents and threw them away, as they did with our license plates. 125 Then, we travelled together with a journalist, an acquaint - ance of my father’s uncle, who helped us along the way to the camp. Outside the camp we waited, we waited for so long. The journalist used his connec - tions to get us inside the camp. Once we had settled there, late at night, we would hear the bombings in Prizren because it was quite close. We didn’t feel very safe, we wanted to leave the Arab camp because the bombings were so loud. Three days after we entered the camp, my grandma and grandpa arrived from Kosovo. When they arrived, my family and I met them at the barbed wire fence. My grandma and grandpa just wanted to hug me, because they wouldn’t let them inside the camp… There were so many people there, so they would not let them in. My dad’s cousin used his connections to take them into the camp. But before entering the camp, my grandparents wanted to hold me and hug me. I had their son’s name. They loved me… I was the special one in the family. The moment my grandparents approached the barbed wire fence to hug me, as I was being held up and handed through to the other side of the fence, photo report - ers came and took the photograph. That was the mo - ment when this well-known image was taken, at the spot where my grandparents were waiting to hug me. While we were in the camp, after that whole tiring trip, after the photograph was taken, a couple of days later, the journalists came back and brought me a cradle, because I was crying a lot, due to the lack of food and so on. The journalists heard about us and came to see us. They brought a cradle and food, milk and other things for the children. The photograph shows the hands of my dad’s cousin. His wife is also in the frame, holding me up to pass me along to my grandparents, whose hands are also visi - ble on the other side of the fence, waiting to hold me. My family found out about this image in 2002. The jour - nalist came to visit us here in Prizren in 2002, and that’s when we discovered that the image was really famous. After that, my parents were constantly telling me about the photograph, but to me it wasn’t very interesting. One day, on a trip to Albania with 126 my family, we saw the photograph on a billboard. We stopped. We were really surprised. The image looked very interesting to us when seen on a billboard in Kukës. Even though the picture became widely known, in our living room we keep a portrait of late uncle Agim. That is the only photo in our living room. There are no others.