SKENDERAI, Kosovo (WOMENSENEWS)–The two women had new teeth!
I couldn’t believe the white sparkle of their welcoming smiles when I returned to Kosovo last month for the first time since 2001 and went to see Shehrije and Fatime Kastrati at their farmstead in a resource-poor rural area.
Six years earlier, at the end of my two-and-a-half-year stay in Kosovo, I had despaired for these two women. Only in their 30s, all they had left of their teeth were a few darkened fangs. A local doctor familiar with Kosovo’s folkways told me that many young girls whitened their skin with a zinc-based cream that made their teeth fall out at an early age.
In the wedding picture Shehrije had shown me, she looked deathly pale, as an Albanian bride should. Hers had been an arranged marriage, as had her sister-in-law Fatime’s. Arranged marriages are common in the countryside.
When I first met Shehrije in July of 1999, she was pregnant with her second child. This was soon after the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign had sent a million Albanians into temporary exile, while Kosovo Liberation Army rebels fought the occupiers. Among the mass graves the Hague Tribunal for War Crimes exhumed in Kosovo, one was near the small town of Skenderai.
Samples from clothing found on the bodies were exhibited there for identification purposes. I was present when Shehrije discovered a swatch from a sweater she had knit. Her husband, she told me tearfully, had worn it when he had left the house, never to return.
Only after I had visited her several times did Shehrije disclose that her husband had been a rebel, like his brother, Fatime’s husband, who was also killed. As war widows they received a very small pension which the surviving Kastrati brother put in his own pocket.
Sons Allowed Them to Stay
But they were allowed to stay on the farmstead because Shehrije gave birth to a baby boy and Fatime already had a son. If they had only had their daughters they would have been sent back to their parents.
When I visited, Shehrije and Fatime would bake the burek pie of homemade cheese and cream. But they and their children were last to get a slice, if any was left after the guests, the mother-in-law, their sister-in-law and her kids. The mother-in-law dozed on a foam mat and rocked the cradle that held her baby grandson. She would only stir at the rustle of the banknotes I gave to the war widows. It was a scene from Dickens’ time, yet we were in the outlaying areas of Europe, in the 21st century.
At that time Shehrije’s daughter Albiona, who cannot hear or speak, used to run around the yard screeching in an attempt to articulate words. I tried to get her medical care through my U.N. connections. But I failed. Even though there were thousands of international aid workers and 60,000 NATO troops, I couldn’t get a little girl from the backwoods to see an ear specialist.
A necessary document was always missing. Aid, I felt, was a game of dice. The lucky got it; the unlucky missed out.
New Homeowners Now
Six years later, the two war widows not only have new teeth they have also become homeowners. Shehrije and Fatime proudly showed me two new brick houses on the Kastrati land. The two-story structures may be unfinished but they belong to them.
In her living room Fatime seated a friend and me on an upholstered couch, not a traditional mat. Although it was a balmy fall day, the cement walls exuded a deep chill. Fatime plugged in an electric heater. After 15 cozy minutes the power failed. Power still fails daily in town and country, despite millions of euros the European Union has spent fixing the electric system.
Fatime’s daughter Vlora eagerly tried out the English she’s learning in high school. She dreams of becoming a doctor. At 16 she sees possibilities for herself her mother couldn’t have imagined.
“In my time they didn’t care to send girls to school,” her mother said, “but now we encourage them to go.”
Fatime’s 14-year-old son Elbasan was at school. Twice a week he attends a madrassa at the new mosque in a nearby village. With the help of Saudi money the mosques destroyed during the Serb invasion have been rebuilt, and new ones have been constructed at the entrance to most villages.
Many boys and girls go to the Islamic religious schools. Elbasan had brought home a large picture of Mecca, the only decoration on the walls, in addition to a framed photo of his father.
Daughter’s Hearing Is Better
I wondered about Shehrije’s daughter Albiona. I still felt guilty that I hadn’t been able to secure her passage for medical treatment in neighboring Macedonia. But, I learned, things have worked out for the girl. Her hearing has improved now that she attends a special school for hearing- and speech-impaired kids at the other end of Kosovo. A recent photo shows Albiona no longer as an unruly tomboy but a graceful teen with long red hair and a radiant smile.
After the war, Swiss farmers donated a cow to each of the many war widows in Kosovo. Of those given to Shehrije and Fatime, only one survives. However, they now have money to buy milk. Last January their pension was increased to 175 euros a month, almost the sum a Kosovo professional might earn.
The war widows no longer let their brother-in-law touch either their money or the seeds they get for planting. This drawing of their boundaries amazed me. The mother-in-law passed away a few years ago so they no longer need to be her house slaves.
I had not wanted to embarrass Shehrije and Fatime by asking them about the teeth when I first saw them. When I finally did, the war widows showed them off with a wide smile. The dental work, they explained, had been done bit by bit, with many visits to Skenderai.
The war widows have endured. They have emerged out of the darkness I saw them in only six years ago. But this may be as far as they can go.
They have no marketable skills. If they did they would be up against Kosovo’s unemployment rate of 50 percent.
Could they remarry, I asked a friend who works as a local doctor. Shehrije and Fatime seemed younger and full of spirit, with a deep inner wisdom in their eyes.
As we drove away from the homestead, I was told that would be impossible. No rural Albanian family would accept a poor widow with kids into the fold.
Victoria Schultz is a freelance writer and photographer based in New York who has just finished a novel set in Kosovo of 1999.
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