We knew that they would come, but we didn’t know when. They surrounded our village in darkness, silent and wary as wolves. It was late spring, and a soft rain had been falling for days, bringing with it a mist that enveloped our village and obscured the stars.
Our commander was as nervous as a cat and spat curses between drags on his cigarette. He dismantled and cleaned his weapons again and again. It took the edge off. He was worried because the headman of our village had sent some boys out to high pasture with the sheep, and the dogs had gone with them. There would be no forewarning.
Before that, the headman had sent the women and children to the Albanian border and had said whoever wanted to go with them should volunteer now. I wanted to go, but a warning look from my older brother, Rexcep, stopped me, and I hung back, not daring to look when the convoy of cars left.
The commander, a short wiry man, had come to the village with a mission. He had automatic weapons and some combat training, it seems. He never commented on his past, but I heard from one of his team that the weapons and the training came courtesy of the Germans and the CIA, who had positioned themselves on the Albanian side of the border.
‘Hey, you, poet, quit dreaming. Get out there and relieve the watch.’ That was Agim, a man whose coarse choppy haircut made him seem as if he was wearing an animal’s pelt on his head. ‘You too, fat man, back him up,’ he ordered. The fat man, whose one source of entertainment since he had come to our village had been to torment me, stopped snickering.
‘Fuck,’ he said. Agim threw him a weapon.
‘You little shit,’ the fat man said. I could feel his moist breath right behind me, ‘You know why Agim sent you out here, right? Because he can’t afford to lose his good fighters.’
‘You’re out here too, Fat Man,’ I said, not looking back at the others, who were lounging and smoking and talking among themselves. That ought to shut him up, I thought. But he went on, ‘When those overgrown bastards come, I’ll rip them apart with my bare hands and hang them by their -‘ The fat man never got a chance to finish his fantasy, because, at that very moment, he went down in a heap, his skull exploding. I hit the ground.
I didn’t have a chance to fire my weapon as a warning to the others before the ground was littered with bullets. I felt a searing pain shoot up my leg as an explosion of light blinded me. I tried to grab my gun but was caught in the crossfire. I heard them coming, and flipping myself over, crawled behind the woodpile. My heart was beating so fast that I thought it would fly out of my chest and over our village, straight into the woods.
I was afraid to look down at my leg, at the sticky blood that I could feel gushing out freely amidst the leafy debris. I peeled off my shirt and made a tourniquet for my leg. All this seemed to happen as if time had slowed, then come to a complete stop. I heard the battle raging, but, it too, seemed far away. All I could think was that I would lose my leg if I managed to survive. I could hear my own blood pulsing with a soft shrrr –shrrr sound that intensified with each passing moment.
Then I remembered the last time I had seen my girl, Aida. She had sneaked out to meet me against her father’s wishes. Her father was a policeman loyal to the Belgrade regime and had big plans for his daughter. He wasn’t going to see her waste herself on someone like me who had nothing to offer. I knew she loved me, but she was an obedient daughter. After we parted, I waited around to see her family leave for Serbia where they would have to start all over again, like thousands of other Albanian Kosovars who felt an allegiance to Yugoslavia.
I think that is where I was going when they caught me. Somehow I thought that I could reach Aida. I was almost in the woods when I heard heavy footsteps. I couldn’t see a thing and found myself near a copse of trees. I put my arms up to shield myself. Two giant men, wearing infrared visors, stood in front of me, their guns loaded and ready to fire.
‘It’s a kid,’ the one on the left said.
‘Kids have an uncanny way of growing up,’ the other replied.
‘He’s been shot,’ the man on the left said, bending down to examine my leg. ‘Pick him up,’ he ordered.
The other man hoisted me over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. I must have been stiff with fear because he said with a laugh, ‘Don’t worry little Shiptar, you’re going to live.’ He carried me through the village and put me in back of a truck with four other wounded men. We waited for their team to assemble.
‘Finished Dragan?’ I heard one of them ask.
‘Yes,’ the man named Dragan replied, lighting a cigarette.
‘The commander and the others from the KLA?’
‘Let’s go then.’
I must have passed out, and when I came to, I was in the hospital. The doctors managed to save my leg, although I’ll always have a limp, they say. When I walk out of here, I’ll keep walking straight to Aida, and then we’ll leave for Canada if we can.