About a hundred of them went. They left their wives, children, friends and girlfriends. Some left school, others their jobs, to fly halfway across the world to fight in a war for, they say, their people, their identity and their independence.
The independence, gained almost a decade later, came at a cost.
For Florim Lajqi (pronounced Lie-chee), 30, of the Bronx, it meant friends he’d lost in the war “would be given a proper peace.”
Lajqi was among thousands who fought with Albanian guerrillas in 1999 to win Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. They called themselves the Kosovo Liberation Army. Lajqi was 21, a student of criminal justice at John Jay University in New York. Though he’d immigrated to the United States at age three, he frequently returned to visit his family’s hometown near Peja, in western Kosovo. By 1999, tensions in Kosovo, then a province of Serbia and before that of Yugoslavia, were rising. Ethnic Albanians made up about 90 percent of the province’s population, but were losing their jobs to Serbs, and most Albanian media had been banned.
Killings and massacres between the two groups escalated, but the international community did not intervene. As Kosovo slid toward civil war, Lajqi religiously attended every Albanian demonstration in New York, hoping he’d be called up to join the KLA.
“The war in Kosovo started in ’98, I was 20 at that time, but as soon as it started I was like…perfect, this is perfect, perfect…I was going to drop everything, drop all my friends, girlfriends, school…everything, I’m going to fight.”
He soon got his wish.
He traveled to the front lines with the Atlantic Battalion, a unit of 100 men and one woman, all from the suburbs north of New York City. Most knew one another, as neighbors and friends. Lajqi was one of the youngest.
The war ended after three months, and most of the Atlantic Battalion returned home to New York. But the Kosovar Albanians felt left in an unsatisfying limbo. The United Nations was administering Kosovo, but it was still part of Serbia. To Lajqi, too, the mission felt unfinished.
When Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence in February 2008, he bought a ticket to the capital, Pristina, so he could witness the country’s birth firsthand. By then he was married. His wife Kaltrina and friend Valon took him to the airport. It was a moment he’d fought for, he said. He planned to go to Prizren, a town near the front line that his battalion had defended. He would bring back a handful of soil, the earth of a liberated Kosovo, to place on the graves of three of his close friends — young brothers who had sacrificed their lives for it.
Lajqi had grown close to the three brothers of the Bytyqi (Bu-tu-chi) family, from Yonkers, New York. Yll (Youl), 24, Agron, 23 and Mehmet, 21, had been assigned to different locations on the front, so they wouldn’t run the risk of being killed in the same attack. Lajqi said he was closest to Yll, “the quiet one.”
After 11 weeks of NATO bombing, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic withdrew his Serbian forces from Kosovo. The war was over. Despite some serious injuries, no one in the battalion had been killed. Everyone headed home.
Everyone except the Bytyqi brothers. They were thought to have been assisting a group of Roma men, who helped protect their mother and two other siblings during the war, flee to greater Serbia to avoid being attacked by returning Albanians. There, the brothers were arrested by Serb police, who charged them with being in the country illegally. They were briefly imprisoned, then handed over to Serb paramilitary forces. Their remains were found two years later, in a mass grave.
“They were tortured, beaten, and then executed and dumped in a mass grave in a national park next to Belgrade,” along with 71 other bodies, Lajqi said, citing the findings to the Albanian American Civic League. An investigation into what happened to them is still in progress.
“These three brothers were on top of the grave when they excavated,” Lajqi said. They were found with canvas bags pulled over their heads, bullet wounds to the skull, barbed wire around their torsos, hands tied behind their backs. They could only be identified by the New York State drivers’ licenses in their pockets. All three had been born in the United States.
As Lajqi finished his story, he joined a procession of cars pulling into St. Mary’s cemetery in Yonkers. There, tombstones bearing the double-headed eagle insignia of both the KLA and the Albanian flag marked the Bytyqi brothers’ graves.
Lajqi ’s long black coat shivered in the light wind over his broad frame. The men greeted one another with solid handshakes and warm embraces.
Their former commander, Gani Shehu, spoke before the graves, with his men facing him in formation. He signaled Lajqi, who took from his coat pocket the soil of their independent Kosovo. Each man took a small handful of dirt and placed it on the graves.
“Lavdi!” the men saluted in unison –Albanian for “glory.”
Each man then went alone to the tombstones to pay his respects.
Nicole Tung studies Journalism and History at NYU. She freelances in photography and writing, and her website can be viewed here: nicoletung.wordpress.com