The weekend of unanswered phones

Sani and Shpen on Monday

Monday 29th March

According to a recent American publication, Going Going Gone, the unanswered phone is destined to become a relic of the 20th century. The expanding network of answering machines, tone menus and voice mail ensures that few calls expire of natural causes.

For Kosovar Albanians, though, the unanswered phone is more than a curious anachronism. It is a matter of life or death.

There are 400-500 Albanians from Kosovar who are living in Melbourne—roughly 10% of the total Albanian community. They have been arriving since the early 1980s, when the latest series of crackdowns began. The closure of education and professional opportunities had forced many young men and women to look elsewhere for employment. Scattering as far as Switzerland, USA and Australia, they left parents and extended family stayed behind.

Despite being spread across the world, the Kosovars have maintained a virtual nation through the international telecommunications. For the Albanian diaspora, the phone network operates like a global nervous system, alerting the dispersed community to trouble spots back home. At one community dinner, the announcement of total funds raised was greeted with the cry ‘Six more fax machines for Kosova!’ Communication has been the key to liberation.

Last weekend, the phones ceased functioning through much of Kosova. Without the electronic grapevine, Melbourne’s Kosovars are left alone with their fears.

The stories are chilling. The last time Suzie heard from her family they were in Pristina, huddling together in a basement and afraid to go out. She is worried how they will survive. There had been no time to gather supplies, and with no electricity food in their deep freeze is going rotten.

But that was Saturday. Since then she has had no direct phone contact. But just as the brain creates new neural paths after injury, alternative phone routes can sometimes be found. On Sunday, her husband Shpen got through to a woman in Turkey, whose brother has one of the few phones operating in Pristina. The brother was then able to reassure them of their safety, for the time being.

Most often, the calls are unanswered. There is no way of knowing whether this is because the lines are down or the inhabitants have been forced to flee, or worse. Occasionally, the phone lines open for a brief period. You keep trying.

Diaspora Kosovars had come to rely on the phone system as a nominal form of security for endangered relatives. This silence is a new disturbing development. For Shpen, ‘We used to worry that they were eight hours distant from us. But now, it’s like a million light years’.

In Pristina, Shpen had worked as a television producer. Now, with all the world’s media at his disposal, the only news he can find about his family is that their home in Mitrovitsa has been destroyed. He can get no news of his mother and crippled father.

He shares news from Sani, whose family are also in Mitrovitsa. Sani’s father was an officer in the Yugoslav Army, and his mother a university lecturer in accounting. From Sani, Shpen learns some troubling developments. Sani talked to his sister in London who had heard from a friend with parents in Mitrovitsa that army had started clearing out homes. He hasn’t heard from his parents since Saturday. Sani is on constant tenterhooks: ‘every second the news is changing’.

There are sometimes reasons for fearing success in getting through. On the weekend, Sani had tried to ring a friend in Pristina. The brother answered the phone, incredulous that someone had been able to call from Australia. Sani’s friend was outside queuing for bread, but his brother warned, ‘it is better you don’t ring, we don’t want calls coming from outside’.

In this state of fear, the unanswered phone may be more than an ill omen, it may itself be source of threat. Fearing that communication has turned from a source of protection to potential threat, Kosovars have asked that their surnames not be printed in this article.

The worst of the weekend did not come through the telephone line. Ilire Zali left Kosova nine years ago when studying medicine. She left parents, two brothers and four sisters at home for a job in Australia as a nurse’s assistant. Since then one brother and two sisters have immigrated to other countries.

Worried about her family in Kosova, she rang her brother on Friday night. He reassured her that they would be all right. Later on Saturday, there was a knock on the door of her St Albans home. ‘I answered the door cheerfully thinking it was a friend dropping in for a cup of coffee.’ The look on her friend’s face said it all.

He had a difficult story to tell. Six hours after Ilire had spoken with her brother, he had been rounded up with her father and four other males living in the house. To placate the hysterical women, the Serbs claimed to be merely taking them down to the Police Station for questioning. They were shot in the yard. After witnessing their death, Ilire’s sister called her other sister in Switzerland. The sister in Switzerland could not stomach ringing Ilire in Australia, and phoned a friend instead. In addition to mourning her male relatives, Ilire despairs of her remaining family, ‘I don’t know what happened to my sister. I can’t contact her any more’.

It was not always thus. The scene of this tragedy, Gjakova, has a long history of religious tolerance. In his ‘short’ history of Kosova, Noel Malcolm records the tale of a 17th century church delegation who was scandalised to be welcomed by a Gjakova priest, ‘Come in, Fathers: in our house we have Catholicism, Islam and Orthodoxy’. Like most other Kosovars I contacted, she cannot imagine Albanians and Serbs living together again.

The one bright light for Australian Kosovars is the sympathy they find from neighbours and workmates. For Suzie, this is a rare source of brightness: ‘Even people you get to know on the train have asked after my family.’

Back in the Balkans, the Albanian enthusiasm for the Western order has opened a Pandora’s box. There is an ancient Albanian saying, ‘Hospitality honours you, but also creates problems for you.’ Having opened the door to the West, Kosovars are now waiting for their honoured guests to enter.

In better times:


Albanian National Day celebrations in Footscray Park, Melbourne


Interview with opera singinger for video about Albanians in Australia

2 April 1999

Suzie has managed to speak with her sister in Pristina. The family have split up. As vulnerable targets, men have gone into hiding. The women and older men are staying in their apartment. There is no point trying to leave as there is nowhere to go. The roads out of Kosova are clogged with refugees, and there is no security along the route.

Suzie was eager to learn more about her family, but her sister told her in Turkish, 'Please, don't ask so many questions'. Her sister tried to appear calm. There is fear that phones are tapped.

Suzie would like to advise her family to leave Pristina, 'but I couldn't live with myself if something happened to them when they tried to get out.'

Sani made contact with his family. They had previously left Pristina for a house on the outskirts of Mitrovica. Police had come around and given them an hour to leave Kosova. On the road out, they hit the long line of cars trying to get out. Rather than wait in the car for days, they turned back to Pristina.

He no longer has contact with his friend. There is so much conflicting information. No one believes that the footage of Rugova shaking hands with Milosevic is genuine.

There is a long-standing Kosovar joke. A Kosovar is swimming in a pool in a Serbian city. Suddenly he suffers a cramp and is in danger of drowning. He cries for help. No one budges. He then shouts: 'Kosova Republic!' Immediately one of the bystanders jumps into the water and saves him. The Kosovar thanks his rescuer, who coolly produces a pair of handcuffs, saying 'Sorry, I'm a policeman'.

There is no longer even the security of arrest.

8 April 1999

A Serb neighbour helped Suzie’s brother make contact with her. The women of their family had been staying in a house 100m from the main Post Office. The mother had refused to go down the basement. According to her sister, the walls shook and the ceiling fell down, but by a miracle they survived.

Previously, two police had come ordered them to leave in 24 hours. Having seen the situation from Australian television, Suzie had been adamant that they should not try to cross the border. She also advised her brother how he could escape being rounded up by the police. Unfortunately, he had been injured in the process, though her family refuse to give details. Calls are monitored and so the news is only factual and blindly consoling.

Suzie’s daughter recognised the bombed street on the television. She’d been there only a month ago, visiting her grandmother. Apparently, there are only a few stragglers on the street, but after 3pm the only people on the street are the ones wearing uniforms. Suzie’s brother makes his dash for food at 5am.

The family have now all moved to a flat a little further from the city centre. For Suzie, it is hard to deal with the fact that there is no prospect for them in the near future. ‘I never used to talk about politics, but now I can’t stop’.

Melbourne Kosovars are now thinking about taking in refugees. 4000 places have been allocated. Suzie spoke of her feelings coming to Australia. ‘It was like a dream. I fully expected to be singled out as a foreigner. But I could walk the streets in complete freedom.’

But Suzie is caught. On the one hand, she wants to share her contentment with this impending wave of refugees. But on the other, she doesn’t want to assist the Serbian plan of ethnic cleansing by helping relocate Albanians to the other side of the earth.

For more than a decade, Kosovar Albanians have lived in a diaspora that kept in touch through video, fax and telephone. But like Jerusalem for Jews, this diaspora was predicated on the existence of a terrestrial homeland. What will happen if this link is cut?

The new romance of the KLA
14 April 1999

Susanna's family are still under siege in Pristina. They haven't been outside for seven days. When she asks her mother about whether there is enough food, she says 'Who can worry about food now?' Her blood pressure tablets are running out. Susanna's brother has now a nervous reaction to the bombing. One brother who has made it out through the Macedonian border phoned them back to explain how much money they would need to bribe their way through. To simply get on the road, however, seems too big a risk. Susanna's 16 year old niece would be prime target for rapists.

Suzanne is still able to make daily contact by phone. Yesterday, she allowed her niece's daughter to speaker to her grandmother, Susanna's sister. Her sister had seen the granddaughter born when she last visited Melbourne. The effect her sister was a mixture of tears and laughter. It was the first time she'd laughed in weeks. Otherwise, according to Suzanne, 'They can't see a way out any more'.

News from the Turkish refugee camps is bad. Apparently, conditions are so poor that many would prefer to be back in Kosova. Suzanne heard about her next door neighbour who is in one of these camps. He was boarding the plane when the woman in front of him collapsed. He helped her on board, but as there wasn't enough room for his family they were left behind. He wasn't allowed to exit the plane and join them. He is now in Turkey with no news of his family

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17th May 1999

'the house belongs to god and his guest'
Leke Dukagjini Kanuni (trans. Leonard Fox) New York: Gjonleka Publishing Company, 1989 (brig. 1933)

Two Melbourne stories of 'icing on a burnt cake'


Australia has made space for at least 2,000 Kosovar refugees. They are being greeted with an extraordinary display. Political leaders have turned out to welcome the dazed refugees as they stumble off the plane. The Prime Minister was photographed hugging a weary unshaven Kosovar. At Melbourne airport, the Premier of Victoria, which has the largest proportion of Albanians, went to the length of having the words of welcome 'mire se na erdhet' written on his hand. But an Albanian beat him to it, bursting out of the plane with 'Good morning everyone'-the three words of English that he had practiced on the plane journey.

On Monday 17th May, the popular daily newspaper Herald Sun had its first ever headline in Albanian 'Welcome to Victoria, Mirse erdhet nŰ Victori'. Inside were headlines: 'Kosovars in from the cold', 'Barriers tumble as hearts rejoice', 'Tears flow for loved ones'. Under the heading 'Winning words' were ten Albanian greetings with phonetic pronunciations. (see /albmelb.htm for image)

Much attention to directed to the country army base where Victorian Kosovars are housed. Shooting of rifles has been cancelled for the first few days, and its name has been changed to 'Haven Centre'. There are kangaroos and emus in the vicinity. Responses to these strange creatures have been monitored, and newcomers are advised light-heartedly not to feed the wildlife.

As one of the most isolated nations in the world, the Kosovars offer the opportunity to reconfigure Australia from a 'backwater' to a 'haven'. The unparalleled attention given to their arrival provides a collective expression of the 'good life' that can now be appreciated here. There is a powerful undercurrent of relief in offering sanctuary to these battered people-not only for Kosovars, but also for Australians themselves. For several years, popularist racism under the leadership of Pauline Hansen has created an atmosphere of distrust towards strangers. Here finally was an opportunity to share the enjoyment of life in Australia with those who might really need it.


Susanna's sister visited her home in Mitroviša. Her Serb neighbour in Pristina travelled to Mitroviša every day. She told her that her home was about to be occupied by Serbs. They travelled together in the neighbour's car. When she arrived at her house, she covered the broken windows with black plastic, recovered her belongings, and asked Albanian neighbours to occupy her home in her absence. She made it back to Pristina safely. She was able to report to that the parents of Susanna's husband were still alive.

Susanna's 15-year-old brother died of stress. He had been living in a state of shock since the bombing began and had sustained extreme levels of blood pressure. Susanna's other brother had to organise with the hospital for a permit to bury him. In the hospital, the brother saw many bodies of young Albanians lying unburied. He recognised many of them, and knew their parents were unaware of their current state. They were crawling with worms. He would not tell Susanna any more-'Don't make me talk more.'

Susanna's mother refuses to show any weakness, and talks of how they will all be together when it is over.

Susanna has been translating for refugees during the medical checks on their arrival in Sydney. She says she can't really feel her brother's death, and 'soon it will hit me. One day I will sit down and write a book.' Still she manages to maintain daily phone contact with her family in Pristina-'I can't start the day without having fresh information'.

We joke about the way Australians are learning Albanian, and how her job as translator might soon be redundant. What was a devastating tragedy is almost becoming a way of life. Maybe the real grief is waiting for the tragedy to be over.