‘I Understand’: The Yugoslav War Refugees Helping Other Refugees

Some of the refugees from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have dedicated their lives to helping others who were also driven from their homes by conflict.

On March 26, 1999, two days after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, Marin Din Kajdomcaj was seized and tortured by Serb paramilitaries in his native Kosovo.

Kajdomcaj was working for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and had stayed behind in Pristina when the rest of the agency’s small team was evacuated on the eve of the air strikes.

Badly injured and left at a roadside, Kajdomcaj resolved to leave with his family three weeks later; they headed for the border with North Macedonia as part of a wave of hundreds of thousands of other Kosovo Albanians driven from their homes in what was then a province of Serbia by a brutal Serbian counter-insurgency war.

“When I crossed the border, I felt a deep emptiness, a grave feeling of being a refugee after leaving behind my parents, my home, and my country,” he told BIRN a quarter of a century later, in an interview to mark World Refugee Day on June 20.

Kajdomcaj, 61, spoke from his office in Sana’a, Yemen, where he is the representative of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

The posting is his latest in a long and rewarding career that has put Kajdomcaj on the frontline of refugee crises across the world, from Georgia to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Darfur, Jordan, Bangladesh and – after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – Poland.

He says his experience of leaving Kosovo, of spending months in a sprawling refugee camp with thousands of other Kosovo Albanians, gives him deep insight into the plight of those he helps today.

“I tell them all over the world that I was a refugee myself and I understand your pain,” he said. “You are not an official who can leave emotions outside your office. It’s impossible.”

“I think my days as a refugee and my service to people in search of hope shaped my life direction, my destiny as an emergency expert,” Kajdomcaj said.

“The opportunity to help them in their most difficult moments, gives you a push to stay dedicated against all odds.”

He urged states around the world to “keep their doors open”.

“The space for refugees is shrinking,” he said. “We should ensure solidarity for those who flee for their lives just because some groups see them as different.”

‘It left scars on me’

According to the UNHCR, there have never been so many refugees as there are today – roughly 45 million as of end-2023, 75 per cent of them hosted in low- and middle-income countries; a further 67 million were internally displaced.

“One crisis overlaps another,” said Veton Orana of the UNHCR in Gaziantep, southeast Turkey. “The solution to the refugee problem is not humanitarian intervention but a political solution.”

Like Kajdomcaj, 61-year-old Orana speaks from personal experience.

He became a refugee in March 1999 when the UNHCR evacuated its staff from Kosovo. Orana, a Kosovar, had been with the agency since 1995, working first with Bosniak refugees from Bosnia, Serb refugees from Croatia and then with Kosovo Albanians displaced by fighting between Serbian forces and the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army.

Like Kajdomcaj, Orana ended up in North Macedonia. “It was a terrible feeling,” he recalled. “I was homeless and confused about the future.”

The situation was “grim”, he said, “and I didn’t know how long it would last”.

“People brought terrible testimonies of the atrocities they had seen. Deep inside, it left scars on me.”

“The concept of trains loaded with people beyond their capacity for deportation is terrible and left bitter memories in my mind.”

But Orana questions whether his own experience has really informed his career, which has seen him serve in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Ivory Coast.

“It is not important whether you yourself were a refugee or not,” he said. “Being a refugee does not make you a better person to deal with humanitarian issues.”

Both Orana and Kajdomcaj returned to their native Kosovo in June 1999 with the deployment of 50,000 NATO peacekeepers and the withdrawal of Serbian forces at the end of 11 weeks of air strikes.

“I wanted to be close and to help my people in that great pain,” Kajdomcaj said, despite the urging of his colleagues to go elsewhere after the trauma he had suffered.

“I was with the British contingent, and we spent the first night awake in Ferizaj,” he said, referring to the southern Kosovo town known to Serbs as Urosevac. “It was emotional, surreal.”

With the UNHCR, Kajdomcaj attended talks with the commander of NATO forces, British general Mike Jackson, before joining the office of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian head of the UN mission that took charge of Kosovo with the end of the war.

By 2003, after a year in Afghanistan, Kajdomcaj was head of the UNHCR office in Kirkuk, Iraq. Vieira de Mello was in Baghdad as the UN’s chief envoy.

Kajdomcaj recalled sending him a message on the afternoon of August 19, 2003, alerting him to an appearance Kajdomcaj had made on CNN to talk about refugees.

Vieira de Mello did not reply. An hour later, Kajdomcaj heard he was among at least 17 people killed in the bombing of the UN headquarters.

“It was a shocking moment of loss for me after sharing so many days working to ease the pain of millions of people in need,” he said.

‘Foreigners in someone else’s land’

Sinisa Nadazdin remembers his school in Mostar, southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, shaking from the force of an explosion. It was Friday, April 3, 1992, and the war had started.

“Suddenly it became so real,” he told BIRN. “We ran to the windows and saw a big black cloud. Hostilities in Mostar began on April 3.”

Four days later, Nadazdin and his family left for Serbia, staying with relatives in Belgrade and then the town of Smederevo.

“I was a teenager, so to me and my younger brother, that was kind of exciting. Coming to new places, meeting new people,” he told BIRN.

“But for my parents, it was a time of great sorrow. Only later did I understand how difficult it all was for them.”

Nadazdin had grown up in a typical middle-class Yugoslav family. His parents, he said, “lived a kind of Yugoslav dream. And when the country obviously collapsed, the dream ended.”

Four months later, his family moved to Montenegro, where his father found work in Podgorica’s aluminium producer having worked in another in Mostar.

Podgorica is not far from Mostar, yet Nadazdin said the move left them feeling like “foreigners in someone else’s land”.

When the war in Bosnia ended in 1995, Nadazdin’s family did not believe they could safely return to Mostar. It took a decade more for Podgorica to really become home, he said, and citizenship proved difficult.

“That’s why I still don’t have Montenegrin citizenship,” Nadazdin told BIRN. “Formally I’m still considered a foreigner. I’m on a green card.”

In 1999, when Kosovo Albanian refugees began pouring over the border into Montenegro, it coincided with a moment in Nadazdin’s life when he “searching for deeper meaning” and had turned to religious faith.

“I joined one of the local evangelical churches and that’s where my involvement with refugees began,” he said.

Later, when the Albanians began returning, Serbs and Roma came the other way, fearing revenge attacks at the end of the NATO air strikes.

“I worked with whoever needed help, especially with Roma and Egyptian refugees,” he said. “They were living in misery.”

The work helped Nadazdin understand that “land very often gives people identity”.

“Roma and Egyptian people had a place where they were born, their friends, culture, and traditions, and suddenly they were in a place that didn’t appreciate that,” he said.

“Until then, I had underestimated my experience as a refugee because I didn’t give it much weight. Then I realised that my family had been uprooted, uprooted from our own identity.”

Twenty-five years since his own flight from Kosovo, Kajdomcaj said he always find time “to stay with refugees and eat with them”.

Conditions in some refugee camps can be abysmal, he conceded, “but for those escaping from death, it’s a place of salvation”.

“In many camps, children can’t get an education and become what we call a ‘lost generation’,” he said.

But, he said, “when you take someone’s hand and serve a generation of children growing up in camps, it is a great feeling that cannot be matched by anything”.

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