PRISTINA, Yugoslavia – When Milka Jakupi first met her husband in a Belgrade movie theater in 1966, Yugoslavia was still a country where love mattered more than ethnic or religious background. That she was an Orthodox Serb, and Adem Jakupi a Muslim Albanian, was not a hindrance.
“I come from an area where no Albanians live,” says Mrs. Jakupi, who was born in Valjevo, a Serbian town. “I was not so well-informed about what an Albanian is supposed to be, so I had no prejudices. I never used to consider myself a Serb, only a Yugoslav.”
Today the Jakupi family is a rare remnant of Josip Broz Tito’s multiethnic Yugoslavia. Especially in Kosovo, the Jakupis offer a unique perspective on the murder and destruction in the region – and a poignant tale of what individuals face who dare to cross this ethnic divide.
“My father’s family was not against the marriage because Adem was Albanian, says Mrs. Jakupi, who was widowed four years ago. “During Tito’s rule, all nationalities lived together. We had brotherhood and unity.”
She laughs bitterly at the slogan of socialist Yugoslavia, which after all the violence in the Balkans now sounds like a bad joke.
For 19 years the family – Adem, Milka, and three children – lived in Belgrade, where Mr. Jakupi worked as an electrician. But as his two daughters got older, his family in Kosovo pressured him to return so that they would not end up marrying Serbs.
In traditional Albanian families it is easier for men to marry outside the faith than for women, since wives are expected to adapt to their husbands’ faith.
Daughter Ginera ended up marrying a Bosnian Muslim; her younger sister, Zulfija, an ethnic Albanian. But Almir, the youngest child and a university student of English, says he would most like to have an English wife.
Slide toward animosity
After the family moved to Pristina, the Kosovar capital, Mrs. Jakupi says that other Serbs only occasionally teased her for having married an Albanian – although she never converted to Islam or mastered the Albanian language.
But after Tito died, relations between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo deteriorated, as nationalism swept over Yugoslavia. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic set off a cycle of secession and bloodshed that began when he lifted Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989.
“When Milosevic came to power, he gave Serbs the freedom to express their hate,” Mrs. Jakupi says. But she wonders out loud whether this was really a hate left over from past deeds or sown by current leaders.
In the early 1990s, Mrs. Jakupi says she did not feel personally endangered by fellow Serbs, though she did worry about the safety of her husband and children because of their Albanian names.
When NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia began in March, Serbian forces launched their own campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. “I was in as much danger as Albanians, only because I was the wife of an Albanian,” she says.
Her son, Almir, fled to relatives in Belgrade, maintaining a low profile to avoid the police. “I always had to say what the Serbs around me wanted to hear: that Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,” he says. Though he wanted to escape to the relative safety of Macedonia, he was afraid of the many police checkpoints along the way. Almir speaks Serbian with a Belgrade accent, but his name is unmistakably Albanian.
His sister Ginera, who was living in the northern Kosovar town of Podujevo with her husband, fled with relatives into the hills from rampaging Serbian forces. “Every time we heard shooting, we would move on,” she remembers. In her last month of pregnancy, Ginera gave birth to a baby in the woods. Before she and her relatives reached Pristina, they had spent three weeks running from the Serbs.
“I am deeply saddened that my people did such things,” says Mrs. Jakupi, who stayed in Pristina during the NATO air campaign to guard her apartment against looting.
“My nationality helped a little, but my last name put me in danger.”
She says the police came twice to her apartment, a modest home in a three-story building. Once the police pointed a machine gun at her, threatening to kill her because she had married an Albanian.
The unusual circumstances of Mrs. Jakupi, who now considers herself more Albanian than Serbian, have given her an uncommon perspective in Kosovo.
“I have always been happy with Albanians, and I support their freedom,” she says Mrs. Jakupi. “I know how much they were tortured under Serbian rule.”
Still in danger
While the Serbian forces have now withdrawn as part of an international peace agreement for Kosovo, she is still not absolutely safe. Tens of thousands of Kosovar Serbs, fearful that Albanians will now seek revenge, are fleeing the province. Mrs. Jakupi says that when she goes onto the street now, she speaks only Albanian.
Almir says that when he sees ethnic Albanians breaking into empty apartments belonging to Serbs, he asks them why they want to show the world that Albanians are the same as the Serbs were.
“I can’t hate anyone, not even in my dreams,” he says. But in a land filled with animosity, it appears that there is little room here for a young man who still insists on calling himself an internationalist.
“After I saw Serbs looting Albanian homes – and now Albanians looting Serb homes…. I just want to get out of here and maybe come back in 10 years as a tourist.”