Courtesy of Erblin Mehmetaj
Leo del Aguila (from left), Vesa Gashi, Scott Simon, Erblin Mehmetaj and Shawn Fox in 1999 in a housing complex in Pristina. Del Aguila, Simon and Fox were covering the Kosovo conflict for NPR; the children lived in the war-stricken area.
Leo del Aguila (from left), Vesa Gashi, Scott Simon, Erblin Mehmetaj and Shawn Fox in 1999 in a housing complex in Pristina. Del Aguila, Simon and Fox were covering the Kosovo conflict for NPR; the children lived in the war-stricken area. Courtesy of Erblin Mehmetaj
I was in a grocery store one night this week when a sturdy young man approached with a smile.
"Do you remember me?" he asked. "Bini."
Bini — Erblin Mehmataj — was a bony-shouldered 9-year-old boy with a full, toothy grin who lived in an Albanian Muslim housing complex in Pristina, where we stayed to cover the war in Kosovo in 1999.
Bini and his friend Vesa were among the kids who would play in the the housing bloc when there were no bombs going off, and sometimes even when there were; which reminded us how war brings everyday life to a grinding, bloody halt, but it cannot stop children from playing.
There's a picture of us with Bini and Vesa, who is the young woman with a tennis racket, which she held as she walked around as a sign of adolescent sophistication, I always thought, and a reminder of normal life. We hit small rubber balls with Vesa and Bini over an imaginary net on a cracked sidewalk.
Bini — Erblin — is doing great now, getting his Ph.D. in math at a prestigious American school.
I've thought of the kids we played with in Pristina over the years, but especially now as another debate is underway over the merits and morality of U.S. military action that's aimed at stopping a war crime.
The Albanian Muslim families we lived among hailed the U.S. bombers overhead, and the British paratroopers who rolled into the housing bloc after the Serb retreat, because they'd lived through years of brutality under Slobodan Milosevic's regime. Human Rights Watch would eventually report that about 500 civilians died in the NATO bombing, and the Milosevic government trumpeted those deaths while Serb paramilitary units reportedly slaughtered more civilians as they withdrew, knowing that America and other NATO states would not risk sending ground troops to stop them.
But the people in our apartment bloc had seen thousands die in what was called "ethnic cleansing" of Muslim areas. They tended to forgive NATO its lethal mistakes — a misguided bomb that fell on a house of innocent people — if they also blew up the Security Police headquarters in which so much brutality had been plotted.
One of the reasons the U.S. did not send troops to Kosovo or Bosnia was that so many Americans said they didn't want another Vietnam or Somalia, just as many now caution that they don't want Syria to become Iraq or even Benghazi, Libya. History seems to serve up an example for any argument. I wonder what, in a landscape already aflame with war, might give the young Binis and Vesas in Syria today a chance to play without fear.