Stories of Survival

Faces of Kosovo: The Uncovered Truth

By: Ermira Babamusta, Ph.D., New York

How does one survive a war that took the lives of 12,000 Kosovar Albanians, expelled 863,000 Albanians from Kosovo, and displaced at least 90% of the Kosovar Albanians population during the war? (October 1999 UNHCR estimates, quoted in OSCE “Kosovo/Kosova: As Seen, As Told”, 6 Dec. 1999). How does one try to rebuild life when grief haunts you for the rest of your life not knowing why your loved ones were killed? The truth is that you will never “get over it”, but perhaps justice can ease the pain just a little.

Egzona and Gëzim Kunoviku, victims of the Kosovo war have come to terms with ‘acceptance’ of their parents’ death. However, the unknown answer to why their parents were killed makes it nearly impossible to piece their life back together. It is a daily struggle of overcoming the most painful memory in their life and a constant pursuit of finding answers. What is more outrageous is that no one has ever paid for the death of Mr. and Mrs. Kunoviku.

In the Photo: Zylije dhe Namon Kunoviku, innocent victims of Kosovo War

Egzona Survives the Killing Squad

“During the Kosova war, for safety reasons, parents did not permit their children to spend the night at home. On April 24, 1999 Egzona, a 9-year-old girl decides to stay at home with her mother while her brother, Gëzim leaves for the night. At approximately 9:00 PM, someone comes and kills her father and while she is crying on her mother’s lap her mother is shot four times. Miraculously Egzona survives. With no place to go she ends up sleeping on her dead mothers lap until the next day when her brother returns home and discovers the atrocity” (Roko Markolovic, director and writer of the play “Why Did You Kill My Parents”).

Egzona’s Brother Escapes Death 

“Without an explanation, only because my family was Albanian and was standing in the doorstep of their house, they killed both of my parents in front of my sister, who at that time was only nine years old. My sister experienced the biggest trauma in her life. Even though she had only lived 9 springs, she initially experienced my father’s cold-blooded murder and then my mother’s, whose last words were: “Thank you God that my son is not here!” while my sister was grabbing hold of her legs. I cannot give a concrete explanation why my sister came out alive, but I think that at that moment she must have lost consciousness and perhaps they must have thought she was dead.

On the morning of Sunday, the 25th April I came back home with my girlfriend, because I had spent the night at a cousin of mine in the city as per my father’s request. I returned home without having an idea that such an unseen tragedy had taken place. Once I entered the yard, I saw my father lying in front of the steps with his face on the floor, with about one meter diameter of blood pooled around him. The bullet had struck him in the head. Whereas, at the entrance of the one-storey house, on the couch in a half laid position, I found my mother who had also been murdered, also covered in blood. My sister was awake, shocked and covered in blood. As soon as she saw me, she stood up and told me what had happened.

This was the last moment that I was in my house, because immediately after I had covered my parents’ bodies with the jacket I was wearing that day, my sister and I went to our cousins. I later learned that our parents’ bodies had been taken by the Romany people, who at that time were collaborating with the Serbs, and buried them in the graveyard. Only when NATO forces forced the Serbian army out, I was able to visit my parents’ graves for the first time dated June 16th 1999.” (Gëzim Kunoviku Interview, Prishtina, Kosovo, 17 April 2007 quoted in “Kosovo Status Talks: A case on International Negotiations,” by Ermira Babamusta, p. 129 ).


Egzona Today

“After the April 24 events, Egzona’s life was totally different. Even though we tried to offer her somewhat a normal life, we knew that deep in her soul something was missing and she felt empty inside. Fortunately, she still had the will to live. In the beginning I wanted to change Egzona’s school because she had to pass everyday through same street where the destroyed house was. I didn’t want my little sister to face the trauma again and again. However, the new school proved to be more difficult because she felt even more lonely and secluded. She was very withdrawn, unable to make conversation with anyone or make any new friends at that brittle age.  So I decided to return her to the same primary school.

After completion of the Natural Science High School, she was accepted at the University of Prishtina, Economics department, to pursue Management and Informatics. She became independent, more lively, very ambitious and motivated, started making friends, took interest in traveling and even got her driver’s license. She’s a very good driver now.

Later on, during my work with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan Egzona expressed her interest to come and work there. She wanted to have a different experience in her life, and also to contribute to the U.S. Army as her way of showing gratitude for U.S.A.’s intervention and its tremendous help in Kosovo. She worked for a year for the Fluor Corporation in the management office to support the U.S. Army in the Middle East ” (Gëzim Kunoviku Interview, New York, 6 April 2012).

In the Photo: Egzona Kunoviku, Kosovo War Survivor

After working in the Middle East, Egzona returned to her homeland to finish her studies in Prishtina and is preparing for her second year final exams. She plans to continue higher education and pursue graduate studies.

Though Egzona survived the horrific event, she has not escaped from the pain. Egzona still awakens at night to the memories of the war and the atrocity committed to her family. For a young girl to witness such daunting crime and survive it is nearly impossible. But she fought back and changed her life. She is now pursuing her passions and is making an independent living.

While women in Kosovo fought during the war in different ways, they are understood as heroes, icons and leaders. They are now the driving force behind the social transformation and are leading the nation in the democratic, constitutional, economic front (Remarks of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prishtina, Kosovo, 13 October 2010).

Egzona is among the women heroes of the Kosovo war survivors. She is truly inspiring. She is the symbol of courage, virtue and hope that keep us humble and hopeful.

“What I enjoy in life first of all is family. I also love taking trips with my friends to see different places. I enjoy learning different languages, especially, Latin languages such as Italian and Spanish. In the near future I see myself as a successful economist and pursuing graduate studies, perhaps outside of Kosovo.

During my recent visit in New York, I tasted great food in exquisite restaurants and met great people who offered their hospitality to show me the most beautiful sites in the city.I liked the way of living in US. It was different from the places that I been in Europe like Germany, Netherlands and Sweden, ” said Egzona.

In the Photo: Ermira Babamusta and Egzona Kunoviku at Ground Zero, 911 Memorial, April 2012, NYC

Gëzim Today

Gëzim, twenty-two at the time of the incident, was psychologically devastated. He was left with no money and the house was completely burnt down. He had to work very hard to look after the family, with no support and no resettlement from the government.

Gëzim is now married to his beautiful wife, Ermira and they live happily in Kosovo. They have four children: Labeat (12), Alba (9), Jon (6) and Rron, the youngest son sixteen months old. Gëzim is a very strong and driven individual, with passion to help others. He risked his own life to save the life of others. His parents would have surely been proud to see what an extraordinary person he is today.

In the Photo: Gëzim Kunoviku, Medical Doctor

“Losing my dear parents was not the only thing that I had to deal with. It was so much more. I was left without a house, no job, no money, nothing at all. And I had to take care of my sister and my wife. Later I became a father, so I had no choice but to interrupt my studies for five years and work instead. I just couldn’t continue to support my family anymore.

After lot of difficulties I graduated college and became a medical doctor on July 2009. I started working as volunteer at the Emergency Center in Prishtina. And in April 2010 I joined the U.S. Army as a medical doctor, stationed in Afghanistan, where I worked for 16 months.  After that I returned in Vushtrri (Kosovo) to work at the Emergency Center. I am expected to start medical residency in Anesthesiology very soon.

As a family we made it on our own and have moved forward. I am happy that my sister Egzona is pursuing her goals and following her dreams in life. I am very grateful to my lovely wife, Ermira, who has been my only support throughout this very difficult time. Ermira has been the backbone of the family and has kept me strong. She knows how to motivate and encourage me. She never left me alone for a moment and she never stopped taking care of Egzona and our children” (Gëzim Kunoviku Interview, New York, 6 April 2012).


Accountability and Justice for the war victims

Rebuilding a post-war Kosovo has been a critical battle of political and social reconciliation and reconstruction. Over 810,000 refugees have returned to Kosovo as of Dec. 1999. (UN Dept. of Public Information, “Bringing Peace to Kosovo: The First Six Months”, Dec. 1999) After the 2008 declaration of independence, the young Kosovo has been in the process of building itself as a sovereign nation. The Kosovar government must now decide how to best resolve its aftermath issues, such as crimes against humanity and human rights abuses. The Kosovo judiciary must develop and implement strategies that fully address such crimes. The individuals responsible for the killing, mass destruction and forced expulsions that convulsed Kosovo in 1998 – 1999 must be brought to justice. International Organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union have an obligation to see that justice is done.

How can there be reconciliation in a society without justice for the victims? Any legal strategy that deals with reconciliation should be complemented by a strategy that helps the victims. For the Kunoviku Family there has been lack of accountability since the perpetrators have not been captured. Egzona and Gëzim Kunoviku strongly feel that their justice has been ignored.

“During the war I kept thinking about what freedom would be like. I hoped for a changed and just society in Kosovo. I imagined that the murderers of my parents and the ones who committed the genocide in Kosovo would see their day in court. However that day never came. Even the accountability process was never done properly. To this day, in Kosovo, there are still missing persons and bodies. Serbia refuses to give information of the whereabouts of the dead bodies. Mass graves are often discovered in the Serbian region.

I strongly believed that the Ministry of Justice would further investigate into my parents’ death and initiate a claim with the higher courts, but this never happened. It has been thirteen years since the incident and no answers. It seems that after the Milosevic trial in the Hague Tribunal ended with his mysterious death in the prison, crime cases in Kosovo closed too” (Gëzim Kunoviku Interview, New York, 6 April 2012).


Roko Markolovic’s Play is Making the Truth Visible

A simple play, yet deeply emotional and triumphant   

Writer and director Roko Markolovic heard the story in 2007 from a family member while shooting his movie “My Destiny: An Albanian Love Story” in Kosovo. He was bothered that justice for Egzona and Gëzim has been ignored. He interviewed Gëzim to bring to light Kosovo’s “invisible war crimes”. He wrote a play titled “Why Did You Kill My Parents?” to share the feelings from the interview with the American public. The play, directed by Roko Markolovic, and produced by Diana Cena was staged in Bronx in January 2012 at the UFT Theatre and in Manhattan in April 2012 at Joria Theatre.

Photo by Alex Selimaj

“When I heard about this story it was clear what the intent of the killers was. That is they wanted to send a message to Albanians that no Albanians were safe. It was get out or get killed. I can’t think of a more innocent person losing their life than someone sitting at their own home, minding their own business and drinking coffee”, said Roko Markolovic.

Roko Markolovic is an extremely talented director and an extraordinary writer. His avant-garde creativity and confidence is impressive, which offers a fresh style of storytelling and observational directing. He is the writer/director of three feature length films My Christmas GiftTill Death Does Us Part and My Destiny an Albanian Love Story. Roko returns to the stage as director of Why Did They Kill My Parents?. Previously he directed MacbethAll My SonsNo ExitVanities and The Glass Menagerie.

“Why Did They Kill My Parents?” is a powerful play that depicts the agony of a Kosovo war young survivor Egzona, as she witnesses the murder of her parents. It is an unforgettably powerful show that leaves you speechless, for having witnessed an atrocity.

The audience identifies with the play on a deeply emotional and intellectual level, which embodies the director’s passion and eloquence. The brilliant director Roko Markolovic sets the stage for something more than just a stage performance and a historical drama. The experience gives the audience a dose of reality by witnessing the killing – a true awakening. It stimulates thought-provoking after-play conversations on justice/injustice, forgiveness, survival, defiance and healing.

“I didn’t want the audience to come and be entertained. I wanted them to be involved.  I wanted the audience to feel the pain of what this family went through.  I wanted them feel for Egzona.  I wanted them to be witnesses. No words can better articulate how the audience felt than the tears on their faces as they witnessed the atrocity,” said Mr. Markolovic.

In the Photo: Egzona and Gëzim Kunoviku and Dia Zyrafete Cavdarbasha (in the middle), at Producer’s Club, NY. Dia is a young talented actress, who played the role of Egzona in the play. She if a fifth grader who attends “Shkolla Shqipe” in Bronx.

Egzona and Gëzim were in the audience at the Joria theatre during the April 2012 showing. It was very difficult and emotional for both of them to see the actors reenact the haunting night of their parents’ murder. Their presence was kept a surprise for the cast, until the end of the play, when producer Diana Cena opened up the Q&A session and introduced Egzona and Gëzim Kunoviku. Egzona and Gëzim traveled from Kosovo to New York to show their support for the amazing director and the play written for them.

In the Photo: Producer Diana Cena introducing Egzona and Gëzim Kunoviku to the cast, crew and audience during the Q&A after the play, at Joria Theatre, NYC (April 2012)

The cast is stunning with each performance revealing the vivid details and engaging the senses. As shots are fired on stage by the two killers, played by the talented Agim Jimmy Rrugova and the gifted Alban Veliu, the audience gasps for breath, stirring up powerful emotions. Convicting performances by the lead cast intensify the emotional level and the room energy. The brilliant and graceful performances of the three young adorable actresses, namely Dia Zyrafete Cavdarbasha,  Rina Vatovci, and Emine Demarovski, portraying a nine-year old Egzona, captured the hearts and the minds of the audiences with their remarkable sincerity. The outstanding performances of the amazing Kristofor Lulaj, playing Gëzim, the exceptional Maxemilian Corkum, playing the mother and the talented Nikolin Gjoklaj, playing the father, give the audience what they have been waiting for – to bear witness to the suffering and heart-breaking story of the Kunoviku family.

“Looking at the scene where the family is together, sitting at the porch, I felt a smile for a few seconds. But it was sad because I was faced with the same reality again,” said Gëzim Kunoviku.  “Most importantly, the director was able to show to the American public a true story of real war survivors. I am sure it was something unseen before for them, very different from watching the news on TV or a documentary. The audience was very curious to know how we moved on and they had a lot of interesting questions to ask. It was great that I was able to thank in person all the great people of this country for their support, especially for what U.S.A. did for Kosovo,” he added.

“As a Kosovo refuge, this story is important because it tells the world what people in my country endured. The American public loved the play and anyone who has seen it, will never forget Egzona’s ordeal. I can’t wait to take this play to other parts of United States and then eventually to Kosova and Albania,” said producer Diana Cena.

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