There's no place like home

Three Albanian-Americans who fought for the KLA struggle to find their place after the war.

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On April 17, 1999, 90 Albanian-Americans boarded a chartered plane to Tirana,
Albania. The pilot thought he was transporting laborers. It was only after he
saw the news crews on the landing strip that he realized these men were
signing up to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. Today most of these soldiers
have returned to the United States, and many are struggling to readjust to
civilian life.

If you followed the progress of the “Atlantic Brigade,” the makeshift group
of Albanian-American KLA recruits that set off from New York to defend their
motherland, then you know who Isa Kodra is. He is the plucky 19-year-old
Albanian who’d only been to Kosovo once on vacation before joining the KLA,
and has been in front of reporters’ microphones ever since. A post-war ABC
interview with Isa in Macedonia is a favorite in the Kodra household. ABC
anchorman Charlie Gibson gives him a chance to display his devotion to
Albanian independence, which he does with a Marlborough Man bravado. He tells
the world that he drank melted snow when he was thirsty, and kept his
American flag clean long after everything else had succumbed to soldierly
grime.

The Kodra family watches the interview with rapt attention, and it’s apparent
that they know it by heart. Isa, adolescent king on the living room couch,
looks at his image on the wide-screen television through a haze of his own
cigarette smoke. It’s hard to tell whether he’s bored or proud. Kodra, who
has become the poster boy for the KLA’s “Atlantic Brigade,” is charming in a
Top Gun sort of way. He impressed Bob Dole, whom he recently had dinner with.
By his own estimation, Kodra has been interviewed at least 50 times in the
United States, and 50 times in Europe. Now that the interview fervor is dying
down and the war is over, he’s back in Bensonhurst, rethinking the future. He
doesn’t want to be a dentist anymore. The post-KLA Isa sees himself more as a
general in the Pentagon.

For fellow Atlantic Brigader Haxhi Dervisholli, the war in Kosovo yielded
more drastic results. His leg was amputated below the knee after a Serb
grenade exploded next to him. Unlike Kodra, born and bred in the States,
Dervisholli grew up a member of the repressed Albanian minority in what he
considered an occupied Kosovo. He saw the opportunity to fight the Serbs as a
chance to correct the injustice he experienced first-hand. Though Haxhi’s a
hero to Kosovar Albanians everywhere, he isn’t pencilling in senatorial
lunchdates or setting his sights on generaldom. He lives in a third-floor
walk-up on a busy Flatbush thoroughfare where he’s biding his time recovering
until he can have his prosthetic leg fitted. Then, he will return to the
charred remains of the Kosovo village he left New York for only two years
ago. Working seven days a week since emigrating to Brooklyn, he divided his
paychecks between his family in Kosovo, himself, and the KLA. Florin
Krasniqi, perhaps America’s most prominent KLA recruiter, collected Haxhi’s
donations. Visiting his recuperating recruit, whose leg is still in bandages,
Florin says, “I told him not to go — he was already fighting by giving
money.” But Haxhi was surfing the web one day after work in April when he
came across a video display of several hundred villagers making their long
trek out of his home town to flee Serbian forces. Seeing familiar elderly
neighbors in wheelbarrows proved too much for him, and he told Florin that he
was going to enlist.

Haxhi had been in the military before. Back in 1988, he served in the
Yugoslavian army in Slovenia and Montenegro. There, he learned to fight and
repair weapons alongside Serbian soldiers. Albanians and Serbs did not
fraternize on days off, in keeping with the social mores Haxhi learned in
kindergarten, when Serbian and Albanian kids attended the same schools but in
strictly segregated classrooms. When he returned from military service, he
returned to nothing. The Albanian communist elite that had run the autonomous
province of Kosovo since 1974 found itself mostly out of work when Belgrade
revoked that autonomy in 1989. Universities were closed to Albanians just
when Haxhi had hoped to attend. With work it was the same. Unemployed at 25
and feeling imperiled by the Serbian military police who wanted his services
again, this time on the Croatian front, Haxhi headed for New York.

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He doesn’t regret his KLA stint in the least, saying he would enlist again if
given a second chance. His days are now spent in English classes, doctors’
offices, and in his bedroom, with its television and computer and full bar
and plywood coffee table. The room is spartan, save for the KLA flag draping
the wall. At the end of a two hour interview, the gentle-mannered Haxhi warms
up and gets out a photo album of his regiment. Sitting on his bed, he shows
off his comrades, pointing out a dapper-looking friend hanging out the back
of a truck filled with grinning, uniformed KLA soldiers. He mentions that the
friend is now in a NATO jail for killing three Serb civilians after the NATO
occupation of Kosovo, as casually as if the offence were a jaywalking charge.
Florin chimes in about the “dirty gypsies” who helped Serbians loot Albanian
homes. “Serbs have bad blood,” Haxhi comments, which is why he’ll never let
his own kids sit in a classroom with Serbian children.

Haxhi will return to Kosovo in September. When asked about future plans,
Haxhi shrugs and remains silent. He has never held a job outside roofing and
soldiering, neither of which he can do anymore, and the idea of a desk-job
with a KLA police force doesn’t appeal. Police remind him of the Serbian
policemen who he says used to terrorize him and his friends back in the early
1990s. For the moment, he looks happy just to have a visitor who wants to
hear about the past. Volunteering for the KLA has only increased his desire
to return home to his village. What will he do as a disabled veteran in a
flattened and smoldering Kosovo? “Chase girls,” Florin quips, and Haxhi looks
relieved to have someone answer for him.

Fadil Idrizi, 28, was the second in command of 480 recruits, including the 90
members of the “Atlantic Brigade.” Haxhi Dervisholli fought under his
command. Idrizi recounts how during intense shelling one of his men
approached him saying “Commander, the leg,” and led him to the wounded Haxhi.

Like Haxhi, Fadil graduated from high school right around the time things
collapsed for Albanians in Kosovo. He was a sniper in the Yugoslavian special
forces in Macedonia at 18. Despite the glamorous title, Fadil says he was
given the lion’s share of toilet cleaning assignments due to his Albanian
heritage.

Fadil crossed the Canadian border into Detroit in the trunk of a Chevy
Caprice seven years ago. Although he grew up in Gjakova, Kosovo, a city of
70,000, his drive and ambition are pure New York. He took restaurant jobs,
quickly rising from bus boy to waiter to head waiter and manager of a
succession of posh Manhattan restaurants. Over iced coffee, he nonchalantly
described how the Serbian military police arrested and sentenced him to six
years in prison for attending pro-Albanian demonstrations.

Fadil escaped from
a Serb jail with a few friends 89 days after beginning his sentence. “The
prisons were so crowded with Albanians they had no idea who was in them,” he
says.

Fadil’s early adolescence was spent watching his older brother organize for
Albanian civil rights in an intifada-like atmosphere — until his brother was
shot in the back and severely injured while fleeing Serbian police. Fourteen
years later, Fadil jumped at the chance to fight for an independent Kosovo,
trading his waiter’s corkscrew for a 50 mm. Beretta.

Fadil says he wants his
kids to grow up back home in Kosovo in a liberated Albanian Kosovo. But
during his time in America, he has grown accustomed to certain creature
comforts. He disdains the subway, preferring instead a private car, and he
seems squeamish at the thought of trading in the good life for an
infrastructureless homeland. After the war, Fadil felt unable to return
immediately to work. Caught between two worlds, he spends time meeting with
fellow KLA vets, putting off for a little longer his reimmersion into his
adopted, ordinary life.

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