Lieutenant Pat Jessup of army public affairs adjusts the hat of a Kosovar refugee boy at Camp Aldershot. About 500 of 2,000 refugees destined for Nova Scotia will stay at the infantry reserve base near Kentville in the Annapolis Valley.
Ajshe Rexhepi is 30 years old, a math teacher, a wife, a mother of two – and a refugee from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.
She is now living at Camp Aldershot, an army detachment in Kentville, N.S. Her journey to Canada was a difficult one, full of danger, fear and deprivation.
When news came that NATO action was imminent in Kosovo, she feared that Serbian military and paramilitary forces were going to take action against Albanians throughout Kosovo. They did. “The Serbian police started increasing their raids on homes – taking food, money and jewelry – everything.”
On March 28, she, along with her husband Bekim and two children, daughter Mjellma (four years old) and son Bled (two years old) moved from their home beside the American Embassy to a more secure home, also in Pristina. They hid there for one month until the Serbian military started circling this neighbourhood also.
“They took my husband and another man who was staying with us. They took all of our money and belongings. They told him that we must go to the train the next day, and that we must go to Macedonia. That night we hid in the basement, 50 of us, with no power, cold and afraid. We could hear police knocking on the neighbours’ door. Our children were crying and we were so afraid that the military would hear them – that they would find us, take our husbands and kill them.”
The next day, April 30, the Rexhepi family took the train to Macedonia. They were not sure where they were going and had heard that men were being separated from their families. Though the family remained together, the fear of separation never left them.
“We saw trucks and when the train stopped we were so afraid they would take the men and massacre them,” said Ajshe.
At the Blace refugee camp on the border of Kosovo and Macedonia, the mud came up to their knees and they could hear shooting from inside Kosovo. It was cold and the family had no food or water. “At night the rain was coming under the tent from everywhere. We were afraid for the children, couldn’t keep them warm. Too many children and old people were dying there.”
A week later, the family left for the Stankova refugee camp a little further south of the border and still in Macedonia. “It looked better, but still there was no place to sleep – only the ground, and it was still so rainy, so cold. There was bread, but you had to wait six hours for one loaf to feed your whole family, and there was no water for showers. We were so afraid of getting diseases.”
After one week, the Rexhepi family got their names put on the list to come to Canada.
“We were so happy. We are so thankful to Canadians, to all the countries helping,” said Ajshe. She didn’t care where she went, she just wanted safety for her family. “I wanted to get out.”
As Ajshe tells how she copes with her terror, she is not interested in talking about being a Muslim. “I am religious like everyone else. I believe in God.” With so much fear, there is only one prayer that seems to matter to her: “Oh God help us.”
She has repeated this prayer over and over again – in Kosovo, in Blace, in Stankova and at Camp Aldershot.
She has no family in Canada. She has a brother in France. The rest of her family is still in Pristina. “I am afraid they are being used as human shields,” she says, crying. Then she repeats her prayer, “Oh God, help us.”
Kelly Marie Redcliffe is a freelance writer living in Nova Scotia.