The war in Kosovo— although brief in time when compared to the war in Bosnia and Croatia, was still horrific in terms of death, suffering, and destruction. Tensions and hostilities—between Serbians and ethnic Albanians— were escalating years before NATO began bombing in March 1999. Two men born in one town—one a Kosovar Albanian and the other a man of Montenegrin* origins—had different experiences and perspectives before, during, and after the war. And yet, somehow their stories intertwined at various points, and it is here that one can see God orchestrating redemption and new life in the middle of the destruction and loss war inevitably leaves in its wake.
“At 35 kg(77 lbs), I was physically weak and underdeveloped when I was fifteen,” E. an ethnic Albanian told me in the midst of the mountainous serenity outside of his home. “I was constantly bullied and I had a complex that I wasn’t worthy enough.”
E. lived on the same street as a Baptist church pastored by a S., a man who was ethnically Montenegrin but who had lived his life in Kosovo. “Baptist Church was written on the church in Cyrillic, and there was a big cross on the church,” E. said. “I remember being insulted that there was writing in Cyrillic and thinking that Albanians and Serbians never lived very well together.” Many times E. would throw things on the roof and windows to try to break things on the church.
One day, his self-perspective shifted when he saw a picture of a body-builder. “I will be like him,” he thought. So, he went to a gym and shared his aspirations with the people working out. “They started laughing at me and told me to go home,” he remembered, “and I was so disappointed that I started crying.”
But E. refused to be discouraged. He began making weights out of concrete and after six months of lifting, he could already see that he was beginning to change. “I began to really love my body, and after 2 or 3 years, I completely changed my physical appearance. I became more proud of myself, and even when I was walking down the street, I would look in shop windows and flex my arms…just to see my muscles.”
Eventually, his life began to be successful—he became the champion body-builder in his city, then Kosovo, then all of Yugoslavia. He started his own business as a T.v. mechanic which, at the time, was a very well paid job in Yugoslavia. Eventually, he became wealthy as well as famous.
The clouds were already forming around his successful life, however, when he won the Yugoslav body-building championship at the end of the 1980’s. Even though he heard the reports about the war in Croatia and Bosnia during the 1990’s, he didn’t think such terror would come to Kosovo.
“I really thought I could change everything and control everything and no one could do anything to me,” he said. But then in 1999 the situation in Kosovo continued to unravel—and the war came to his doorstep….
*Montenegro is similar to Serbia in terms of language and culture and was part of Yugoslavia. They stayed loosely united after Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990’s until Montenegro formerly declared its independence in 2006.