Kevin Murray on Mon, 29 Mar 1999 20:46:53 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Weekend of Unanswered Phones

The weekend of unanswered phones

According to a recent American publication, Going Going Gone, the unanswered
phone is destined to become a relic of the 20th century. The expanding
network of answering machines, tone menus and voice mail ensures that few
calls expire of natural causes. For Kosovar Albanians, though, the unanswered
phone is more than a curious anachronism. It is a matter of life or death. 

There are 400-500 Albanians from Kosovar who are living in Melbourne-roughly
10% of the total Albanian community. They have been arriving since the early
1980s, when the latest series of crackdowns began. The closure of education
and professional opportunities had forced many young men and women to look
elsewhere for employment. Scattering as far as Switzerland, USA and
Australia, they left parents and extended family stayed behind. 

Despite being spread across the world, the Kosovars have maintained a virtual
nation through the international telecommunications. For the Albanian
diaspora, the phone network operates like a global nervous system, alerting
the dispersed community to trouble spots back home. At one community dinner,
the announcement of total funds raised was greeted with the cry 'Six more fax
machines for Kosova!' Communication has been the key to liberation. 

Last weekend, the phones ceased functioning through much of Kosova. Without
the electronic grapevine, Melbourne's Kosovars are left alone with their

The stories are chilling. The last time Suzie heard from her family they were
in Pristina, huddling together in a basement and afraid to go out. She is
worried how they will survive. There had been no time to gather supplies, and
with no electricity food in their deep freeze is going rotten. 

But that was Saturday. Since then she has had no direct phone contact. But
just as the brain creates new neural paths after injury, alternative phone
routes can sometimes be found. On Sunday, her husband Shpen got through to a
woman in Turkey, whose brother has one of the few phones operating in
Pristina. The brother was then able to reassure them of their safety, for the
time being. Most often, the calls are unanswered. There is no way of knowing
whether this is because the lines are down or the inhabitants have been
forced to flee, or worse. Occasionally, the phone lines open for a brief
period. You keep trying. 

Diaspora Kosovars had come to rely on the phone system as a nominal form of
security for endangered relatives. This silence is a new disturbing
development. For Shpen, 'We used to worry that they were eight hours distant
from us. But now, it's like a million light years'. 

In Pristina, Shpen had worked as a television producer. Now, with all the
world's media at his disposal, the only news he can find about his family is
that their home in Mitrovitsa has been destroyed. He can get no news of his
mother and crippled father. He shares news from Sani, whose family are also
in Mitrovitsa. Sani's father was an officer in the Yugoslav Army, and his
mother a university lecturer in accounting. From Sani, Shpen learns some
troubling developments. Sani talked to his sister in London who had heard
from a friend with parents in Mitrovitsa that army had started clearing out
homes. He hasn't heard from his parents since Saturday. Sani is on constant
tenterhooks: 'every second the news is changing'. 

There are sometimes reasons for fearing success in getting through. On the
weekend, Sani had tried to ring a friend in Pristina. The brother answered
the phone, incredulous that someone had been able to call from Australia.
Sani's friend was outside queuing for bread, but his brother warned, 'it is
better you don't ring, we don't want calls coming from outside'. 

In this state of fear, the unanswered phone may be more than an ill omen, it
may itself be source of threat. Fearing that communication has turned from a
source of protection to potential threat, Kosovars have asked that their
surnames not be printed in this article. The worst of the weekend did not
come through the telephone line. Ilire Zali left Kosova nine years ago when
studying medicine. She left parents, two brothers and four sisters at home
for a job in Australia as a nurse's assistant. Since then one brother and two
sisters have immigrated to other countries. 

Worried about her family in Kosova, she rang her brother on Friday night. He
reassured her that they would be all right. Later on Saturday, there was a
knock on the door of her St Albans home. 'I answered the door cheerfully
thinking it was a friend dropping in for a cup of coffee.' The look on her
friend's face said it all. 

He had a difficult story to tell. Six hours after Ilire had spoken with her
brother, he had been rounded up with her father and four other males living
in the house. To placate the hysterical women, the Serbs claimed to be merely
taking them down to the Police Station for questioning. They were shot in the
yard. After witnessing their death, Ilire's sister called her other sister in
Switzerland. The sister in Switzerland could not stomach ringing Ilire in
Australia, and phoned a friend instead. In addition to mourning her male
relatives, Ilire despairs of her remaining family, 'I don't know what
happened to my sister. I can't contact her any more'. 

It was not always thus. The scene of this tragedy, Gjakova, has a long
history of religious tolerance. In his 'short' history of Kosova, Noel
Malcolm records the tale of a 17th century church delegation who was
scandalised to be welcomed by a Gjakova priest, 'Come in, Fathers: in our
house we have Catholicism, Islam and Orthodoxy'. Like most other Kosovars I
contacted, she cannot imagine Albanians and Serbs living together again. 

The one bright light for Australian Kosovars is the sympathy they find from
neighbours and workmates. For Suzie, this is a rare source of brightness:
'Even people you get to know on the train have asked after my family.'

Back in the Balkans, the Albanian enthusiasm for the Western order has opened
a Pandora's box. There is an ancient Albanian saying, 'Hospitality honours
you, but also creates problems for you.' Having opened the door to the West,
Kosovars are now waiting for their honoured guests to enter. 


Forecast for Melbourne Issued at 0505 on Monday the 29th of March
1999 A few light showers at first, clearing to become fine. Partly
cloudy with moderate southwest to southerly winds. Max 18

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