Massacre survivor Dren Caka, photographed by the Telegraph in 1999, remembers the night his mother and sisters were murdered by Serbian police in one of the most notorious episodes of the war.
By Neil TweedieLast Updated: 5:25PM BST 01 Apr 2009
Vancouver is almost 6,000 miles from Kosovo but Dren Caka visits his homeland most nights.
He goes back in his dreams, to his home in Milosa Gilica Street in the town of Gjakova where he lived with his extended family, and to the neighbouring pool hall owned by Luli Vejsa, a family friend. Finally, in his darkest moments, he makes the journey to Luli’s house, back to the night of April 1 1999, when the Serbs came.
A decade on from the Kosovo War, that last great exercise in 20th-century European blood-letting, Dren Caka, 20, is a casualty still.
“I have nightmares a lot,” he says, looking out over Vancouver’s glistening waterfront. “I can’t sleep at night and feel constantly tired; I usually have bags under my eyes.”
He speaks with a Canadian accent now, and looks and behaves like a typical young Canadian, but his history separates him from friends who have known nothing but peace and affluence by the Pacific Ocean.
“If you were to look at me walking along you would think ‘he’s just a normal a kid’, but I’m not just a normal kid. When I tell them, when I tell my friends, they are speechless.”
Dren Caka is the sole survivor - the miraculous survivor - of one of the most notorious episodes of the war: the massacre of 19 women and children, including his mother and three sisters, by Serb police. Kosovo has already faded from the popular memory, overtaken by the seismic events of September 11 2001 and their aftermath. Slobodan Milosevic is dead and many of the henchmen responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the former Serbian province have stood trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, but the war continues to cast a shadow over people like Dren.
He was 10 years old in March 1999 when the Serbs began their campaign of deportation and murder against the predominantly ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo. On the night of April 1, a week after Nato began bombing Serb forces, the paramilitary police arrived in Milosa Galica Street.
Gjakova - Djakovica to the Serbs - was a particular target, standing as it does in the shadow of the Accursed Mountains, which separate Kosovo from Albania. Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), fighting for independence from Serbia, were using mountain tracks to import weapons from Albania and the Serbs wanted to choke off the insurgents’ supply routes. That meant clearing Gjakova of its majority Albanian population and fortifying the area.
To escape Nato bombs and Serb reprisals, women and children living in Milosa Galica Street slept in the basement of Luli Vejsa’s pool hall. The men, including Dren’s father, Ali, hid elsewhere - it was thought only males of military age were at risk.
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve known when bad things are going to happen,” says Dren. “Things were getting bad and the adults were talking about it. Helicopters overhead were telling us we must hand in our weapons and no harm would come to us. I didn’t know who was doing the bombing but it didn’t scare me much - my sisters would scream but I would just carry on watching TV. That night, though, I had a really bad feeling.”
Valbone, his mother, said he could stay in the house with his grandparents and aunt and uncle if he wanted, but that she was taking his sisters, Dalina, 14, Delvina, six, and Diona, aged two, to Luli’s basement. Reluctantly, Dren accompanied them.
There were 21 people in the cellar that night: women, children - most of them under 10 years of age - and one man aged 60. Dren and the other children were given sleeping pills. Between two and three o’clock in the morning the door opened, revealing a Serb policeman. One of the men was a neighbour of the Caka family. “He was an okay kind of guy”, says Dren.
“My mom woke me and the first thing I said was ‘I told you so’. There were about six police yelling in Serb and Albanian saying we were KLA and hiding the men. My mother spoke and said we just women and children trying to stay safe.”
The group was taken to Luli’s house. As they arrived a little girl ran for the door. One of the police opened fire, narrowly missing the child. Once inside mothers and children were ordered to sit down in the living room. Then the shooting began.
“A girl called Flaka - she was in her teens - got up to make tea. A policeman pushed her back and fired at her. Her mother got up to get hold of her and was shot, and then the policeman started shooting everybody.”
Luli’s wife and baby daughter were shot next, then Dren’s mother. She fell on top of Diona, shielding her from the bullets. Dalina and Delvina collapsed in a hail of Kalashnikov fire.
“My mother had been changing my baby sister, who turned two that night. One man was shooting inside the house and there was another man shooting through the window.
“I was sitting behind a woman who was quite big and I was kind of lying down when I was shot. There was smoke everywhere because they had set fire to the closet and the guy got his flashlight out to check that everyone was dead. He shot and I could feel the bullet move between my hair. I dropped my head and he took off.”
Diona was still alive under her mother but Dren had lost the use of his right arm and could not help her.
“I tried to save my baby sister but I only had one good arm and the house was smoking up. I knew if I stayed there I would be gone too.”
He lay for five minutes before running from the house, Diona’s cries ringing in his ears. He thinks his oldest sister, dying from her wounds, passed him a glove to cover his nose and mouth from the smoke. He managed to escape over a wall.
When he reached his own home his aunt did not believe what had happened.
“She told me I had a bad dream.”
His grandfather was similarly unimpressed.
“He kind of slapped me – he said ‘snap out of it’. Then he took off my jacket and saw I was soaked with blood. He bandaged me up.”
His father returned at daylight to learn that most of his family had gone.
“He was crying, saying ‘go with your aunt and uncle and I’ll see you in Albania’.
“I said ‘dad can I have one last kiss in case I don’t see you ever again’, and he gave me a kiss and said ‘don’t worry son, you’ll see me’.
Patched up in the local hospital, Dren then travelled by car to the Albanian border with his aunt, uncle and cousin. They were specks in a human tide. Some 700,000 Kosovans were expelled from their homeland between March and June 1999.
The boy spent two months in hospital in the Albanian capital, Tirana, believing his father was dead. until one day he walked through the door.
“I was learning to accept that he was gone. That day when he came to the hospital it was a most amazing day. I was asleep and when I woke up the first thing I saw was my dad. ‘Dad!’ I said, and jumped up and kissed him.”
It was Canada which offered Dren and Ali Caka sanctuary. Dren works as a carpet fitter now; his father remarried and had a second son, Dennis. Dren wears his half-brother’s name in a tattoo on his arm.
“My dad still hasn’t learned to let go. I hope for happiness for my dad - I really do.”
For himself there is memory and a sense of dislocation.
“Vancouver can be fun but boring at the same time. If you don’t have money you get stuck in the boring part.”
Dren loves football and still dreams of returning to Kosovo. He misses the sociability of life there, the evening gatherings in cafes.
“The Serbs and Kosovans in Vancouver play football together now,” he says, before laughing: “Then they have a fight.”
Seaplanes are landing and taking off in Vancouver’s harbour as he speaks. The Rockies provide an impressive backdrop to his adopted home, not unlike the mountains he crossed to escape the war that claimed his loved ones.
“In some ways I’ve had the most amazing life. At that age I didn’t know what Canada was. It is another life here but not the one I wanted.”
The conflict refuses to leave him alone. He has testified twice before the tribunal in The Hague, the first time as a protected (anonymous) witness in the trial of Milosevic. During his second appearance as a witness, in the trial of senior Serb politicians and officers indicted for war crimes, he shed his title of Witness K13 and used his own name. He may be soon be going to The Hague again.
“I want to do it to show people that I haven’t forgotten. I will never forget. I am more than glad to go and testify and get these guys locked up.”
Kosovo is independent of Serbia now, its self-proclaimed status guaranteed by a Nato garrison. The hearings in The Hague are due to conclude in 2011. Will the fate of his mother and sisters ever cease to haunt him?
“Maybe when I get a family of my own - my dad wants me to find a girl in Kosovo - but I will never be 100 per cent. I have nightmares, can’t sleep sometimes. Sometimes when I smile it is the most fake smile I will ever give because I’m just not happy. It’s just something I’m going to have to live with.”
And why, why did he survive?
“I ask that question every day of my life. Is there a purpose for me to be here? I don’t know. “