Newcastle striker Shefki Kuqi
Newcastle's well-travelled forward Shefki Kuqi recalls the dramatic journey he made from Kosovo over 20 years ago.
From the Guardian
Shefki Kuqi is almost the definition of the journeyman striker. But his is a journey more extraordinary than most, one that began in 1989, when he was 12 years old.
Kuqi was born in Vucitrn, a town in Kosovo, then in Yugoslavia, where two-thirds of the population were ethnic Albanians. Kuqi's family were among them.
He grew up in a small village just outside Vucitrn, most of whose residents worked in a metal-processing plant on the road into the town. There were only 10 Serb houses in the village, five in a cluster just over the road from Kuqi's house, five just behind.
"We started school at six and a half," Kuqi remembers. "There were separate Kosovan and Serb classes in the same school and, from the age of 10, Kosovan children were expected to study the Serbian language.
"Maybe once or twice a week we'd get to school an hour early and play a game of football, Kosovans v Serbs, which would always draw a crowd.
"The kids were aware of the differences between them but the games were friendly: if one side was short, Kosovans would play for the Serb side or the other way round.
"It was just an easy way of dividing people up, rather than anything more fundamental.That's largely how it was. People got on. If there was a party at a Serb house, Kosovans would give them a cake.
"But as time went by the relationship became more and more tense. My dad's brother had a good friend who lived opposite and there was a time when the friend's wife came over to warn us that things weren't looking good.
"You noticed the little things. My dad had helped build houses for some of the Serbs and they'd wave and smile when they saw him driving his van around town. But slowly they stopped doing that."
Towards the end of 1988 there were reports of Kosovans being attacked, of houses being burnt and people being killed.
"People began losing their jobs, and [the Yugoslav president, Slobodan] Milosevic started making noises about wanting it all to be one country and one language," Kuqi says. His family decided to move when his brother was 16 and due to do his military service.
"There was a sense of fear among Kosovans, but it was when my brother was 16 so he had to do military service that the family decided it was time to move. I knew something was going on because my Dad and my Dad's brother and other relatives kept meeting to discuss things."
The day they left is seared in Kuqi's memory. "We left home at 9pm on a Thursday night," he says. "It was cold. It had been snowing all day. We had a big garden and it was covered with snow.
"My uncle Sadik, my dad's brother, worked for the council and he had a snow plough, so when he had finished his rounds for the day, he came over and cleared the snow from the front of the house. My mother's parents lived right next to the station, so we went and stayed with them overnight.
"Everybody was feeling sad and crying – it was like being at a funeral. I didn't really understand what was happening; all I knew was that I was being asked to leave my home and all my friends. My dad was already in Finland, trying to get things ready for us.
"The next morning at six we left – my mother, me, my two brothers and my sister, plus my dad's brother Beqir and my mother's brother Rrustem.
"We couldn't take much with us, we had just the clothes we were wearing and a bag between us because we didn't want to draw attention to ourselves.
"It was hard to believe we were leaving everything behind; not just our home but all our belongings. Our tradition meant we were very close to our family, so it was a real wrench to leave them.
"We'd been crying for a few days; we didn't know who to say goodbye to any more. It was like we were numb. We had eyes like eggs. We tried to sleep, but I don't think we got more than a couple of hours.
"I suppose we were excited at the thought of the journey and starting something new, but mainly we were upset. We'd said goodbye to all my dad's family in the days before.
"Then we had to go through it all over again with my mama's family. Even now I get emotional thinking about that time."
Excerpt from the Guardian. To read this article in full, please click here.