Muna clung to her tiny brother, Akmad, seeking, with all the power in her weakened arms to protect the tiny child from the horrors of their once-dear home country. She silently cursed her Albanian ancestry and the Serbs that sought to take everything from her people. Already, Muna had lost so much. Her mother, her father, her home, and worst of all, her pride. The Serbs had stripped her of everything but life itself, leaving her only eyes with which to weep. The baby, Akmad, flinched in her arms as a troop of Serbs flew past, arms raised and screaming their frightful battle cry.
The one short year since his birth had not hardened Akmad toward the terrible truths of the world. The child’s dark eyes harbored none of the haunting fear that his sister’s carried. He was a jovial toddler, a bouncing boy shielded by the blessing of ignorance. Muna wrapped her frail, depleted arms even tighter around the boy and willed the world to be at peace. In all her eleven years, she had yet to experience even one week without clashes and conflicts between the government, Serbs, or Muslims. Her dark, solemn eyes held a sober maturity that never failed to startle even the most lighthearted onlooker.
She rearranged the thin quilt around Akmad and gazed pensively from within the cramped alley. Muna grimly set her jaw and pushed down her loathing of her own country. She cradled the child as a mother would, and sidled cautiously down the filthy street in the heart of Kosovo, bracing herself against the icy wind. Now it was deathly silent; the raiders had moved on with the goods they had stolen from defenseless people and abandoned buildings.
Muna recoiled vaguely when her mysteriously dark eyes fell on a woman sprawled on the street. The woman’s hair was matted with fresh blood. It seemed on the exterior that Muna had merely glanced at the body and looked away, as her slight reaction was perceptible only in her tightened grip around her wriggling brother. Her face gave away none of the emotion she felt inside, but inwardly the sight of the red liquid brought memories catapulting from the past into her mind.
She was only ten years old when it happened.
Her mother had just put Muna and Akmad – who was but a tiny newborn – into their makeshift beds and sang them a song. The lullaby was both haltingly lovely and mournful. Muna’s mother had been an exquisite Albanian woman with dark, serious eyes, and her possessing smile radiated such peace that Muna knew her mother was the most beautiful woman in Yugoslavia.
A sudden knock shook the door. Muna’s mother ushered them out of bed and swiftly into the moldy attic, hastily imploring her two children to remain still and silently hidden until she returned for them. Her mother hurried to the door, knowing that it was not her husband on the other side.
He had been missing for two days, and the family had wordlessly understood that they would never see him again. Suddenly a pair of government officials burst into the room, demanding money and threatening death. When they saw that Muna’s mother had nothing to give, they assaulted her verbally, then physically. She had withstood the attack in firm silence, but Muna could sense her mother’s noiseless, tortured screams. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and prayed to every god whose name she could recall. At last, two gunshots ripped through the bitter air and suddenly the faceless, nameless soldiers were gone.
Long moments had passed, and a stifling hot silence permeated the tiny apartment. Muna waited, terrified. She cradled her whimpering brother and straining to hear sounds of her mother’s footsteps. She silently counted to the highest number she knew, and when that was done, she repeated every verse of the Koran that she had ever been forced to memorize. At last, when the silence was too much to bear, she ventured out with Akmad in her arms.
It was then that she had found her mother. The body was naked and bleeding from two bullet wounds in the torso.
That had been a year ago.
Muna, scarred by the image of her mother’s lifeless face, had been driven to the streets a month later when she had no way to pay rent for the tiny apartment. No amount of begging or pleading could have persuaded the rigid landlord to allow them to stay, not even when she had beseeched him in shame from her knees. No money, no Albanians.
On the streets, Muna was subjected to the harsh conditions. Hunger, cold, abuse. As a result of her traumatic existence, she withdrew into the recesses of her mind, rarely speaking, and even rarer still, smiling.
Weeks and months passed. Muna grew less like her vivacious self, and more like the thousands of hopeless, lifeless beggars on the streets of Kosovo. She could not remember the last time she had eaten, for she always gave Akmad the scraps of food she was able to gather. As a result, her own body and health dwindled.
With a worried glance at the sky, she noted that the sun would die within the hour. A pale expression of fear flitted across gaunt features as she pondered the thought that confronted her daily. Where will we sleep tonight?
Muna hoisted her brother onto a thin hip and began the slow trek. She grimaced at the prospect of yet another night on a cold doorstep or between battered buildings. Muna rummaged aimlessly through a pile of rubbish, and came away with a half-eaten chipolata. One sniff of the cold sausage renewed her sharp pangs of hunger. She wiped it and placed it gingerly in Akmad’s little, grasping fingers.
She rubbed his heavily blanketed back as he wolfed it down noisily. A wave of guilt struck her as the child looked up expectantly, his tiny hand outstretched for more. She shook her head sadly and gave his ruddy cheek an affectionate kiss. Akmad squirmed in frustration, but accepted her maternal embrace. He wrapped his short arms around her neck.
The sun passed dejectedly over the horizon, sinking into the distant land of Bosnia. Muna settled awkwardly against a tree stump with Akmad nestled in her lap. She sat still and unmoving, waiting for the child to drift off to sleep. Her heart, though a mere shadow of what it once was, still longed with the same fervor for a better life. She stared after the sun’s bleeding rays and wished for the land beyond the horizon, where she could live free.
She knew that somewhere beyond the blazing orb lay a land called Montenegro, where Albanians were left at peace. Muna’s numbed mind stirred at the thought of liberation. Her frozen consciousness groped desperately for it. As the relief of sleep flooded her senses, Muna’s last thought was of Montenegro, where she would one day flee – one arm clutching Akmad, the other grasping freedom.