Several years later, he would become the youngest witness to testify at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the trial of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, giving evidence about what his forces did that day in Gjakova/Djakovica.
Kapllani was deeply affected by his meeting with the boy in the Tirana hospital.
“I was reporting on developments in the Kosovo war and in contact with people inside Kosovo, including the KLA, while Albania’s stadiums, school dormitories, camps and streets were filled with [refugee] Kosovars. Half the war was there. This case grabbed me completely,” Kapllani told BIRN.
The boy’s story was published on the front page of Shekulli, an Albanian daily newspaper, drawing attention from many people who offered to adopt him.
For Kapllani, then 33, it was one of his last journalistic pieces before he left Albania and emigrated to Canada, but the story stayed with him. “Meeting this child affected me more I would have thought as journalist,” he recalled in an interview by telephone from his home in Toronto.
“Although totally in different time and context, I felt my personal drama when I was only 10 when my father was killed in my hometown Elbasan under the Communist regime, and I never learned how, and never saw justice,” he said.
Years later, the boy’s story would become the subject of his book, ‘The Thin Line’, published by Mawenzi House Publishing, a nightmarish historical allegory with a very distinct kind of narrative – a story of trauma, loss and vendetta.
Echoes of the past
In ‘The Thin Line’, a ten-year-old boy named Ermal Bllaca (not the real-life boy’s name) remembers a morning at the end of March 1999 when, on a main street in the town of Gjakova/Djakovica, ethnic Albanian residents find their front doors marked with white crosses.
The boy’s family and women and children from the neighbourhood decide to hide in a basement, fearing for their lives – but their safe haven doesn’t last long, as Serbian forces enter, killing some of the women and children including Ermal’s mother and three sisters.
The drama continues to unfold with intensity after Ermal reunites with his father. From a refugee camp in Albania, they then emigrate to Canada, trying to come to terms with a new homeland while being tormented by memories of the past.
There are some fictional aspects to the novel, like the Serb policeman who is the victims’ neighbour, but the corresponding historical events are factual and accurate in terms of dates.
“It is also a piece of the reality because many Serb policemen, soldiers or even civilians took part [in attacks] against their Albanian neighbours,” Kapllani said.
While his father moves on with his life, the boy is consumed by thoughts of revenge, caught up in plotting how to find and murder the Serb policeman – a narrative that takes the reader from Canada to Serbia and then to Australia.
Scattered throughout the book are also vignettes of life in Yugoslavia in the years after Josip Broz Tito died in 1980, while war crimes trials at the UN tribunal in The Hague have also been a major source for Kapllani’s fiction.
“The war in Kosovo, but in other former territories of Yugoslavia seems like it produced an unlimited river of animosity which will take so much time to be stemmed. Everything is still bleeding,” Kapllani said.
“Children, those who experienced horrific moments, continue to suffer the consequences and struggle with the ghosts of the past,” he added.
Like his real-life counterpart, the main character in the novel, the sole surviving witness of the massacre, testifies at the Hague Tribunal in the trial of the former president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic.
Milosevic dies before any verdict is handed down, but the burden of suffering continues to weigh upon the victim who gives evidence against him – an outcome that troubles the author as well as his main character.
“It’s really appalling that many warlords in Serbia and elsewhere live carefree lives. In Kosovo as well,” Kapllani said.