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N.Y. teens, Kalashnikovs, and the Kosovo cause

Risking their lives for a land they've never seen, idealistic KLA

The writer of this piece, an American visiting Albania, requested anonimity for self-protection and to protect those who took the writer to a Kosovo Liberation Army base in northern Albania last week. The writer is not affiliated with the KLA.

It started innocently enough, like many an affair or tale of intrigue: a lazy Sunday picnic in honor of the American guest who had come to visit an Albanian friend's family at their country home in northern Albania. The day soon took a more adventurous turn, however. I discovered my friend's diminutive, elderly father was no simple farmer, but the proud landlord of a Kosovo Liberation Army base camp.

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"The KLA is fighting for my land - on my land," said my host over an elaborate home-grown meal. "I give them my land and my sons ... everything I treasure" to free Kosovo, he said, inviting me to come see what he meant.

Before I knew it, we were trudging up a muddy, rut-strewn road to the log-barred entrance of a KLA camp tucked into a wooded hillside on my host's property, just miles from the Kosovo border. As we approached, volleys of gunfire erupted into the air followed by the blindly enthusiastic cries of "long live Kosovo!" Several dozen uniformed KLA soldiers adorned with Kalashnikov rifles and military gear were loading into two buses, which they claimed were headed for the border and on to Pristina, the capital of the beleaguered Serb province.

Fears I felt about the wisdom of my undertaking were soon superseded by intense curiosity. A young soldier in gold sunglasses shook my hand and greeted me in perfect American English.

"Hey, where you from? America - hey, high five!" cried Frankie, at age 22 a devilishly handsome young man from Detroit with a punk haircut. He looked to be more at home in a fashion spread than a KLA camp. "Look at this, we got lots of Americans here,

" he said, and some Germans, French, Swiss," he said.

Frankie was but one of a dozen Albanian-American KLA recruits I met that afternoon last week. I was told there were 700 recruits at the camp, and perhaps 10 percent to 15 percent were citizens of the United States or Western Europe.

From the startled looks on their faces, the soldiers seemed just as surprised to see me as I was to find myself with the KLA. Rumors of a US visitor in the camp spread quickly, and soon I was besieged by requests for the latest sports news from home.

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There was Joe from Newark, N.J., Mammo from Chicago - names, cities, stories flew fast, as if in their retelling these civilians-turned-soldiers could somehow connect with the lives they'd left behind in America to come fight for their familial homeland.

Letters were pressed into my hands by middle-aged soldiers from Brooklyn seeking to tell their families back home that they were still alive, still waiting for their chance to fight in Kosovo. A sense of unspoken finality hung heavy in the air as they pondered what fate might await them over the border.

The somber mood was broken by a brash young KLA recruit who, like a bull in a china shop, broke through the crowd of soldiers gathered around me.

"Hey, they call me the Kosovo Lady," 16-year-old Linda Muriqi, an athletic-looking KLA recruit from Brooklyn, said with an air of defiant machismo. With a muscularity cut from four years of kick-boxing, long brunette locks wrapped in an American flag, an Elvis insignia on her sleeve, and an ammunition belt slung over her KLA fatigues, Linda looked for all the world like an adolescent female Rambo.

"Hey, you American there, think I'm tough enough to fight the Serbs?"

She thrust a Polaroid photo into my hands. In it, Linda and two other recruits were crouched in combat position, AK-47s in hand, snarling at the camera.

The "Kosovo Lady" followed in her father's footsteps by joining the KLA. She signed up specifically to fight, she says, flying to Albania in April with 300 other American recruits of all ages. She first trained for several weeks in Durres and then went north where she tracked down her father in another KLA camp.

"He told me it was my choice whether I fight or not. My father knows this is something I want - and have - to do."

When she left Brooklyn, Linda told her mother she was headed off to Albania to do propaganda work for a few weeks for the KLA. A few days before I met Linda, she'd called her mother to tell her the truth. Her mother, she said, cried hysterically after learning that Linda would soon cross the border to fight in Kosovo. Linda shrugged. "I'm here now, I'm not going back. She knows the KLA is a tradition in our family."

LINDA'S large brown eyes shown with conviction, and at that moment I didn't doubt her bravery or patriotism. Her willingness to risk her life for a cause greater than herself, to defend her family's homeland from aggression, struck me not so much as naive or wrong-headed but deeply idealistic, with all the obvious merits and demerits idealism entails. Linda's attitude stood in sharp contrast to the bored, commercially induced cynicism I've seen cloud the minds of many a teenager I know in America.

Linda was not the only female soldier I met that afternoon. I was told there were 150 in the camp - a fact that some male recruits said they found unnerving.

Mammo admitted that while "they're patriotic and I admire that," he worries about how they'll fare in combat.

Guided by my elderly Albanian host, I passed orderly lines of armed, uniformed KLA soldiers returning from a training exercise. I trudged uphill past the camp canteen where Linda and Frankie were getting their American fix of Mars chocolate bars and came to an embankment where the KLA commander's tent was pitched. Inside the tent, the commander, a burly Kosovar Albanian in his 50s with a war-weary body that contrasted with his soft hazel eyes, greeted me with cups of steaming, sweetened coffee and an emotional ode to patriotism: "Our families are being murdered back at home in Kosovo as we speak."

"My family is still all there," he said quietly, wiping his eyes as he spoke. He said he's willing to die to save them, and added, "We are not afraid because we have nothing to lose."

I left the camp at dusk as the sun nestled into the rugged hillside only miles from Kosovo, a land many of these young KLA recruits from America had never seen, but one for which they were willing to risk their dreams - and their lives.

Linda's defiant words stuck in my mind as we headed back down a twisting country road: "These are my people," she said, explaining why she wants to fight. "So long as they [the Serbs] are raping and murdering our people, I'll do whatever it takes. I'm not afraid."

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