Volume 18 Number 1
That Bullet Was Meant for Me
01 February 2005

When refugees poured in to Albania during the war in Kosovo, they set Ela Kaloshi on the road to forgiving. She talks to Bob Webb.

Her dad is sitting alone in a coffee house in Kruje, Albania, when suddenly a stranger appears and demands $20,000 from him by noon the next day. ‘I don’t have it,’ he says. The stranger then puts a bullet on the table and warns: ‘This may result in a calamity in your family.’ Such threats were not taken lightly in 1997, with the Albanian civil war raging as anarchy reigned.

‘That bullet was meant for me,’ says Ela Kaloshi, 21, now special assistant to the Dean of White House Fellows at the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington DC. ‘In Albania, “calamity” refers to the children in a family.’ What the stranger didn’t know was that Ela and her parents, Astrit and Vasilika, were no longer living in Kruje but had moved to nearby Tirana, the capital, thinking it safer. Was she frightened? ‘No, I knew my father would protect me.’

The civil war was touched off by investment scandals that robbed thousands of Albanians, who blamed the government for not protecting them. It took a United Nations peace force to restore order.

The war and death threat were by no means the last of the nightmares hounding Ela and her parents. (Her older sister Azhena had gone to the US as an exchange student before the war started). In March 1998, her father, a former teacher and principal, came home with the news that the cheese factory they owned, between Kruje and Tirana, had been broken into. The intruders had broken doors, torn up paper work and destroyed important documents. Worse still for 15-year-old Ela, they had murdered the family’s German Shepherd dog, Baku.

‘As a lover of animals, I could not believe they had shot my best friend several times,’ Ela recalls. ‘I will never forget his cold body with his eyes open staring towards me in the front door. It appeared that Baku had struggled against his killer or killers. He had paid with his life for being loyal.’

All this filled her with rage. ‘My first reaction was anger and hatred toward the perpetrators,’ she says. ‘This was unusual in that I am usually calm and friendly. It was not easy knowing these people were the same ones my father had taught in school, to whom he had given free books and to whose families he had donated food in difficult times. It was difficult to know they had caused this pain for which I could do nothing. I felt helpless. I was not even sure if the worst thing that could happen to them would have made me feel better. I wanted revenge.

‘I was angry with the world as a whole. I trusted no one in any way. I even began to question the existence of God. Was there a God? If so, where was he/she?’

But then an unlikely miracle happened. It began in March 1999 with the expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

‘One night my father came upon a truckload of Kosovars in Tirana,’ Ela says. ‘There were 20 of them, children and grown-ups, all from the same extended family. They had been on the road for 10 days, travelling through the cold, snowy mountains, and had had nothing to eat. It was painful to watch them cry and fight with death. My heart went out to them.

‘My father took them to an empty, two-bedroom house next to our factory where they were fed, given blankets and otherwise helped. He had bought the house, thinking it would be used for expansion of our business.’ Despite the financial hit the Kaloshis had suffered from the breakin, they opened their arms—and hearts—to the Kosovars.

Tents the refugees had brought went up outside the house to handle the overflow. The Kaloshis gave them clothes, obtained medical care for their ailing infants and helped them in myriad other ways. Astrit even paid some to work in his plant. A week later another truckload of 20 Kosovars turned up and were welcomed by the Kaloshis. By now, with hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into the country, other Albanians were helping the Kaloshis and taking initiatives similar to theirs. Aid began to arrive from the Albanian diaspora in Europe and from a variety of humanitarian agencies.

‘As my family utilized every inch of space to accommodate the 40, I committed myself to helping them,’ Ela says. ‘They were in no physical or mental shape to take care of themselves. I was with them almost every day.

‘As time went by, the Kosovars not only felt better, but I even began to notice changes within me. I was happier than ever. The anger and hatred inside began to fade. I no longer wanted to take revenge. Now I was thinking how by my compassion and actions I wanted to make this planet a better place to live.’

The Kosovars’ suffering put her own suffering in perspective. ‘With their plight, these ethnic Albanians had made me understand there could be worse things in life. Your life, property and loved ones could be swept away in a nanosecond. After the Kosovars went back home to rebuild their lives, my life and attitudes changed dramatically. They had contributed indirectly to my new commitment to help people and make peace studies and conflict resolution a top priority.’

The experience taught her that ‘by helping others you help yourself’ and helped her to make peace with the world and herself. ‘I learned that seeking revenge would not relieve the pain or heal the wound.’

It also helped her to find an answer to her questions about God: ‘Yes, he/she was there, but in a different way. Kosovars indirectly taught me to forgive. I know I will never be able to forget (the break-in). That was part of my life. It is history. But I forgive those who hurt me, and I would be willing to help them if they asked. My parents did—they helped the ones who hurt us and still do.’

Ela learned early that ‘these emotional changes do not happen overnight. The pain is too deep, and your heart still cries. But time is one of the best medications. I allowed time to kick in and events to take place. Now my mission is to educate others by sharing my story—one must realize that by taking revenge you will not change your life or lift your vision on how you see the world.’

Her journey to Washington began as an exchange student at a small high school in Dresden, Tennessee. Afterwards, she entered Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois—where students pay part of their fees by working on campus—and started her Washington semester last September. At Blackburn she went to school yearround, achieved a high academic record, became manager of the student workforce and won the college’s top leadership award.

She went on to receive an internship with the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington DC. Headed by former US Ambassador to NATO David M Abshire, the Center ‘seeks to further the understanding and functioning of the American Presidency and its related institutions and, thereby, to educate, illuminate and inspire leaders of tomorrow’. The Center’s centrepiece is its twice-yearly conferences of White House Fellows, which bring top students from colleges and military academies across the US to Washington.

Unusually, Ela was given major responsibility for planning and implementing the conference last November and so impressed the Center that she was offered a full-time position.

Next fall Ela wants to start graduate school to prepare for the international peace and conflict-resolution work at the core of her dreams. She wants to add Farsi, Turkish, Russian and Arabic to the four languages she already speaks. Her ambition is to work as international relations advisor to a high official or to work for the United Nations.

But there’s another possibility too: of one day going home to help young Albanians, many of them impoverished, realize their potential. Ela knows she has received much, and wants to share it with others: ‘I had help to be where I am today, and I would like to pay it back by helping someone else.’