PRISTINA, Kosovo -- The women gather in the kitchen while the children play next door. They like to feed the Soldiers who come every Tuesday, sharing what little comforts they have. They wave their hands and scold, not unkindly, in Albanian, if the visiting Soldiers interfere too much with the cooking. The women perch on one another's laps while the Soldiers eat, seeking comfort and strength in one another.
Soldiers from the Kosovo Force, Multinational Battle Group-East, stationed at Camp Bondsteel, have been visiting the women and children each week for the past several rotations. Here, the children receive two meals a day and are cared for while their mothers go to work.
The shelter, located in Pristina, the bustling capital in the heart of Kosovo, gives aid to women who have been raped during the war in the late 1990's, and to single mothers who can no longer afford to support their families. The women who volunteer here know first-hand the resources the shelter provides to those left with so little after the war.
Bahtie* was 25 when her husband was killed. She used to live alone with her three daughters before representatives of the shelter came to offer assistance.
"They brought some help for my kids and they helped me to become part of this program," said Bahtie. "Since then I show up here every day. I thought I should close myself inside the house and I should not leave, but I came here and I saw that there were people similar to me and I wanted to help."
The shelter is a non-government organization run by volunteers and dependent on donations from the local community.
"My third child was just 3 years old when I came here," said Bahtie. "She had a heart disease and, with the help of KFOR, I was able to send her to Italy to one of the hospitals. Now she's very healthy just like any other kid. Thanks to KFOR, this was achieved. I am grateful and I don't have words to describe how grateful I am. We have built such a good relationship with the Soldiers because after what happened it's a hard life."
According to statistics gathered by the Kosovo Women's Network, affordable housing in Pristina is almost impossible to find, especially for low income single mothers.
"It's hard to educate my kids and to live alone without support," said Bahtie. "This is a tradition in Kosovo, to take care of your kids, just like in any other culture, and that's what we do."
The World Health Organization and U.S.- based Center for Disease Control estimates that over 20,000 Kosovar women, were raped in just the 2 years prior to the intervention of NATO forces in Kosovo. But rape, and the children born as a result, is a taboo subject, especially in a patriarchal society such as Kosovo. The Kosovo Women's Network says that single mothers face stigma and are often held responsible, even if they are not to blame, making it difficult to find help.
"As much as I miss my own wife and kids, the people here don't have as much as we do," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mikey Poling, a pilot assigned to Charlie Company, 185th Assault Helicopter Battalion. "It's an opportunity for me to give back to families because I would want someone around to help my family when they needed it."
The women say that Shehide*, another volunteer and beneficiary of the shelter, has seen the most sadness. She says to us, one day her little boy will show up because who would want to hurt him, Bahtie explained.
"During the war they shot my husband in front of me and they took my son and he is missing still," Shehide said. "He was 12 years old. I have been waiting for 17 years and I don't know where he is. If he is dead, can I see his grave so I can talk to him?"
Bahtie and Shehide still dream of their loved ones.
"There are no words to explain what I would like to say," says Shehide. "If my son could hear me, I wish to know if he is alive, if his life is good. I don't shed tears any more, but I shake when I think of that day."
The shelter is a refuge for both the volunteers and the women and children who need them.
"This is my home," said Shehide. "These are my sisters. They help to ease the pain. The thoughts that return to me about my most loved little one. I'm not in a position to come and do volunteer work so much because sometimes I need to work, but it's a cure for the thoughts that plague me. When the Army shows up they make things easy for us by talking to us."
Many of the women remained in Pristina to help those in need. Now, with the help of the Soldiers who visit, they hope to continue their work.
"The care packages that people would send to the Soldiers, that they don't need, they will bring here to try and help," said Naim Boyrami, a linguist working with KFOR MNBG-East. Boyrami has served as a link between the shelter and each new rotation. He is able to tell the KFOR Soldiers what the women and children need most.
"Throughout the many rotations, we collected money for bunk-beds, rugs, and toys. Our intent was to invest in that so that the ladies can start a daycare and be self-sufficient," said Boyrami. But the intended building, which belongs to the city of Pristina, and new equipment within it, was seized by the mayor, explained Boyrami.
In the Balkans, there is a saying: if you keep your breath, you lose it. If you let it go, it comes back to you. The women who volunteer at the shelter come here to ease one another's burden, as well as their own.
We are like you, they tell the Soldiers who visit. We, too, are soldiers. We are strong.*Editors note: The women in the story have been identified by their first names only in order to protect their identity. They have shared their stories with the aid of an interpreter.