The region of Rugova, bordering Montenegro in western Kosova, occupies a special place in the minds of Albanians, for its epic beauty and its resistance to domination. Surrendering later to Ottoman rule and to Islam than other parts of Kosova, the roots of paganism and Catholicism are strongly felt there. It is also known for a long history of blood feuds, which functioned as the principle form of self-governance up until World War II. In the 1980s, old men in Rugova were still wearing white cloth turbans—symbolic of the cloth used to wrap the body of the deceased before burial.
My guide to Rugova was an amazing young woman named Dushe Gjevukaj. Raised in the remote mountain beauty and poverty of Rugova, she had attended school in the town of Peja where many Rugova folk spent the winter. When I met her in 1981, she was living in Prishtina, studying to become a nurse. Having excelled all the way through school and having earned the trust of her elders with her exemplary behavior, Dushe was the only one in her family to leave home and pursue an education and career.
Both far from home, Dushe and I became close friends. She was seventeen and I was twenty-seven and our lives up to that point could not have been more different. But we connected on the deepest level, as sisters. She had never known life beyond Rugova, Peja, and Prishtina, never had the chance to imagine much beyond this landscape. But she was curious, and clever. She had a quality I was later to find in village girls throughout Kosova who had broken through the mental and physical confines of their lives. They had a certain mix of intelligence, ingenuity, and determination—a spark, an inspiration—that was visible in their eyes and bearing and set them apart from their peers.
I have wonderful memories of my visits to Dushe’s family in the winter, spring, and summer, experiencing the beauty, harshness, and reliance of theirs lives. Dushe, whose marriage was arranged by family members unbeknownst to her, went on to an exemplary career and as a nurse in Prishtina. Now a grandmother, Dushe raised five children and made the very best of her life, filling it with joy, intelligence, and abundant love.