Photo courtesy of Hajredin Ferataj.

From Refugee to Trailblazer: Geographer Opens Mountain Running Trails in Areas Once Sheltered During War

A former refugee pioneers mountain running trails in areas where she sought refuge 25 years ago, marking Albanian Flag Day with a unique celebration.

Valdete Qollaku, a geographer by profession and founder of Nomad Mountain Guides, is gazing at a valley in Çubrel in Central Kosovo where she had to sleep for three months in a refugee tent made out of plastic when Serbian forces attacked her house during the 1999 war.

She has new plans and a vision for that valley. She is opening this view up for approximately 300 participants who took part in a new 28 km running race that will mark November 28, Albanian Flag Day.

She is pushing for a new narrative on a day that is generally seen as the most patriotic day among Albanians who celebrate the founding of the Albanian state and is celebrated en masse by Albanians everywhere, including those in Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, South Serbia, and the diaspora at large.

“We have to change our mindset and take everything that happened to us in the war, take that experience to another level! We should never forget the war, but we have to build another life here now and give another type of energy to this country,” she says as she prepares the ground for the race that will begin from the Prekaz compound in the Jashari Memorial Complex, where 50 people, mostly women and children, were killed by Serbian forces in the battle that ensued on March 5-6, 1998.

The running trail took place in villages most known for their armed resistance of the Kosovo Liberation Army in the late ’90s, covering five villages that belong to Skenderaj municipality.

Before becoming a mountaineer, Qollaku worked as a geography teacher. While studying to be a geographer, she started to think about marking untrodden trails in Kosovo.

Two traits make this race unique. Firstly, the race is organized in the areas where Valdete herself, like many of her fellow citizens, spent time as a refugee in Drenica during 1998 and 1999. Secondly, the race is organized in completely untrodden paths in untouristy deep mountainous areas of Drenica.

“Unlike Rugova and Sharr mountains, these terrains of Drenica and Bajgora (central-north Kosovo) are hardly ever walked on, even by us locals, let alone international tourists,” says Qollaku as she goes through bushes that need to be opened and marked by the time the race will take place.

During the other part of the year when Valdete is not working on this race, she works on projects bringing together youngsters from Baja village, the only village in Drenica inhabited by Serbs, and Albanian youngsters from other villages of Drenica.

In the 28 km terrain, the runners will pass by small streams that dry up during summer. The majority of these villages that runners pass by did not have roads before the war and were hardly accessible by common citizens. The path passes through the villages of Prekaz, Upper and Lower Klina, Kotorr, Çubrel, and Llausha. All these areas which foreign news journalists crossed during the war because the main fighting of the Kosovo Liberation Army occurred here.

Qollaku wants to inspire the majority of Kosovo’s population to think of its environment, a healthy body, and caring for nature on November 28 and defend this nature with the same passion that the heroes in the past had defended Kosovo Albanians against ethnic cleansing.

She is one of eight children in her family who became refugees in the ’90s and explains how they used nature’s products to stay warm as refugees.

“I remember that during the night when we fell asleep, we were shivering because it was very cold. My father covered me with straws because when the grass is mowed, then it dries up and it can serve as a cover, so he covered me in dry grass (straw) to keep me warmer,” says Çollaku when she was one of 100 people from her village who hid in this makeshift camp.

November 28 is envisaged to be a cold, snowy, and rainy day for runners who, unlike refugees 25 years ago, will be served warm soup in the main tent in the city of Skenderaj when the finish line is reached.

As we pass by the trails, the biggest enemies of Qollaku are the sounds of loud 4-wheel fuel-driven mountain bikes which take over the countryside on the weekend and whose noise disturbs the birds and chickens habitat of the village.

“Terrible, I really hate these 4W off-road motorbikes – they should be banned on mountain trails,” says Qollaku, who is interested in developing mountain tourism for Kosovo and is convinced that extreme driving of 4-wheel bikes ruins that prospect.

Bringing new tourists will take time and investment, but having roughly 300 participants in the November race is more than she had planned for and more than in any previous years. The race started at 9:30 in front of the Memorial Complex in Prekaz on the 28th and ended in the center of Skenderaj.

29/11/2023 - 15:50

29 November 2023 - 15:50

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