The football journey of Charlton midfielder Elizabeta Ejupi, 24, begins 1,626 miles from The Valley. To consult Google Maps is to meet warning triangles cautioning that the route “includes a car transporter, may cross country borders and your destination is in a different timezone”. Driving takes 27 hours. A plane takes three.
Aged three, Ejupi alighted an aeroplane that had carried her, her parents and her older brother away from Kosovo, on the brink of war, to London. “There were massacres, killings,” Ejupi explains. “We were leaving to survive.” Her family escaped “before it all kicked off”, and in doing so spared Elizabeta a childhood of unspeakable horrors.
Between February 1998 and June 1999, war raged between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – the FRY, comprising Serbia and Montenegro – and the Kosovo Liberation Army, who sought to separate Kosovo from the FRY and were supported by NATO.
NATO’s intervention was followed by the mass expulsion of Kosovar Albanians. In 2001, a United Nations-administered Supreme Court ruled that Serbian troops had not committed genocide against ethnic Albanians, as they had intended displacement and not destruction, but that crimes against humanity and war crimes had taken place amid “a systematic campaign of terror, including murders, rapes, arsons and severe maltreatments”. It has since been estimated that 13,517 people were killed or went missing during the conflict, with as many as 1.45 million Kosovo Albanians displaced.
Ejupi’s mother was still studying at university when the family escaped. “They just had to drop everything,” Ejupi explains. “My cousins and uncles went to Germany. You get Kosovans in Switzerland, in America – they’re everywhere because of that war. There was nothing you could… It was just saying bye to your family and leaving.”
She describes fleeing as “kind of a blur – if I was a bit older, I would remember”, but blanks are preferable to the alternative. As it is, her childhood memories of Albania consist, thankfully, of “just playing – being a kid, a three-year-old”.
They reached Macedonia, where NATO had arranged planes to transport refugees to England, and arrived in London. “We were quite a young family with kids. I think we probably had priority. I remember my mum and dad saying that they looked down from the plane, and it was night-time. They saw this city and thought, where are we? They were young – 22, 23 – when this was happening to them. They had to get up and go with two kids behind them. When they got here, they started rebuilding a life for themselves.”
What did Elizabeta think? “I thought I was just going on holiday, that we were going away for a bit,” she says. “It was an adventure.” She soon realised it was not so simple. “I don’t know if it’s just me visualising it now, but I do remember thinking, when are we going to go back? There was a massive language barrier. I went into nursery and I just couldn’t speak English. I couldn’t say anything.
“Eventually, we saw the news on the television about the situation in Kosovo. My mum used to always try and get hold of her family, because they were all there. I recall her constantly trying to talk to people. That’s when I caught that there could be something not right. ‘This isn’t normal, my mum being worried about everyone there.’ I kind of figured it out.”
The football cage on their council estate provided the first balm to the past. “It was easier to make friends through football because you don’t need to talk much,” Ejupi says. “You just kick the ball. People like you if you’re good.” She duly rose through Charlton’s Centre of Excellence, before completing a psychology degree at Nottingham while representing Forest for three seasons and County for one, partly because “my parents wanted me to make the most out of my life after they’d had to rebuild theirs”. She spent a season at Aston Villa before returning to Charlton, “back home where I grew up”, this summer.
Having worked her way through various England youth set-ups before drifting away during a hiatus from football – “people are making a living out of it now, [but] I didn’t know what would come with it” – Albania approached her and she has represented them since she was 18. “Football’s not something that women did, so it’s catching up, but there were players there doing exactly what players are doing here: doing it out of pure love”.
Representing Albania is “humbling” for Ejupi, and her family wear their past proudly and visit Kosovo every summer. “There’s songs that came out after the war and my dad still sings them,” she says. “I hear him singing, and it’s all about leaving and losing home. It’s something that they’re going to carry for the rest of their lives.
“I used to ask my cousins what happened to them. They used to tell me stories of how they’d be getting into the countryside, trying to hide from everything. We’ve never just thought, that’s the past – let’s leave it. We’ve moved on from it, but we still know our roots, our culture. We still have that in our lives.”