For Kosovan Albanians, Tony Blair, is more than just an ex-British Prime Minister
He’s the hero of the nation, who saved them in their hour of need. And how better to show gratitude than to name their sons after him? Shukrije Sahiti did not expect her baby to survive. She was eight months pregnant, perched on a tractor bumping across Kosovo in the middle of the night in the pouring rain, with no idea where or when her family would find shelter. How could a child come into the world amid such misery, to a mother so paralysed with terror? It was the end of March 1999, when hundreds of thousands of Kosovan Albanians were being forced from their homes and herded towards the borders. Serbian troops were wiping out entire villages, with the aim of crushing an armed separatist movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), in the Albanian-majority province.
The Sahitis fled in a hurry under gunfire and finally came to rest outside an Italian military camp near a coastal town called Kavaje. The carabinieri there took her in, and as she approached her due date, they had a helicopter on standby to take her to Italy for a caesarean if necessary.
It happened to be a particularly busy day at the camp. Most of the Italian brass were out to meet a VIP visitor. Tony Blair was visiting the Nato forces and the refugee camps, where he was mobbed as a saviour.
The British prime minister was pushing harder than any other western leader for decisive Nato intervention to drive back Serbian forces. And when he addressed them, promising they would be returning to their homes, the cheers could be heard in the tent where Shukrije was giving birth to a healthy, boy.
The Italian medics looked to the new father for a name and he had no hesitation: the baby would be named in honour of the celebrated visitor, with Albanian spelling — he would be called Tonibler.
Fifteen years on, Tonibler Sahiti is doing well at school. Just as Blair promised, the people of Kosovo did go home.
When Blair visited the Kosovo capital Pristina in July 2010, Tonibler Sahiti was one of the nine boys on stage to greet him. There were two more Toniblers, two Blers and three Tonis, dressed in identical suits and ties donated for the occasion, who all got the chance to introduce themselves to the nation’s hero. It is not exactly a mass phenomenon, but it is the embodiment of one: a deep, national reverence for the man they consider their saviour.