Shaquir Kabashi lived a quiet life in Williamsville for 30 years. The Albanian immigrant worked at the Tonawanda General Motors plant, did his overtime, came home and generally kept to himself.
When he died Dec. 18 at age 72, however, the unassuming blue-collar worker was laid to rest on Long Island alongside bold comrades from a daring life he lived before coming to Western New York in 1956.
Kabashi was one of a dwindling breed of covert Cold War Warriors, friends and relatives say, who parachuted four times into Albania between 1949 and 1953 on secret missions to overthrow the Communist government.
"We put our lives on the line to free countries behind the Iron Curtain," said Esat Bajraktari, a former comrade-in-arms who now lives in New Jersey. "We are true Americans now. We believe in freedom."
Kabashi knew first-hand the terrible price of the missions for which he and other Albanian refugees were recruited by American and British intelligence. He was with his brother and cousin in 1951 when they were killed by government troops in a firefight.
He escaped to Greece after that incident, but their deaths stayed with him the rest of his life. In 1993, after he retired from General Motors, Kabashi returned to post-Communist Albania to try to recover their remains.
"He paid villagers to dig up a grave where two corpses were found," said Tom McNiff, a Boston journalist who met Kabashi while researching a book about the Albanian missions. "He brought back bones and fragments, but it was never proven whether they were his brother's."
Kabashi was born in Kosovo, a region of Serbia near Albania, to a family with deep nationalist roots. He was a teen-ager when the Balkans were invaded by the Germans during World War II. After the war, the region fell under Communist rule.
Bajraktari said he, Kabashi and almost 300 other Albanian nationalists living in refugee camps in Greece after the war were recruited by British and American intelligence officers to help liberate their homeland.
The plan was to infiltrate the refugees back into the country to establish a Free Albania Committee and overthrow the Communist government. The only problem was the Albanians and Russians almost always knew when and where they were coming, Bajraktari said.
Kim Philby, the notorious Soviet spy planted deep inside British intelligence, passed along the details of the operations and soldiers were often on hand to greet the partisan parachutists when they landed.
"Many were killed," Bajraktari said.
The missions were finally discontinued when Western intelligence realized someone was leaking their plans to the Soviets.
A Central Intelligence Agency spokesman declined to comment, saying the agency does not discuss intelligence actions wherever or whenever they allegedly occur.
Kabashi came to the United States alone in 1956 after a brief period in France, McNiff said. He worked at menial jobs before landing at the Tonawanda engine plant.
By all accounts, his life here was unremarkable. Attorney Joseph E. Peperone said the former freedom fighter never married and lived a quiet life. He had one nephew living in New York City and a sister back in Macedonia.
Linda D'Aurelia, who came to know and admire Kabashi over the past year, described him as a loner with a rich, spiritual outlook. He talked sparingly about his previous life in the rugged mountains of southern Europe.
"He'd tell stories and you had to piece things together," she said. "He was a very private man who just wanted to work and come home."
Ms. D'Aurelia's friendship with Kabashi began when she stopped by to look at a vacant apartment in his home. The rent was too steep, she said, but his gentle manner and intriguing outlook kept her around for a lengthy conversation.
"I started looking after him and checking in on him," she said. "He was very spiritual.
"He'd say you were brought from ashes and dust and you'll be going back to that. All you have is yourself and the land and God. He stressed that you're alone in the world."
Kabashi eventually was diagnosed with cancer and was operated on two weeks ago at Millard Fillmore Hospital, McNiff said. He died at home in Williamsville.
With his death, the door opened for him to return to his earlier life.
As an Albanian Muslim, there was no place locally for a proper funeral service. His body was sent to New Jersey where a sizable Albanian immigrant community resides, including some of Kabashi's old partisan comrades.
Bajraktari said about 40 people, CIA veterans among them, attended the service last Saturday. His body was buried in a Long Island cemetery alongside the remains of other Balkan Cold War veterans.
"He would have liked to have been buried in Buffalo, but he had nobody," Bajraktari said.
"He wanted to be buried next to his comrades that he parachuted into Albania with, including his brother. He wanted to be next to his ex-comrades and all his friends."