From Old School Gamer Magazine – March 2020
Astrit Begolli, commonly known as Polaki, is just an average videogame collector like the rest of us. His niche is rare consoles and he boasts a collection of over 181 systems including some of the rarest and most expensive consoles such as a Japanese Atari 2800, a Taiwanese Funtech Super A’can and the Tomy Pyutta Jr. Like many collectors, the 44-year old is a family man with a wife and two kids. But this is where Astrit’s similarities with most collectors around the world ends.
While Astrit’s impressive collection is certainly worth an article in itself, it’s the collection of his youth and the way he played them that makes him stand out from most other gamer-collectors.
Astrit resides in Kosovo, a small European country in the Balkans, approximately 750 kilometers north of Athens. He claims to have the largest videogame collection in the Balkans.
Astrit’s first contact with videogames occurred in 1982 when he was six years old. He remembers that the city where he lived had four arcades. But because he was so young and didn’t have any money to buy tokens, he merely stood outside the front door and watched other people play all the games. His parents began giving him lunch money two years later but he used that money instead at the arcades. He remembers playing the classic games including Pacman, Galaga and Phoenix. By 1990 he received his first serious machine, the Commodore 64. Astrit loved the fact that playing videogames gave him the phenomenal feeling of escaping from the real world and losing all sense of time.
War began in Yugoslavia in 1991 and spread throughout the Balkans: Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Kosovo became involved in February, 1999 when civil war broke out between the forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which controlled the country, and the Kosovo Albanians, which had air support from NATO and ground support from the Kosovo Albanian guerillas known as the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Throughout this dramatic situation, the arcades still operated. However it became more difficult to purchase games or consoles, which apparently were only available in the country’s former capital, Belgrade. But games weren’t the only things that were in short supply. So was fuel and electricity. The situation outside became dire as paramilitary units patrolled the streets in armored vehicles. A friend of Astrit’s left his house after 6pm to get his wife and was picked up by one of these paramilitary units. He was never seen again. Every day they heard shooting outside while he and his family sat together silently in the dark in one room, with the constant fear that someone might break down their door and kill them on the spot.
Astrit and his brother found solace in their videogames. On March 24, 1999, the day that NATO began bombing Kosovo, Astrit received a copy of Silent Hill for the PlayStation. He and his brother were happy that they had something to do and immediately sat down to play the game. The electricity went out after two hours. Fortunately they had a small generator that they used so they could continue playing the game, which gave them the will to live and allowed them to forget about the hell outside. However their father suddenly burst into the room and told them to shut off the generator. The glow from the TV amid the darkness everywhere else provided a target for lurking snipers.
Astrit and his brother solved this problem by putting thick curtains on the windows and turning down the TV’s volume. Silent Hill hypnotized them and for the moment allowed them to forget about what was happening around them. They lived inside their virtual world and didn’t even hear NATO’s bombs falling around them. The brothers completed the game in three nights.
On March 27, the military began retaliating against civilians over NATO’s bombings. As if taken from a scene in The Sound of Music, the family knew they had to get out of Kosovo. They had ten minutes to pack. Astrit didn’t take any clothes but he managed to grab his PlayStation and around fifteen games. Left behind and lost were a few thousand Commodore 64 games and a large collection of software for the Sega Mega Drive and PlayStation.
The family drove to Montenegro where they remained safe for the remainder of the war. Astrit credits Silent Hill with helping him mentally survive the agony and most difficult time of his life.
In the years since the war ended, Astrit has strived to rebuild the collection that he had lost. In that he has succeeded in ways that few of us can even imagine. Besides amassing the aforementioned systems, he has also accumulated nearly 2,000 games. Not bad considering that he lives in a country where it is very difficult to be a collector. There are few people in Koscovo selling systems on Ebay, and even if there were more, PayPal is not available. Furthermore, there is customs fees on everything that enters the country. So the next time you’re upset about how difficult it is to collect rare items, think of Astrit who figured out how to beat the odds.