Hope on the Balkans Kosov@ Crisis 1999
Balkan Peace Team
Back to Prishtina
June 26, 1999
We went to Prishtina yesterday with M., who is the co-ordinator for Mother Theresa organisation in Prishtina and her husband L. and V. their son, who was acting as our interpreter. Mother Theresa was taking two truckloads of food and supplies to Prishtina. We had to wait until almost three o'clock for the trucks to pass through customs in Skopje. M. was convinced that the delay was caused by the fact that they are a Kosovar Albanian humanitarian organisation.
After the trucks cleared customs we drove to the border at Blace which is less than twenty miles north of Skopje. We passed Stenkovac I and Stenkovac II, the two refugee camps which yon can see from the road going to Prishtina. We could see, especially in Stenkovac II, the signs of the huge exodus that is taking place in the camps. More than 50,000 refugees left Macedonia on Friday. This return is in much greater numbers than was ever anticipated, approximately 500,000 already. Most of the people are leaving from the larger camps like Stenkovac I and II and from Cegrane, which has become known as the worst camp of all in Macedonia.
We got to the border about three o'clock and found a huge line, probably more than a mile long, of cars and trucks waiting to cross into Kosov@. In the cars and taxis and also on foot, carrying their belongings with them, are families returning to their homes in Kosov@. Their faces are hopeful and many of the cars are piled with bedding and other supplies that they will need when they get back. Huge trucks transporting bricks and cement and other commodities are waiting in the line, along with NATO vehicles, humvees and personnel carriers and supply trucks. The expensive white land rovers and other four-wheel drive vehicles driven by the international aid workers were also waiting. The border is like this, twenty fours hours a day, as the mass of humanity, so recently expelled, returns to rebuild.
We waited for a long NATO convoy to pass by as they were returning from Prishtina. While waiting, we could look down off the side of the road to Blace camp, which was the first stopping place for many thousands of the refugees as they passed from no man's land into Macedonia. Now the camp is deserted and the abandoned tents are the only testimony of a recent human tidal wave that engulfed the area.
Coming towards us into Macedonia were long lines of men, some having obviously been on the road or in the open for a long time. They are thin and sunburned and poorly dressed, probably having lived though the few months hidden in camps or possibly as members of the UCK, the Kosovo Liberation Army. They are coming for their families, who are in the camps or staying with host families. As they pass into Macedonian they are met by aid workers, UNHCR staff registering the activity at the border, a place to change money and people selling water, which is in great demand. Then they pass through the crowds and make their way down the road and out of sight, carrying nothing but a bottle of water, along with their personal memories and their hope for the future.
As we passed over the border, the Albanians in the car breathed a sigh almost collectively and said "Now we are in Kosov@". What they seem to feel was a sense of euphoric freedom. One of the first things we noticed was the UCK flag flying above a building just over the border, a red background with the black two headed eagle. We took photos of the flag and of a couple of UCK soldiers in uniform, standing proudly among a group of admirers.
The countryside as you head north from the border toward Prishtina is beautiful and unspoiled, except for the yellow and red plastic ribbons marking off landmine areas on either side of the highway. The region is fairly mountainous with a river cut deep into the valley through which we were passing. Although there were some damaged houses, I was surprised by the fairly normal scenes we passed. There were cows and goats and sheep grazing in the fields and farmers were out in the fields bringing in the hay. There were cornfields and other crops, which seemed at least partly cultivated and there were towns and villages, mostly intact.
The most evident signs of recent events were little boys standing by the highway who raised their fingers to give a "v" sign as we passed. They were happily celebrating the NATO "victory" as their own. We also saw groups of men gathering a different crossroads where there was gasoline for sale in plastic bottles and any container available. And on several occasions both coming and returning we saw the flames and smoke of large fires, which we were told by our Albanian friends were probably Serb houses being burned by Albanians.
Prishtina seems at first glance to be quite normal. We stopped at a gas station just south of the city to wait for the two Mother Theresa trucks to catch up with us and I could see no signs of bombing or looting. The university buildings were evident and the bus station was off in the distance and the large apartment buildings in the area known as Dardenja. We drove into the parking lot behind a large block of apartments and were stopped briefly by a British patrol with their red berets and carrying heavy artillery. They waved us through the street and continued their exercise, with admiring young boys collecting around them at their every stop. We heard that there had been an explosion just a short time before we arrived in one of the flats near by and that the block of apartments was known to hold some snipers. But the soldiers didn't seem too worried, and the little boys didn't either. V., our young interpreter friend, was seeing Prishtina for the first time and he was so excited to be back. He said that he had gotten almost no sleep the night before.
After watching the unloading of the Mother Theresa trucks begin, supervised by a colleague of M.'s whom we had met previously, we decided to visit our apartment in Chafa. M.'s family lived in the same block of apartments that we did, so L. drove us there. We drove through one of the main streets of Prishtina, passing by the Serb cafes now totally deserted, but not destroyed. We saw tanks and military quite evident. The main police station, which was just two blocks from our flat, was on this street and at first we couldn't see the destruction that had been caused by the NATO bombing. But looking behind the facade of the building as we passed we saw that only the front remained standing. The Yugo Bank building, which housed OSCE offices, remained untouched and so did the movie house, which is located across from our apartment block.
When we got out of the car in front of our apartment building, we began to see the signs of major looting. Our favourite small grocery store was completely trashed, windows broken and door gone. The interior had been looted and was now abandoned, which nothing but rubble left inside. V. said that his family also liked that store and everyone in the apartment block shopped there. But an Albanian family owned it, now gone from Prishtina we learned. The restaurant next door was also destroyed and the bigger restaurant, "Nora" frequented by both Serbs and Albanians on the second floor of the apartment building was too. When we went around the corner, we found a cafe still intact with chairs and tables set out on the sidewalk and a crowd of men sitting around drinking and talking; a normal street scene for Prishtina.
Going through to the elevator we saw huge piles of trash and garbage that had collected under the stairs of the building, but we found the elevator still working, somewhat to our surprise and we found our way easily to the tenth floor. When we tried to open the door to our apartment we found the locks had been changed. An Albanian couple, whom we had never seen before, opened the door next to our apartment and said that they had moved in only a week ago and that there was someone living in our apartment. The name on the door was the same as our landlady's, so we went down to our landlady's flat on the eighth floor and rang her bell. A Serbian neighbour poked his head out the door and said that F., our landlady, still hadn't returned from Turkey, but would be returning soon. His next sentence was to offer his apartment for rent! We thanked him and left a note for F. telling her how to reach us in Skopje.
M. and V. wanted to visit their apartment next. We found their neigbors had returned from Skopje and were settled quite nicely into their apartment. The husband used to work for an insurance company, but didn't say how he was managing in the new situation. Their apartment seemed almost completely untouched.
M.'s apartment, by contrast, had been lived in by Serbs. Before leaving they had stolen the electronic equipment, such as the tv and video, plus they had looted the apartment, dumping the plants out on the living room rug and pulling all the clothes out of the closets in the bedrooms. But L., M.'s husband and a high school English teacher, was happy because his books had been untouched. And V. was relieved to find that the larger than life portrait of Two Pak Shamir, which he had drawn on his bedroom wall, had been left undamaged.
We had coffee with M.'s neighbors and watched the Albanian TV, which had a program documenting the damage done in each of the major cities in Kosov@; Pec, Prizren, Mitrovica, etc. The two families watched these scenes of destruction, which seemed to deepen their hatred of the Serbs. As M.'s neighbor said, "Maybe I will be able some day to forgive them, but I will never forget what they did." M. and I talked earlier and she said that she knew individual Serbs and still was in contact with them. But she said she told them straight out that while she could be friends with them on a personal and individual level, she couldn't like them as a representatives of the Serb people.
The next stop on our schedule was to visit the home of A., a young student that had worked occasionally for BPT. We had not been able to find out any information about A. in Macedonia and wanted to find out whether she was still in Prishtina. The house was empty and the front gate locked. We saw both Serb and Albanian grafiti on walls of many of the nearby buildings. A neighbour heard us calling for A. and came out to say that the family had left. A. had gone to Norway and her family was in Turkey. He gave us the telephone number of someone in Norway who would know how to reach A.. There wasn't much time left as it was getting towards sunset, so we went next to visit the Catholic Church and Father N.
We had just missed seeing M. and P., two young activists that we had known in Prishtina, so we left them a note with our number and some candy to celebrate M.'s recent baptism. Father N. said the church was not damaged and that several catholic sisters were still living in their building next to the church. He told about a horrible experience from a few days earlier when he was returning from Pec. There was an overturned truck with several people inside. He had been asked to bless these people, who were already dead, their truck had been blown up by land mines, which were everywhere. He said how aggressive people had become during the past few months. We couldn't stay long because the night would soon be coming and we wanted to leave Prishtina before it was completely dark. We decided to leave our small supply of cooking oil with the sisters, who could then distribute them to those most in need.
Darkness was falling and we felt a certain anxiety about leaving, but we had to return to Dardenja to pick up M.'s collegue and reconnect with the truck drivers. We headed down one street and were stopped by an army tank that blocked the way. Several British soldiers were standing with a group of people and it turned out that several explosions had just occurred. V. went to find out more and as he was talking to the soldier, an Albanian man ran up to say another explosion had just gone off in a flat near by. We turned around and found our way to the parking lot where we had left the Mother Theresa truck and driver and colleague.
While we were waiting for the driver to return to the truck, V. told us that he was not ready to return to Prishtina. He had heard from his friends that the UCK were looting and stealing and that there was no order left. He had not been prepared for the level of danger still in the city. He said he felt no differently now than when the Serbs were on the streets and he seemed ashamed of his people. It wasn't fear he said that he felt, but tightness in his chest. He said, "Tell the NATO not to allow UCK young soldiers to become police in Prishtina. They are not right for law and order."
We finally drove out of Prishtina a little before 9:00PM. M. said it wasn't safe to be on the road after dark, but we had no alternative and L. drove quickly. Our trip back to the border was mostly silent, everyone lost in his or her own thoughts. We were stopped once at a cross road where soldiers were searching cars for weapons. It reminded me of the checkpoints on the way from Belgrade to Prishtina that we had encountered before the NATO bombing. Those check Serbs had controlled points at that time, but the sight was disturbingly familiar. We could see on either side of the road the lights from fires burning red in the night sky. It was an eerie and depressing sight to everyone.
When we got back to Skopje, we stopped in at M.'s office. With V.'s help I was able to contact A.. She was so happy to hear me and so emotional that our conversation was difficult for both of us. She says she must stay in Norway and work because her family has nothing now and she must support them. Her family is returning to Prishtina and she wants BPT to stay in touch with them. She is with her boyfriend and his family in Norway. They are refugees and she says she will have an apartment for herself and her boyfriend next week. She said "Lyn I think about what you said all the time. Do you remember how you asked me if I had a plan to get out of Prishtina? I think about that now. But I didn't want to consider the worst at that time. And now I know what you were thinking." She wants BPT to stay in touch with her family when they return. I assured her that we would.
M., L., V. and their Albanian colleague talked with us about their impressions of Prishtina. They think that the most important problem is to feed, clothe and house the Kosovar Albanians. And they think the Kosovars must have some kind of hope for the future. Right now everything looks too terrible and the disappointment and discouragement is everywhere. All agree that there is immediate need for a strong civil force in Kosov@ before everything breaks down into anarchy. They think that the people will face difficulties internally and that there will be conflict between those who stayed behind and suffered severe trauma and those who escaped. There is a real fear of the violence and revenge express by Albanians toward the Serbs and there is growing resentment against NATO and the west because it is clear that they will not be able to put things right, nor are they seen as committed to the effort it will take over the long term. All in all it was a very gloomy and tired group that sat around talking until midnight in the office. V. was in the most distress. His young dreams about the glories of the UCK had been rudely tested by reality. And he was very much afraid of the future.
We suggested that the energy and euphoria emerging from liberation must be converted into rebuilding the society. This must happen quickly and throughout Kosov@, with the help of a strong leader, and it must be organised through local branches and chapters like those systems developed by Mother Theresa and the Center for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedom. Otherwise the society faces an internal risk that the energy will become negative and destructive. Kosovar Albanians must take responsibility for their future into their own hands.
Lyn Back, Balkan Peace Team FRY
Source: Balkan Peace Team
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