During our years in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, we always had a team of young volunteers with us to help us with our program and other humanitarian activities. These young people wanted to experience other cultures and invest their energies into helping those in need! They wanted to move out of their comfort zone and see what the rest of the world was all about.
Sixteen year old Vicky was one of the most energetic and creative of all, and wrote up an account of her time with us from her own particular perspective:
“I suddenly was woken up; my body jolting a few inches into the air as the van’s wheels bounced through yet another pothole. My eyes jerked open, and I looked out the window.
It took a few seconds to register where we were, as all I could see were the same tree-covered hills that were there when I’d fallen asleep. We were still in homeland Bosnia. Alas, we were still facing approximately fourteen more hours of driving till we would reach our final destination of Priština, the capital of Kosovo; fourteen hours, that is, if the driving went smoothly driving the whole way. No need to lose sleep over the possibilities of encountering roadside bandits or corrupt border officials who might take a liking to young foreign women and try to keep them as part of their growing harem. I closed my eyes again.
With a 16 hour journey ahead of us, the day began at 04:00 with the pulling of ourselves out of bed and our piling into the van that had been packed the day before. (If only all that had actually been as easy as I just made it sound!) I shared the back of the van with Sharon, who had arrived from the far-off land of Australia only a few hours before our departure. She had barely stepped off the bus when the details of this trip were explained to her. After a nourishing meal, a shower, and a few hours of sleep, she was thrust into the throes of our coming adventure.
Happily for us, the back of our van sported a comfortable bed in which we were both quite content to add a few more hours to our scant previous night’s sleep. Also along for the ride was our mascot and “almost human” dog, Josh. Being a dear “son” to Andrew and Anne, he had authoritatively claimed an unoccupied seat up near the front before any of us had managed to drag ourselves on board. For our brave driver, Andrew, life was not quite so luxurious, but I comforted myself that along with the burden he carried came the blessing of being the only male on the journey (if indeed that is a blessing!). He had his alert spouse as co-pilot at his side, so Sharon and I had nothing to fear as we lay down for a lengthy doze.
Now at 06:00, we watched the radiant dawn illuminating the eastern sky, heralding the first day of our long-anticipated journey. Continuing towards the Montenegrin border en route to our final destination, we traveled along the “main road”, which could be more accurately described as a rear-bruising, hair-raising, one lane mountain pass hovering on the edge of formidable cliffs. By 07:00 we were approaching the “border” — a makeshift lean-to with a string stretched between two trees, attended a rumpled border guard in pajamas. (Okay, that was a slight exaggeration, but I assure you, the rest of the story is genuine!) The guard, surprised that a foreign vehicle would be crossing his tiny border, wearily looked over at who was disturbing his peace. He pressed his face against the window glass, and doing his best to appear authoritative, peered inside and announced “passports”, and then grumbled and grunted as he studied our photographs.
Strolling towards the back doors of the van, he grinned a toothless grin as he discovered the two disheveled, semi-conscious girls laying on the bed (a grin that sent those “female harem” thoughts flooding once again through my mind). I heaved a sigh of relief when he closed the door ad handed us our passports, but then wondered why he was waving us over to the side of the road. It was then I realized we had local insurance to pay, and later discovered that while the payment would have normally amounted to a considerable sum, after an explanation of the aid work we were doing, he let us through with only having to pay about half what he was originally asking. We spent the remainder of the daylight hours traveling through beautiful Montenegro (translated Black Mountain), with only the occasional stop to tank-up at a petrol station, while we juice guzzlers in the back excused ourselves to “tank out” at the less than hygienic squat toilets.
Several times we were pulled over by roadside police who were eager to either demonstrate their authority or simply relieve us apparent “rich foreigners” of a couple of German marks under the guise of having been speeding or some other made-up offense. We found, however, that most of them were quite kind and maneuverable after a smile or two, and an explanation of the humanitarian work that we were doing (sometimes with the help of a “gift” of some chocolate, or a pair of socks). Through it all, we only ended up getting “fined” once, and that just ten German marks (about $7.00 at that time). This we cheerfully gave after a look at the recipient, and quickly categorized the money as “help to the poor.”
I shall spare you, oh innocent reader, of more microscopic details of our journey, lest this “brief” account turn into a hardcover tome with critics’ comments reading: “Two eyelids and a thumb down!” Suffice it to say: We arrived safely in Kosovo. After sixteen hours of driving (or should I say napping), it had gotten dark and I kept reviewing in my mind donkey’s classic line from “Shrek” — “Are We There Yet?”
At that time there was no official border for entering Kosovo, as it was still technically part of Serbia. However, the U.N. had set up a checkpoint at the high mountain pass marking the border line. As we descended on the serpentine road, I felt an ominous feeling looking out over the plain below that was submerged in almost total darkness. Power was cut for all but a few hours each day, and all that could be seen was the faint glow of the odd fire burning.
Once in the valley, the most obvious effects of the recent war could be seen: buildings either pock-marked with bullet holes or totally destroyed/burned, piles of rubble, and roofless houses. A key bridge on the main road to Priština had been bombed out by NATO, so we had to wait for an hour as the line of vehicles ahead of us slowly inched their way down through a farmer’s field and across a rocky ditch, then up the slope on the other side that led back to the road (which, though far from smooth itself, felt like silk compared to the one we had previously been driving on). I watched as the truck ahead of us inched on, then tipped precariously to the side as its right wheels sank into a pothole. To my relief, it managed to straighten out again, but that relief was short-lived when I realized that it was now our turn. I held my breath while praying and reciting the 23rd Psalm, solemnly promising that I’d never be bad again. The praying must have worked, because we survived and finally ended up back on the road, and a little closer to our final destination.
After just one more hour of asphalt-slalom driving to avoid gaping potholes in the dark, our rocking, bouncing van rolled into the sweet stillness of the city center as our angelic driver managed to find a large enough parking place amid a row of vehicles on the side of the street. I opened the curtains and peeked out the window. The street, closed for pedestrians only, was fairly crowded with stylishly dressed, laughing and talking groups of young people strolling about. A feeling of freedom and joy permeated the air. Somehow it just didn’t match my expectations of how I’d thought this city, so freshly emerged from a war, would look. It was obvious that these ethnic Albanian residents were relishing their new-found liberty now that the Serbian presence had been driven out thanks to NATO’s bombing campaign.
Across the street was a medium-sized building, the large letters at the top heralding “Grand Hotel.” We had managed to find the spot where we’d previously arranged to meet up with the team that had already been in Kosovo for a few weeks. Laughing voices announced their approach towards our van and they greeted us with warm smiles and hugs. The grey-haired couple struck up a friendly conversation with Andrew and Anne, explaining that their “team” of your people was at a local concert, and would be arriving shortly.
We crossed the road and entered into what was no doubt a “grand hotel” at one time, but now, not so much. Five stars proudly stood at the top of the building, and we hoped to also find 5-star bathroom, but alas, there were the same 1-star “squat toilets” that we had encountered at most petrol stations along the way. Despite its supposed “higher standard”, this poor hotel also reflected the wounds of war. I eagerly searched for a mirror, dreading the sight I knew I’d find, but was spared from the view, since there was none to be found on the raw cement walls. No water came from the taps either. Oh well! We later learned that the hotel had only recently been returned to its original use housing paying guests, having first been commandeered to house refugees, and then later on as a temporary residence for members of visiting NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) that were coming to set up in Kosovo to help with the recovery process.
Back at the van, we spied a small group emerging from the throngs of weekend walkers and recognized them as the “rest of the team” that was going to help us with music, acting, and translating in our upcoming programs in different institutions.
The men drove the vehicles to the nearby student dormitories where the administrator had so kindly agreed to let us stay for free, since it was summer and students were gone on holidays. The rooms were simple but nice, each with its own (clean!) bathroom, and yes, a MIRROR (groan…). We discovered that for the last few days, the whole city had been plunged into times of frequent waterlessness (is that even a word?) and we had to grow accustomed to the timings of its sudden and wonderful appearance.
Here are some facts and figures about the culture and surroundings:
“Don’t talk so loud…”
Most young people in Kosovo speak English quite well, and will go to any lengths to be hospitable. The majority dress quite fashionably, not too far to either extreme as far as being conservative or revealing.
According to the locals, before the war there were strict 8 o’clock curfews. So this new era of freedom comes as a great joy to the people, and evenings are a time for celebration. Bars are open; however, discos still remain closed.
Resentment against Serbs runs extremely high. Speaking the Serbo-Croatian language is not officially forbidden, but is greatly resented and can get you in a heap of trouble (which we had to get used to, since our programs in Croatia and Bosnia were previously in Serbo-Croatian). While there is still a significant Serbian minority in Kosovo, there are almost none living in the capital Priština, and according to one of our friends, the Albanian authorities are trying to enact a law that would fine anyone overheard using the Serbian language! Bi-lingual road signs have the Serbian words spray-painted over. Since NATO’s intervention the Albanians have been pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing which has caused most Serbians to flee to Serbia proper. Their houses are either burned or occupied. Many Serbian Orthodox churches have been vandalized or destroyed, and KFOR soldiers now guard the remaining churches 24 hours a day.
I was talking with a young guy and after I told him I live in Bosnia, and he asked if I spoke any Serbo-Croatian. I proceeded to rattle off a few words. Alarm quickly came to his face as he darted his head about, his eyes scanning in each direction. He spoke in a hushed whisper: “Don’t talk so loud! If anyone hears you…”
Along with dislike of Serbs comes a high nationalistic pride. On one occasion, a friend invited us to a student party. Once inside, we were instantly overwhelmed by the traditional Albanian music booming in the crowded room. The elegant and fashionably dressed teenagers were in a massive line doing a simple national Albanian dance routine. Right leg, left leg, cross, step, right leg, left leg … and on and on.
It looked like something I’d have expected from a group of white-haired, traditionally costumed older men and women on a national holiday. Yet here was a crowd of teens and young adults, dressed more appropriately for a stylish disco, dancing the national dance their ancestors probably wouldn’t have done when they were their age. According to our Albanian friends, none of them would have done it either a year ago, but now they did the same step repeatedly, song after song, with a pride and bounce to their steps. I eyed them curiously for a few songs, till I was invited to join in. The step looked simple enough, so I clasped hands and began the dance. Soon the room grew so crowded with aspiring dancers that my toes began to ache considerably from being trampled on, not to mention my arm becoming semi-dislocated from being pulled every which way. The dude on my left was so distracted by my beautiful co-worker who held his other hand that he began to lose the beat completely, and I found myself smashing into him every time I followed the synchronized line on the right of me doing the step, cross, step. … Oh, well, at least I can say I did it!
We came here to help the children to recover from the trauma of war so we put together a program of positive songs, theater, magic tricks, games, and meaningful skits. The performances were enjoyed almost as much by us as by the audience. Our “Doctor Skit,” showed a patient being relieved of the clutter ailing his aching heart, and in its place is inserted love, joy, kindness, sharing, etc. One noteworthy downside to having to “clown-up” each day is the “spaghetti face” that comes from a painted red smile stubbornly insisting on leaving a reminder of itself there, which leaves us hoping it will remain as determinedly in the hearts of the audience.
With the electricity cut most of the time, it was necessary for us to carry our own generator with us everywhere we intended to perform. And we had to have a loooong electricity cord, as the generator was so noisy we could not be heard otherwise!
Time would fail to tell of all the other adventures we encountered; my mind would also suffer a major breakdown trying to compile them all in a decent, readable way. So you’ll just have to believe me when I say we had a truly marvelous, crazy, interesting time.
The day we left Priština, the streets were crowded with flag-waving citizens, triumphant and nationalistic. It was the NATO deadline for the disarming of the KLA (aka Kosovo Liberation Army). The troops paraded through the streets along with throngs of people honking horns, singing and shouting. Amidst all this stood our van, inching its way through the traffic, biding our time with an occasional wave out the back window at some heroic soldier.
With no working traffic lights and the streets thronged with people, it took quite a while till we finally made our way to the edge of the city, and after a few hours of driving we reached a medium sized city of Gjakova, located in the west of Kosovo. Other members of our team had gone on ahead to seek out room and board for us, which ended up being a big, empty farmhouse! Yeah, that’s right! Cows, pigs, flies and all! The dear friend who gave us free use of the place informed us that it hadn’t been occupied for ten years. It smelled like it too!
The city of Gjakova was about 70% destroyed, with a vast number of buildings burned. There was so much destruction! We did our performance many times, and passed out the remainder of the humanitarian aid we had been carrying to these needy, desperate, and extremely thankful people. Many have nothing left, and live in tents or shacks.
One evening a friend led us down a dark alleyway in the center of town to a huge heap of rubble. This, he explained, had once been the town center and main hangout; now a ghost town. His eyes grew moist as he recounted all the things he had done in this very spot; the majority of his memories had happened where we were standing — on a heap of broken glass and concrete. As an observer, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the great personal effect that this war and the NATO bombing has had on countless people who have lost family, friends, homes, and so much more.
We spent our last night in a former hotel, now a refugee center operated by sweet young Czech volunteers. They generously let us use their clean, simple rooms where we slept on mattresses on the floor, since there was no furniture. But we were thankful and happy that this, our first visit to Kosovo, had been safe and exciting!