TRAPPED IN KOSOVO
By Arie Farnam
For The Observer
I was in Skopje, Macedonia, with an old friend, photographer Julie Denesha, just before the fighting began in March. We werent supposed to be war correspondents. We just wanted to write a few colorful stories for American magazines.
Our fourth day on the ground, we met Hisen Gashnjani in a hungry refugee camp outside the city, where 16 tin barracks sitting in the mud of an abandoned dump accommodate 1,200 people mostly Roma, often disparagingly called Gypsies. The people fled Kosovo after Albanian fighters returned to the province a year and a half ago.
A small, weathered man of 31 years, Hisen spoke good English. He had been a coal miner before the war but when I found him he was tutoring children in the camp to keep his sanity.
I used to have a home and a job, he told me in a dry, wistful voice. I had a good friend who was Albanian but after the NATO bombing he came to my house with two guys from the Kosovo Liberation Army and yelled, What are you waiting for Gypsy! Get out now or well cut your throats. I couldnt believe it, but the KLA was coming out of the forest toward our house. We had to run.
The day we were in his camp, a Finish aid worker, by the name of Helge Valama, arrived looking for a Romany interpreter. He asked Hisen to accompany him back to Kosovo on a survey.
Hisen accepted because he wanted to search for missing relatives but he was terrified. So, Helge and Hisen invited Julie and me to take the back seats in their little Russian-made Lada jeep. Journalists with official press passes make good bodyguards.
My beautiful Kosovo
Early the next morning we crossed the border into Kosovo on a narrow road winding through jagged mountains. The canyon opened to reveal a beautiful view of a round valley, which instantly reminded me of the Grande Ronde Valley back home. That is Kosovo. So large in the international imagination, it is no more than one big valley, which you can drive across in two hours on bad roads.
We soon pulled into the Romany village of Mali Alas. Half of the red brick houses had jagged, blackened holes where explosives had torn them apart. As we got out of the jeep, a woman and two elderly men dashed outside, shouting in amazement, I cant believe my eyes! How did you get here?
They embraced us from sheer joy and ushered us into their house one heated room for a dozen people. Sheet metal covered all the windows. If they throw a bomb at us, maybe it will bounce out, the woman named Hanife explained.
Grenade attacks in this area are still a daily event. We keep to our houses and hide, Hanife cried, still hugging me tightly. We cant leave the village to go shopping or work. Some who did never came back.
We ventured out to see the recent damage. At the edge of the village, there was a pile of mangled metal that was once a large gate. Another old woman clutched at my sleeve. She said her son, brother-in-law and nephew had gone to investigate a fire and a bomb rigged to the gate had exploded and killed all three.
I would rather die, myself, than lose my son, she sobbed, hiding her face in her hands. He was a good boy.
But none of Hisens relatives were in that village, so we headed across the valley toward a place called Plementina.
The little Lada jeep rammed through foot-deep mud like a miniature tank and we christened it Lada Ludimila for luck. After dark we finally found Hisens sister and family in a little house where one candle burned for 25 people.
Hisen sat on the carpet while his relatives came up to him in turn, hugging him and asking about loved ones in the camps in Macedonia.
We hear another war is coming, the old men said shaking their heads. What will you do now?
Worried about crossing the border at night, we turned the jeep around and headed back toward Macedonia. I think, my god, Im back in my beautiful Kosovo, but it is horribly changed, Hisen moaned. The people are living in a prison of fear.
A narrow escape by night
A few miles from the border, Greek peacekeepers flagged us down. Fighting has broken out in Macedonia and this border is closed, a soldier shouted through our window. Try down south, but be careful. The KLA could be out there.
We sped south. A one-lane road led over the mountains towards the Macedonian town of Tetovo but Polish peacekeepers turned us back again. The Macedonians arent letting anyone through, they said. Theyre shelling in the mountains.
I felt my chest constrict with fear. We raced out of the mountains and sought shelter with Hisens relatives in Plementina. After four hours of sleep, we were back on the road, hoping the border closing had been only a momentary panic. But again we found our path blocked by barricades and soldiers carrying machine guns.
And so began three days of chaos. We drove Lada Ludmila in circles after rumors of various escape routes but there was simply nowhere to run. To the north and east lay Yugoslavia, off limits to Americans without visas and to Hisen, who had an incriminating U.N. stamp in his passport. To the west was anarchic Albania, a no-mans land where Americans cant go either. To the south, the shelling and machine gun fire in Macedonia grew in ferocity.
On the third night, Helge and Hisen decided to make a desperate move. With Finish and Yugoslav passports, they had a theoretical chance of escaping through Albania, but Julie and I would have to stay behind.
During our three-day struggle to get out of Kosovo, I had met Sgt. Richard Puckett from the U.S. peacekeeping base, Camp Bondsteel, and he had offered to take us in as a last resort. Our companions dropped us off at the gates to the base and drove off into the night.
Puckett, a soft-spoken southerner, promised to try to get us on an airlift and bedded us down with standard-issue cots and woolen blankets. After three days of freezing and subsisting on road snacks, we were more than grateful for the hot showers and a solid meal.
On the fourth day, we awoke to the sound of marching songs and Puckett was at our tent flap asking us to breakfast. Then, in mid-morning, Helge and Hisen suddenly appeared in the doorway, their eyes glazed.
They had driven all through the night, only to reach the Albanian border and be turned back by more soldiers. They reported roads clogged with panicked locals and international aid workers trying to escape the approaching war.
We waited in the cold of the base and in the evening a new report came in. The border had been opened for a few hours to let the pressure off Kosovo. There was a chance to make a break for it. As the dark of another night closed in around us, we sped toward the border highway.
With increasing anxiety we watched as the heat gauge on our dashboard rose dangerously. Twice we stopped to check the water and let it cool down, but we had simply run the little vehicle into the ground.
At a crossroads, a dozen cars had piled up in the panic. We pulled to a stop to wait for an opening but then the engine died and would not start again. Irish policemen working for the U.N. pushed our vehicle off the road. It was an Albanian area and the cops, glancing nervously at Hisen, didnt want to let us hire a taxi.
You cant! one of them shouted in a thick brogue. The only drivers youll find here are Albanians and you need to pass through Serb villages. They wont do it.
We huddled and scanned the road as a freezing wind whipped around us. Finally, Hisen picked out a big burly Albanian with an empty car. What about the Serbs?
The driver protested in a shaking voice. I took hold of his huge hands in what I hoped was a comforting grip and Hisen pleaded with him, explaining that we only needed to get to the border. In the end, he agreed. He too had once fled a war, with his 5-year-old daughter.
We dashed for the border and crossed at 1 a.m. I later learned that the Macedonians opened the border that night as a gesture of thanks to American troops who had taken over one of the rebel bases near Camp Bondsteel.
Later the next day the fighting spread into Macedonias second largest city Tetovo, where a pitched battle raged for two weeks.