Five Days in Kosovo

Each crisp winter morning these days, I smell the steam heat creeping through the old radiators of my Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. The hot water for my morning shower also (almost) never fails. How remarkable these little comforts are! I have a fresh appreciation for warmth because two months ago, thanks to a press tour arranged by Catholic Relief Services, I was in chilly, unheated Kosovo, where most people in the countryside live in tents or in the wreckage of their burnt-out homes. It was damp and cold while I was thereand I shudder to think what the tens of thousands of virtually homeless Kosovars are doing now that winter has arrived.

Monday, Oct. 18. The C.R.S. party, including a Catholic News Service photographer and two other journalists besides myself, finally gets together in Zurich, at the gate for the hour-and-a-half flight across the Alps and down to Skopje, the capital city of the independent Republic of Macedonia. The overnight flight by SwissAir from Washington’s Dulles Airport to Zurich was relatively easy. But I have no confidence in Aviomix (Macedonian Airways). Is there water in the gas line? Are the wings firmly attached? Does the rudder work? I have seen too many movies. The male flight attendant who gives out safety instructions looks like one of Calvin Klein’s junkie models, eyes hooded and gesturing to the exits like a mechanical robot; and the passengers, also young and mostly male, look like recruits for the Russian Mafia.


We are not exactly flying into friendly territory. Though Macedonia took in tens of thousands of fleeing Albanian refugees during the recent NATO bombing, I am reminded that they did so reluctantly, and most Macedonians viewed Yugoslavia’s President Slobodan Milosevic as something of a hero for defying what were perceived as bullying tactics of the United States and its NATO allies.

We spend the first night at a nearly vacant first-class hotel located on a mountainside high above the medieval fortress that dominates the city of Skopjereminiscent of the mountains from which Serbs shelled Sarajevo. The clerks at the front desk have all the charm of secret police. That evening, at a local restaurant that serves the best spongy pita bread I’ve ever tasted and where I dine on a fine broiled trout, we are briefed by Genevieve Abel, a former U.S.-A.I.D. official and now C.R.S.’s acting director of Kosovo support services, and Jessica Pearl, coordinator for joint efforts with European Catholic aid groups. Neither is Catholic, but both work for C.R.S. because, as Genevieve puts it, the organization is so efficient (94 cents of every dollar goes to someone in need) and because its staff is so "energetic, competent and hard-working." C.R.S. has been working in Kosovo (and throughout the rest of the former Yugoslavia) since 1992, and was back in and running within three days of the June 10 cease-fire.

Though the U.S. government channels a lot of its humanitarian aid through C.R.S., its independent funding from private Catholic donations is critical; it enables the agency to hang in there long after the crisis of the moment is no longer capturing headlines. As I discovered several years ago while visiting C.R.S. projects in Central America, this is a work of the U.S. bishops of which we can be very proud.

Tuesday, Oct. 19. We’re up early for the three-hour drive north across the border into ravaged Kosovo, an area about the size of Holland and Belgium combined (roughly 100 miles square). Though rich in minerals, it is the former Yugoslavia’s poorest and least integrated province. Our destination is the ancient city of Prizren, which, it turns out, was little damaged by the recent conflict. It’s fall here, leaves are brightly colored, and the scenery reminds me of West Virginia. The traffic jam at the border (four miles of heavy lorries and United Nations K-FOR vehicles) looks like it will take a day to get past, but Ali, our C.R.S. guardian (a Mel Gibson look-alike), enables us to jump ahead of the trucks.

As soon as we cross the frontier into Kosovo, we begin to encounter burnt-out villages and pillaged mosques. (The Albanian, largely Muslim population outnumbers the Slavic Serb population by nine to one.) Occasionally, at an intersection, you see a graffiti scrawl, "Thankyou NATO" or "Welcome NATO." By the roadsides, yellow plastic tape marks areas of suspected mine fields. (So far, there have been some 300 "accidents" due to mines or unexploded NATO ordnance.) Many farmers, especially near border areas, did not dare plant crops this past summer out of fear of losing an arm or leg or a life. (The harvest, it is estimated, was about 30 percent of the normal amount.) The roadsides are also still littered with bottles, soda cans, food tins, cast-off garments and the shells of burnt-out carsthe detritus of the long columns of fleeing refugees from last spring, when it seemed (to most of the Western press at least) almost unimaginable that the Albanian Kosovars would ever be returning to their ruined homes and farms as soon as they have.

We cannot take the most direct route to Prizren because it passes through Serbian mountain enclaves where vehicles are being held up at gunpoint. We are reminded that, despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers, Kosovo remains a "war zone."

At about 1 p.m., we check in at the Hotel Theranda, which faces the river that runs through the center of bustling, downtown Prizren. The stores and groceries are chock-full of goods (if you can afford them); and the population has swelled with rural people whose village homes are largely charred ruins. A string of outdoor cafes runs along the banks of the river, below the steep hillside that until last June marked the Serbian district of the town (now a ghost town). It is a charming old city, dotted with mosques, minarets and Orthodox churches. Though most of the current residents are Muslim, no one looks like Yasir Arafat; these people could have been yanked from any Main Street in the United States.

2 p.m. A few minutes’ drive brings us to the C.R.S. food warehouse on the outskirts of the town (there is another warehouse that distributes blankets, wood stoves, firewood and construction materials). We meet with Michael O’Riordan, on loan from Ireland’s Catholic aid agency, Trocaire, who manages the place, which on an average day, with the help of some 60 local employees, distributes some 200 tons of flower, beans, rice, cooking oil and other foodstuffs. (The beans and rice are apparently not native to the Kosovar diet and are eaten with a sour grimace.)

Initially C.R.S. was giving food to anyone who asked. Lately they’ve been tightening up a bit. The new criteria for food handouts put a premium on 1) families wholly without shelter; 2) displaced people living with host families but without access to food; 3) those permanently unable to earn a living; 4) "social cases," which include single parents, families with three or more children and those with very low incomes.

O’Riordan’s assistant, Orhan Morina, age 34 and an ethnic Albanian, was only recently a refugee. When the NATO bombing started last April, Serb police and roaming paramilitary bands were on the lookout for young men like him who might be potential recruits for the anti-Serb Kosovar Liberation Army. Many of these young men "disappeared" and are being found today in mass graves. During that time, therefore, Orhan rarely slept in his own apartment. He hid out around the city, often sleeping in dark cellars or upon rooftops. The police searched his apartment twice, and on one of these occasions he was actually staying several floors above, in the apartment of an aunt who had already fled. The Serb woman who lived next door, thinking there was no one there, assured the police the place was empty. Close call. The lady surely would have reported him had she suspected he was there, Orhan is confident, because her two sons were policemen.

In early May, when NATO bombs began falling within 300 yards of his apartment building, Orhan herded together his wife, their three-year-old daughter and his in-laws and headed for the Albanian border.

Orhan casually lets slip that he was not always a warehouse superintendent. He is a trained medical doctor. But just about the time he got his professional license to practice back in 1989, Slobodan Milosevic annulled the province’s "autonomous" status and fired every ethnic Albanian who worked for the state. In a Communist country that meant just about all Albanians (some 135,000 people was the figure mentioned). Doctors and medical staff were particular targets. Many professionals like Orhan, having no access to clinics or hospitals, were left to seek other work where they could find ituntil the Mother Teresa Association was founded in 1992. (Mother Teresa, an Albanian, was born in Skopje.) By the start of the recent war in 1998, this organization was running a network of 91 medical clinics, and today it is one of C.R.S.’s main partner organizations.

The Albanians, though, did not take Milosevic’s suspension of their constitutional rights lying down. For the last 10 years, under the leadership of the nonviolent Ibrahim Rugova, resourceful Albanians set up a parallel government, parliament, school system and a spectrum of Western-style civil society groupswomen’s groups, trade unions, writers’ associations, a campaign against illiteracy, even "green" groups. The most remarkable achievement of this civil society was the campaign to put an end to the blood feud tradition. In 1989 an estimated 14,000 men were under virtual house arrest to escape being murdered in revenge for some alleged offense. But between 1990 and 1992, some 2,000 blood feuds were reconciled at mass, open-air rallies or, when these were banned, behind the walls of large family compounds. Please note, these are Muslims leading the way in organizing a nonviolent movement. Washington paid attention only when things turned violent.

3 p.m. We meet with Lars Anderson and Nick McDonnell. Lars is an ex-New Yorker and army veteran who until the Kosovo crisis had been living with Bedouins in the Egyptian desert. He now makes sure the food gets out to where it’s needed. Nick, an architect, helps get parents involved in repairing and reconstructing 21 damaged or destroyed school buildings in the Prizren district.

5 p.m. On the way back to our hotel, Lars Anderson shepherds us to the huge Orthodox seminary for a conversation with Father Nikola, the acting rector. The complex of buildings, located in the Serb quarter of the city, is heavily guarded by U.N. troops. The seminarians themselves have already relocated in Serbia (though without the library). The buildings now house some 150 mostly elderly and sick Serbs and a complement of so-called Roma or gypsies. Three convoys of Serbians, mostly neighboring residents seeking protection, have already been given safe-conduct out of the province. Father Nikola is a man of few words, but he lets us know the situation is deteriorating. There is apparently no heat or electricity, and winter is fast approaching. Without the provisions that C.R.S. supplies, the residents would even now be starving.

There is a harsh irony in Father Nikola’s situation. Kosovo had been one of the few areas where the Serbian Orthodox Church was actually growing in numbers, and church leaders were at the forefront in arguing for peaceful coexistence with Albanians. Father Sava of the well-known Decan Monastery not only appealed constantly for an end to violence, but extended the monastery’s protection to all, traveling out to neighboring villages offering assistance to anyone in need, regardless of religion.

So far as Prizren is concerned, we were told, there has been more destruction since United Nations forces arrived than there had been before. Every night, despite U.N. patrols, another empty Serbian house in the vicinity of the seminary goes up in flames, and no one acknowledges knowing who is responsible. The previous night over dinner, Genevieve Abel had given us the mantra for this situation: "Kosovo," she said, "is a place where there are lots of victims, but almost no perpetrators."

8 p.m. Lars hosts us at a local pizza joint. The power fails, but happily the pizza oven is heated by a wood-burning stove, and we eat, undeterred, by candlelight. We all try a different kind of pizzavegetarian, mushroom, Bolognese, sausage and pepperoni, straight cheeseand I judge it the best pizza I have eaten in ages.

Wednesday, Oct. 20. Lars picks us up at 8 a.m. for the 10-mile drive out to Postliste, one of 70 satellite centers in the Prizren district from which food and other supplies are then distributed by local partner organizations to neighboring areas. Though Postliste’s handsome mosque stands intact, the school building was leveled. Large parts of the village were targeted by NATO bombs because Serb forces and armament were hiding out there. They could start a scrap metal business out of all the wreckage of jeeps, personnel carriers and tanks lying around. (No villagers were injured or killed, we are told, because they had already fled into Albania, 20 kilometers away.) As we are walking around one family compound of five houses, all heavily damaged, the children come out to observe us with bright smiles, and soon enough, from the farthest house down the road, a young girl makes her way toward us, bringing us hot Turkish coffee one cup at a time. (Yes, I get served ahead of the women.) These people may have next to nothing, but that will not prevent them from being hospitable!

Wednesday is market day in Prizren, and on the way back to town we run into the mob scene of a roadside open market. So far as I can see, everything is for sale in abundance (much of it shipped in by all those trucks we saw yesterday at the border): fruits and vegetables, corn, potatoes, big bags of bright peppers, bananas, grapes...kerosene lamps, Black & Decker tools, kitchen utensils, plastic containers, rugs, bedding, jogging suits, Adidas and Reebok running shoes, contraband Levi’syou name it. "This is not a third world country," we are frequently toldor wasn’t until the NATO bombing.

11 a.m. We stop at the C.R.S. office in Prizren, located in the compound belonging to the Catholic auxiliary bishop of Skopje, Marko Sopi, who resides in Prizren. (The figure I hear for the Catholic population of Kosovo is 60,000, or about 4 percent.) We chat with Nancy Shalala, a young cousin of H.E.W. Secretary Donna Shalala, who is the program director for the Parent-School Partnership. This program organizes 12-member parent councils whose task is to inform C.R.S. what the schooling needs of their children are, and also to enlist parents in volunteering to repair the roofs, heating and electricity of damaged school buildings. When Belgrade originally decided to impose a uniform curriculum throughout the republic, including Kosovo, Albanian teachers refused to accept it and carried on with the Albanian curriculum. They were then summarily sacked, and the police shut them and their pupils out of the schools. Eventually the Albanians regained access to most of their elementary premises, but these, neglected by the government, often remained without heat and needed repairs. Secondary and higher education continued in private premises: garages, empty houses, apartment flats. From 1991 to 1998, about 330,000 school students and 16,000 university and college students were educated in Kosovo’s parallel Albanian educational system, which employed some 19,000 teachers and professors. The Albanian Kosovars, I was constantly told, are a "very resourceful people." "They’re survivors." "Even without us," several C.R.S. people remarked, "they’d make it."

The P.S.P project builds on this resourcefulness. It also aims at being an experiment in participatory democracy, and 30 percent of the councils have to be composed of women. (When I later suggest that this may be a bit of benign cultural imperialism, and that I doubt the patriarchal Kosovar society would do this voluntarily, my comment was not appreciated.) A measure of the power of the partnership program is that last spring, when tens of thousands were fleeing Kosovo, one of the parent councils close to the Macedonian border took on the total management of shelter and food distribution for the huge number of refugees who were periodically turned back from the border-and did so very effectively.

The long-term goal of the parent-school project is to attack the sensitive issue of curriculum development. In short, whose governing narrative line is to be used for courses in history, geography and literature? The Serb Orthodox account? The Muslim-Albanian version? (These are the two major cultural divisions, but there are also other subgroups.) In the recent past, of course, the solution was a dual system, the official Serb-run schools and the unofficial parallel school system set up by the Albanians.

C.R.S. also collaborates with the U.N.'s Development Program on community reintegration efforts, which for the moment means dealing with the fallout of the recent violence. In the not atypical village of Sarrova, for instance, there were 20 widows whose husbands were killed last spring. C.R.S. was in the process of getting their homes ready for winter, prestocking food, gathering firewood and providing cooking stoves and winter clothing for the children.

Nancy Shalala introduces us to Arken Shala, our guide for the afternoon, for a long drive out to the village of Mrasor to see the Parent-School Partnership in action. Arken, a former journalist, is now the P S.P outreach coordinator. Before the NATO bombing he had worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Once the bombing started, from the Serb viewpoint his job turned him into a traitor. Like our friend Orhan above, throughout April he went into hiding, finally fleeing with his wife and daughter into Albania in early May. He was lucky, he says; the marauding Serbian paramilitary bands that waited in the hills and preyed on the refugee columns, robbing money, possessions and passports, failed to stop his little company.

We have to use a detour to reach Mrasor. (A NATO bomb took out a key bridge on the good road.) So the routeacross a wide rolling valley, with 10,000-foot peaks on the horizon-runs largely along a badly chewed-up dirt road. Among the hundreds of villages we pass on the way, I can see none that has escaped the Serbian torch. There are men hammering away on new roofs everywhere-but it seems that they've hardly made a dent in the mass destruction.

3 p.m. The village of Mrasor consists of some 49 fanulies living in 60 homes at the crown of a gently sloping hill. All but two of the houses are burnt-out shells. Only one of the village's tractors survived, and very few of the community's cattle.

We are greeted and shown around by the very voluble chairman of the parents' council, Ismail Rexhepi, and his assistant, Isni Mrasoria. The two-classroom primary school for 25 to 50 pupils stands at the brow of the village hill, overlooking a deep gorge and the hilly forests where the villagers had spent the better part of the last 17 months hiding out from the roving Serb forces-under conditions I cannot even imagine. The school was built in 1993 to save the children from having to walk five miles to the nearby village school. The community values education, Rexhepi boasts, and "many of our relatives work in the cities as technicians and professionals."

The bullet holes in the building have been plastered over, but there is no running water, the electricity appears to be out, and they will be needing another wood-burning stove for heat. A gaping hole also remains in the roof. Mr. Rexhepi explains that the Serb army had put a machine gun position there to cover the road below. Up until that very morning, when U.N. inspectors "cleared" the site, village volunteers had been reluctant to repair the roof for fear it was booby-trapped. The repairs, Rexhepi assures C.R.S.'s Arken Shala, will be completed on schedule, by Oct. 24.

Mr. Rexhepi acts like someone who is used to being in charge. Yet he appears willing to learn. "Teach me what will be best for my people," he says to Arken and to us. (Maybe, after all, he is willing to have women on his council!) And he keeps expressing his thanks to C.R.S. for everything they are doing. "I'd be grateful for a single pot or pan," he tells us (and when he shows us his burnt-out family compound of four once very substantial houses, with its broken water pump and plumbing and not a pot or stick of furniture remaining, we appreciate how literally he means this). But his wish-list is long. He'd like construction material-and of better quality than U.S.-A.I.D. is offering. And blue plastic sheeting to protect against rain and snow. And a few tractors. As for beans and rice, "Ugh!" His family is living in two tents provided by the United Nations. He invites us in for coffee.

Thursday, Oct. 21. A one-and-a-half-hour drive to Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo. During the NATO bombing, the city of 250,000 shrank to some 15,000. Only certain blocks appear to have been heavily damaged by NATO precision missiles-police headquarters, the TV-communications building and adjoining bank and parliament buildings (where "collateral damage" included the death of six members of one nearby family). But there was also a great deal of looting and burning by Serb forces, we are told, and huge numbers of cars were stolen.

The city's population has now swelled with displaced rural villagers, to some 500,000. With extra strain on the water and electric power systems, already in poor shape due to years of neglected maintenance, the fear is that neither will hold up through the coming winter. When we arrive at the C.R.S. office to talk to Aleke Zherka, director for local school program, Zisadin Gosnovci, the project manager for agriculture, and 1lir Gjikolb, the information officer, the electric power is out.

C.R.S. aims to stay around for at least the next five years, and plans for program expansion-youth programs, women's education, etc.-are currently underway. What is new to us, though, is Zisadin's report about the thousands of tons of seed and fertilizer and animal feed that C.R.S. has distributed to some seven municipalities in the Pristina district. The planting of the winter wheat crop will be finished this very week, we are told. The agency has also been involved in repairing tractors, and when next spring's planting season arrives, they'll be supplying new equipment for farmers like Ismail Rexhepi.

Aleke Zherka and Ilir Gjikolli accompany us out to a once prosperous Pristina suburb where 146 of the 180 homes have been burned to the ground. The recent conflict left approximately 25,000 known dead, Aleke estimates, and some 7,000 still unaccounted for. (United Nations estimates are lower-about 10,000 dead.) Last june's cease-fire agreement left Kosovo as part of the Yugoslav Republic; that concession was the only way Russia would come aboard. How did Aleke and Ilir feel about that? I asked. They understood the geopolitics. But they both fondly hoped, as they stared at the ashes and roofless homes all around us, that in the long run U.S. policy would ultimately come round to supporting independence.

Friday, Oct. 22. The scene at the Skopje airport this morning at 5 a.m. was one of utter chaos, more like a mob scene (the airline must have overbooked), except that people seemed especially considerate to those of us with American passports. Before I knew it, though, I was aloft over the Austrian Alps looking down on peaceful, greenerthan-green valleys and lakes-so close and yet so far from the Kosovo war zone. The only reminder that I had actually been there when I landed in New York later in the day was that my luggage had not arrived with me.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years 2 months ago
I enjoyed the article by David S. Toolan, S.J., entitled “Five Days in Kosovo” (1/1), which certainly gives a needed perspective of the Catholic Relief Services involvement, an enterprise of the American bishops that deserves our pride and continued support.

In the middle of the article, Father Toolan makes reference to Michael Riordan, on loan from Ireland’s aid agency, Trocaire, who manages the place, which on an average day, “distributes some 200 tons of flower [sic], beans, rice, cooking oil and other food stuffs.”

Undoubtedly the flour (not flower) must be a welcome commodity, given the fact that “beans and rice are apparently not native to the Kosovar diet and are eaten with a sour grimace!”

12 years 2 months ago
I enjoyed the article by David S. Toolan, S.J., entitled “Five Days in Kosovo” (1/1), which certainly gives a needed perspective of the Catholic Relief Services involvement, an enterprise of the American bishops that deserves our pride and continued support.

In the middle of the article, Father Toolan makes reference to Michael Riordan, on loan from Ireland’s aid agency, Trocaire, who manages the place, which on an average day, “distributes some 200 tons of flower [sic], beans, rice, cooking oil and other food stuffs.”

Undoubtedly the flour (not flower) must be a welcome commodity, given the fact that “beans and rice are apparently not native to the Kosovar diet and are eaten with a sour grimace!”


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