Kovova 1, part 1
Kosova 1 part 1
In the winter of 1999, I went on a mission trip to the area of Kosova in the Balkans. I had known about Kosova because of the genocide and violence occurring there in the Spring of 1999 and the UN’s intervention based on President Clinton’s desire to bring peace to the area that had known recent conflict in Bosnia and Croatia. When I first heard about the massacres and mass graves in Kosova, I had tried to go over with Peace Corps or the Red Cross, but I couldn’t find a viable way to get involved.
After NATO’s airstrike, the area opened was opened to civilians in the fall. When the opportunity to go on the mission trip came—I jumped at it. We learned about it around Thanksgiving and we left about a week before Christmas. I’d only ever been to France for French credits at school; this time, we traveled to Amsterdam (after we lost 2 members—Paul and Carlos—when Paul left his tickets on our first plane, then they caught up with us on the next flight), then to Budapest, and then to Skopje, Macedonia.
Skopje, only an hour from the border as the crow flies, was a different world. As we left the plane and stood on the tarmac, we saw a lot of men with guns (big guns!). Quickly forced into the airport, we filled out slips of paper indicating our intention (which was travel or some such excuse, because Macedonia is closed to missionaries). After a loooooonnnngg wait to clear customs, we found our luggage missing. The lost-luggage people were incoherent and not very helpful—kept talking about Tom Jones. I used a little French to try to communicate. Apparently, times moves differently in the eastern part of Europe, and we believed our bags had never left Budapest.
Eric, one of our members, knew people in Skopje, and they were able to find us a place to stay for the night. This family was wonderful. Undercover missionaries, they took us in and fed us, gave us any supplies we would need in place of our missing luggage, and helped us find travel for across the border.
The journey across the border should have taken an hour, but remember, this is eastern Europe—multiply by unknown variable. We could see traffic of passenger vehicles for miles; nearby, there were roads for imported goods that stood still. I can’t imagine even the traffic in LA to be this bad. The roads merged, much to our dismay, and we knew this would be a long day.
Hours and hours later, we arrived at the border crossing were NATO was in charge. Government vehicles were rushed through and given priority, but if there was any suspicion, people were stopped and made to wait for however long. One of our members, Burl, was a 70 year old man, and was wearing a fur-lined hat (Russian style). Apparently, the guards believed him to be a diplomat of some sort (it helped to have a white 15 passenger van, similar to government issue), so they allowed us through. We had to, of course, go through customs at the border, which took awhile since there were 14 of us.
The border of Macedonia and Kosova is a scary place. Razor wire along the road, tanks, guards with very large guns, locals selling boxes and cartons of cigarettes. The latter struck us—to see young, gaunt children (under 10) running between slowly moving vehicles, with boxes of cigarettes stacked up to their chins—it was very sad to think that they were helping to contribute to their family’s income, if they had a family.
Kosova’s countryside was beautiful and virtually untouched. It had a roughness that only a virgin landscape could have. Our drivers swerved speedily through the land, since there don’t seem to be any real driving laws, and nearly got us killed a few times. While the countryside was bare, there were billboards every few miles advertising Nescafe. We would see terra cotta roofed houses that were being built or left after being bombed—we couldn’t tell which. What would you think to see half a house? Every now and then, we would see a NATO bunker nestled in the embankments along the side of the road, we never saw anyone in them.
To see Pristina, Kosova’s capital, from far away, must have been what it was like to see big industrial cities like Chicago or Detroit from the nearby country and farmlands outside the city. Pristina stretched across the hillside and through a valley, like a shallow sloping bowl. Sooty was my first impression of the city from afar. It had a grayish tinge in comparison to the rich greens and browns of the countryside.
Suddenly, we were inside the city. It was like BOOM!, and there we were, sort of like medieval walled cities in the sense that you were clearly outside the city, then you were inside. The vans let us out at a main hotel in the city. We didn’t really have time to mess around and observe the city. Our trip leader, Mike, needed to find a church and its pastor, Artur. They were our only hope for lodging, since there was no way to really communicate beforehand because of no mail or phones, and email was hard to come by. Unfortunately, we had no map to the church, no means of communicating with the locals.
After wandering around for what seemed hours, we found a someone who spoke enough English to (sort of) direct us in the general direction of the church. Basically, he pointed in a direction and we went that way. We split up and walked up and down streets until someone found a sign for the church. Cold, wet, and tired, we entered the back of the small building and slumped into chairs for a congregation. I think it was a Saturday.