Journey Into Hell - World Vision aid worker James Addis reports on his daring journey into Kosovo...
In a world of manufactured excitement – bungee jumping, white water rafting, para gliding – this had the whiff of a real adventure. Would I be willing to accompany the first relief convoy into Kosovo from Montenegro? The route was unproved and the Yugoslav army had not yet exited the country. Would we be attacked by renegade Serb forces? Would we be blown up by a landmine? Would we be picked off by snipers? Would I be willing to go? You betcha!
Even our set off time (3am sharp) added a certain element of derring-do. Our truck drivers wanted to cross the border at first light then head straight for Pristina. They needed to be sure they could make the return journey within daylight hours while still allowing time for any potential hiccups on the way – such as needing to cross a bridge blown up by a Nato bomb.
So at 2.30am I roused myself, got dressed, said a brief prayer, and found my way to the second truck. Ahead of me Judy Moore – a fellow Kiwi and head of the World Vision Montenegro programme, got into the first. Judy had elected to take in only a small consignment of goods – 20 tons of food and blankets – the important thing was to prove the security of the route. If we could do that then larger consignments could follow. We wanted to move quickly since an estimated 800,000 refugees had fled to Kosovo’s mountains – cut off from international aid and without adequate, food, clothing, medicines and shelter – their situation was anticipated to be especially dire.
In the event the journey proved mercifully (and frankly a tad disappointingly) safe. We encountered a couple of blown bridges but it proved fairly easy to circumvent both of them. The strongest impression by far was the extent of the desolation. Slobodan Milosevic’s forces had attempted to rid Kosovo of 85 per cent of its population and as we passed burned out village after burned out village, I began to appreciate, probably for the first time, what this policy had meant. This was wickedness on a grand scale.
Ironically though, returning refugees were in good spirits. Already they were clustered in small groups along the road - some on tractor trailers, some in buses, most on foot - some carrying bundles of possessions loaded onto prams and wheelbarrows. The UNHCR was warning people at the time to stay put because of the landmine menace but nobody seemed to care. They wanted to go home. As our lorries trundled past they waved and cheered us on. The oppressors were being forced out, aid was coming in - liberation had come.
But what a place to come back to. Our first relief distribution was to a village called Quirez in central Kosovo. As we approached we could see the fields littered with the bodies of slaughtered livestock. When we reached the village itself every house had been torched. Worst of all, the village well was unusable. It was piled with the corpses of villagers unable to escape the Yugoslav army onslaught. Looking down the well shaft one could see the body of a woman lying on the surface of the water – beside her the body parts of other unfortunates. I spoke to Fatmire Xhmajli a young mum whose wrecked home was closest to the well and who had given birth while on the run. She was still in shock but was grateful for the food and blankets we were giving out. Her child was suffering from severe skin rashes - a consequence of poor hygiene and diet – the food pack, and the sanitary items it also contained, would help.
"When we came back [from the mountains] we found all this devastation," Fatmire told me. "Only two houses in the village are not completely destroyed and all the cows have been killed. There are kids and wives who have been shot and thrown into our well. We need someone to get the bodies out. We can’t stand it like this."
Quirez was far from an exceptional place. In the village of Meje, south western Kosovo, farmer Martin Pnisihi showed me a field where 200 people were killed. A severed human leg remained there and in the bushes nearby about a dozen rotting corpses unsuccessfully hidden. Everywhere one turned one could hear similar stories and worse.
What does one learn from all this? It’s a strictly personal opinion but I’m glad Nato intervened and commenced a war against Milosevic’s forces. It seems to me wrong that we should witness the systematic killing, rape and displacement of peoples without putting a stop to it – by force if necessary. Some will argue that Nato attacks exacerbated the situation and say they simply caused the Yugoslav army to intensify its campaign against ethnic Albanians. This may be true, but Milosevic’s aims were clear before the Nato air bombardment began and his policy of ethnic persecution was already under way. Albanian Kosovars would ultimately have been forced out anyway - and made to stay out. Milosevic’s position would have strengthened. He would have been portrayed as a hero who defied the West and restored nationalistic pride. As it is, nearly all the refugees have been able to go home and president Milosevic – the biggest menace to peace and security in the region - is in a much weakened position.
Finally, before I even knew I was going to go to Yugoslavia I read a scripture which haunted me. It was 1 John 2.11: "Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him". The words were to crystallise my understanding of what I saw in Kosovo. All the time you are asking yourself ‘How could people commit such atrocities? How could they do such things?’ But the verse shows the answer – it is because they are blind – they know not what they do.
It is the love of Christ which eliminates such darkness. Kosovo reminds us how important it is to make Jesus better known.