Outside Online Archives

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Out in the open, up to our knees in the muck, we rocked the vehicles back and forth in plain view of the Yugoslav Army. We were eight human targets directly in the sights of heavy artillery, slipping, sliding, falling on our asses in the mud, and then starting the whole process again—and again. Inexplicably, the guns remained silent.

The misadventure with the kla had distracted us briefly from the far more significant story: the unfolding nightmare inside Kosovo. Back in Kukes the next day, a human-rights investigator led me to an ethnic Albanian who claimed that he had survived a massacre. He was Yusuf Zhuniqi, a slight, leathery-faced man with his right arm in a sling and his head wrapped in gauze bandages. He was 40 years old but looked 60. In a dull monotone, he described how he and 150 others from the village of Bela Crkva had fled en masse at dawn on March 25 when Serb tanks arrived and troops began setting fire to their homes. As sniper fire crackled around them, the group walked beside snow-dusted cornfields along a stream until they came to a railroad bridge. There, at 8 a.m., Serb police and soldiers surrounded them. "They separated the men and older boys from the women and children, and they made the men, 50 in all, lie naked on the ground," he said, staring down. "They took our money, then they made us get dressed again and backed us into the water." He looked up. "Then they shot us with automatic weapons. They hit me in the shoulder. I went down. Everybody fell on top of me. The men were screaming. They fired for five minutes, until they were sure we were dead. Then they waded into the stream and shot anyone who stirred. If I moved even a finger they would have shot me. But I lay still, in the shallow water, until they left."

Late that night, Zhuniqi told me, he returned with some other local men and buried the corpses in a shallow grave beside the Bellaj stream by moonlight. "If you go to Kosovo, you will find it," he said.

Six weeks later, in mid-June, I arrived back in kukes in a Swiss military helicopter after a low-altitude flight through steep chasms of black basalt and striated limestone outcroppings. We touched down in a field next to a green-tented Italian-run refugee camp, sending up huge clouds of dust. The mud of April had dried up and taken to the skies.

The road into town, once choked with refugees, was now nearly empty. Everybody was waiting to cross into Kosovo. Word had quickly spread through the ranks of the press that a German NATO brigade was heading to Kukes from Tirana to spearhead the occupation of southern Kosovo. Most hacks were going in with British and Americans from Macedonia, but the Albanian operation seemed to hold the promise of less supervision, and more freedom to move around independently.

Two German military press attachés showed up at the Bar Amerika at six that evening to hand out credentials to a mob of anxious journalists. Out on the terrace, the disk jockey got on the PA system. "Good evening, folks. This is Radio Bar Amerika," he said, "wishing the NATO troops in Kosovo a safe and successful mission."

Having obtained credentials, reporters began scrambling to find rides into Kosovo—or to sell spaces in their cars. "I've three seats left in my minivan," announced Christian, a former French Legionnaire who had covered the massacres in Burundi and Rwanda for a wire service. "They're going for $120 apiece."

Wade, the photographer, and I had rented a white Mercedes.

"You guys ready for the big camping trip?" a female radio journalist asked Wade.

"It's gonna be a party," he said.

"Yeah, but this one is strictly BYOB."


Early the next morning, Albanians and Kosovars gathered five deep along the elm-shaded road leading to the border to cheer the NATO force. Eight hundred troops of the German Einsatz Brigade had bivouacked in a field six miles outside Kukes and their 200 vehicles were expected to roll through the center of town at 7 a.m. Wade and I were parked by the side of the road, waiting to join the convoy. We had hired a young refugee named Visar to be our driver and interpreter. The trunk was stuffed with two jerry cans of gasoline, ten cartons of cigarettes, tinned sardines, boxes of goat cheese, bread, cookies, peaches, apples, and 24 two-liter bottles of water.

By ten there was still no sign of the Germans. It began to get hot, but the crowd remained in a good mood. Soldiers from the United Arab Emirates—handsome, bearded men wearing red berets and khaki fatigues—kept order.

A little before noon, we couldn't bear the wait any longer. "Let's get the hell up to the border," Wade said. We jumped into the car and sped off. We had almost reached the border when the wailing of a siren came up behind us. Led by a police motorcycle escort, three German armored personnel carriers rumbled by—the vanguard of the Einsatz Brigade. We followed right behind.

At the border a huge crowd of Kosovars watched from behind a cordon of Albanian police as the APCs rolled through the gate and across the bridge, halting just inside Kosovo. Wade and I jumped out of the Mercedes. Dozens of Kosovar refugees scrambled over an adjacent hill and down onto the bridge. Only a week earlier a Chilean TV journalist had been shot and killed by a Serb soldier while standing here. "The snipers packed up and left last night," a French journalist told us. "I'm going in."

We ran right behind him. The crowd surged across the bridge and swarmed around the blackened crater marking the spot where the Serb mine had exploded two months before. Tattered, blood-stained pieces of clothing still lay plastered to the ground beside it. Jubilantly cursing the Serbs, the crowd pushed inside the Yugoslav customs shed. Two men found a black uniform and set it on fire in the doorway. Others rampaged through the offices, smashing windows with bricks.

Visar had maneuvered the Mercedes before the now-closed border gate. An Albanian policeman refused to let him join us, but a German captain walked over and intervened. "No, no, no," he barked. "Let the press through." Moments later, to the cheers of the crowd, Visar rolled into Kosovo.

"Stay on the tarmac," Wade warned Visar. "Drive in the middle of the road. Don't hit any potholes or anything on the road. Don't go off the asphalt."

Just beyond the heavily damaged village of Zur we came upon a parked truck filled with blue-uniformed soldiers.

"Germans?" I asked Wade.

"VJ," he said—the Yugoslav Army.

In the back of the truck, soldiers reclined on piles of olive-drab duffel bags. A bearded soldier stroked a panting German shepherd. Wade and I got out and approached, smiling. Wade tried to chat them up in Serbo-Croatian.

"Fuck off," one of the Serbs told him.

We drove away hurriedly, but we soon came upon more Serbs, hundreds more, lined up along both sides of the roads. Buses, trucks, sedans were filled with troops, and many infantrymen were sitting or standing in front of the vehicles. They pressed in on the Mercedes as we drove slowly past them, a gauntlet of defiant figures flashing the three-fingered Serb sign for victory and ethnic pride. Beyond the military column we caught up with a convoy of Serb civilians fleeing Kosovo for the safety of Serbia. Kosovo's newest refugees sat abjectly in Zastava and Lada sedans, some with their heads in their hands.

The German Army was to occupy Prizren, an old Ottoman town 25 miles north of the border. Wade and I arrived just as the first APCs rolled into Prizren's main square. After 80 days spent hiding from Serb police and soldiers, all the ethnic Albanians left in town had poured into the streets to celebrate. They swarmed over the APCs and showered the German troops with pink roses and wildflowers, and they mobbed our car as we inched our way through, cheering, chanting "NATO! NATO!" grabbing our hands, reaching through the windows to slap us on our backs, even asking for autographs. Hundreds more watched from the balustraded balconies of the old brick apartment buildings around the square.

When several Serb military buses pushed through the crowds to leave town, some people pelted them with rocks and shattered their windows. Several of the Serbs flashed their middle fingers at the jeering mob. Later, I watched a small contingent of Serbs try to pass on foot. A fight broke out; shots were fired in the air, and everyone dove for cover. NATO troops eventually pushed the Serbs back to the town's outskirts, to the taunts of their former victims: "Kosovo is ours," the Albanians shouted. "It's time for you to go home!"

The next day, the KLA showed up: two dozen guerrillas in mismatched uniforms strutted along through the outskirts of town, accepting glasses of yogurt and basking in the congratulations offered by the citizens of Prizren. Some of the guerrillas were recruits who had arrived on the same ferry, La Vikinga, that had transported me to Albania from Italy two months earlier.

As the jubilation died down in Prizren, we decided to drive with Visar to his hometown of Peja, which had experienced some of the worst ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Italian NATO troops had opened the road only 24 hours earlier, but Visar was desperate to see which of his friends had survived the war. As black clouds swept across the afternoon sky, we drove through the blackened and bombed-out ruins of Djakovica, Kosovo's second-largest town. One day after NATO's arrival, the streets were filled with people.


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