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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
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I would stay in Kukes for the next three and a half weeks, documenting refugees' accounts of the brutal "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo carried out by Serb soldiers, police, and paramilitary forces in the midst of NATO's bombing campaign. In the mid-1990s I had spent four years as a Newsweek Africa correspondent, covering the famine and carnage in Somalia, the genocide in Rwanda, the refugee exodus to Zaire, and the societal meltdowns in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In northern Albania I would find scenes that felt desolately familiar: the tidal flow of misery and death that spilled across the border, the taciturn guerrillas whose agenda remained murky, the brutality unfolding in a landscape of natural grandeur, the Third World backwater shakily coping with its new status as a mecca for the world press and aid agencies.

The Yugoslav border lies 45 minutes north of Kukes. A cluster of reporters and photographers ("hacks," as the corps calls its members) were milling around the Albanian immigration post when Genc and I arrived. I recognized a British cameraman I had known in Nairobi—many members of the African press corps had relocated to the Balkans—and he beckoned me to him, pointing grimly across the Drin River to Kosovo. A wrecked sedan was lying on its side along the shoulder of the tarmac road. Early that morning, the cameraman said, the car, filled with refugees, had tried to pass a tractor while waiting to cross the bridge into Albania. It had struck a mine, killing five Kosovars inside.

Later that morning, I joined a group of spectators watching NATO planes bombing Serb positions just inside Kosovo. Two aircraft circled high over the rugged terrain and then spat out bright orange flares that streaked across the sky.

"Warthogs—tank killers," said a British reporter standing next to me. "You can tell by the wingspan. Ugly plane. Those streaks of light are flares, to attract heat-seeking missiles. See how low it's flying? It's a bloody effective machine." Suddenly, the Warthogs dove toward their targets in the village of Zur, just out of sight beyond the hills. The booming explosions echoed across the valley. A dozen male Kosovar refugees, who had been waiting five days for their wives to cross the border, watched the attack from behind us with rapt and serious expressions on their faces.

Because we had one of the few satellite telephones in Kukes, a steady stream of hacks made their way upstairs, begging for permission to call their wives, girlfriends, desks, photo agencies. Sometimes we would oblige them. Those calls served as reminders of the world's fickle interest in the Kosovo crisis. Brian, the Canadian photographer who had bummed a lift to Kukes, was a frequent visitor. He was paying his own freight through Albania, gambling that someone would buy his work. "Nothing? You couldn't sell anything?" he barked into the satphone to someone at Gamma-Liaison, the photo agency, in New York one afternoon. Apparently the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, had briefly pushed the war to the sidelines. "What the hell did I bother to come here for?" he continued. "I should just pack up and go home." He slammed down the phone in disgust, lit a cigarette, and exhaled a cloud of smoke. Then a worried expression darkened his face.

"I didn't sound too hostile just now, did I?" he asked.

Later that afternoon Ron and Wade, two newsweek contract photographers, turned up back at the apartment after a two-day trip to Albania's northwest frontier. After the BBC had reported that Yugoslav forces had crossed the border in pursuit of the KLA, burning down a customs post and destroying several houses, Ron and Wade had joined a stampede of journalists to Bajram Curri, an infamously lawless town near the border, where every citizen over the age of 12 supposedly had a gun and where the main industry was organized car theft.

"We just lost everything," Ron announced. "Four gunmen ambushed us on the road just outside Bajram."

Wade plunked down on his army cot. For the past seven years he had lived in Zagreb, Croatia, which had served as his base for covering the disintegration of Yugoslavia. He'd worked in Vukovar, Sarajevo, and Dubrovnik, where he'd seen death and atrocities countless times. Now he was visibly shaking. "It's fucking Blade Runner up there," he said. "We were the sixth group of hacks in two days to be hit on that same stretch of road. They fired Kalashnikovs over the car and took all our gear—plus the Patrol. It was obviously a setup. The local police were the only ones who knew we were leaving town."

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