Outside magazine, August 1999
A Reporter's Diary of Two Months on the Road Across a Ruined Landscape, Over the Accursed Mountains, and Down to a Place Where Nightmares Come True
By Joshua Hammer
La Vikinga, the hydrofoil that plies the Adriatic Sea between the Italian port of Bari and the Albanian harbor town of Durres, left on schedule at five o'clock on a clear evening in early April. A first-class ticket had given me entr‰e to the "VIP Lounge," where two Albanian stewardesses served up Ritz crackers and warm Cokes, and high on the forward bulkhead a mounted television blared a video of McHale's Navy dubbed in Italian. The rest of the boat was packed: On the lower deck, amid a blue haze of diesel fumes and cigarette smoke, hundreds of La Vikinga, the hydrofoil that plies the Adriatic Sea between the Italian port of Bari and the Albanian harbor town of Durres, left on schedule at five o'clock on a clear evening in early April. A first-class ticket had given me entr‰e to the "VIP Lounge," where two Albanian stewardesses served up Ritz crackers and warm Cokes, and high on the forward bulkhead a mounted television blared a video of McHale's Navy dubbed in Italian. The rest of the boat was packed: On the lower deck, amid a blue haze of diesel fumes and cigarette smoke, hundreds of young Albanian men were playing cards and whispering to one another. They were a tough-looking crew with unshaven faces and callused hands, and they avoided eye contact with me as I strolled the deck at sunset.
Most of these men were clad in denim jackets, jeans, and either work boots or track shoes. Scattered among them were men in black berets and camouflage shirts whose shoulders bore a small red patch emblazoned with a black, double-headed eagle, the insignia of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Virtually all of the travelers were Kosovar ‰migr‰s who had been working in Western Europe as waiters, short-order cooks, soccer coaches, construction workers, teachers, and janitors. When the NATO bombings and the mass expulsions from Kosovo had begun ten days earlier, they had quit their jobs, said good-bye to their wives and girlfriends, and were now rushing to join the KLA.
I fell into conversation with a bearded, long-haired Kosovar eager to convey his ferocity. He called himself The Wolf, and a week earlier he had been scrubbing dishes in a restaurant in Munich. The Wolf told me he had already fought the Serbs once before, in Bosnia, and he said he couldn't wait to face them again. "The Serbs are fucking animals," he said. "Rapists. Killers of women and children." He took a long, vehement drag on a Dunhill, which appeared to be the official cigarette of the KLA, and glared at me. "Do you think I'm making this up? You think it was some Hollywood movie?"
The thick fog lifted just as we drew near the lights of the medieval fortress town of Durres. With a bump and a screech, La Vikinga nestled against the dock. I was back in the VIP Lounge when an Albanian customs official walked in and began collecting passports from the dozen journalists and miscellaneous foreigners who were traveling first-class. The customs man, who had a filthy shirt, a gloomy face bristling with dark stubble, and a cigarette dangling from his lips, began to demand visa fees. The Canadians paid $25; the Germans, $30. The French got off with a bargain $12. But when he saw my U.S. passport he brightened and flashed a smile. "America," he said. Then, again with feeling: "America!" He looked at me. "You pay $45."
The border town of Kukes lies 125 miles north of the Albanian capital, Tiranaùa six-hour drive over a bad road through the mountains. I set out for Kukes on a cold rainy morning from the Hotel Europa Rogner. My ride was a rented Nissan Patrol driven by a 21-year-old Albanian driver named Tani and a 33-year-old translator-fixer named Genc, who said he'd attended Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism four years before. (Later on we gave him the nickname "Fountain of Misinformation.") Sandwiched with me in the back were two freelance photographers I'd met in the VIP lounge on La Vikinga: Lahcene, an Algerian-born Frenchman who spoke no English, and Brian, a ponytailed native of Toronto who had been scratching out a living in Israel. Both had arrived in Albania with a couple hundred dollars in their pockets and no guarantees of work, and they were grateful for the free ride up to the border, where everything was happening.
We drove through the crowded center of Tirana, past wild juxtapositionsùMercedes-Benzes and donkey carts, peasants from the mountain Geg tribe wearing traditional conical white hats, women with designer sunglasses and DKNY handbagsùand were soon driving north through the Albanian countryside.
I had spent the previous two days rushing around the capital trying to arrange transit to the northern frontier. Tirana was a long day's journey from Kosovo, but reminders of the war in progress had been everywhere. A huge white banner strung in front of the neoclassical opera house in Skenderbeg Square celebrated "NATO in Kosovo." At the packed bar of the Rogner Hotel, where most of the press was staying, a television set tuned to the government station showed stirring footage of KLA guerrillas marching to the front, with martial music in the background. Following it was a program showing the 1989 trial and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, played in its entirety, evidently intended as a cautionary tale of what might happen to the Serb tyrant. War talk dominated at the town's three or four decent Italian restaurants, its outdoor caf‰s off the square, and at Bar John Belushi, named after the late Saturday Night Live comedian, whose father had been an Albanian immigrant.
The highway outside Tirana soon narrowed into a ribbon of tarmac clogged with fume-belching trucks and buses. Most of the ugly concrete architecture seemed either half-finished or half-collapsed. And everywhere lay junked automobilesùhuge piles of rusted-out carcasses that lined the road and filled yards and vacant lots. But a new touch had been added: A small white satellite dish protruded from nearly every window of every apartment building, clinging to the exterior like barnacles on a ship bottom. The dishes cost about 30,000 leksù200 American dollars, Genc saidùand nearly every Albanian now aspired to owning one.
They were almost as ubiquitous as Enver Hoxha's bunkers: gray domes of poured concrete set on wide circular bases. Each had loops of rusted iron and a slot for a sniper. Solitary mounds poked up here and there among the dilapidated shops and houses on the roadside. Whole legions of them swept in symmetrical rows across hilltops or lay in clumps in the fields. Many had begun to crumble, stank of urine, and were scarred with anti-Communist or pro-KLA graffiti. Children climbed on some. A few had even been turned into bars and tea shops. For the most part, the Albanians seemed to take no notice of them. They were a permanent part of the landscape, like giant, bombproof mushrooms.
The Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled from 1945 until his death in 1985, had built hundreds of thousands of these bunkersùperhaps almost a millionùas a defense against invasion from his imagined enemies. Hoxha was such a true believer that he broke with the Soviet Union, and then China, accusing each of straying from the practice of pure communism. Growing increasingly reclusive and paranoid, he sealed Albania's borders, outlawed religion, collectivized farms, banned private property, and maintained total control of his people through a network of spies, secret police, and ubiquitous checkpoints.
As bad as Hoxha was, democracy hasn't treated Albania much better. Two years ago, just when the country seemed to be staggering to its feet, a nationwide pyramid investment scheme collapsed. The scam had been endorsed by the democratically elected government of President Sali Berisha, who was rumored to have taken campaign funds from its organizers. Tens of thousands of people lost their life savings, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets, calling for Berisha's downfall. The protests turned into a nationwide riot. Shops and factories across Albania were gutted. Panicky soldiers fled their posts and left the doors to the weapons depots wide open. Kalashnikov assault rifles, pistols, and grenades were free for the taking. The Kosovo Liberation Army's strength surged as a result of the new influx of weapons.
At noon we arrived in the industrial town of Lac, once a showcase of the Communist revolution. Now Lac's huge chemical fertilizer plant, rising above the Drin River, is a decrepit, decaying ruin. Albanian men squatted idly in the mud, staring vacant-eyed at the occasional traffic.
"C'est comme la guerre," Lahcene observed, shaking his head. Looks like war.
Genc, who was used to the devastation, had his mind on other subjects.
"Do you know Christiane Amanpour?" he interrupted, turning around in his seat.
"A little," I said, having met the CNN reporter once or twice on the road.
"I'd like to make love to that woman," Genc announced. "I want to get a blow job from her. That's all I've been able to think about since the war began."
Just north of Lac, we crossed a steel bridge and began climbing into the Accursed Mountains. The hills became more jagged, the hairpin turns tighter, the road a narrow ledge blasted out of the mountainsides.
It was after six o'clock when we pulled into Kukes, a dreary place perched on a promontory overlooking Lake Fierza and surrounded by basalt crags dappled with thick veins of snow. The city is quite new, having been established in 1976 to replace its classical precursor, Gubuleum, which was drowned by the rising waters of the newly dammed lake. Kukes has the distinction of having once been "totally socialist," which is to say it was completely devoid of private homes. Its citizens were forced to stack themselves like cordwood into concrete blocks of communal apartment buildings.
It had been raining for days, and the sidewalks and muddy, potholed streets of the town were jammed with Kosovar refugees, more than 300,000 of whom had crossed the nearby border at Morine during the previous ten days. While the Albanian government was trying to keep the masses moving, the majority of the Kosovars were staying put in Kukes.
Genc and I rented an apartment from a friend of Tani's, on the top floor of a building just behind the Gjalica Hotel, the main lodging spot for the Western press and humanitarian aid agencies. After lugging our stuff up six flights of stairs, I went up to the roof, pointed a small satellite dish to the east, and dangled the connector cable down to Genc, who was leaning out the bedroom window. No landlines worked in Kukes; the satellite phone would be the only link to the outside world.
The sun was setting. I could hear barking dogs, the wail of a muezzin from the mosque by the lake, the shouts of children, and the vague, distant hubbub of thousands of refugees in the streets. Genc joined me on the roof. "Welcome to Kukes," he boomed. "The center of the world."
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 Nairobiùmany members of the African press corps had relocated to the Balkansùand 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.
"Warthogsùtank 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 gearùplus the Patrol. It was obviously a setup. The local police were the only ones who knew we were leaving town."
"The Beeb and APTV got robbed just before we did," Ron said. "Lost their car, their satphones, their TV cameras, their dishù$200,000 worth of equipment. Their bodyguard sat there watching. Then he pointed his AK at the Beeb correspondent's head and demanded his money for saving his life."
"Any chance they'll recover the gear?" I asked.
"The Bajram Curri police are negotiating for them," Ron said. "The asking price is $18,000."
Suddenly Wade jumped up and walked to the window. "Here's something you don't have to worry about doing in Albania," he yelled, dumping the contents of a large bag of trashùorange peels, soda cans, empty film canistersùout the window and into the bushes six stories below. "Whole fucking country is one big garbage dump."
The ambush robberies in Bajram Curri only briefly stemmed the journalists' rush to the border. The KLA's battle against the Serbs in the mountains along the Albania-Kosovo border was a sideshow of the larger war, but it loomed huge in the imaginations of the press corps. The KLA made great copy, but the guerrillas didn't seem to know how to capitalize on the press's sympathy. Secretive to the point of paranoia, most of the guerrillas refused even to talk to reporters. At the same time, everyone was desperately trying to cultivate KLA connections, huddling in the corner of the Gjalica Hotel restaurant and negotiating with people with names like Agim, Yasher, and Dino. Of course, I was as eager as anyone else to find a way to hook up with the insurgents and get into Kosovo.
One day Marie Colvin, an American reporter for the Sunday Times of London, returned from Bajram Curri after accomplishing what every other hack in town dreamed of doing: She had crossed into Kosovo with the KLA. In the evening I found her sitting on the terrace of the Bar Amerika, tapping at her laptop in the fading light, the glow of the screen lighting up her face.
"I just spent three days inside," she confirmed, puffing on a cigarette. Like nearly everyone else in Kukes she was a chain smoker. "It was like World War I up thereùguys huddled in trenches, heading out over the top, and coming back shot to pieces.
"Here's what you wanna do," she continued. "You get yourself a car with BC license plates, OK?"
"BC?" I asked.
"Bajram Curri," she said impatiently. "Cars with Kukes plates, Tirana platesùforget about it. They mark you as an outsider the second you pull into town. But they won't touch a car with BC plates. It means the driver comes from the area. Stealing his car will provoke a blood feud."
Marie's advice set off two days of futile searching for a car with BC plates. Then I got a lucky break. An old journalist friend of mine showed up in town with a Kosovar-American moneyman she had recruited in New York. They were heading up to the front lines north of Bajram Curri and agreed to let me and Ron, the Newsweek photographer, tag along. We wouldn't have BC plates, but we would have a bodyguard and driver named Bulldozer.
Bulldozer was a tall, thickly muscled guy with short, brown, curly hair. He spoke almost no English, had a sweet manner, and was an accomplished killer. In recent months he had served as the commander of a KLA unit in Vranoc, near the town of Pec in western Kosovo. Before joining the fighting, Bulldozer had delivered arms to the guerrillas all over the region using a cement truck with a hidden container in the back.
We met Bulldozer at a corner table in the bar at the Gjalica, and I mentioned the previous carjackings and thefts.
"Don't worry," he declared, stubbing out a Dunhill. "They're not going to fuck with the KLA."
The road from Kukes to Bajram Curri climbs steeply above Lake Fierza and then snakes northwest through empty hills covered in dark, thorny scrub. The land is nearly devoid of human settlementùthe most destitute and neglected corner of the poorest nation in Europe.
We were traveling in two vehicles. In front, in a rented Jeep Cherokee with Bulldozer at the wheel, were the KLA financier, two American magazine reporters, and a cameraman for Geraldo Rivera's cable-television talk show. Ron and I were riding just behind their vehicle in another Jeep driven by Jonathan Landay, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor.
After a four-hour drive, we descended from the mountains into Bajram Curri, crossing the turquoise river on an old Ottoman bridge and passing a modern mosque and crumbling stone-walled compounds. The town was unnervingly quiet as we pulled into the driveway of the mustard-colored, concrete-slab Ermat Hotel, Bajram Curri's finest.
The hotel manager was asleep behind his desk, grizzled head resting on a dusty ledger book. As we stood there, a dozen Kosovar refugees straggled in, men with exhausted, slack faces, their clothing peppered with burrs and stained with mud. They had just crossed the mountains from their hometown of Djakovica, they said, threading their way past the dug-in Yugoslav Army, skirting minefields and artillery positions and burning villages.
In the hotel restaurant a handful of Albanian soldiers sipped raki, a clear liquor distilled from grapes. They were served by a young waiter with a .45 pistol stuck in his belt. Across the room sat a trio of Danish NATO Rangers in camouflage fatigues. They had piercing blue eyes and cropped blond hair, and they scowled at us as we walked into the room.
"Have you been in Bajram Curri long?" Jonathan asked them.
A Danish lieutenant with cadaverous features grunted a response.
"What are you guys doing?"
"Humanitarian aid," the lieutenant said, and then he turned back to his moussaka and German beer.
Word had apparently gotten out the moment our two Jeeps pulled into the hotel driveway: new foreigners in town. It filtered through the police headquarters across the street and then spread by walkie-talkie to the bars and pool halls where the mafiosi congregated. Within minutes a parade of souped-up white Mercedes sedans, Jeeps, Mitsubishi Pajeros, and Nissan Patrols began to cruise past the hotel. Some of the drivers were members of the local police force who were rumored to be in league with the bandits. One of the Jeeps still bore the insignia of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the human-rights monitors for the Balkans. OSCE workers had surrendered four vehicles in Bajram Curri at gunpoint two weeks earlier.
Sporadic gunfire rang out from the nearby hills. At Bajram Curri's hospital, just down the road from the Ermat Hotel, the latest casualties from the KLA's ongoing assault against the Serbs were recuperating. Just as we were going in to interview the wounded guerrillas, a car engine revved outside and we turned around in time to see our Jeep speeding past the hospital with a stranger at the wheel. Moments later, a white ambulance tore by in hot pursuit with Bulldozer in the passenger seat.
Back in our sanctuary at the Ermat a half hour later, Geraldo Rivera's cameraman paced his third-floor balcony. He was frantic. The Jeep Cherokee had been rented in Tirana under his name, and now, for all he knew, it was heading to Montenegro, along with a new laptop and a $3,000 satellite telephone in the backseat.
Several Danish Rangers were relaxing on the adjacent balcony, cleaning their guns and taking in the scene.
"When did you arrive in town?" one of them asked.
"Two hours ago," the cameraman replied.
"Two hours?" said one of the Danes. "The new record."
Djordan, our local interpreter, was optimistic that we'd get the car back.The thieves had made a mistake by stealing from Bulldozer, a KLA guerrilla, he assured us. Fatmir Haklaj, Bajram Curri's 30-year-old chief of police, would see to it that these freelance thieves were tracked down and punished.
"Somebody's going to die today," Geraldo's cameraman said, watching from the balcony. He sounded pleased at the prospect. Down below, Fatmir Haklaj's boys were driving up and down the streets, racing past the ruined city museum, fanning out across Bajram Curri and into the surrounding countryside. At the KLA's insistence, Haklaj had sent word to his minions to capture the car thieves, and his mafia-militia was chasing the hijackers and sealing off every escape route.
A few minutes later, the word spread through the hotel: "They've got the car."
As soon as we got downstairs, the Jeep pulled into the parking lot, followed by a six-car escort. A half-dozen young men leapt triumphantly from the vehicles and strutted around the Cherokee. They carried Kalashnikov assault rifles and wore olive-drab gun belts across their chests. A few minutes later a white Mercedes pulled up, and the driver's door and one of the backseat doors swung open simultaneously, revealing an interior decorated with purple shag carpeting. Out stepped the driver, a burly young man with a ducktail, Elvis Presley sideburns, wraparound sunglasses, and three fat gold rings; and from the back, Fatmir Haklaj, the police chief himself, slim and rakish-looking, with curly, sandy-blond hair and a thick beard. He was decked out in crisp camouflage fatigues and a green bomber jacket and had an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. The chief gave a brief speech in Albanian to the assembled journalists and hangers-on.
"The chief says that he apologizes for the misunderstanding," Djordan said, translating. "He says that your satellite telephone and computers will be brought back shortly."
Geraldo's cameraman was trembling with relief. "Tell the chief thank you for his help."
Haklaj nodded and mumbled a few words.
"The chief says this is his job."
"What will happen to the thieves?" I asked Djordan.
"They may be executed tonight," Djordan replied with a shrug. "Or they may be set free. In Bajram Curri, nobody ever knows."
Ron had been staring at one of Haklaj's escort vehicles, a gray 1998 Nissan Patrol with tinted windows and a dent on the right rear door. "I think that's ours," he said. Wisely, he didn't press the point.
With bulldozer once again driving the lead Jeep, we left at dawn the next morning for the border and a Yugoslav Army barracks just inside Kosovo that had been overrun by the rebels. About 500 KLA guerrillas were now using the base as a staging ground for forays deeper into the province. The commander of the KLA's southwest zone in Kosovo, along with a large contingent of KLA fighters and some 20,000 displaced ethnic Albanians, were surrounded by the Serbs in a village called Junik. If the rebels could break through enemy lines, they could liberate their comrades and establish a position on the main road to Djakovica, the most strategically important city in southern Kosovo. We were hoping to link up with KLA troops on the border and follow them inside.
We climbed to the top of a ridge and found ourselves on a treeless plateau, flat as a soccer field. The road was a sea of reddish clay. In the distance, across another depopulated valley, lay Kosovo. Three metal watchtowers stood perched atop the far ridgelineùSerb positions. The Yugoslav Army frequently lobbed artillery shells at traffic passing across this plateau, but there was no place to hide. Several Albanian civilians had been killed here during the past two weeks. The guns remained silent, and when we were again out of range of the Serb gunners our KLA driver relaxed his grip on the wheel.
Soon we were in a high alpine landscape of pale green hills. Almond trees were in blossom, their white petals sending a sweet fragrance into the mountain air. Only the occasional crash of nearby mortar rounds and the crackle of sniper fire marred what could have been one of the most splendid hiking paths on Earth.
At Padesh, the last Albanian outpost before Kosare, we pulled up in front of a roofless farmhouse that had taken a direct hit by Serb artillery. A KLA lieutenant came over and offered to show us the aftermath of battle: bomb craters as big as fishponds, houses with obliterated walls. The lieutenant, formerly an architecture student in Paris, also displayed two military trucks with Yugoslav license plates, just captured from the Serbs. His fellow fighters trudged down the road, a dirty, unshaven, sleepy-looking bunch. But they had been making slow progress against their dug-in enemy, they told us. In two weeks of fighting they had extended the corridor several miles inside Kosovo, and Junik was within reach. But the Serbs had stationed tanks and heavy weaponry just outside the village, and the rebels said that without the aid of NATO's Apache helicopters they would never reach their goal.
A 45-minute hike brought us to the top of the ridge: the border between Albania and Kosovo. Beyond the ridge lay a wide, forested valley framed by steep limestone cliffs and rounded hills. Occasional rifle fire echoed off the canyon walls.
Down in the valley, smoke rose from a chimney in the barracks at Kosare. The main force of KLA soldiers was massing there, preparing to advance. As we got ready to climb down to join them, we were suddenly confronted by a KLA officerùan American-educated Kosovar doctor. He had heard we were approaching, so he radioed ahead for instructions.
"The commander says you can go no farther," he told us. "He doesn't want journalists around. It is still too dangerous. Maybe in a week you can come back."
The officer ignored our appeals and sternly ordered us to return to Albania. We trudged unhappily back to Padesh, climbed into the Jeeps, and headed back down the road. A heavy downpour had begun, and by the time we made it to the open ground in front of the Serb watchtowers the rain had turned the track into an impassable bog, a viscous ocean of mud. Soon our forlorn convoy of Jeeps became hopelessly mired.
"We push," Bulldozer said.
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 againùand 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 attach‰s 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 Kosovoùor 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 Emiratesùhandsome, bearded men wearing red berets and khaki fatiguesùkept 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 byùthe 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 saidùthe 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.
Peja was different. It was a ghost town. Eighty thousand ethnic Albanians had lived here before the war; now, we soon discovered, only 83 families remained.
"Fuck NATO. This place is mine," read spray-painted Cyrillic graffiti on a concrete wall. Visar's house was a three-story white stucco building that had been torched by the Serbs in late March, three days after he had escaped to Montenegro, and his parents had fled to Albania. We stepped over the rubble of burned bricks, roofing tiles, and half-melted shards of glass. Water from a broken pipe trickled through the ceiling and puddled onto the ground. The acrid smell of charred wood was overpowering. We climbed a shaky spiral staircase to Visar's third-floor bedroom, where he surveyed the wreckage and began to weep quietly.
Up and down the street, people emerged from their ruined homes. A handful walked tentatively toward us, around downed power lines, and told us to stay away from a white Renault parked nearby. It was booby-trapped, they said. They were pale and seemed wary and bewildered. For two and a half months they had been surrounded by the Serbs. A paramilitary force manned by a cruel commander named Frenkie had prowled the neighborhood, and Serb snipers had occupied the roof of a white mansion on the corner. Many people were venturing outside for the first time since March, and they hadn't known which of their neighbors were alive until they saw them in the street just now.
"Visar!" a pale, goateed young man shouted, rushing to embrace him.
"My God! Ram!" Visar cried, hugging him close. "Everyone said you were dead."
"I felt like I was dead," Ram said, tears running down his cheeks. He had been on a Serb death list and had been in hiding for 80 days, living in basements, moving about only at night.
Visar spotted a mustachioed man with a large belly. "Isa!" he exclaimed, rushing over to greet him. "You're alive too!"
"I am alive, but three of my children are dead," Isar replied.
"Three nights ago, the Serbs came to my home. 'Is everyone here?' they asked. Then they opened fire. I jumped out the window with my youngest son. The rest were killed. I took the brain of my 12-year-old daughter off the floor."
Visar shook his head, distraught, and wandered back to the car.
The road back to prizren was lined with gutted factories and Serb outposts that had been bombed by NATO. Kosovo had once been more affluent and sophisticated than neighboring Albania, with automobile and electronics plants, universities, and a thriving middle class, but the Serbs had destroyed nearly everything.
Now Kosovo was truly in solidarity with Albania: It was mono-ethnic, brutalized, pauperized, spiritually shattered. And no oneùnot the Kosovars climbing out of their basements, nor the refugees pouring back in tractors from Kukes, nor the KLAùknew where they were heading.
The guerrillas had taken over the abandoned cultural center in Djakovica, and we stopped there on the way back to Prizren to talk to the zone commander. Outside his office, on the second floor, I fell into conversation with a man named Nexhot, a former interpreter for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He had survived the war by hiding for weeks behind KLA lines in the mountains, and he was thankful to be alive, he said, but apprehensive about the future.
"We don't know who we are," he said, offering me a Monte Carlo cigarette. "We're not Albania. We're not Serbia. For the time being, we're just NATO."
Just beyond Djakovica lay Bela Crkva, the site of the massacre described to me by Yusuf Zhuniqi in Kukes. A farmer who had survived the Serb onslaught by hiding in a nearby hamlet led Visar and me along the Bellaj stream to the railroad bridge where Zhuniqi said the 50 men and boys had been killed. The path was overgrown with weeds and grass and wildflowers; on either side of the stream, fields of corn tinted with a haze of lavender blossoms extended to distant mountains. After a 30-minute hike we reached the bridge, which uncannily looked just the way Zhuniqi had described it and almost exactly as I'd imagined it. Across the stream was the mass grave, marked by a large mound of upturned earth upon which lay pieces of a broken spade and three blood-stained children's parkas. A faint smell of decomposing bodies hovered in the air.
Joshua Hammer is a longtime correspondent for Newsweek and a frequent contributor to Outside.