Wednesday, August 23, 2000 (two months earlier)
In three days we leave for Kosovo, and I am scared. Last night I awoke in the middle of the night and sat bolt upright, panicked. "What in God's name are we doing?"
I've had three months to get used to the idea. Ever since I came home from work the first of June to hear Ed say he'd been offered the chance to help build a modern legal system there. "Anywhere but Kosovo!" I protested. In Kosovo, where Slobodan Milosevic's bloody last-ditch effort to hang on to Serbian power in Yugoslavia ended only last year, the wounds are still fresh. Kosovo seemed, quite simply, too hard, too sad. But it is Kosovo that offers the greatest challenge for him, and now, for both of us, it is the plight, the courage of the Kosovars that touches our hearts.
So, despite my months of protest, we are going to Kosovo. I keep telling myself that it won't be the first time I have followed my heart into something new and scary. I met Ed twenty-one years ago on a blind date in Little Rock, Arkansas. Two months later I left my job, my friends and family, and everything I owned to go live with Ed in a funky little town in northern California, as different from Little Rock as any place in America could be. I took a chance and was happy I did. So maybe now...
Although Kosovo is Ed's idea, his work that will take us there, I know I must find my own way. I know something of what I hope to gain from the experience: a greater tolerance for ambiguity, a greater respect for differences, some clearer understanding of my own capacity for change, maybe. Am I willing to risk turning my own notions of myself and the world upside down? For this, I suspect, is what I'm getting myself into.
I already think of myself as tolerant, open-minded, respectful. But, from what I've read, life in Kosovo may challenge this smug belief. I may find myself wondering where to draw the line: Should endless generational blood feuds be respected? (The ancient Albanian code of conduct, the Kanun of Lek Dukagjin, which I am reading tonight, specifies that blood can only be wiped out with blood.) Should abuse of women be tolerated because it is part of their culture? (In the Kanun, women are "sacks, made to endure," as if their only purpose is to bear men's children-male children, preferably.) These traditions are dying out, I imagine. But what will I make of the vestiges that remain?
And can I stick it out for a year? How hard will life in Kosovo be? Will there be enough food? Will we be able to find decent housing? Can we stay healthy? We spoke recently with a psychologist who took a team of his fellows into Kosovo last winter. Seven of the ten got viral pneumonia, several became extremely depressed, and only one is willing to return.
How dangerous will it be? Only today I read a news report about a Bulgarian U.N. worker in the capital, Prishtina, who, being stopped on the street by an Albanian who asked the time in Serbian, politely answered in the same language. Believing he had identified one of the hated Serbs, the Albanian shot the young Bulgarian to death. The U.N. worker's only mistake was giving the time in the language of the enemy. Political correctness, Balkan style.
Ed has taken unpaid leave from the law school to work pro bono in the Balkans and I've resigned from my marketing job of twelve years. We will have no income for a year, but we've decided to make the commitment. The only worry that really remains tonight is whether I can do anything useful for the Kosovars. I don't want to be a voyeur in a country that has suffered so much. Ed will be helping to create a modern legal system with the American Bar Association's Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (ABA-CEELI). But I have no legal training, no medical or counseling skills. And there is certainly no need in Kosovo at this stage for my marketing experience.
But I did spend the last four weeks, day and night, working to get a certificate in teaching English as a second language. Will I be able to do that? Would that be useful? It is all unknown. As Daddy would say, I'm "borrowing trouble." I'll just have to see what happens.
Friday, August 25, 2000
Tomorrow we leave for D.C. for a few days, then Kosovo. And tonight I feel so sad to be leaving our sweet little house on the cliff over the ocean, my friends and family, our cat, Rodney. We've put our personal stuff in the studio, preparing the house for our tenant. I find myself envying her the next year in our house, the beautiful views, the ocean air.
I've solved my biggest worry by buying Web TV for my parents. With no phone system and no mail in Kosovo, the only way to communicate with them will be through satellite internet. They are old and Daddy's lung cancer, though in remission, could come back at any time. Now that they have access to the web, I know they can reach me if they have to. And they have actually become enthusiastic about the trip.
In our living room sit ten bulging suitcases, our life for the next year. I've packed so many means of diversion: books, CDs, pencils and paints, my harmonica (piano substitute)...Many of the books are about Kosovo, the history of the Balkans area, texts to help us understand better where we are going and what's happening there. But I'm also taking with me Lord Peter Wimsey, Jeeves, Sherlock Holmes, and I wonder, am I bringing with me the bricks and mortar of my own fortifications, the walls to keep fear away, to isolate myself from the place, the people, the chaos? Should I leave it all behind? Should I fearlessly embrace the conditions I've been told to expect, the long silent nights, the turmoil on the streets, the gunfire, with only the contents of my brain (and my character, God help me) to get me through? Should I forego the idea of diversion altogether and throw myself naked into the experience?
Writer Gretel Ehrlich of her sojourn in Greenland: "I close my eyes for the moment but the brightness penetrates my eyelids. Light peels my skin; the hole in the ozone stares at me. There is nothing more to lose or gain. Empty-handed I climb out of my own hole to some other kind of observation post. Exposure implies vision. Isn't that the point of travel? To stumble, drop one's white cane in a blizzard and learn to see."
Yes, well, Gretel, I know you're right. And I wish I could put it so eloquently. But I'm hanging on to my cane for a while yet. Lord Peter may come in handy on those dark, Balkan nights.
Friday, September 1, 2000
We arrived this afternoon around 3. From Ljubljana, Slovenia, the pilot headed west and south, over the Adriatic almost to Brindisi, Italy, then back east to Kosovo. All to avoid Serbian air space. I walk through the curtains of business class into coach, headed for the john, and, with a shock, discover a sea of young, dark-haired men, all staring at me, neither friendly nor unfriendly, just intent...on something. Are they returning refugees? During the fighting and ethnic cleansing of 1998 and 1999, the Kosovo diaspora took refugees to all parts of the globe-now many are being forced out of their host countries, returning to whatever uncertain future their devastated country offers. Or are they simply business travelers in casual clothes?
In our business-class cabin, everyone is Western European or American-some with guns and extra clips at the waist, a good indication that the usual rules won't apply here. And all men, again, save me.
Below us lie rugged mountains whose slopes and valleys are dotted with isolated villages. Their bright red roofs, so the man next to us says, signal the massive reconstruction going on here. Almost half of the Albanian homes in Kosovo were destroyed by the Serbs, he tells us, not as a result of the "collateral damage" of war, but as a result of the calculated plan to drive Kosovo Albanians from their homes and from the country, to create a country for Serbs. All over the country, he says, homes are being rebuilt with international aid.
As we descend toward Prishtina we see in the devastated Serb military complexes the effectiveness of the three-month-long NATO bombing campaign of the spring of 1999, and on the outskirts of the city we see hundreds of houses burned and gutted by Serb and Yugoslav forces. And then we begin to see camouflage on tanks, helicopter gunships, bunkers, gun emplacements, armored personnel carriers, men. The reassuring camouflage of KFOR (Kosovo-Force, the United Nations-authorized, NATO-led military force in Kosovo). As we taxi up to the terminal, I see a tiny hand-lettered sign over the terminal door that reads "Welcome to Prishtina."
We are entering the first country to be completely administered by the United Nations. Since June 1999, when NATO forces drove out the ruling Serbs, the U.N. and KFOR have been running Kosovo and protecting it from any further Serb incursions. They have responsibility for everything from roads to the judicial system to schools to the police, and will have until the "final disposition" of Kosovo can be determined.
I am the first person off the plane, walking down the steps onto the tarmac as if it was all familiar ground. This strange familiarity comes, no doubt, from our culture's frequent exposure to war and its trappings in movies and on TV. The real and unreal have become so blurred in even my mind-I who see relatively little of this stuff-that what should shock seems only a memory of something experienced in a safe and cozy room. Is that why I feel no fear, or is it because my curiosity is so strong it drives out fear? Soldiers, policemen everywhere. Men with guns. I look back to see some pooh-bah from our cabin being greeted on the tarmac by effusions of handshakes and photographs. We discover later it is probably his presence that has caused KFOR to block the locals' presence from the terminal, their cars from the airport. And outside the terminal another crowd of young males. Now and again there is an older face, thin, sunken cheeks and flowing mustache, all topped by the plis, the country's traditional white felt conical cap worn by Kosovo's patriarchs. But no women at all. What are all these guys doing here? Not waiting for relatives' arrivals as far as I can tell. Just passing the time, checking to see who's come into their country?
Ed makes ten laborious trips to the luggage carousel as I wait, pondering the unlikelihood of all our bags having made it to the Prishtina airport. I watch the other passengers, young Albanian men, struggle with cheap duffels that have ripped open, spilling their sartorial guts, or large cardboard boxes, once precisely rectangular and bound by twine, now smushed and shapeless, with gaping holes spewing stereo parts, blankets, stuffed toys. There is chaos here, but there seems to be a high level of tolerance for chaos. That will probably be the key to survival.
The UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) customs guy, a Russian soldier, stops someone now and again, opening boxes or cases. But Ed and I don't fit his profile, and besides, he clearly has no intention of rummaging through ten large suitcases. Henry, a genial attorney from Texas who has come from the ABA-CEELI office to pick us up, assures him that Ed is here to work on the legal system. With a dismissive flip of his wrist and a question in his eyes for me ("But what are you doing here?"), he waves us into our new Kosovo home.
from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley, Copyright © 2003 Paula Huntley, Published by The Putnam Publishing Group, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), Inc., All Rights Reserved, Reprinted with Permission from the Publisher.