Read an Excerpt
Exactly how much time passes from the moment a man is wounded until he starts to feel pain?
Sometimes it's a second.
Sometimes it's an hour.
Sometimes it's more than an eternity.
Artyom Borovik, The Hidden War
Albanians Killed as Kosovo Village Is Blown Apart;
At Least 60 Civilians Die
More than 60 Albanians were killed and scores more badly wounded late Thursday night when bombs blew apart a village in southwest Kosovo, near Prizren, Yugoslav officials and journalists at the scene said Friday.
The attack, in Korisa, was said by Yugoslav Government officials to have been carried out by NATO warplanes. . . . NATO officials in Brussels said they were investigating the report and were reluctant to comment before their work was complete. . . .
New York Times, May 15, 1999
KLA Forward Base Camp Near Kosare, Kosovo May 12, 1999
Much later, I remembered the stillness, the quiet of chaos.
The wet, late spring.
The way time slowed down until each second seemed elastic. The sixty seconds that it took for four men to lift the youngest soldier, dead, boots still on, and lay him carefully on the back of a truck bound for the morgue. How everything surrounding that minutethe tears of the soldiers lifting him, the way a hand was cupped over a match to light a cigarette, the Kalashnikov thrown angrily on the groundstretched into hours.
In the background, the low rumble of noise. It seemed so far away, over the mountain even, but it was right there. Some soldier crying: "My two brothers died. . . . I don't want to die."
Or the way the sky changed. The early-morning breaking light during the first wave of bombing, deepest blue with the faintest brushing of stars. Then lighter azure, then premature streaks of pink. The sun finally rising over the harsh mountains. Then finally light enough so that I could see the sleeping soldiers next to me, dotting their way down the trench. In the darkness, I mistook them for tree stumps.
Or the way that the wounded looked when the others carried them into the trench. The way they did not scream or beg, just submitted. The childlike surprise on their faces. One minute sleeping quietly, the next, the leg they can still feel, no longer there.
One of them was a half-dressed teenager. Face, neck, chest covered in blood, brighter than the blood dried on his gray sock. The sock was still on his left foot, but his right foot was gone, as was his right calf, his right knee. The last bomb blast caught him, surprised, down near the riverbed twenty minutes before, and he must have been feeling the pain by then. But he lay silently on a stained stretcher and waited as though he were waiting for a bus.
First step of first aid: expose the wound. So they cut away his T-shirt to see where he'd been hit, and he was there in the wan sunlight, topless, shivering. Next to him, another boy, skin slashed with hot shrapnel, chest peppered with wounds that were dotted like measles. The medic, a twenty-three-year-old architect who lived in Switzerland, moved from body to body, slapping field dressings over open wounds, injecting morphine, washing away blood and dirt and mud.
The boy without the leg looked forgotten in the chaos of the morning bombing. It was too loud in the ditch for anyone to hear him whimpering. He lay alone, throbbing with pain, and watched those scenes of anger inside that ditch: of soldiers running from their positions, running away to the forest. A commander called for them to come back. They continued to run, cantering like colts.
Ali, the Moroccan commander, shouted, "The Serbs are two thousand yards away!" He told everyone to prepare for a ground assault. "Every soldier, grab your arms and ammo, and go, get to the front." The soldiers stared at him blankly. Some moved. Others just stared.
The medic, moving between bodies, touched my arm. "Help me," he said. He stood over a teenager with acne and an exposed bone in his leg, a cut over his left eye. The medic held the flesh together and moved the needle through the skin as if he were mending a button on a shirt. The needle did not pierce the flesh easily. The medic cursed. He pushed the needle through the flesh again, harder this time, and the boy underneath him winced.
Nearby was someone else: a body with a mangled leg, deep in shock. We pulled down his trousers and the medic threw the bloody fatigues in the mud. The boy looked at him, startled, confused. He's not embarrassed that he's lying there without trousers; he's dreaming he's back in Pristina in a bar, because he keeps reaching into the top pocket of his T-shirt and pulling out a crumpled packet of L&M cigarettes. He put one in his mouth, offered another to me.
I wiped blood, took the cigarette out of his mouth. But he kept offering the pack. The medic jabbed him with something and looked up over the trench to see a seventeen-year-old girl soldier called Jacky. She had a blond ponytail and a small Koran on a leather strap around her neck. Everyone said she was the mistress of the commander, but she said, in a small, tough voice, that she was there to fight. She ran with a box of ammunition and a friend with short spiked hair and a Walkman tuned to hip-hop. The friend left the music on even during the shelling.
The medic had been in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) for several months now. His time as a soldier had made him cynical, suspicious of NATO's intervention, of the sudden interest of the West. "I believe only in the KLA," he said. "I believe we will get what is best for our country." He had steely round glasses. As he looked up at the sky, there was another flash of light, another explosion, and it caught his lenses. "I don't believe in NATO."
He rolled the boy with the cigarette onto his side, checked his breathing by sliding his finger under his nose and putting his head on his chest, and moved down the trench. He told me to watch the boy.
The boy slept, soft hair falling across his forehead, his wounds. The cigarette pack was left in the mud.
It has been nearly two months since the NATO bombing campaign inside Kosovo began, a response to a wave of Serbian military and paramilitary attacks on Kosovar Albanian civilians. Those attacks included assassinations, mass killing, burning villages. Then the refugees began pouring into neighboring Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. They passed on donkey-pulled carts, in vehicles, or on foot, slipping on the ice, in the mud, in the snow, carrying their lives in shopping bags.
In one week alone, between March 31 and April 2, 1999, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that 230,000 people had fled, Europe's biggest refugee exodus since the war in Bosnia. At one point, Jamie Shea, NATO's spokesman, announced that 4,000 ethnic Albanians were leaving every hour. "We have to recognize we are on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster in Kosovo," Shea said from his perch in Brussels, "the likes of which have not been seen in Europe since the closing stages of World War II."
Someone took a photograph during those days: a mass of refugees forced to leave Pristina by train in Macedonia, huddled together like cattle, thousands stuffed inside ancient railway cars. Some were forced to walk alongside the tracks. A blind man tapped his cane along the railway telegraph wires for guidance.
Forward bases, front lines like those at Kosare, sprung up. The Ushtira Clirimtare e Kosoves (UCK), or KLA, was swelling with soldiers who wanted to push back the Serbs, liberate their country, and rescue the refugees who were stranded in the hills. The soldiers I was with in Kosare were trying to liberate the town of Junik. They had taken our position from Serbs a few days before, and now we were getting hit, unsure of who was bombing us.
"We don't know who's killing us," Ali said, "NATO or the Serbs."
I was sleeping in Ali's tent, along with other soldiers, most of whom were in their early twenties. Ali was older and experienced. A devout Muslim, he prayed five times a day and had come from North Africa to fight for his Balkan Muslim brothers. He made it clear that he did not like my being there.
The bombing, he said darkly, was a punishment. "It's because of last night," he said. The night before was someone's birthday. Everyone sat around a fire, drinking, smoking, singing. "Allah is angry. Women. Alcohol."
Because he said he had been a captain in the Moroccan Special Forces, and because most of the younger soldiers were silent with fear, he wordlessly began to take control. He moved down the trench carrying a stack of old helmets, which he threw like footballs to the soldiers. Mine landed in the mud; it had no strap. He then separated us, fifty meters between each person. "Because when more bombs fall, I don't want to lose all of you."
I stayed where I was with the injured boy. I watched Ali moving away, heard him calling, his voice growing fainter: "Be prepared for everything," he said. "Be prepared for anything."
The boy slept. His face was hot, his body did not move. He continued breathing. But outside, another boy, dark, Arabic, with a beard, pulls down his trousers. He squats. He's covered in blood and is in too much pain to be embarrassed. He's got shrapnel wounds all over his leg, his arm. He lifts one hand. "Water," he says, in English.
I passed him the bottle. He drank from it, collapsed on the ground. The sky changed. Morning had come. The pink light softened the rocks on the mountains, the jagged cliffs. The grayness faded, then brightened to blue.
"Oh my God," someone said, "it's a perfect day for bombing."
At some point later, I looked at my watch. I thought it was late afternoon. It was only nine o'clock in the morning.
Café Drenica Durres, Albania May 3, 1999
How did they get here, to this field in Kosovo?
Sometimes, I sat with them outside the tents and listened to their stories. Why are you here? What made you come? Everyone had a different story, but most of them, in the early days, before they got to the front line, seemed so young. When you looked hard at the recruits, and saw fresh haircuts and spotted skin, you realized they lied about their ages. When you saw them holding guns, imitating someone they'd seen in the movies, you realized they had no experience. When you saw them at night, saying prayers or leaning across their sleeping bags to borrow a match or a Swiss Army knife, or sitting outside the tent alone, talking about their girlfriends or their mothers, you knew: this was the first time.
When you saw the drawer full of their passports from the United States, Sweden, England, and read their dates of birth1979, 1981, 1978you realized then they were kids who had read something about war in the newspaper and, triggered by patriotism or adrenaline, bought a plane ticket. They paid their own way, found gear from Frank's Army & Navy store in the Bronx, packed fatigues, red bandannas like Rambo's, maps, and water canteens. Then a cheap flight to Rome, train to Bari, boat to Durres in Albania. Then two days on a minibus, north to the war.
But first they stay a few days in southern Albania. Getting acclimated, sitting in a café drinking coffee, watching the other recruits. In Durres, there were bandits, thieves, and Albanian mafiosi, all jostling for position. During Roman times, it was called Dyrrachium, one of the great cities on the eastern Adriatic. Now there are prefabricated white houses slouching toward the sea, belonging to wealthier Albanians, and piles of trashplastic bottles, tins, toilet paperby the Roman ruins. There's a tenth-century Byzantine church, neglected, because there is more important business going on here; down the road is Vlora, the port city where high-speed boats loaded with illegal aliens set off for the Italian coast each night.
Further inland, there's Fier. Fier is spooky and dark. As we drive through the dusty, wide streets, the locals, sitting in roadside cafés, look up from their coffee and stare without smiling. In the center of town is a former chicken farm with wire fencing. Behind it live Kosovar Albanian refugees who escaped the Serbs. The aid agencies have forgotten they're there. At night, Mercedes with tinted windows roll up and men in black leather jackets try to entice the prettiest girls to come out from behind the fence and talk to them. They tell them they will give them jobs as waitresses in Italy, jobs as au pairs.
"But they get there and there are no jobs as waitresses," Anna told me. She wore tight jeans and a pink T-shirt, was a student of German literature before the war. She spoke for a few moments and then started to cry. The blue mascara she had applied that morning in front of the single mirror all the women shared ran down her face. Her words came out faster. She was desperate, she said. She felt like she was in prison.
Because of these men who came from Vlora and Durres, aided by locals, looking for refugee girls, she said, she was afraid to go anywhere without her father. He stood behind her, dark and quiet, and said he could no longer protect his daughter from the gangs, and would we take Anna out of Fier? He said that the day before, they had gone to the village to make a telephone call. When he left Anna alone to use the bathroom, he returned to find her surrounded by men.
"Because we're refugees," she said, "we have no rights."
Anna told me she was afraid to go to sleep at night. She said that when she closed her eyes, she could not forget there was a Mercedes parked at the gate, and inside the car were men who had guns and more power than she did. Some of the women in the camp had already gone willingly, but there were stories that others were taken.
I believed Anna, and I found an Albanian policeman who confirmed the story, as did a French intelligence officer, who said that the Greek consulate in Tirana provided the girls with visas. If they did not go to Greece or to Italywhere one in three prostitutes comes from Albaniathey went to Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States. It is believed that since Albanian independence in 1992, 10,000 local women have been taken to Italy and 20,000 to Greece.