About 10,000 people died in the 1998-99 Kosovo war between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in pursuit of national self-determination. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and this month marks the 10th anniversary of the end of the war.
Following our online radio show on statelessness, Worldfocus anchor Martin Savidge describes his experience reporting on the struggle of Kosovars forced to flee in the war.
You can go from something to nothing in just 139 steps. I know, because I counted the footfalls.
It was the spring of 1999 along the border between Albania and Kosovo. The war was raging, and people were trying to get out of its reach. Many fled south, heading to where I was — on the Albanian side of the Morini border crossing. I watched the metamorphosis from a gully, marginally sheltered from occasional gunfire and mortar rounds.
On the Kosovo side of the bridge, the frightened people still had a history, somewhere — a home and a life. One hundred and thirty-nine steps later, they emerged into Albania with none of that, only the clothes they wore. Some even came without families, having been separated in the chaos.
Like most wars, this one was triggering a humanitarian crisis and Albania was in no position to handle it. That day, the traffic was heavier than usual, most of it tractors pulling wagons filled with a bumper crop of women and children.
We began asking questions. Our interpreter was from Kosovo — a teenager who in the early, frantic days of the conflict had become separated from her family after the Serbs forced them from their home, and NATO bombs sent everyone on the run. She had crossed into Albania at this very same checkpoint. A CNN crew found her while doing interviews in a refugee camp. She stood out because she spoke English.
The producer quickly realized that despite the best intentions of the relief agency, a refugee camp is still a very dangerous place for a young girl. The camps were rife with reports of women and children vanishing, kidnapped for the sex trades. After all, who would miss them? They were nobodies, lost in the confusion of war.
Gulka was brought to the safety of the CNN house and hired as a translator. Eventually, we took in a number of similarly-rescued young people, temporarily orphaned by the upheaval of the war.
The group of women before us said they had no idea where their husbands were. The men of their town had been taken away by Serb soldiers and police when the fighting began. The women said they had fled into the mountains, fearing the soldiers would come back for them. They also told us that while it might have looked deserted across the border, just beyond our view was a heavy presence of Serb troops, tanks and artillery.
As if on cue, our conversation was interrupted by a blast. The first mortar round struck on the Serb side of the border…but the successive explosions walked their way over the line.
I was impressed that instead of running when the first round struck, most of the refugees dropped flat. This clearly wasn’t their first time under fire. Even the kids knew to get down. It was only after the sixth explosion that the crowd finally broke and the air was suddenly filled with screams and wails, the sound of revving engines and drifting smoke.
A week later, as we neared the border, we were suddenly forced to stop by the sight walking toward us…bedraggled columns of men. They staggered, stumbled and shuffled. Some men supported others; many were bloodied and beaten, showing scars. All of them looked emaciated and filthy. We pulled over and started filming, gathering a story and documenting what would later be judged as war crimes.
The men described being released from detention centers and camps days earlier. They told of torture and starvation, of unspeakable horrors inflicted on humans by humans. Some cried as they spoke, and one collapsed. Another died at the side of the road — and the men just kept coming.
Eventually, we moved our coverage to the refugee camps. The scenes and sounds of pain and anguish were overwhelming. Tony, another one of our young adopted interpreters, went with us. He had escaped to Albania early in the crisis. As he listened to the men’s stories he often had to wipe the tears from his eyes.
When the interview was finished, as was their habit, the teen translators would often ask personal questions, like where the men were from or if they knew anything of friends and family. After one such conversation, Tony suddenly jumped up. Something the man said had set him off. He raced through the crowd shouting. We ran after him, afraid we’d lose him in the crush of people…maybe for good. Eventually we caught up and found him deep in the embrace of an older man. The two were so overpowered with emotion they couldn’t get out a word, only tears and shuddering gasps. But you didn’t need words to understand. It was obvious…in the middle of a war, in the middle of the chaos on the edge of Albania, Tony had found his father.
– Martin Savidge