Heyyy!" the voice drawled, "Red Cross!" The huge hand reached over and grabbed mine, pumping it enthusiastically. "God bless you guys, God bless you, you're doing a great job!" A smile broke out on the heavyset, bearded face of the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) soldier, speaking to me in a thick Brooklyn drawl.
"Yeah, God bless you guys, keep up the good work!" chimed in his camouflaged companion, blessing me twice more for good measure, as he casually shifted a Kalashinkov across his shoulder.
Standing on the steps of the one hotel (concrete edifice) in the northern Albanian city of Kukes, blinking in the dust, I watched in confusion as the two Americans wandered off down the street, pursued by a gaggle of journalists clutching their sat phones and laptops.
Like so much in the Kosovan conflict, nothing is quite what it seems. On the ground, where the physical infrastructure and roads are literally destroyed, and landlines almost non-existent, all the excitement and talk of this being a hi-tech, 'Internet war' seems a little unreal.
Travelling as part of a team of 'online' journalists and cameramen for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), I pondered this point as I sat at the border crossing of Morini, set high in the mountains about half an hour's twisting drive from Kukes.
As I watched - surrounded by bristling satellite antennas and camera crews - and was watched in turn by the Serbian snipers, the residents of a whole town were crossing the border. Prizren in southern Kosovo had been cleared that very morning. I was momentarily surprised; I had imagined that no-one was yet left inside the region's small towns and villages.
Sitting next to me was a Kosovan doctor, waiting with two others for missing friends and family members. He found it hard to speak, he said. It seemed a poignant moment; the refugees crossing on foot, tired and red-faced in the fierce heat, and the heartbroken relatives desperately searching for loved ones. Then I saw the photographers and cameramen descend on the elderly and sick as they arrived on Albanian soil, part of a surreal (and constant) media circus, which lasts daily from 8am until 8pm. And later, pulled aside by a friend, I discovered that the doctor was in fact part of a UCK recruiting team, looking to find young men who had escaped the Serbs' cordon.
Everything about Kosovo challenges assumptions. Kukes is as good an example of any of this point. A small, ugly town of eastern European-style apartment blocks, set against verdant mountain scenery, it has been transformed by the war. Journalists jostle with relief workers, desperate to find rape victims or link up with the UCK, to travel inside Kosovo. Apartments which once cost tens of dollars now change hands for hundreds of dollars a night. A huge Albanian army barracks on the edge of town doubles up as a UCK training centre, the two sides barely distinguishable anymore (indeed, UCK soldiers share Albanian police checkpoints in many parts of the country).
A huge assortment of vehicles hurtle up and down its few paved streets, including US army patrols waving to young kids (shouting "NATO, NATO!" and waving victory signs); camera crews are robbed on street corners at night; and even the UCK soldiers guard their vehicles from the local mafia clans.
Numerous clinics and relief operations jostle for space between the densely-packed apartments, presenting a nightmare logistical operation for local UNHCR officials. Refugees are desperately shunted onto Dutch and Belgian army lorries, to be taken south and away from the daily border shelling - only to be replaced by newcomers within hours.
Scattered pillboxes litter the surrounding countryside, a constant reminder of former Communist leader Enva Hoxha's paranoia about invasion. His other legacies - the Russian and Chinese built heavy industry - lie rotting by the roadside, whole factories flaking into dust, or suddenly used to house refugees by cash-strapped municipal authorities.
Latest generation BMWs and Mercedes cruise up and down the shattered roads, weaving slowly in and out of mammoth potholes - this in a country with Europe's largest reserves of asphalt. Police roadblocks sit on the main arteries, yet in the north local mafia gangs run whole towns, robbing the UCK of vehicles and doing a nice trade in stolen camera equipment (CNN has lost over $1m worth to date). No wonder that aid convoys are arming themselves.
Satellite phones and laptops are also like goldust, and possessed almost exclusively by journalists (who else could afford the $3 per minute charge, in a country where the average monthly income is about $50?) The only real sign of telecommunications are shepherd-like shacks on high mountain passes, with rough painted signs above them reading "Telephone Cellular".
I was told that several aid agencies had turned to the black market to obtain computer equipment, given huge delays and corruption in Albanian customs. One American IT 'fixer' told me how he obtained PC sets from one source; then approached other gangs to purchase CD-Roms and modems. There were risks, he said, but how else were the agencies going to operate? It was quicker than bribing customs officials. Not even NATO's information headquarters in Tirana possessed email facilities. The few Albanian Internet providers operated from backalley apartments or farmbuildings, according to my American friend, shaking his head in incredulity.
Albania feels like two worlds colliding, Europe and Africa in one. A closed country until 1996, civil war and rampant corruption- coupled with a weak economy and government - have all contributed to a sense of impending collapse. Privately, relief workers are warning of chaos to come, with the threat of food riots and poverty-struck, local Albanians resenting the relief handed out to their cousins. This is also a country where almost every man has a gun, following widespread looting of army depots a few years back.
The scale of the problem facing the aid agencies and UNHCR in Albania is huge. Over a million and a half refugees have been on the move from Kosovo since the beginning of the year, and the threat of an oncoming winter is causing nerves among many officials. Yet as the debate looms back and forth on these issues, there is a less talked about problem facing the aid agencies; family separation. Everywhere you go, people ask about their relatives, or plead with you to help them join up with brothers and sisters abroad.
For example, quite by chance I came across Qazim Kuci in the corridor of the ICRC's Tirana headquarters. A short, grizzled man, he seemed to have lost hope, sitting listlessly in the corridor. What was wrong, I asked him?
"I have lost my three children. They are in Kosovo, but I have no idea where. One is 10, the other 12, the eldest 14." He sighed with his head in his hands, and his voice trembled as his red-rimmed eyes stared straight ahead. "It's already one month since I have had any news of them. I have no idea if they are alive or if they are dead. I am here every night and every day, just hoping to find them."
What had happened? "It was the second day of the NATO attacks and I was at home, as usual, with the children. Around 12 o'clock I sent them to check on my grandparents, to see if they were still OK - we hadn't hear anything from them. But at two o'clock the Serbian police came, and they didn't leave me any time to collect the kids - they just took us away with two minute's notice. I had to leave my children behind and we were sent directly to the border."
He stopped to pinch his eyes, his mouth hanging open. "There were around 2,000 people fleeing from our city to Albania, and on the way to the border we were robbed by the police. All the gold and everything else was taken by force. Then all the young men were taken by the Serbs. They were beaten hard and maltreated," he said, on the verge of tears.
"I have seen with my own eyes two of my cousins being killed," he added, before I could interrupt, "and another 14 people from my neighbourhood, friends of mine, shot. The houses were then burned by the Serbs...there was no chance to bury them - we just had to leave them on the ground." His voice broke. "One of them was 22, the other 25 years-old."
During a 10 minute break from an otherwise hectic schedule, Daloni Carlisle, the ICRC information delegate in Tirana, explained the scale of the problem:
"I think it's fair to say that 100 percent of the refugees who are arriving here in Albania are affected to one degree or another by family separation," she said. "And if you think that this is the largest movement of people since the Second World War, I think that gives you an idea of the scale of the problem."
She stopped to rub tired eyes: "We are seeing people leaving Kosovo stripped of their identity. They have no passport, no ID papers. The one thing they do have is a little scrap of paper - maybe written on the back of a cigarette box - the number of their relative abroad. Sometimes it's written on their arm, sometimes on their stomach. And they all have that one identifying number with them. So we have telephones working at the border, satellite phones, and we give people the chance to make one call to their relatives abroad."
Travelling with an emergency assessment team to the north-eastern city of Shkodra, I saw this process in action. Thousands of refugees were fleeing across the border from Montenegro, escaping threats from Serbian paramilitaries who had crossed into the country from Kosovo. The refugees were hurriedly placed into the town's disused tobacco factory, a huge, tumbling edifice, comprising several large buildings with neither heat, light nor sanitation.
In conditions reminiscent of the Vietnamese boat people, the numb-stricken refugees crowded into cots inside the dark, stinking factory, crying, sometimes shouting, or just sitting and staring in silent confusion. With the arrival of the ICRC vehicles, however, they began crowding around, despite the rain and mud, desperately trying to get their allotted one minute on the satellite phone.
Once the refugees move from the border into transit camps, their names are collected and broadcast out on radio, for possible family members listening in other parts of the country - or Europe and even North America. Significantly, these broadcasts also reach Kosovo, letting the people there know what is still happening in the outside world.
I was taken on a tour of the antiquated and rambling wooden studios of Radio Tirana, housed in an old, Soviet-style building and powered by a 1958 Russian transmitter. As I watched, announcers sat amidst a jumble of ancient wires and tapes, reading out hundreds of names of the missing. Many of the announcers and journalists were themselves Kosovan journalists, who had fled the conflict or earlier repression.
According to Daloni, this work meets a very important, basic psychological need. In just one week, the ICRC in Albania gathered over 3,000 names for the radio, and nearly 2,000 people made telephone calls. "We are at the moment going out into the community, trying to identify who these people are. We now have 40 unaccompanied children, and I'm certain this is a very small tip of a very large iceberg, because the more we go out, the more we see how families have been fractured - inside Kosovo, in Macedonia, in Albania and abroad. It's a very fluid and moving situation."
"We're doing at least one family reunion per day," she added. "We will physically drive people across the country if they're unaccompanied children, physically put them back together (with their family). Day by day we're working on these cases, but it's a huge problem."
The consequences can involve life and death: "If you're talking about an elderly person separated from their family, you find these people really turn their faces to the wall in many cases. They've lost their land, their home, they've lost their family, and now they're in a refugee camp. And they say they simply don't want to live anymore. So I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that by putting a person back together with their relatives, you are actually saving a life."
I managed to hitch a ride with one of the teams reuniting these individuals. We travelled a short way out of Tirana to the city of Lac, and a refugee centre housed in a former school. Inside the whitewashed building three old ladies sat in a corner, unattended and stinking of stale urine. The ICRC had managed to find the relatives of one of these women, whom we took, teary-eyed, on a six hour journey to meet her remaining family.
In the southern town of Berat, seemingly untouched by the war and lying in a serene, rural valley, we drove through a jumble of streets into another, disused municipal building. Disco music pumped through its barred windows, as young girls sat with the ghetto blasters they had carried with them from Kosovo. Old men sat chain-smoking cigarettes on the steps (there were no young men to be seen) and overhead you could just make out the jetstreams left by NATO planes.
As we pulled up a young child ran out and hugged the old woman through the open jeep window, shouting "Grandma! Grandma!" in Albanian. As other women, representing all ages of the family, joined her, hundreds of refugees crowded round, hugging the old lady and asking us to find other members of their families. It was difficult to turn away.
As we left, I was reminded of the words of an Austrian Red Cross worker a few days before, talking about his job: "It's hard, really hard. I feel a psychological problem on me myself, and all the members of my team. It's really hard. It's tough work - and there's no easy way out."
This article originally appeared in Geographical Magazine © 1999.
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A sister continues with her everyday activities despite the war.
Albania is a country where almost every man has a gun.