Rekindling Kosovo

Great and simple truths of humanitarian work: numbing exhumations,stolen staplers, no phones, and lots of hope.

This is an excerpt of an Oct. 16 letter sent to family and friends by Carolyn McCool, a Canadian lawyer working in Kosovo as the head of the Mitrovica region of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE is the multilateral agency charged with rebuilding a civil infrastructure in Kosovo.

I'm in Mitrovica, in the north of Kosovo. I don't know how to tell you why I find it so beautiful.

The damage is deep and pervasive - visual, emotional, cultural. I didn't know that an entire culture could be traumatized, that people could have a collective sense of grief and rage.

One of our Albanian interpreters often weeps.

"They are so alone under the sky," she says, when we talk about the exhumation of a mass grave of Kosovar Albanians killed in the "ethnic cleansing" last spring. "No one was with them when they died. It was easier with those we saw killed, because they knew we were there." The lonely execution, the hidden burial, the months it took to find them, are more painful, she meant, than to die in the presence of your own people. To her, a life taken has more meaning if witnessed by others who survive to tell what happened.

But I was going to tell you why I find it so beautiful here in a broken city. Maybe it's the Gothic architecture, houses that drip concrete curlicues and whirls. Maybe it's the tiniest of children on the sides of dirt roads holding tin plates of apples high above their heads hoping for a sale. Maybe it's the sweet, thick Turkish coffee, enough alone to support life for days. Or the mayor of a razed village with a bouquet of wildflowers on the table in front of his UN tent, who talked about the destruction of his English literature library. Or the courage of judges who risk their lives to work in a hostile environment.

I have the sense of falling in love with an entire land - the opposite of being traumatized. At the desperate bottom, when hope is almost extinguished, when joy and promise are no more than smoke on the horizon, the possibilities are enormous. The smallest event can have the most enormous consequences if we act on principle and honor and respect for people.

I am the director of OSCE operations in the Mitrovica region. OSCE is responsible for investigating human rights abuses, building the institutions of democratic society, organizing elections, monitoring and developing media, and the creation of a new police school. Society has been destroyed, and we are literally rebuilding it with our bare hands, our brains, and the good will of the people of Kosovo. I'm confident these tools will get the job done.

In my Mitrovica office of more than 50 people, we have one phone - it works from time to time. We steal one another's staplers (there are three). There are no file folders, no e-mail, no Internet. The electricity goes out several times a day. Sometimes we go two days without tap water. To do business you go to people's offices. You can't phone them first because they won't have a phone, or you - and they - don't know the number, or there's no dial tone. The apparent inefficiency arising from this chaos produces two things: extremely close working relationships, and a "just do it" attitude.

The working languages are English, Albanian, Serbian, and French. At one meeting we had a chain of interpreters, moving from English to French to Serbian to Albanian. The possibilities for confusion are enormous. Many of the nonnative-English speakers in the international community aren't perfectly fluent in English, nor are the interpreters. We don't always know when mistakes are made.

In a meeting today, I thought someone was telling me that there was an old community of German missionaries who'd been living in an industrial building near the railway for 14 years. I couldn't believe no one had told me of such a tiny but culturally significant minority. It turned out he was talking about a printing shop with old German machinery that hadn't been repaired for 14 years but could be used in our work. We nearly died laughing.

I live in a big house with five other OSCE staff on the north side of the city - the primarily Kosovar Serb part of Mitrovica. Our neighborhood, however, is Bosniac - people of Muslim Serb ethnicity, as opposed to Orthodox Serbs. Caught in-between, the Bosniacs are one of the most vulnerable groups here. Under my bedroom window at night they sit on little boxes, talking and guarding the house. Some nights it seems to me that when one particular woman joins them, there's almost a singing. All the other women's voices rise in greeting at the same time.

People here are aware of the possibility of traveling abroad to make refugee claims. But I've yet to meet anyone who's asked me how to do it. Many who were abroad have come home. There's no sign of any refugee mill or even an informal advice center for those who wish to leave.

The other people that live in my house are an Italian journalist, a Swiss-Peruvian lawyer, and three career international aid workers, two British, one German. It's possible to do this kind of work for years: My colleagues have been in Haiti, Rwanda, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, South Africa, Angola, Afghanistan, and so on. They've been shot at, evacuated, and held hostage; they've documented mass graves; their colleagues have died of random or deliberate killing. They've worked in chaos on every continent. They can drive anything, live in anything, and gripe with the best of us about the lack of a bathtub plug.

One thing on my desk right now is an evacuation plan. The reality is that we'll probably never have to evacuate. Of course there is significant political violence here - even now, I think I hear small-arms fire - but the risk to one of us is no greater than being caught in drug-related crossfire on the streets of downtown Vancouver.

We have great tech toys: video cameras, global positioning systems, still cameras, topographical maps of every section of the region. It's every traveler's dream equipment, but it is for the grimmest part of our work. We follow up every report of killings, mass graves, and other types of abuses and atrocities. We need the tools for precisely placing these things on a map.

I have been to one exhumation so far. It's as difficult as you might imagine. There is absolutely no privacy for the dead. At the same time, there is the most astonishing dignity to those murdered for political or ethnic reasons. Their crumpled bodies have an innocence approaching a state of grace. There is nothing they could have done to warrant this end. We honor them in deed and thought: We will do everything within our power to bring the killers to justice; we will help to rebuild the land which has lost them; we will never forget them.

But the hardest part is the living. At this exhumation, a woman wept continuously. It was her father, with others, in the ground. I put my arms around her and said how sorry I was. It was so little, and I doubt she understood English, but as I left, our eyes met one last time. She had dark eyes and wore a blue scarf. I don't think we will ever forget each other

At the same grave site I spoke with an Albanian man who had a spider on him. He could have been 30 or 70. He had seen his six-year-old son and other relatives killed by Serb forces. The spider kept crawling up his leg; it was quite a big, dark spider. He spoke of his sister who was so traumatized that she couldn't leave her bed. The spider went into his jacket and out again. He was so thin that he couldn't have been eating. When the spider got to his collar, I had to turn and leave. I wanted to tell him to brush it off, but he was so fragile, I felt he might shatter into pieces in the dust at our feet.

The interethnic violence goes both ways. Albanians also kill and abuse Serbs. In the main, this is revenge killing or abuse of people who are, or are thought to be, war criminals. Sometimes the innocent suffer.

An appalling situation occurred several days ago at a mass grave outside Mitrovica. The dead were some of the Kosovar Albanians routed from their homes by Serbs April 14 and 15. There were 2,500 Kosovar Albanians at the funeral. A car with Serbs was noticed on the road. An altercation broke out and turned into a major police and military incident. In the course of this battle, a Serb man was killed. Not only was he beaten, but someone broke the window of a car to get a piece of glass to slit his throat. He was not charged with or suspected in any war crimes; he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The way to tolerate all this is through work - which is much more than just work. This makes sense: When you're doing things to help, you're not so vulnerable, or victimized.

No one can say yet what will happen in Kosovo, nor can anyone predict what will be the legacy of the international intervention here. But things are better than they were. The bridge in Mitrovica, one of the great symbols of division in Kosovo, is still not free, but other, less tangible bridges are being built, through the work of OSCE and others.

The Albanians, Serbs, Bosniacs, Turks, and Roma (Gypsies) of the Mitrovica region may not yet hold out a hand to each other; they may not yet say, "I'm sorry, and I will work for your people as well as for my people." But they do, sometimes, meet with each other. And the voice of communication, as opposed to rhetoric, is heard more than it used to be. The mere presence of the international community shows that human beings can hold out their hands, that we share a common dream and vision of a decent life in which families are whole and the integrity of each person is respected.

This is in fact the most amazing place to be - where great and simple truths are being tested and played out in small and large ways every day. I am grateful to have the chance to be part of the difference that will be made.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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