In the spring of 1999 NATO waged an 11-week bombing campaign against the rump state of Yugoslavia, in an attempt to force Slobodan Milosevic’s Government to submit to demands to withdraw its troops from Kosovo, following an alleged campaign of ethnic cleansing that appeared too similar to events in nearby Balkan states, such as Bosnia, for the world to ignore.
I watched with everyone else the plight of fleeing refugees regularly filling our TV screens, as the province appeared to be all but cleaned out by a mass exodus; and I planned to visit the region in the coming summer.
The timing couldn’t have worked out better. England were playing an international football match in Sofia against Bulgaria in June 1999, and as I flew out to the Balkans the Serbs were on the brink of capitulating, and a NATO land force was expected to “liberate” the province within days.
In May 1998, I had shaken hands with Bill Clinton outside of a Birmingham, England pub, during the G8 summit of world leaders. Now he was sending ground troops to Kosovo to supplement those of seven European nations. “Thank you for coming”, I had said on the spur of the moment to the man who had not long since been embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I donâ€™t know whether he thought I was being cheeky about his affair, or that I OWNED Birmingham, but the police security appeared alarmed that one of the local â€œfootball hooligansâ€ had walked right up to the president of the worldâ€™s most powerful state, and they quickly whisked him away from our small gathering in a convoy of limousines. If Iâ€™d had more time to speak to him I would have asked him to intervene in the Kosovo crisis.
I had visited that region in 1995 and seen for myself the heavy handed patrolling of Serb forces with their SUS (Stop and Search) harassment of the Albanian population, and indeed their harassment of myself. Even getting into Kosovo across the Albanian border had been troublesome, with the contents of my luggage being spread out over the tables of the control post’s office. As he finished his inspection, the officer in charge said, in his limited English, one word… “NO!” And as I was putting my things back together again, I thought I had been refused entry and would have to retrace my taxi ride back through glorious mountains to the town of Kukes. I didn’t want to go back that way, but as I left the door of the border office, the officer pointed in the direction of Kosovo and said “GO!” Boy, was I pleased, but my relief was dampened somewhat because by that time the small convoy of vehicles that had been crossing had been waved off already, and there was nothing for it but to walk the entire sixteen miles to Prizren.
I arrived about four hours later, after dark, annoyed enough to ethnically cleanse the entire village myself at the fact that no-one had stopped to offer me a lift. Except, that is, for a farm cart that obligingly allowed me to jump on the back two miles into the walk, only to turn off the main road just a few hundred yards further on! I recovered my composure enough to enjoy a free nightâ€™s sleep under the stars on the roof of a restaurant, and accepted that the strong suspicion between ethnic groups in this region means that few people stop for hitch hikers.
Now, I found myself heading for Skopje, by bus, determined to be a part of the history that was unfolding, and feeling a personal connection to the destiny of this land. The journey took about six hours and I arrived mid-afternoon on a Friday, to a Macedonia that was clearly gearing itself up for conflict. As I backpacked between the bus station and the Ferali Youth Hostel, the only affordable accommodation in this mediocre city with it’s newly acquired capital status, I passed the Macedonian Red Cross Headquarters, just as a fleet of black limousines swept up to the entrance for an important meeting about the difficulties ahead. NATO helicopters could also be seen regularly flying over the city – British Pumas and Chinooks, busily preparing for the big push, expected any day soon. The hostel had thoughtfully roomed me with two Americans, who had similar intentions as me:
Mark was an academic from the University of California and had arrived to make an amateur video on human rights abuses. He had been to other conflicts and his experience in such affairs as acquiring press passes was to prove invaluable. Richard was younger and apparently attractive to the ladies as he spent much of his brief time in Skopje dating a local girl. He ran a photography shop in New York.
We had all travelled separately. A West Coast American, an East Coast American and an Englishman, flying in via Athens, Istanbul and Sofia respectively; drawn to this conflict from the diverse corners of the two nations that had orchestrated the bombing campaign and were to be most prominent in the invasion to come. Although the hostel was almost full with journalists, who had failed to acquire rooms at the expensive Holiday Inn or Hotel Bristol, we seemed to be the only amateurs, fortuitously arriving on the same day and ending up in the same room. New friendships were formed quickly and naturally in such circumstances, and we instantly became a team.
We spent the next few days acquiring press passes from both the Macedonian Ministry of Information, giving us permission to visit refugee camps, and from NATO HQ who provided us with KFOR passes, which would enable us to enter the province of Kosovo itself. On the Saturday morning we visited Stenkovec I, along the road to the border, after which we split up for the afternoon.
As I was wandering around Skopje, wondering whether the invasion would take place today, I noticed that a NATO tent and information point on the Northern outskirts of the city had been removed, and further up a NATO soldier was redirecting traffic away from the border road. I decided that it looked like something was about to happen, so I began to walk in the direction of the frontier. As I reached a fly-over that crossed this road, behind me a column of British Army Land Rover’s began to overtake me. I had guessed right; the invasion was on. Several children and two elderly women, dressed in overcoats and headscarves, were standing under the bridge and began to wave with excitement at the passing convoy, which responded with smiles and clenched fist salutes through the windows of their passing vehicles.
Ahead, the skies had turned black and a storm was about to break. A clap of thunder rolled across the fields and lightning forked on the horizon, a fitting meteorological tribute to impending battles to come, perhaps? This heightened my own feeling of anticipation, as I headed resolutely towards the front line, while every sensible person headed in the opposite direction, away from possible Serb resistance, and, perhaps more importantly, a bloody good soaking!
Then I had a lucky break. A car pulled out of a side road ahead of me and, with rain imminent, I flagged it down. The driver didn’t need too much encouragement to take me up to the border, as he had defied NATO’s cordon and used his local knowledge of the back roads to make his own trip to see this historical moment for himself. A couple of miles before the border, we arrived at Stenkovec refugee camp and climbed out of the car to greet the Kosovan Albanians, who had lived in relative squalor for three months, but could now see the distinct possibility of returning to their homes very soon. Hundreds of them lined both embankments of the main road, holding aloft homemade signs declaring “UCK LOVES NATO” and cheering wildly as columns of tanks passed their temporary tented homes.
Presently, we left these excited folk, and journeyed on towards the Blace border, just us and a British tank company, in the rain. At the border we stood under cover, watching the tanks roll over the demarcation line and officially entering Kosovo, evidently the only witnesses of this D-Day moment. The Macedonian border guards had all but abandoned their post and we were able to freely wander into the liberated country.
As we turned the car outside the former Blace restaurant, used for recent negotiations with the Serb delegation, we were hailed loudly by a Turkish presenter that we were driving across the line of his stand-up piece to camera. Theirs was the only media witness to this particular advancing force, and we may have unwittingly appeared on his clips for CNN. The car park was filled with British and Belgian Signals Regiment
vehicles, and dozens of radio masts reached up to the rainy skies. It was time for us to return to Skopje, soaked to the skin but flushed with success that we had witnessed something momentous.
Author – Martin Felton