Trip Start ??? 06, 2001
10Trip End ??? 07, 2001
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You must admit that going on holiday to invade somewhere does have a certain derring dare appeal to it.
It all began with a trip to an England football match in Sofia,perfectly timed to get me in the right place at the right time for NATO's liberation of Kosovo.
On the Friday after the game I was on my way to Skopje by bus.Arriving in late afternoon,it was clear that this town was gearing up for impending drama.NATO helicopters regularly overflew,and as I passed the HQ of the Macedonian Red Cross,a fleet of black limousines rolled up,delivering a team of dignitaries to discuss preparations for possible casualties and refugee issues.The land advance across the border into Kosovo,only 6 miles from here,was now imminent.
Over the next 10 days,in our own version of "Saving Private Ryan",an American comrade and I seized the moment and experienced our own walk on part in the War.
We were to witness the advance of NATO tanks over the border,and through the streets of Skopje,to scenes of jubilation from thousands of Albanians;we visited refugee camps across Macedonia;and we travelled the length and breadth of Kosovo at a time when the majority of coalition forces had yet to arrive,and danger from Serb resistance and snipers was still a possibility,just days after the advance troops had begun the occupation.
Kosovo was in an extreme state of flux,with four armies and two sets of refugees on the move.The armies were themselves made up of various factions;the Serb regular army and police were leaving hot on the heels of their paramilitary units;the Albanian KLA were returning from hillside and rural bays to the towns and cities;and the international forces were represented by separate battalions from different nations,each assigned their own sector of Kosovo to administer during the short term power vacuum before the expected democracy emerged.In this mix were also a regiment of Russian soldiers who had travelled from Bosnia to reach Pristina airport before the NATO forces,to garner any possible advantage to aid their Serb Orthodox allies.They held court to the international press at a checkpoint at Slatina as negotiations went on for their withdrawal
Many Albanian refugees ignored official advice and returned to their homes very quickly,often only to find rubbled buildings,burnt cars and a danger of UXO,mines and booby traps all around.As we passed through their villages,they were often to be seen standing in roadside huddles,patiently waitng for the assistance of KFOR to render it safe to re enter their shattered homesteads.
Serbs,and sometimes gypsys were making the opposite journey,getting out while the going was good,unwilling to stake their future in a province governed by forces that had just subjected the Yugoslav government to several months of aerial bombardment.NATO had sided with Albanian victims to prevent another Balkan genocide,rather than risk another Srebrenica.
Many Serbs burned their own houses before they departed,rather than let them fall to the "enemy".What remained was often looted and torched by Albanians seeking reprisals for their own suffering.NATO forces were inclined to stand and watch these incidents,feeling it to be beneath their mandate to deter understandable acts of revenge by the victors of this conflict,and not wishing to make new enemies of their own so soon.
The infrastructure of the country had been badly destroyed,especially by the aerial bombing.In places were dummy bridges and tanks,made by the Serbs using scaffolding poles and tarpaulin,in an attempt to confuse the bombers,but most bombs had found their target,and many rivers were only passable on temporary Bailey bridges,or weaving around the craters on the old ones,if they had not collapsed completely.
But the roads were as yet quiet,with only a minimal amount of refugee traffic,and the byways were mostly clear for the huge convoys of NATO forces,each trailing back several miles with tanks,trucks,humvees and jeeps,as new forces continually arrived,and the beginnings of a supply chain were developed.
INTO THE UNKNOWN
We hired a driver in Skopje to take us to Pristina.We had no other plan than that we would go to the Grand Hotel when we arrived.Our initial trepidation based on internet reports of 2 German journalists being killed by snipers in Stimlje the day before,soon gave way to a more relaxed demeanour as we headed through Kacanik gorge,and then across the flat plains of southern Kosovo,pausing only at American checkpoints,where our Kfor passes were inspected at gunpoint and we were waved through,our journey shadowed by humvees buzzing around this American sector,and hailed by home made flags hung over bridges,welcoming NATO to Kosovo
.At one point we stopped on the road to film the passing of a large Italian armed convoy,as a battle group made its way to it's ultimate destination of Peja(Pec in Serbian).In another place we filmed at a ruined and deserted village,just off the highway,pondering it's fate.As we neared the capital,an Albanian with a large American flag walked towards oncoming traffic,flag pole in one hand,and a 2 fingered victory salute in the other
Just before the brow of the hill that leads into the city,we were stopped at a British checkpoint,complete with camouflaged tents set up on the side of the road.I hoped we would find somewhere better to sleeep tonight!
I think these "tents" were to provide sniper's cover from this elevated position and it's fine view over Pristina.
The next few minutes were a blur as we raced through the streets,glimpsing the local people for the first time,and observing a tank on every street corner,finally pulling up at the Grand Hotel,itself guarded by a tank outside.Somebody had decorated it with a few bunches of flowers to celebrate liberation.
The hotel itself had been taken over by the press,and we breezed past one TV crew doing their piece to camera as we entered the foyer.Kate Adie was among the assembled journalists in the lounge area.It wasn't long before we experienced "the kindness of strangers",as some locals offered us the rental of a room in their apartment for one night,for a reasonable $20.
We arranged to meet them here later,and set off with no more to do to the Slatina airport,determined to see the Russian soldiers before any deal might be negotiated for their withdrawal.
A mile from the airport,we came to the Russian position,guarded by two 8 wheeled APC's,and a sandbagged sangar.The Russian conscripts brooded over a few Marlboroughs as they dealt with the keen media interest,while keeping watch through binoculars,and allowing through their own vehicles on airport runs.Their equipment appeared to be scruffy and outdated,as they blocked off this muddy track to outsiders
A fuel dump adjacent to this position had been subject to NATO aerial bombardment,and was worthy of closer inspection,many oil drums still lying around among the devastation.
On our way back to Pristina,we passed by British soldiers on patrol,weapons pointing nervously out towards passing traffic as they guarded a civilian in front of their tank,a Serb Orthodox church in the background.They were unwilling to explain the situation so we proceeded to the capital.
Meeting our new host,we walked through the mean streets to our accomodation.Attempting to change money,we visited the bank,but all of their money had been taken to Belgrade by the Yugoslav army,and the counter staff pointed us in the direction of the butcher's opposite.Here,they had no meat,but their back room doubled up as the Pristina Stock Exchange,and dollars and Deutschmarks were rapidly swapped for Dinars.
Our route took us past army bases,burnt out shops,up hill and yond dale,until we arrived at the Sunny Hill district,one of the more elite areas of the city,with smart,relatively modern four story apartment blocks on the southern outskirts of town.As we arrived,British Puma helicopters flew low overhead,on their way to KFOR hill command centre,on a hill opposite,a few miles away in the south west of the city.
Our passage up the stairs was momentarily interrupted by two men moving large furniture downwards,where an already half full open truck idled by the kerb across the street.It transpired that our hosts Serbian neighbours had decided to get out while the going was good,in a civilised example of ethnic cleansing.The arrival in their block of two civilians from the main invading nations,appeared to do little to dissuade them from their exodus,and we graciously stepped aside as the wardrobe followed the double bed down the three flights of steps.We thought of offering to help but didn't want to appear churlish.