In June, 1999, about a week after NATO took control of Kosovo Suzi and I visited Prishtina for the first time. For the next two years we would be regular commuters into Kosovo, based either in Podgorica or Belgrade but managing a media program in Kosovo as well as for Serbia.
It was 4:22. The muezzin’s morning call to prayer drifted through the apartment window with a warm spring breeze. “God is great, prayer is better than sleep.” This time I didn’t sigh my own Christian prayer and drift back to sleep. I had an early appointment.
Since first coming to Albania in 1993 I knew I would someday visit Kosovo. But I never expected to enter riding shotgun in a fully armored vehicle (FAV), the fourth in a convoy that left at dawn from Skopje, Macedonia.
Our FAV was a Chevy Suburban, highway department orange, with diplomatic plates and weighing seven and a half tons. The driver says it gets bad mileage, is hell to stop on ice and requires a brake job every 3,000 miles. It’s supposed to keep me safe.
Our convoy carried, among others, Suzi and me, Ray Jennings, another Sitkan working for USAID, Richard Lucas from the BBC and two Kosovar Albanians, Dita Kalmendi, manager of Radio 21, and a Radio 21 reporter, her brother, Eugene. We were going in to set up Radio 21 as the first independent Albanian radio station in Kosovo.
Dita and her husband Floran run Radio 21 (it’s a family operation). They had worked for Radio Pristina until June 5, 1990 when, on orders from Milosevec, they were driven from their jobs at gunpoint along with almost all other Albanian Kosovars who worked in State institutions. Given that Yugoslavia was a socialist country a lot of people, teachers, nurses, doctors, broadcasters have been unemployed since June, 1990. The Kalmendis incorporated Radio 21, applied for a license and were ignored by the Serb authorities. They began Internet broadcasting and got 15 minutes of time on B92’s daily satellite feed. In exile in Macedonia they continue Internet broadcasting and feed two hours a night to a Dutch short-wave station beaming into Kosovo. Dita, Floran, Eugene and their kids were refugees, part of the mass of people stuck for three days in the no man’s land between the borders.
On the Macedonian side of the border people were being let out of the camps. A line of hopeful returnees was forming up in every kind of vehicle. We were waved around the line and given only a cursory exit check by the Macedonians. A US Marine waved us through the Yugoslav border post that now flew an American flag. I didn’t need a Yugoslav visa.
It’s hard to describe the exhilaration I felt entering Kosovo. On the right there was a burned out pizza parlor with the red and black Albanian flag and a huge banner; “Welcome NATO.” We would see these banners again and again, like a city welcoming an American Legion convention. On the left Dita pointed out her abandoned car, so close to the border. When the bombing ended her 14-year-old son snuck across the border to claim the items hanging from the car’s rear view mirror to prove he was one of the first back into Kosovo. The border is mined so Dita was not happy.
We passed truck and busloads of returnees. They smiled, waved and flashed us the two-fingered “V” sign as our convoy passed. One busload of returnees hung out the windows chanting “NATO, NATO, NATO.”
There was less damage along the road from Skopje to Pristina than I had expected. The first 10 kilometers goes through very rough terrain and there was minefield-warning tape along the highway’s margin. Occasionally we would see a burned out building. At one point we passed a whole village compound that was razed. Bridges along side roads leading into the main road were down. But along the main road there was not much damage.
This is not the story I got from reporters who got off the main road. In Skopje there are few hotel rooms available and we shared one of those journalists’ crash pads that groups of reporters keep in a safe area adjacent to a war zone. A photo journalist who has covered the war in Yugoslavia since 1991, came into the flat one night and needed to unload. We talked until 2:30 AM. He said that while the cities, with the exception of Pec, were in pretty good shape, what he saw in the villages was the worst destruction he had seen in 9 years in the Balkans; and it wasn’t war damage, it was deliberate burning and murder. He is not a man to shock easily but he was shocked, and sick. He said that he has seen the euphoria of returnees turn to despair when they discovered the charred remains of their homes — or worse.
We saw several crossroads guarded by the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army). Some of the UCKs carried Kalashnikovs but some were unarmed with armbands, handcuffs and truncheons. They were taking on the role of civil police.
Pristina is a “secure” area under British control. Vehicles have to thread through a three-tank roadblock on the highway leading into the city. Our US diplomatic plates assured that we would be waved through but the British soldiers search most vehicles entering. In one car two Albanian men were frisked. The soldier found first one hand grenade, then a second. A crowd had gathered to see what would happen. The soldier said. “That would be two hand grenades sir, would you care for a receipt?” The Albanians laughed as the officer wrote out and stamped the paper.
When I arrived in Prishtina I noticed three things. First, no one had collected garbage for a very long time. Piles of it spilled from dumpsters. Several dumpsters had been burned out. On closer investigation these turned out to be dumpsters outside government buildings and were used to hurriedly burn documents before a Serbian rapid retreat.
Second, almost every apartment had a satellite dish on its balcony. Since 1990 there has been no Albanian radio or TV station in Pristina. I had read that Pristina had the highest penetration of dishes in the world. People wanted to pick up Radio-TV Tirana and CNN. Seeing all the dishes was a shock.
Third, tanks served in place of police cars. Often they were flower-strewn, which only slightly softened the guys with goggles watching the streets through machine gun sights. They rumbled by at regular intervals. Western TV crews took advantage of this “visual.”
Our first meeting was at 9 AM but we were in Pristina much earlier than that. Dita needed coffee so we went to the one place she had heard was open, the Grand Hotel.
The Grand is a concrete palace with five stars and a smell of mildew mixed with urine. Outside there was every kind of truck with every kind of communications gear. If I put a hotdog on a stick and held it over my head I’m sure it would have been cooked within three minutes by excess microwaves. Beyond the tech trucks the “war wagons,” rows of armored Land Rovers with the letters “TV” applied with black electrical tape, were drawn up. Even some of the print people put “TV” on their rigs, it’s more recognizable than “press” and uses less tape. On the terrace above the hotel’s entrance TV networks had set up white, tent like canopies where the world’s media stars do stand-ups in the diffuse white light with the backdrop of tanks rumbling past the Kosovo Export Company. The camera angles were carefully calculated not to pick up the communications trucks and war wagons that actually dominated the downtown. There was a constant stream of media stars on the terrace, it’s always deadline somewhere
Hundreds of men and a few women, each wearing a sleeveless vest with lots of pockets and a KFOR photo ID on a neck chain, mingled in the Grand’s outdoor café. I felt underdressed. They were unhappy. The hotel had no water, so no coffee to fuel the journalists. They were also out of Coke. It was either Sprite or beer. Several had opted for beer even though it was not yet eight in the morning. Dita found an open café across the street where there was water, but only Nescafe, at more than Alaska prices.
I picked up the tab because I was the only one who remembered to bring Deutsche Marks. Technically this is still Yugoslavia but who wants dinars? You pay in marks and get dinars in change.
We spent time hanging out at the Grand because it was the place to met people, from the British Major giving out broadcast licenses (“Please pick a frequency between 88.1 and 105.6, we’re reserving frequencies above that for military use.”) to the UN lady in charge of civil broadcasting. The mood improved when the Grand got tap water back and could make coffee.
When people saw Dita in the café they brought her PSAs that she phoned into Skopje for the nightly short-wave broadcast. (Amazingly, the Serbian cell phone system still works.) Dita got messages like “would all electrical workers laid off in 1990 please report to work tomorrow.” News was posted, in the hotel’s glass entry, including reports on returnees hurt by booby traps left in their homes by retreating Serbs.
A journalist we know had been reported killed. While we were sitting at the Grand he walked up to us. There was shock and then tears. Gazmed Berisha was reported killed in a massacre in his garden. There had been a several killed and someone saw a body with glasses like Berisha’s. Gazmed escaped and hid in the hills for weeks. He had a transistor radio with him so knew he had been “confirmed” dead. When the Serbs withdrew he walked back to Pristina and into the café. He took Dita’s cell phone and started calling friends. “Yes, it’s me, I’m alive!” Another reporter said he had been hidden by his Serb neighbors. We met Radio 21’s accountant. He had been kept in a gym with 800 men and told us stories of beatings. He was almost unable to speak, walking in a daze, free to walk for the first time in weeks.
There was very little damage for a city that had undergone 77 days of air raids. We walked down an unharmed street to see one building blown up by NATO bombs, surrounded with intact structures. There wasn’t even much broken glass near the attack sites.
The mood in Pristina was quietly joyful. Albanians traditionally take an evening stroll, but the stroll was day long as people walked the streets after being inside for 77 days, afraid to leave their houses. They walked, met, hugged, kissed, cried and laughed. One woman said the only time she felt safe was during NATO raids, because the Serb police stayed in the shelters. Another said it was so strange to see a uniform smile at them. For years a uniform meant harassment or worse. For Albanians this is a liberated city.
For Serbs it’s different. The staff at the Grand is Serb and surly. It’s particularly uncomfortable for Serb officials ordered to stay behind to represent Serb sovereignty. Dita had to arrange lease of studio space, transmitter site, and phone lines. She had to visit the man who drove her out of her job in1990. She went in with a British major at her side. “Yes Mrs. Kalmendi, we can do that, of course Mrs. Kalmendi, whatever you want.” Dita savored the exchange. She knew the respect she was being shown was only because of the major sitting on her right. This time the uniform was on her side.
Richard Lucas, Suzi and I talked to engineers and building officials about placing a temporary transmitter on the roof of the 16 story Rilindja building. By the end of the day we had a facility planned and by the end of our stay in Macedonia we had located a transmitter and antenna and arranged for KFOR to helicopter it into Kosovo. We should have Radio 21 on the air by July.
The Radio 21 studio will be on the 11th floor of the Rilindja Building. The building is strange. Some floors function normally, like nothing had happened. The 15th floor has a Turkish language paper and it looks like a normal office floor. The 11th floor tenant was, until recently, a Serbian-Orthodox newspaper that broke its lease quickly. The red fabric office partitions and broken furniture are strewn about. Anything valuable, computers, copiers, faxes and phones, is gone. The place is littered with papers; cheap reprints of icons cover the floor. The elevator died while we were on the roof and we had to walk down the stairs through the whole building.
Late in the afternoon we visited Radio 21’s old studios from where they did the Internet broadcasts. All the broadcast equipment was gone leaving an empty rack. The Serbs had gone through station records, burning many of them in the basement furnace. Most chilling, they had gone through the station scrapbooks and taken out photos of certain individuals. Before they evacuated Dita had feared that they would lose their files. (Serb police took passports from refugees meaning they entered Macedonia with no ID papers.) The night before they left Dita and Floran scanned files, created Hotmail accounts and emailed their files to themselves. They had their records waiting in mailboxes when they got to Macedonia. Dita found an empty bottle of Scotch in her desk. “They even drank my Scotch.”
We are only permitted in Pristina from sunup to sundown so the convoy formed up for the evening drive back to Skopje. Dita carried a new pair of shoes. She had gotten them just before the bombing started. When she left her flat she had thought about taking them but decided she would leave them to come back to. They were her symbol, something simple to long for when longing for big things became too much to bear. She had been back to Prishtina. She had her shoes. Her flat was ok. It had not been looted. Her Serb neighbor had protected it. She thinks of her neighbor on the ride back to Skopje. “I know she is a Serb, but she is my friend. We hugged and cried. I can’t hate her.” This may not be a common reaction as Kosovars return to looted homes and the remains of loved ones.
On the drive home we noticed burned out homesteads, chimneys sticking up through the rubble. Dita wrote a poem based on an old Albanian saying about hearth and home.
Home is where the hearth is.
The Serbs left us our hearths.
We will find our homes.
We drove into a river of returnees. They were in trucks, tractors, on bikes, on foot, pushing wheelbarrows. The line stretched for miles. The Red Cross gave each refugee a two-liter bottle of water and four foil wrapped “meals ready to eat.” A flight of Apache helicopters was on patrol over the emptying refugee camps. Someone in the back of the vehicle said bitterly, “finally, the Apaches.”
We are on the air and believe me or not, 24 hours a day. So we did it. We started with an experimental program on 15 of July and with the full program scheme on 18 of July. So we are crazy people, but the response of the listeners is amazing. Radio 21 is everywhere. We are live from 7 AM till 1AM, after that we are streaming our music. In the moment when I’m writing you there is going the night program from 10.30 PM ‘till 1 AM
Listeners are calling in every minute chatting and greeting us. One the most touching and amazing things is that they are saying that now they don’t have a feeling of loneliness, they have a friend who has entered their home to take out the darkness, who is bringing them a feeling of support, who brings back their voices. Wonderful feeling for all our staff. We don’t stop getting energy for work. The results are there, in every minute. So we are alive. You can understand this feeling. Cheers for us, but also for all of you who have helped us to do this. When will you will be in Prishtina, to join our success?