This letter may get a little long, but it should be the last one for some time. Enjoy life and keep in touch. It has been over two years since I started planning my 1st trip to the Balkans. What started out as an idea about the size of a matchbox just kept getting larger. A lot has happened in that time, more than I could begin to describe in one entry. The best way to describe my experience is to say it was like being in a movie without a script, and so far has no ending.
What made me go in the first place? Four trips later I still struggle with that question. As another volunteer once said, if you could answer That question clearly I would be a little skeptical. In brief it was part humanitarian, part adventure. The places I have been, the people I have met, and, most importantly, the people we have helped has verified that whatever the reason, I made the right choice. Before I go too far I should mention that even though I enjoy being at the center of attention, I do not enjoy being the center of attention, at least in this case. I feel uncomfortable accepting the praise and accolades I receive for the work we have done. I want to emphasize the word WE. None of what I/we have accomplished would have been possible without the help of literally a couple hundred people here in Vermont, the U.S., and the Balkans and all over the world. To list them all would be next to impossible, and, like myself, their support of and during my trips was not for themselves, rather for others they have never met. This e-mail newsletter and those that have proceeded it were an attempt on my part to try and give all that were interested a sense of being connected.
I have made four trips to the Balkans focusing primarily on Kosova. Originally I thought that my summer of ’99 trip would be a solo experience. Upon my return an article in the Northfield News generated one call from The United Church of Northfield inquiring if I would be willing to collaborate on another trip to the region. To make a long story short, that one trip has turned into three more so far. At this point in time I have no plans to return in the near future.
In late March-early April of ‘99, I logged on the web to try and find an agency that would take a short-term volunteer for the Kosova/Balkans refugee crisis. I figured that my background in the culinary arts might be useful feeding the hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees. After hours of searching various web sites, I came upon the NGO, the Balkan Sunflowers (BSF). They were just what I was looking for, an agency that would take a short-term volunteer with little experience. The best way to describe the Sunflowers organization is that they “try” and bring a sense of normalcy to children in crisis situations. They also try and allow the volunteers to use their talents and skills as best they can.
The summer of ’99 trip started with a ferry from Bari, Italy to Durres, Albania. From there I caught a taxi to Tirana where I went through a weeklong training session. Instead of cooking I ended up playing soccer and Frisbee, giving out smiles and receiving hugs in return. Looking back, those who know me were probably more amazed with what I would be doing instead of where I was going to do it! Being a single white male with no children, it was just the opposite of what I thought I was suited for, but on the first day in the Kashar camp when the back door of the van opened there were ten children there who just wanted to play. They were not concerned with what fears I may have had. That week opened my eyes to the importance of children and their needs. They are the future.
After nine days of 100 degree heat, rationing water, buying produce from a street vendor stationed next to an overflowing dumpster, and playing with children at a refugee camp in the morning and an orphanage in the afternoon, I was asked to go to Kosova to help set up operations. The living conditions were not any better in Kosova. The water and electricity would sometimes be out of service for over 24 hours due to repairs and rationing. Prishtina is a small city of 250,000, which had ballooned to close to 500,000 due to the refugee situation. It was not uncommon to see two or more families living in a one-bedroom apartment. I arrived in Prishtina on the twentieth of July on a World Food Program chartered flight; not even a month had passed since the mass migration back home had started. It was an exciting time to be there. Imagine 30-40 thousand NATO/KFOR military forces setting up operations, every Non Government Organization (NGO) you could imagine, CNN, BBC, CBS, Time magazine, European media, all converging on a location that had over a million refugees trying to get reestablished. When I said that it was like being in a movie, I was not kidding! This was good stuff! If I had a camera crew with me we could have blown shows like Survivor out of the water! In short it was the beginning of a unique opportunity to observe and participate in the establishment of a region over the past two years.
I stayed in Prishtina for a little over three weeks. Leaving with a sense of accomplishment before I left was not going to happen. We made friends with the children in the Sunny Hill neighborhood. The children and I cleaned a paved parking lot of all its debris and would play soccer with the balls I brought from home. BSF wanted to put in a recreation field next to the parking lot on a vacant lot. Most of my time was spent making contacts trying to locate equipment and funds as well as support in the neighborhood. I did manage to acquire the services of the Brits 26th Armored Engineers who donated their equipment for a cleanup of the garbage piles in the area. They also came back after I left with their bulldozers, backhoe, and trucks to do some initial work to the recreation field. Unfortunately work was halted on the rec. project for a number of reasons and the lot is still not in use; the junk still litters the area.
The December of ’99’s project was totally different from the 1st trip. The United Church of Northfield and I raised over $4,500 U.S. dollars, of which $3000 was to be used for humanitarian efforts. Initially I told them that I would have to travel to Kosova before I knew best how to spend the money. We also had asked for and received some sheet music and some musical instruments: a flute, violin, saxophone, and several recorders. Except for a piano that needed tuning, these instruments were the first instruments for a music school in Peja. If that was not enough for me to pack in my luggage, I also asked for and received two IBM 486 laptops. Those, along with the musical instruments, were surrounded with over 150 pairs of socks from Cabot Hosiery, a local sock mill here in town. The socks made great packing material and were quickly dispersed, along with 150 toothbrushes, among Romas in Macedonia and families I met during my 10-day trip to Kosova.
I had planned to work with Xheri from Radio 21 and her father, the honorary Mayor of Vushtrri, to assess then purchase and distribute items with the money we had raised. Due to fog at the Skopje airport in Macedonia, Xheri’s flight was delayed from Zurich for over 24 hours. I was on a strict time schedule and had to come up with a plan B in a hurry. I stopped by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees where I had made several friends on my previous trip. Flutra suggested that I go to the UNHCR Field office and see if they could be of any assistance. This turned out to be the best “tip” that I received in all four trips. In brief I was allowed to travel with UNHCR field workers out in the field. As a team we would assess then deliver needed supplies. In less than nine days we bought and delivered firewood, clothes, and some food items to eight families, reaching forty-five people.
During my first trip I left the city of Prishtina only twice, one day to travel to Vushtrri to look into a possible playground project and another to travel the countryside with a British landmine team who in one day showed me how to make little plastic-explosive snowballs for blowing up cluster bombs. This trip was totally the opposite. I spent all my days out in the Kosova countryside seeing what War can do to the people. Being late December, the backdrop for observing this destruction really had an effect on me. Back home in Vermont, where winter can last for close to six months, when I described what I observed it was not hard for them to imagine what the conditions were like.
The hardest part of this trip was seeing how many families were hanging on by the slimmest of margins. Imagine five to ten people from one family living in a tent in the middle of the winter. No running water, no electricity, just a few wool blankets and mattresses and a small woodstove from UNHCR, along with a few basic foods items from WFP, the World Food Program. In the few days that I was traveling the countryside, I saw more homes with no roof and met more families in dire straits than one would ever want to witness. I still am amazed at how the field workers with the NGO’s can handle the stress of seeing so much work that needs to be done and not enough time or resources to accomplish it. The only thing worse would be to actually have to be one of the families. I also had mixed emotions while in the process of delivering the supplies. At first you feel rewarded, until you look out over a valley with twenty-five homes and only five are livable. Then it feels like a drop in the bucket.
The summer of 2000 trip was going to be similar to the previous summer. I was in hopes of reviving the rec. field project; within a few days I realized that little progress would be made on this project in the short time I was going to be there. I made good use of the extra days, spending a little more time with a couple of schools in Prishtina, visiting a few of the other BSF projects in Kosova, and working out in the field with UNHCR. I opened two bank accounts, one for each school. The idea was to be able to wire money to the accounts from here in the states. So far I have made deposits totaling over $1100 dollars. Most of the money raised for this endeavor was donated from Essex High School here in Vermont. I have wired money to the accounts successfully, but most has been deposited in person. I have the bank numbers and steps for deposits if anyone is so inclined. The church and I also raised $1000 dollars to purchase some livestock for some more families. With the extra time I was able to get to know some of the families a little better. One of the trips was to Sekiraqa, a small Serbian hamlet on the Kosova-Serbian border. Sekiraqa is a small hamlet of older Serbs over the age of 55. They did not have any younger members out of fear of them being harassed. The lack of younger/stronger backs made it hard for them to do all that was necessary to keep the farms going. The families had less then a 3-km walk to a Serb bus stop.
I was escorted to the village by Czech KFOR, who were also responsible for watching the border as well as protecting the villagers. When I was first introduced, there was a look of apprehension as I was from the USA; after a few shots of “Sjivovica” (Plum Brandy) I was looked at in a totally different light. The things one must do in the name of diplomacy! (A side note here. Sjivovica and other homemade rocket fuel are used as antifreeze and windshield washer fluid because it won’t freeze in the winter. I wanted to suggest to them that they could use it in place of gasoline but thought that might offend them.) A donation of $250 dollars from a friend in Switzerland was used so that they could purchase feed for the livestock to help them through the coming winter.
After several days traveling with UNHCR to various parts of Kosova, assessing families, we decided to stop at the livestock sales just outside of Prishtina. We thought that we might purchase some chickens and deliver them that day. We were not able to find any chickens, but I did make a deal where I bought seventeen goats and five sheep for $900 dollars; this also included delivery. This was a sudden change of plans for the day. Liriejta, the UNHCR field worker, was busy making a list of families that should get the livestock. As we traveled down the road, she mentioned that there was a family that had been suggested as worthy from a Non-Governmental Organization, the Mother Theresa Society (MTS). Knowing the work that this NGO had been doing for over a decade in the area was better than any assessment I might have made.
This family was going to be our first stop of the day. We took a washed-out, bumpy road past areas that were flagged with landmine warnings. No stepping off the road here for a quick trip to the bushes! A few minutes later we pulled up in front of a tent that had a waddled fence made from small brush in the area. It did not take long before we had a small group of children come out from behind the gate. We were in a hurry to make the deliveries, so we started to pull two goats and a sheep from the truck. As they were being unloaded, I started to say hello to the children when I thought that I recognized them. I asked the young girl if they had been in Tirana the summer before; she said yes and yes she did remember me from the previous summer playing Frisbee and soccer in the Kashar refugee camp. Needless to say this totally blew me away. Unfortunately we had only enough time to get a few hugs and pictures then we were off to the next family. (I was able to make another quick stop to the Berisha family before I left.) By the end of the day we delivered the livestock to all who we had at the top of the list. With the delivery of livestock done, I still had a few days to clean up any loose ends before I left. It started to look and feel like this might be my last visit for a few years. Silly me!
This past spring I had an opportunity to go to Austria for an educational/ cultural exchange. It just so happens that Vienna is one of the main hubs for getting to Kosova by commercial airlines. It would have to be a trip with a project that could be done quickly. During all my trips I wished that I had more money to distribute; I believe that what we did in the previous trips was what was needed most for the families we had helped.
Times were a little different now; there was still a need for assistance but not necessarily in the form of firewood or livestock. I wanted to be able to give a predetermined amount to a family and let them decide what was of most importance. The donation to the village of Sekiraqa was one that stuck in my mind. Here we gave a sum of money and then let them determine how best to use it, no questions asked. I contacted the United Church and the Northfield News again and put together a quick project where we could do just that. I thought that helping the Berisha family from the previous two summers would be a perfect fit. The assessment was already done; I knew where they lived, and they were less than an hour from Prishtina. This would give me a chance to actually visit with them and help them out at the same time. The plan was to raise a sum of $500 hundred dollars that I could then give to the mother to use as she saw fit. The response was amazing. I received a total of $1600 dollars in less then two weeks! I had been thinking that I had tapped my pool of donors once too many times and then I got three times what I asked for. I knew what to do with the extra funds; it would not be hard to find families in need. The $1100 dollars would be distributed to families in increments of $250 dollars.
When I arrived in Prishtina, I had only three full days to distribute the funds. I had done most of the preliminary work via e-mail. Liriejta now works for UNMIK instead of UNHCR. She knew where to go and Rand, Director of BSF operations in Kosova, had the wheels, an old 4 wheel drive Subaru that had made it a year without getting stolen. (It pays to have a car that is hard to get parts for.) Rand had worked in the Kashar camp a few weeks earlier than I did, so he knew the family as well. We headed out to visit the Berisha family; I could not get in touch with them before we came, so it was going to be a surprise. We went down the same bumpy road with land mine signs that I had taken the previous trip. When we pulled up to the sight I was the one that had a surprise waiting for me. Instead of being in a tent they were now in a new home built by ADRA. They were quite excited to see us; the children remembered Rand and proceeded to show us that they still knew how to juggle and play a few of the other games that we had taught them. Mom, Liriejta, and I went into the house to take a look around and get away from the children; I wanted to give her the money in private. It would be best to keep this a secret. If word got out into the village who knows what might have happened. She was quite surprised and appreciative; she was hoping the five hundred dollars would be enough to buy a milking cow for a fresh supply of milk for the children. The goats we had dropped off the summer before got sick and did not make it through the winter. The lone sheep we had given them made many a nice meal earlier that year. I must admit I was a little disappointed but not surprised about the goats; looking back the goats were young and we had not given them any notice or assistance with the care and managing of livestock. Most of the time the father was at a mental ward suffering from trauma due to the war, leaving the brunt of the responsibility on his wife and his oldest son who was only twelve at the time. We stayed and visited for a couple of hours before heading off to find a few more families.
Liriejta thought that we could go and visit families we had helped in December of ’99. This was a great idea. Not only could I do a follow up visit, but I could also give them some cash, $250.00 each, as well. We made four more stops that afternoon, all to families that we had helped a year and a half earlier. Like the Berisha family, instead of living in tents, they were in new homes as well. Like I said earlier, I had visited some of the worst hardship cases in Kosova. That meant that when distribution of new homes was started they were near the top of the list. I mentioned the loss of the goats suffered by the Berisha family, in the Dec. ’99 trip. We also allocated some money and UNHCR bought four goats for a few of the families we had helped. One of the families was one we stopped at this day, and that one goat was now five going on six! This was what I had hoped for; now they had milk for drinking, making cheese, yogurt, and some for sale/barter if they liked. They also could sell a few of the goats for extra cash. We did not visit as long with these families as with the Berisha family, but still we had enough time to visit and catch up on the good and bad that had transpired since we last met.
In all my trips I was always amazed at how everything fell into place. It was no different this trip. I was starting to see things come full circle. Who would have ever guessed that I would be in touch with families two years later that I met on my first few days in July and December of ’99?
It only makes me wonder what might be in store in the years to come. On my last night in Prishtina during the December ’99 trip, I was asked by Xheri at Radio 21 to be on her late night show and field calls from her listeners. For close to three hours we talked with listeners and played some music in between calls. I received a lot of “thank-you’s” and comments of “we will never forget what the U.S. and others have done for us.” The last call of the evening was the one I had hoped for. Where did I see Kosova in five years? I had to be careful with my reply.
It is so easy to look inside a situation like the Balkans and make one comment that would solve all their problems. I should know, like others Who have been to Kosova, we all have our opinions and some even think they do have the answer. Maybe they do. What I don’t think most people consider when making their opinions heard is what kind of timeline will be needed. We do not take into consideration the history or customs of the people. In the Balkans we will have to contend with close to seven hundred years of history and bad blood between the major ethnic groups in the region. In other words, it will not happen over night or in a year or two. This will take time, time in the sense of generations not years. I firmly believe that it will be in the children’s lifetime that we will see the fruits of our labor.
I also like to think that the majority of the people try and live according to the laws of society. It is my opinion that most of the fighting and retaliation is done by a few who refuse to accept that violence is not the answer. Out of a population of approximately one million Kosovar Albanians and Serbs, at best there are several thousand who still create all the turmoil in the region. I also think but can not prove that the support of these soldiers is done primarily from the country of Albania and the Albanian Mafia. They appear to be the ones who have profited the most over the past several years. The effect that the Albanian Mafia could have in Kosova is one of my main concerns to the long – term stability of the region.
If you follow what has transpired in the Balkans over the last decade, you must have noticed how the fight for independence in Slovenia or the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia, then Kosova, and now into Macedonia kept working its way through the regions one by one. The concern had been that Montenegro would be next after Kosova. It’s still not over so do not be surprised if they do continue to wrestle with the problem themselves. My point is that from my perspective, whether we like it or not, there was a need for a purging of the region. Granted, it was a little drastic from our point of view but never the less it was something that had to happen before they could move forward. Hopefully they will learn from this and rise above this to become a part of society in Europe as well as become an example for other regions that still can not make peace with their neighbors. They want more than ever to have what we have in the forms of lifestyle, education, travel, and government. Who can blame them? If there was one thing that I am sure of it is that we have it pretty good! Will they achieve that goal of obtaining a society that can progress while working out their social problems? Only time and continued support from the global community will make it come true.
On my last day in Prishtina I stopped by UNHCR to say goodbye and thank you for all they had done. By the front door was a stack of calendars they were giving away that on each month showed a project for the “Women’s Initiative” in Kosova. This is a 10 million-dollar project that is developing job training programs and workshops that will help empower the women of that region. Having an empty suitcase for the ride back, I grabbed several to give to friends who would be glad to see such a project being done. As I turned the pages I saw pictures of women learning to sew, learn a second language, run a business, etc. I did not think much about it again until I came back home. Then I wondered if there was such a program for the men of Kosova. Who’s addressing their needs? How would you feel if you had not been able to defend /protect your family or now provide for them? These men both young and old have been through a lot. Now they have nothing to do and nothing to do it with. I’m sure that someone is addressing the issue, but not at the same level of funding as the WIK. You also would not see it promoted with a calendar because it would not tug at the purse strings of potential donors.
This is getting long even by my standards! I learned a number of things during my travels. One of the first lessons was that every person in Kosova had a story about the war and how it affected them and their family. No one was left untouched. I also learned that every person who traveled to Kosova to help rebuild the region would have a story as well. I have only scratched the surface of the four trips I have made. Half of my stories are stories told to me about the war and its atrocities. Half of my stories I take care whom I tell them to and how I tell them. I visited several regions where there were seventy widows from the war. Most of these women had two to five children with no hope of remarrying. Most of the families we helped had no male figure above the age of fifteen.
I have learned that war is a waste. This revelation came to me as I drove by a bucket loader that had been bombed during the war. It wasn’t all the burned out houses or the blown up bridges or even the burned out buses and cars that were strewn all over the countryside. It was this piece of heavy equipment that laid rolled over in a ditch scorched from the heat of the explosion, its tires melted right off the rims that made me realize that if we had no wars we all could have our own backhoe. I realize that might not make sense, but that’s how it finally hit home for me. On the other hand, I remember saying “it’s about time!” when NATO finally decided to start the bombing campaign to try and end the carnage.
In Kosova I heard a saying that said we can forgive but we will never forget. I sometimes wonder if it would be best if we tried to forget. If we choose not to harbor all the memories maybe we could move on and let this pass. If we choose to remember then how do we ever forgive? Noel Malcolm said it best when he wrote, “You can not go back seven hundred years in history to justify a present day cause.”
I decided to write this summary for several reasons; one was to have this as an article in the Northfield News. From violins to recorders, laptops to yo-yo’s, baseballs to volleyballs, five dollar donations to five hundred dollar donations, fundraisers to space in the paper, my local community has supported this project. I felt it was my responsibility to give a personal account in my own words to those who do not receive the numerous accountings sent via e-mail. It is much easier to be interviewed.
There will be a time capsule buried in Prishtina, Kosova later this year that will not be opened for a thousand years. I thought that this summary and a C.D. that has pictures would be a worthy contribution.
A few last thoughts. It would have been so much easier for me to write a check to some NGO to calm my conscience. One reason why I did not do that was because of the amount money that is used for administrational costs. One reason why I had little problem raising money was that there was a sense of connection with what I did with the money I received. I must admit that there is a lot of waste generated by these large corporations. There is also a lot of good that is done with the money they receive. It is expensive to setup operations, assess situations, provide adequate transportation, then pick up and move to the next disaster.
Do not hesitate to write those checks. Keep it local if you wish, but do give. We all can afford to go without something in our lives. I wanted to name a few NGO’s that I think do a good job with the money they receive. Obviously the first one would be The Balkan Sunflowers (BSF). You can locate them by web at Balkan Sunflowers.org. With the salary of one staff member of a large NGO they can cover most of the yearly operating expenses of the organization and supply twenty-five to fifty volunteers for the year on various projects. Not a bad bang for the buck. Of the larger more established ones I would have to go with The Mother Theresa Society (MTS), similar to BSF in that they have a strong network of volunteers to help control costs. The World Food program (WFP) is a U.N. funded program that has an eighty percent or better direct use of funds for those in need all over the world. Go hungry for a day, and see what that’s like. Even though UNHCR is a little fat on the top end, I think that will be temporary. They do great work in many areas of need. They are large enough to be able to get in and get the job done better the most.
I can not even begin to give credit where credit is due. To all who in some way were involved, thank you. Of all the people involved, I have to say that I benefited most from this. I have had a unique opportunity to be involved in something that truly needed the out-pouring of support it has received. I also was able to watch a rebirth of a region firsthand. I believe that the only way for peace in the region is for Kosova to be an independent nation of its own. We take for granted all that we have right here in our own back yard. Take a look around you; read this paper. Do you see all that a community can do for itself? Now more than ever I think I do. It is only because there are volunteers who read at the library to children, volunteer on the fire department or ambulance service, coach little league and soccer, take abuse by being on a small town planning committee, and numerous other endeavors, that I am allowed to travel halfway around the planet to help those who have nothing. To you I say thank you and job well done!
Jonathan I Hoffman
Northfield, Vermont 05663