Diplomatic negotiations began in Rambouillet, France, in February 1999 but broke down the following month. On March 24 NATO began air strikes against Serbian military targets. In response, Yugoslav and Serbian forces drove out all of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, displacing hundreds of thousands of people into Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. The NATO bombing campaign lasted 11 weeks and eventually expanded to Belgrade, where significant damage to the Serbian infrastructure occurred. In June NATO and Yugoslavia signed a peace accord outlining troop withdrawal and the return of nearly one million ethnic Albanians as well as another 500,000 displaced within the province. Most Serbs left the region, and there were occasional reprisals against those who remained. UN peacekeeping forces were deployed in Kosovo, which came under UN administration.
I'd been with my humanitarian agency for a few months - a bit wet behind the ears - when my manager thought it an appropriate time to send me to Kosovo.
'See if we're spending wisely,' he said. 'Arrangements have been made.'
Air ticket to Skopje in Macedonia, an overnight stay, and then road transport across the boder to Prishtina, where I was to spend the next ten days, figuring out what the hell was going on.
Skopje, a city with one of the world's lowest crime rates (at that time) harboured one of our newer offices, set up to monitor truckloads of refugees/Aid workers/UN forces/US forces going in and out of Kosovo (plus another reason). I was put up in a quiet pension, and welcomed a relaxing evening before the trip, enjoying a sparse dinner and a beer.
It would soon change.
The short trip to the border in a Jeep was uneventful,until we came to a halt at the traffic queue. I sat in the front passenger seat, with a cloth sack under my seat for company. I had no reason to pry and no-one told me its contents.
At the head of the queue, Macedonia Immigration - armed soldiers who waved us through after examining passports. There was a no-man's land area where we were again halted, and my driver walked across to (what I think was a temporary permission to enter Kosovo visa office), and got my passport stamped.
That took about thirty minutes, and I spent the time watching armed soldiers of different nationalities who were pacing up and down, sometimes poking into vehicles, sometimes questioning the occupants. Our name-emblazoned Air agency vehicle was ignored. So was I.
As it happened, a blessing.
Finally another check-point, passports examined, and we were waved through.
And then the long drive to Prishtina through acres and acres of flat farmlands past an occasional deserted cottage, abandoned by the look of them.
Empty scenery, devoid of farmworkers - of life.
Finally, late afternoon we breasted a hill, and there in the deep hollow was one of the most beautiful cities, I've witnessed. A panoramic view of Prishtina ahead - a backdrop of mountains behind.
I was later told that the cloth sack from Skopje contained US $20K - the only way to get money in - I was an unwitting smuggler.