...early on Saturday morning was a time for wild-life and fauna observation and perhaps reflection on whether to choose a healthy breakfast of fruit and muesli topped with yogurt or a full veggie English with baked beans instead of bacon, and that stayed with me as I passed the first shop of several spaced around the circular path selling water, soft drinks, coconuts, bird food, and rent-a-mat, and with my eyes diverted I nearly stepped on one ginger kitten from a litter of five who lay prostrate in my way, albeit he was lucky my size tens missed him by a whisker, and I carried on past the open massage parlour where a woman was sweeping away yesterday's dust and who smiled an invitation to me, but not today, my mind set to cover ten circuits totalling over six thousand metres in my allotted hour, and my pace settled down to a rhythmic beat as I neared the 'pigeon sanctuary' bridge over the long narrow lake which was host to dozens of Koi, perhaps a hundred all told I've no doubt, but my gaze was once more diverted by the sheer magnificence of assorted flora in sculptured beds under palms and tall coconut trees, albeit to be struck on the head by one nut wasn't the demise I sought, and I remembered reading that more people get killed by coconuts than from sharks, and that thought stayed with me past the childrens playground area at the park's bottom and anti-clockwise back up to the other end of the bridge where a coffee-shop wasn't open until nine o'clock or when the staff could be bothered to open it, but that didn't bother me, and I walked past several gym machines, a few early-risers stretching their limbs on board, and up to the clock tower paved area where twenty or so older - but graceful - Thais were practising synchronised tai-chi movements in time to a recorded chant coming from an old music box, and I waltzed past in time and up to another set of gym machines on one side and another tarmac area on the other side where a few men were kicking a plastic ball around opposite another food-stall which sold exactly the same products as the other shops at the same price, although the woman was a lot younger and her stall had tables and chairs to sit on, so I suppose her stall had market appeal that the others lacked, and there was a little poster attached to the counter showing a lost cat and a lost dog from what I could make of it as I walked past and up to the end of one circuit which was completed in under six minutes according to the clock above the gate where I had parked along with several motor-scooters, and on my next circuit I would be people watching as runners went past me, as I passed other walkers and watched those exercising - yes it was going to be a fine day for working up an appetite, and deciding what breakfast to choose, providing of course, I side-stepped the ginger kitten on my walk around the city park.
If unknowingly carrying twenty thousand dollars into Kosovo was an unusual way of providing Aid to displaced Albanians, it didn't take me long to discover that this conflict was like no other.
Aid agencies in Prishtina.
Apart from the major INGO's in situ, it was a surprise to see many one man and a dog operatives banding about in beat-up trucks. Mostly well-meaning catholic cowboys - Kosovo had caught the imagination of Western society, and the city was awash with donated monies. It was difficult to spend it in an agreed time-scale.
Skopje had burst into spring - it was warm there in April, and plants were sprouting up. Not so, Prishtina - they were about two weeks behind, and sweaters were commonly worn in the office. The previous winter had been icy-cold - too much for the heating in one of our two guest-houses, which packed up and was unrepairable.
Can't beat human compassion, though, as the guys in the other guesthouse TURNED OFF their heating - to show Dunkirk spirit of togetherness. Had to admire them, but I was glad I hadn't shared the winter with them.
Our project work.
We spent money renovating and increasing the capacity of a local school. Brought in a water supply, and other improvements. The teachers and children were happy to see me - all you could ask for at that time.
I also visited a local hospital. One agency had supplied brand-new high-tech equipment that was redundant as they had no specialist to run it. Shame.
Another project - a small one - was for funding the publications of Albanian women writers. I queried this, 'Come on,' I said, - 'surely in our equality philosophy both men and women should benefit?' No answer - I never pushed it.
The US command base.
Naturally, the Americans arrived in force, bought out a whole street of houses including the residents, then sentries blocked the street at both ends while they made camp for the duration of their stay. Money was no object, but what they actually did, I never found out. Apparently, they had access to almost any provisions that Americans need to live comfortably - as I mentioned, Prishtina was awash with money pouring in via Skopje.
NATO guided missiles
Our agency had a small vehicle compound that housed our 4-wheel drives. It was run very efficiently by a Dutch logistician - more about him later. The transport manager had stayed in Prishtina during the NATO bombings of Serbian buildings, under cover, he told me. His recollection of events from a rooftop view was unique.
'I saw the missiles coming in,' he said. 'They followed a street map to their chosen target, even turning at traffic lights and focusing on one particular building.'
Later that day, he took me out into the city and showed the heaps of concrete that were once buildings. It certainly was precision bombing - most buildings were untouched.
After a long day in the office or out in the field, a few of us spent pleasant evenings in one of the few restauranta operating. One, in particular was set up on high ground and overlooked the city. At night Prishtina was lit up, a marvellous (and welcoming) view as the city's infrastructure was mainly intact.
On another occasion we booked a Chinese meal at an upstairs room in the city, which overlooked the street below. I'd look out the window from time to time - it was quiet outside, no hustle and bustle, cars were parked, people were indoors. Then a Brit foot patrol passed by - one soldier on point and the other following behind, rifles at the ready. Strange to see them dodging in and out of the cars as if expecting trouble, while we were upstairs eating our noodles. Don't see that at the movies.
Dutch, the loggie (an aside).
We bonded when he found out, one dinner time. I'd been in Bujumbura (Burundi). 'Ha,' he said. 'Dangerous place when I was there. We'd been out in our Land Rover, and were heading back into town early afternoon. We got stopped by soldiers, who were clearly drunk, and I was ordered out.' He went on to explain that African soldiers, being either rebels or government troops, took to lunchtime imbibing as the norm. After that, anything was fair game. Kill a few people, set an example to any opposition.
'What troubled me, being the only white guy, was the captain, hefting up his rifle, pointed to a nearby wall and told me to go and stand against it.' Dutch took his time - clearly relishing his tale, but I couldn't wait.
'What happened?' I said.
'Ha,' he said. 'I walked away towards the wall, putting distance between us, then ran hell for leather down a side street. They never caught me.'
He picked up his drink, and offered a toast, laughing and waving at the lights below. 'Prishtina is a pussy, Steve.'
I had to agree. But a strange place all the same.
Background of the conflict that resulted in Aid Agencies being swamped with millions in donations - the largest ever at that time.
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.
On our way to meet the riverine people we stopped off at a site where a few years ago it had been the refuge for flood victims. One of our projects. The deserted area, the size of a football pitch had a large stone building baking in the sun, now abandoned. Outside, a water pump, neglected.
Our guide, a local officer, pointed way into the distance. ‘That’s the Brahmaputra,’ he said. ‘Floods create new passages for the river, it’s constantly moving.’
One of the difficulties in providing Aid, could never be sure of any long-term relief.
The officer continued. ‘We’re going to cross it to one of the islands. There’s a community living there. Even a junior school.’
A school? I scratched my head. ‘How…?’
He was quick to respond. ‘Two branches of the flooded river separated this community from the mainland – they had a fertile area large enough to grow crops and feed themselves. Maybe the next flood will make them move.’
‘Oh,’ I said, beginning to realise the river controlled peoples’ livelihoods. A risky life.
We parked safely close to the river – dry season - got out and walked to a small wooden pier. A local fisherman was to take us in his longboat over to the island with us as passengers. A ferry would have been better, given I was not a natural canoeist.
It was an erratic journey.
‘There are strong currents, and shallows,’ said the officer as I watched the fisherman punt his way across in a zig-zag style. ‘But don’t worry, he knows the river.’
The water was brown, sludgy-looking with miniature whirlpools erupting. Not a place to fall out of the boat.
About fifteen minutes later, we embarked at a similar small wooden pier. Was I happy to step onto dry land, although on reflection, for how long would it remain dry?
A few elders had assembled to meet and greet us. All wearing coloured sarongs and sandals. They seemed overjoyed to see us, treated me like royalty or perhaps a visiting dignitary. I was probably the first English person to ever step on their patch.
Then came the guided tour.
Green – banana plantation, vegetable plots, and nearer the central village, hordes of chickens and a few dogs scattered from our path.
Of course, daytime, they were in school. The highlight of our visit.
Taken to the classroom, I peeped in. A slatted bamboo hut – a woman teacher at the front sitting on a wooden chair, a chalked blackboard behind her. Facing her, about twenty children sitting on slatted bamboo mats. Most were scribbling on pieces of paper. A few dog-eared books, pencils and crayons made up the class.
The teacher saw me – no doubt forewarned – and told the children to stand up to see me.
Which they did. Silently. The teacher motioned to one child – a girl. ‘Well?’
And the pretty little girl with piglets, joined by a few excited classmates, welcomed me in my own language. In English. All smiles. I was later told they’d been practising for days, but at the time my open mouth could have been a fly-trap.
‘Thank you so much,’ I managed to say, rubbing my eyes. ‘Thank you all very much for showing me your home.’
They needed funds, primarily to pay for the teacher who travelled over from the mainland, plus money for learning books, writing pads and basic items.
What could I say? Apart from promising the little girl that I’d take up her request back at Dhaka.
Which I did. And it was granted.
Oh, and the blog title above? On our way back to the river, I met an elderly but wiry man who told me – through interpreters – that the flooded river had made him move house about fifteen times over the years. He’d carried his bamboo home on his back to safer pastures.
Name was Jak…
'Pack your kit, you're off to Dhaka.' This Aid Agency visit was welcome, because it involved a field excursion to the riverine people - small communities that live on the fertile banks of the Brahmaputra.
That year, devastating floods (a common event) had caused havoc, and I was to witness the aftermath. A one-day stop in Dhaka office, debrief, and two project officers were to accompany me for the two day visit 'up-country' to a partner's compound. Aid Agencies normally provide project funds to partners (who have the necessary expertise to carry out Aid relief).
Our Toyota Land Cruiser (4 wheel drive, a necessary requirement in this country) was comfortable enough, and I spent most of the morning gazing out at a flat landscape full of paddy-fields. Occasionally we passed a truck overloaded with brightly-dressed people hanging from every conceivable part - a religious festival taking place somewhere.
We arrived late evening, exchanged greetings, curry for dinner, and off to bed under a mosquito net.
'We set out after breakfast,' said one of the officers. 'About 7am.' Sleep didn’t come easy and I was up at first light to take a look around, joined by one of the partner's project officers. The compound - a concrete building housing an office and living quarters, was in a courtyard where vehicles parked. It was walled off and gated at night, opened in the morning.
‘The monsoon was tough this year,’ he said, a wide grin on his face. ‘You missed out. We set up base in the Post Office, and all our workers carried out rescue operations. Houses in town were flooded, including mine, and we hired a boat to ferry families to safe ground.’
All said in a matter of fact way as we strolled around. Another bad day at the office. Despite his family home being under water, his main concern was helping others. Human compassion at its best.
After a small breakfast – omelette, bread and fruit, we gathered together outside. While we waited for the driver, and discussed our route, a little scarecrow of a boy dressed in a pair of shabby shorts and sandals came through the gate and trotted up to our group. He couldn’t have been more than eight. He carried an empty coconut shell and held it out to one of our women officers, while gabbling away in a local dialect.
‘What’s up?’ I said.
‘He’s hungry, she said. ‘I know him. Comes from a large family, maybe six or seven brothers and sisters. At meal times, Mama puts rice and whatever she could scavenge at the market on the table. Tradition dictates that the eldest child takes food, then the next eldest and so on. He is the youngest, and by the time the others had eaten there was none left for him.’
I shook my head while she explained further. ‘He knows we help people and he hopes we’ll help him.’
And with that she dived into her carrier bag, took out a small green apple and, to my complete surprise, a carton of Pringles. Proceeded to undo the top, pour some crisps into his coconut shell, and topped it up with the apple.
You should have experienced his face. His eyes lit up, and he danced away as if she’d given him a 5 course banquet.
Would you believe it? In one of the poorest parts of a third world country, there were Pringles available.
And I just knew our journey to the riverine people, would hold similar surprises.
Bio: British age 72 (young) retired and living in Thailand. Profession, Charity Auditor working in some 40 countries over the last ten years before retiring. Familiar with writing reports to professional standard. Sense of humour, reserved, realist and down to earth. Enjoy writing with a passion for the unusual.