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.