Scene of War

June 1999.

Richard, Alf and I are standing on a mountain pass, at the border crossing between Albania and Kosovo. The view is breathtaking. It is part of a movie, projected in 360 degrees around us. Better than a movie.

A long, slow moving stream starts from far behind us. We can hear it, the random noise. It passes right next to where we stand, and follows bends and curves for as far as we can see. A stream, a steady flow. Not of water, but of people. Tens of thousands. Refugees returning home. Whole families on tractors and donkey pulled carts, with all their belongings stacked as high as they can. Mattresses, cupboards, tables, chairs, cardboard boxes… Mothers holding on to babies, brothers and sisters walking hand in hand. Elderly men with deep grooves in their faces, walking with a stick in their hand, or pushing a wheel barrel. A massive flow of people. Each with their own horror story to tell, moving steadily back to their homes. Homes they fled a couple of months ago after Serb militia and special forces wrecked their lives, burnt their crops, raped their mothers and daughters, killed their brothers, sons and fathers. As the stream of people comes the mountain pass, they see the same scenery as I do. I wonder what goes on inside them.

In between the mountains tops, capped tree forests, scarred by cluster bombs which Nato blanketed over them, lay the valleys. Valleys with a fresh green colour of spring grass and young leaves on the trees. For as far as the eye reaches, we can see plumes of smoke coming from the valleys, like candles on a cake, which have just been blown out. Plumes of smoke, going up in the air and dissolving into the clear blue spring sky. Smoke of houses, cars and farm sheds burning, for as far as we can see, dotted over the valleys. The militia and break away paramilitary forces looted and burned everything as they retreated. It looks like the whole country is still burning. People lives are burning. And yet the expression on the faces from all who pass us, is not one of desperation, but one of hope. They all smile. They look at the same scenery as I do, but they think of hope. Hope of starting afresh. They wave at us. They wave at the Nato military trucks and tanks maneuvering in between the stream. The liberators and the liberated.

It is yet another scene of war, another scene of misery and hope, another scene of destruction mixed with hope, of a past and a present. Will it ever end? Will we ever learn from our mistakes?

Two F16 fighter jets blast low over our heads. Instinctively, everyone pulls their heads down. The fighting is not over yet. We hear the remote muffled thunder of a bombing raid. Very far away. The misery is not over yet. As I get into the car, my eyes cross those of a young girl, sitting on her mum’s lap, on the back of a tractor. She looks at me and I look at her. I smile and she smiles back, hesitantly raising her arm to wave to me. Her mum searches who the girl is waving to. She finds me. She whispers something in the girl’s ears. The girl looks up, kisses her mum on the cheek, and looks back at me. She throws a kiss at me. I throw one back and wave. She laughs. Her dad, driving the tractor looks back and waves at me too. Would they know I am thinking of my daughter? Would they know she has the same eyes, the same hair. Would they know this is why I do this work? Because she could have been my daughter, sitting on my wife’s lap. This could have been my family, my life. But destiny has put them there and me here. Sheer luck determined those who suffer and those who never realize enough how lucky they are.

‘Let’s go’, I smile at our driver, ‘let’s go, work to be done’. I can see in his eyes he is thinking the same as I do. We all do.

Pictures courtesy WFP/Tom Haskell

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