In early July, students at Aberdeen University contacted us to ask us to help them to send aid on a convoy to Kosova. The would provide the funding and the aid, but needed from us a truck and the benefit of our experience. It turned out that they had been inspired by a talk from Workers’ Aid for Kosova, and – having previously successfully worked with that organisation – we were happy to help and able to get everything ready by late July.
Children from an after-school club in Aberdeenshire were the first to paint on the side of our truck, drawing happy pictures and messages for children in Kosova. This truck was to become a “mobile canvas”, with the other side available for “reply” messages from Kosova to the UK.
We took with us enough computers and furniture to refit an entire classroom at Prishtina University, where Albanian-speakers were about to be admitted for the first time in several years. We learnt there of a gradual, insidious removal of Albanians from public institutions that had been going on. We learnt too of the systematic burning of literature by both “sides” in the conflict. Having spent time in Prishtina with the University. We moved north to meet a miner’s trade union in Mitrovice, where we also spoke with a number of local politicians. Throughout this we were guided by a local of the Skanderaj district, who was to become a trusted contact for us throughout our time in Kosova. This kind of grass-roots connection is still at the core of how we work. It was while staying with him that we arranged for the second side of the “canvas” truck to be painted.
The convoy turned into an epic month-long exploration of Kosova, with NATO bombing, and militia shooting and shelling still happening around us. The lives we became part of, and the stories we brought home from the war will stay with us all forever. Some of the photographs taken at this time and given to us by former military officers (for safe removal from the country) subsequently went to the war crimes tribunals in The Hague. One of the most shocking things about that kind of evidence was that the children we met were so aware of the details of events. They were given no illusions about what happened. They will not easily forgive and are not allowed to forget. Two children are pictured here with a machine gun they had found.
Other meetings included one with a photographer who took us to see his heavily damaged home town of Djakova (he is pictured here, in the ruins of his shop), and former soldiers in Prizren. When the time came to leave, we faced a dilemma: the children’s paintings on the truck – which included a large Kosovar / Albanian flag – would be likely to cause dangerous offence in Macedonia, and since we didn’t want to censor them, our route home was unavailable. The only other route was through the wild northern mountains of Albania.
The people we met there were incredibly welcoming, in spite of being more than a little scared of us, and confused by our presence. It was during this time that we became absolutely convinced that we must return to Albania to support them through the rebuilding of their devastated country. We also learnt that when you are taken off on a “tour” of a farm, you must ensure the inhabitants aren’t meanwhile killing and cooking their only chicken for you to eat. Finding a replacement chicken was one of our more bizarre tasks!
The full story of this incredible mission will be featured in a book due for release in 2016, packed with detail about how the charity was set up, the lessons learnt, and most importantly, the people involved along the way.
Please note, all photographs © 1999 – 2015; please contact us for permission to re-use.