As we descend toward Prishtina we see in the devastated Serb military complexes the effectiveness of the three-month-long NATO bombing campaign of the spring of 1999, and on the outskirts of the city we see hundreds of houses burned and gutted by Serb and Yugoslav forces. And then we begin to see camouflage on tanks, helicopter gunships, bunkers, gun emplacements, armored personnel carriers, men. The reassuring camouflage of KFOR (Kosovo-Force, the United Nations-authorized, NATO-led military force in Kosovo). As we taxi up to the terminal, I see a tiny hand-lettered sign over the terminal door that reads "Welcome to Prishtina."
We are entering the first country to be completely administered by the United Nations. Since June 1999, when NATO forces drove out the ruling Serbs, the U.N. and KFOR have been running Kosovo and protecting it from any further Serb incursions. They have responsibility for everything from roads to the judicial system to schools to the police, and will have until the "final disposition" of Kosovo can be determined.
I am the first person off the plane, walking down the steps onto the tarmac as if it was all familiar ground. This strange familiarity comes, no doubt, from our culture's frequent exposure to war and its trappings in movies and on TV. The real and unreal have become so blurred in even my mind--I who see relatively little of this stuff--that what should shock seems only a memory of something experienced in a safe and cozy room. Is that why I feel no fear, or is it because my curiosity is so strong it drives out fear? Soldiers, policemen everywhere. Men with guns. I look back to see some pooh-bah from our cabin being greeted on the tarmac by effusions of handshakes and photographs. We discover later it is probably his presence that has caused KFOR to block the locals' presence from the terminal, their cars from the airport. And outside the terminal another crowd of young males. Now and again there is an older face, thin, sunken cheeks and flowing mustache, all topped by the plis, the country's traditional white felt conical cap worn by Kosovo's patriarchs. But no women at all. What are all these guys doing here? Not waiting for relatives' arrivals as far as I can tell. Just passing the time, checking to see who's come into their country?
Ed makes ten laborious trips to the luggage carousel as I wait, pondering the unlikelihood of all our bags having made it to the Prishtina airport. I watch the other passengers, young Albanian men, struggle with cheap duffels that have ripped open, spilling their sartorial guts, or large cardboard boxes, once precisely rectangular and bound by twine, now smushed and shapeless, with gaping holes spewing stereo parts, blankets, stuffed toys. There is chaos here, but there seems to be a high level of tolerance for chaos. That will probably be the key to survival.
The UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo) customs guy, a Russian soldier, stops someone now and again, opening boxes or cases. But Ed and I don't fit his profile, and besides, he clearly has no intention of rummaging through ten large suitcases. Henry, a genial attorney from Texas who has come from the ABA-CEELI office to pick us up, assures him that Ed is here to work on the legal system. With a dismissive flip of his wrist and a question in his eyes for me ("But what are you doing here?"), he waves us into our new Kosovo home.
Reprinted from The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley by permission of The Putnam Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2003, Paula Huntley. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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