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Kosovo: Diary from the Road
By Sue Mead

As attention returns to the Balkans with the arrest of deposed Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, a sobering fact remains. The human trail of death and despair that resulted from the the war in Kosovo still needs to be healed, as centuries-old animosities continue to ignite incident after incident.


SUE MEAD

eMOTION! REPORTS’ roving correspondent, Sue Mead, tells how her experience driving Land Rovers - through some of the most rugged terrain in the world brought her to the brink of that disaster. It would be a foray into the heart of the fallout zone without a safety net. But it was the brutal terrain of Balkan politics, not the landscape, that would become the biggest roadblock.

Sue Mead: Kosovo and Beyond

Shock and cynicism fought for the real estate of my brain. For three weeks I had put my life and work on hold and filled my body with malaria medicine and a cholera booster. Neither would ward off the feeling of sickness that enveloped me now.

' Mission aborted..'

The terse e mail message stared back at me from my computer screen. After six frenetic weeks of planning, Land Rover's efforts to deliver nine vehicles through the rugged, mountainous Baltic terrain to homeless and ailing refugees had been scrapped.

Four-wheel drive is my specialty area within automotive reporting. My interest in it and knowledge of it have taken me on adventures around the globe, many of which have been in Land Rover vehicles.

I felt well-trained for the Albania mission, undaunted by the task of driving over country that could not have been more challenging than brutal treks I had made before through the jungles of Central America, or the virtual lakes of mud in Borneo where a day's progress at times is gauged in meters, not in miles.

Because of the human tragedy I expected to encounter, the Baltic trip would have been the culmination but not the end of my adventures that began more than six years before.

Pushed to the Edge

In the past, I had been challenged in ways I never would have believed possible, and met those challenges before moving on to even greater triumphs.

This time, it was others fleeing from the war in Kosovo who were the challenged - the orphans, some still infants, the widows and men whose whole families had been wiped out - who desperately needed any help they could get. As with the others who were to participate in our convoy, I had been thoroughly trained to participate and I wanted to be a part of that help.

The conditions during this mission, I was told, would be similar to my earlier travels through Romania and Bulgaria, where the turmoil of regional politics had abruptly found me confronted by an armed and suspicious border guard who kept my driving companion and me at bay until finally deciding we were not a threat.

Roads in Albania, if you could call some of them that, would be similar to those we had driven before in Slovakia and the Czech Republic that ranged from motorways carrying hordes of trucks down to single carriageways with horse-drawn carts or even dirt tracks clogged with livestock. And those were the good roads.

Impossible Terrain

I had come face-to-face with the unexpected numerous times during past adventures. In some ways this would be no different, I was sure. The country would have impossible terrain that would require navigating over fields of stones, inching over mountain boulders, fording streams that could be feet, not inches deep, and lurching along trails with ruts so deep they would swallow most of the tires.

In Borneo, a year ago, a convoy of 33 Land Rovers had come upon a road of mud that defied a way to get through. Most of our progress was simply righting vehicles after they wallowed and rolled over in the deep mud of the narrow trail banked by thick jungle on each side.

At two in the morning, in the pouring rain, we had given up rescuing any more of the vehicles or moving forward at all and I fell asleep in the back seat with my shoes and clothes caked with thick red clay. When I woke up and went out, I saw they were working again to free the trucks and our medical doctor had sunk to his hips in mud.

As much as the difficulty of the task of driving that loomed ahead of us, what was daunting about the Albania mission was the prospect of the political roadblocks, the deadly intrigue, and the human trauma that was overflowing in the Balkans.

Help on the Way

The plan had been put together at the height of the war in Kosovo to deliver nine field-tested vehicles to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) staff in Tirana, Albania, and to transport relief goods from the United Kingdom and Italy to Albanian refugee camps.

It had been organized by Bill Baker, director of Public Relations Programmes for the then Rover Group, as a way of getting help to a highly restricted area. It also was a way of working with the English government that had a prohibition on selling British-made vehicles to war zone countries.

Baker had been working on plans to loan or sell the expedition-equipped vehicles at a highly subsidized rate to the UNHCR. "They had also been trying to purchase Land Rovers in Macedonia but due to British government restrictions on exports of vehicles to a war zone, they were unable to do so," said Baker. "We could provide them through Albania, so that's what we set out to do."

It was to be an arduous test of drivers and vehicles that would begin with a convoy of some 2,500 kilometers from Land Rover headquarters in Sollihul, England to Bari, Italy. Then we would take an eight-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea to reach Tirana, a short distance inside Albania.

Four-Wheel “Veterans”

From there, UN refugee staff would receive driver training for the two expedition-prepared Defender 110 and seven Discovery vehicles, veterans of previous brutal terrain expeditions but with plenty of "tough" still left in them. They would become transport vehicles for physicians and medical supplies, along with food and clothing for the Kosovar refugees who had encamped in the nearly unreachable locations where it would take the strength of the legendary four-wheel-drive British-heritage vehicles to get through.

It was Baker's e mail that abruptly told me all of the Albania plans had been cancelled after he learned of the near-fatal shooting of Daniel Mora Castro, a key UN official, outside the same hotel that would be ground zero for the start of the Balkan portion of our trip.

Mack Mackenney, Land Rover's logistics consultant, had stayed at that same hotel while doing reconnaissance, or "recce," to learn what we could expect to encounter.

"I went ahead to pre-run the relief mission and found the area in chaos and misery," said Mackenny. "I found aid workers stressed out and demands coming at them from left and right. I saw first-hand the difficulty with clearing Albanian customs at the docks, which we figured could take two hours or two days. And with only one civilian airlift out a week, it would not have been guaranteed our mission drivers could make the flight."

No Safe Passage

When Baker couldn't guarantee the safety of the drivers, he had no choice but to cancel the trip.

"We couldn't avail ourselves of military escort from any of the military forces that might have been able to provide it (Italy, the U.K. or the U.S.)," he said. "The UNHCR wanted to maintain a neutral appearance and not be aligned with a military force within the country of Albania, nor would they allow us to have private security. All we really could do was travel neutral.”

For me, and the others involved in this mission, the cancellation of the drive was disappointing and disruptive. Plans had been made and backpacks filled to overflowing. Slowly, I scrolled through the previous notations in my computer file from Baker's numerous e mails I had accumulated for nearly a month:

“Travel light. You can wear the same clothes. Bring layered stuff and perhaps a poncho and footgear that can get muddy.”

Remembering the Basics

Baker hadn't stinted on the basics, either. “Your own health needs: Suggest Pepto Bismol tablets for lower problems. Kleenex and Handi-Wipes. Ziplock bags for porta potty use. A sense of adventure, a sense of humor. You should have a current tetanus, hepatitis A, polio. Be mentally prepared for long driving days to get to Bari.”

While he couldn't prepare us for the wrenching conditions we expected to face, his messages had cautioned us anyway.

“We'll see some terrible stuff and some heart-warming stuff. We'll meet some interesting people and you'll see Land Rovers being used as they are meant to be used.”

Then there a was quiet, reflective signoff in the face of a mission to keep life going for some of those in need.

It said, simply: Amen.

Even in this ravaged area, we had learned how much international barriers controlled the situation in spite of the need. As with Baker and Mackenney, I had learned - for myself, the hard way - to respect the sometimes invisible
boundaries that could halt you in your path without warning.

‘My first thought was I didn’t want him to take my film. Then I realized I didn’t want him to take my life.‘

That happened earlier as I was in a Land Rover Discovery crossing the border from Bulgaria to Turkey.

I had been warned especially at those countries' border crossings not to takepictures. But this was sort of a no man's land between borders. We had checked out of Bulgaria and were on a bridge over the Danube River and the sun was setting. I knew there was a prohibition on taking pictures when you actually were within the border, but I didn't think it was a problem taking a photo of the sunset on the bridge.

Out of nowhere there was an armed Bulgarian man in camouflage clothing with a machine gun who motioned us to stop and pull over.

It was very clear there was a level of hostility and anger and control as he was posturing with his gun and walking around our car.

My first thought was I didn't want him to take my film but within a moment I realized I didn't want him to take my life.

I realized how incredibly powerless I felt. He had a gun and I couldn't even speak the language. And he stared at me with really dark, cold eyes.

Loss of Innocence

But it was a very hot day. As he poked through the vehicle with the barrel of his gun and then found our large cooler loaded with a stash of soda and water, he took the largest water bottle and let us go. As we drove into Turkey, we realized just how lucky we were.

That incident, I guess, was the end of real innocence on my part. I think, growing up in America, I've had a real sense of justice and fairness until I started traveling, particularly in third world countries. I had no idea how many places in the world there are where life is cheap and a 14-year-old with a machine gun can make up the rules.

The entanglements of politics and potential of terrorism managed to stop our journey into the Balkans, but they failed to derail the mission entirely. In September, five months after our drive to the edge of Kosovo should have begun, the vehicles had been taken over by the U.K.'s Department of International
Development and were airlifted into Tirana.

And while we weren't able to be a part of the mission in person as we had hoped, we were all there in spirit, knowing that help had finally come through.

Sue Mead

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