Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 26 1999 10:30 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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War loses people. The most consistent story of any war is that of not knowing what will happen to you and what has already happened to those you love. During the war in Bosnia, my friend S. in Belgrade, then an 18-year-old refugee from Sarajevo, set up a system, primitive and elaborate at once, for relaying messages. It was impossible to get through to Sarajevo from Serbia by phone, and often impossible to call from one part of Sarajevo to another, so S. would collect messages from people living in Belgrade, sort them by telephone-exchange number, and then send batches by e-mail to people in his network of computer owners. The system was part of a former-Yugoslavia-wide e-mail network called Zamir, which means "For Peace" in South Slavic, and it had a node in Kosovo, too, called Zana, an Albanian girl's name. But the Kosovo part of the network never really took off, mostly because the phone lines in the province were so bad.

About a year and a half ago, Kosovo got a cell-phone network, and life changed. People could communicate with relatives abroad--and everyone in Kosovo has relatives abroad. As time went on, more and more people were also separated from their relatives, friends, and lovers up in the mountains fighting for the KLA. Cell phones do not work up there, but satellite phones do, and the KLA has a few of those. A few weeks ago British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook bragged about talking with a KLA commander on a sat phone. A young woman acquaintance of mine was dating two KLA commanders at once, and each of them called her on the sat phone, and everyone got caught when one of them accidentally pressed the redial button. A month ago this woman spent three days at the Macedonian border, locked in a car with all the family's kids, scared and starving, eating the crumbs from the bread she gave the children. "I have talked to a lot of people who were eating crumbs," says Faith, a British humanitarian worker who has been living in the former Yugoslavia for about seven years, the last three and a half of them in Pristina, with her lover Vera, a Kosovar. Last night, when we went out to dinner in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, Faith pulled out a cell phone, a seriously loaded Nokia with a computer and all sorts of other extras. "It's to make up for losing everything I owned," she said.

On my way to Belgrade on March 29, I saw Faith briefly in Budapest. She had come to Hungary a few days earlier to pick up a money transfer for the organization she and Vera were running. Then the bombing started, and she was stuck. The only saving grace, if there could be such a thing, was that Vera's cell phone was still working and Faith managed to talk with her a couple of times a day. Then, a day or two later, the cell phones in Kosovo were shut off. Still, somehow Vera managed to use a landline to communicate that she was with her family, and then, finally, that they had been told to leave the house in an hour. Vera's family was in the crowd of people who were pushed toward the train station, where they waited for two or three days in the rain to be pushed onboard a train. When the train neared Macedonia, the cell phones started working again. Vera called Faith and told her people on the train were dying: They had no food, no water, and no room to breath.

Faith called the U.S. chargé d'affaires for Yugoslavia, who was in Budapest at the time, and he said there was nothing he could do. She called a friend at CNN, who tried to spread the story. She also called an editor at the BBC World Service, who said he was interested only in "direct stories," not in secondhand information. "I was talking to him before about the food situation in Kosovo," says Faith. "And he said, 'Well, this is just an interesting sideline.' I said, 'People are starving. This is just an interesting sideline?' " Then she bought the fancy Nokia and flew to Greece, where a friend lined her up with a cell number: She already knew that it would take weeks to get one in Macedonia, where she was headed.

Vera, who was now in the camp at the Macedonian border, called. "I kept asking, 'Do you have a spare battery?' She said there were houses along the border where people were charging their phones." Faith told her she would find a way into the camp, and that she would be carrying an orange umbrella to make herself more visible. "So I was walking through this camp looking like some sort of English lady on a day walk with her brolly," says Faith. Still, it was impossible to find anyone. "I saw this little house, and I just knew that she was there." She walked toward the house and dialed Vera's cell-phone number. "She kept saying, 'Where are you? Where are you?' " The entire time there was a figure walking toward Faith, but she did not recognize her partner, who was bundled in all the clothes she had brought: She just could not get warm. "And then I was saying, 'I'm in front of you, I'm in front of you.' "

It took another few days to get Vera out of the camp. By this time, cell phones were big business: People knew they were never going to have to pay their bills, so they were letting others make calls, often charging a fee. Then NATO bombed the Pristina post office, from which the cellular network operated, and the phones with Kosovo numbers went dead.

Now several organizations, including the International Catholic Migration Committee, Save the Children, and French Telecom, are running cell-phone-relief operations in the camps in Macedonia. People line up every day, starting at 6:30, to get a chance to make one three-minute call to let a relative know they are alive, to find out whether anyone has heard where the rest of the family is, to try to get help reuniting with relatives. Many people come every day. Most of the calls in the log are to Germany, many to Switzerland, Sweden, the United States. In the first 13 days, ICMC went through $50,000 worth of calls; Save the Children is working its way through a $150,000 donation.

Twenty-four-year-old Besim comes to the ICMC tent daily and waits three to five hours to call his sister in Switzerland. He was on the first bus that arrived at Stenkovec-1; that was a month ago. Since then he has been trying to find out whether his parents, who were in Pristina, are alive. Until he knows something, he is not going to try to leave the camp. So he calls his sister. Today he got through too late: She was already at work. Other times, Besim has reached his sister, and she has told him she has no news. He gets back into the queue.

A man in his 30s runs into the tent through the back entrance asking to make an urgent phone call. "Why urgent?" ask the volunteers. He starts crying and pulls out today's copy of Fakti, a Macedonian Albanian newspaper. He has just found the names of his two brothers on a list of the dead, and he needs to let relatives know. He gets his call out of turn.

Some volunteers take a dozen phones to tents with elderly people and women with children, who cannot queue up for hours. Someone brings back a happy story: A woman has reached her relatives abroad for the first time in two years. I go with Fatlum, who is taking phones to the "especially vulnerables." Many of them don't have any information on how to reach relatives, but one old woman, sitting on a foam pad, pulls a phone number out of the folds of the apron she wears over her skirt. She calls her grandson in Turkey, the only relative she has. Fatlum takes the phone to dictate the man the camp's address and give him advice on getting the grandmother to Turkey.

"What did he say?" I ask.

"Just 'Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,'" says Fatlum.

Back at the phone tent, I ask the coordinator whether she knows what happened to Eddy, a young man who came asking to use the phone after-hours last night. He was on a list to go to France the following morning, but he wanted to go only if his brother could then get him to Sweden. None of us knew what to advise him: On the one hand, he may not have the right to leave France; on the other, France seems to be the only country willing to include individuals without families in its airlifts. By the time we left the camp, Eddy still had not gotten through to his brother. "I haven't seen him today," says Corinne, the phone coordinator. "I guess he left."

A note: Like so many refugees, Faith and Vera are hoping to be able to return to Kosovo, so they asked that I not use their real names. Of course, everything is contingent on their reuniting again. A couple of weeks ago Vera, exhausted, on top of everything, by the anti-Albanian attitude she was encountering everywhere in Macedonia (the couple could not rent an apartment, because no one wants to rent to Albanians), took advantage of a friend's invitation to spend some time in San Francisco. On the way out, she was strip-searched at the airport. Now both women fear she will not be allowed back into Macedonia when she returns.

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