Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 25 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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On the ride from Shkodra to Tirana in Albania I periodically drifted off to sleep to the sounds of a back-seat conversation between two relief workers, a married couple from England. It went something like this: A schizophrenic is so difficult to treat when not only was she exposed to horrors and hardship, but she also had to go off medication as well; an international medical organization is biting off more than it can chew; it's impossible to communicate with a man who has watched his wife be tied to a tree and shot--they had lived near the border with Montenegro and had been helping people get out; some groups try to hog all the service providing; it's horrible when people from big organizations come in and start telling you what to do after you've been at it for weeks. As the conversation built, it was starting to sound like actual relief work is incidental to the larger task of coordinating with other organizations. I suppose that's the larger beef, not the bigger job, but I have since seen for myself how difficult it is.

In the chaos that were the temporary settlements in Shkodra, the refugees took on much of the organizing themselves. A couple of thousand people were let off every night on the grounds of an old tobacco factory--when I visited, I recognized it as the place where I had been delivered with Bedri's family a day earlier. The refugees would claim some space on wooden slats that had once been used for drying tobacco leaves. The next morning, some would leave. I like to think that Bedri and his family left but I had little chance of finding them among the five thousand people there. Others would stay. They would start to construct, taking down the upper level slats and setting them up as barriers between families. Each family thereby got a cubicle about six feet square. Small straw mats would emerge from somewhere, and be laid down on the slats for warmth and hung up for privacy. When one floor of the building filled up--a good thing, in a way, since the warmth of so many human bodies actually heated up the place--someone would make a list of all the families. Then young men were dispatched daily to another building on the grounds, where bread and cheese were handed out. A cardboard box would be filled up and carried to the necessary floor. The young men would protect it from outstretched hands, big and small, and then names would be called out and the food distributed. A family of 14 would get two and a half loaves of bread and about half a pound of goat cheese, enough for maybe half a dozen sandwiches.

The Stenkovec 1 camp, the largest in Macedonia with over 20,000 people, has enough food--"plenty of food," says Albert, a coordinator with the International Catholic Migration Commission. It's cold food--bread and cheese and bananas and assorted cans--but the problem is the distribution. At first, food was handed out to anyone who lined up, so an 18-member family might get 18 family rations. Then the relief workers and volunteers who did the distribution started keeping lists, and now they plan to introduce ration cards. The problem, though, is the queue, or, rather, four of them, that stretch a kilometer and a half each. "If you can walk, if you're smart, you can get food or go to a tent where someone is cooking," says Albana, a refugees who volunteers with the ICMC. "But if you can't walk, or you have babies, and you can't stand in line for four or five hours, you have to go hungry."

The ICMC's mission is to look for what it calls "the specially vulnerables"--the ones who can't walk, or get food for themselves. Among these are the 24 people who were each found wandering alone through the border zone in Blace three weeks ago, back when the refugees were first herded into organized camps. This left two dozen disoriented people, most of them elderly, two of them mentally retarded, and all of them without family or friends. The ICMC moved them into its tent, where they get care. Many of the elderly have since been claimed by their families, but many more have come in. The two mentally retarded men are living in a separate tent, attended by refugee volunteers who are learning to change an adult's diapers and to play with him as one would with a child. But the one with Down's syndrome, a man of indeterminate age, cries every day at the same time, at dusk, and then starts to laugh and sing. Today this got to one of the volunteers--the one responsible for the "special guys," as they're called here--and she begged a doctor from Doctors Without Borders to find the man a place in a hospital, but he just gave her tazepam tablets for the patient.

The hospitals are a separate coordination story. The Israeli field hospital that operated in this camp, the one that was always making the newscasts, closed down the other day. The Macedonian media reported that the Israelis' contract with the Macedonian government had run out. Word around the camp was that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees signed a contract with the German Red Cross instead of the Israelis, who left in a huff (though they bequeathed all their equipment to the camp). For a while the two organizations were functioning side by side, and Albert tells me he's got a "great story" about that.

About two weeks ago an old man died in one of the camps. The body was brought to Stenkovec because the Germans had set up a field morgue. They said they couldn't deal with the body, though, so it was taken to the Israelis. "I told Dr. Levy that the Germans couldn't handle it for some reason," says Albert. "And he says, 'Funny. They had no problem handling seven million bodies. What's one more?' " Very funny, as my Ulcinj interpreter would have said. The Israelis accepted the body. I ask how they dealt with the ritual issues. Albert says the hardest part was tracking down the family and making all the arrangements--it took almost two weeks. So much for the tradition, shared by Jews and Muslims, of burying a body within a day.

Albert has the temperament for this job: He actually finds humor in the constant crises of coordination. He takes me to a tent his organization has set up for children. A staff member named Joanne is showing us the inside and telling us about the first day of activities. A hundred kids came; they drew and told stories about Kosovo and sang songs. Just as I'm about to ask if I could come tomorrow to listen to the stories, Richard, another ICMC coordinator, enters. "We're looking at having to give up this tent," he says. Translated out of the language of British understatement, this means that some of the approximately 1,400 people who just arrived on buses from the border are moving into the tent this minute. As they're coming in the front, ICMC quickly loads its belongings--tarps, children's drawings on vellum, some still-packed folding tables--into a pickup truck out back. Then there's the issue of the three young refugee volunteers, who have been living in the tent. Like most volunteers, these are young people who are here without their families. Richard tells them to go back in to claim their spaces before they're occupied.

"Chaos doesn't actually rule here," says Richard at the end of the day. "But it's definitely got the working majority."

Albana, meanwhile, tries to comfort Joanne. "Hey, you don't have a tent--I don't have a home!" she offers with a smile.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.