Tag Archives: ethnic cleansing

“The Signs Don’t Mean Anything”

In the wintry first light two dozen heavily bundled Syrian refugees are huddled on blanket-softened benches in front of the aid station at the edge of Miratovac village when I arrive for my day’s work. Dads, moms, and children are already munching bananas and mandarin oranges and fighting off the icy fog’s chill with chai tea. YWAM volunteers from Schloss Hurlach, working with German-based Humedica and American Medical Teams International medical personnel, greeted them as they began arriving an hour ago. Led by 6-foot-5-inch Michael Gun toting children and luggage up the last hill, the volunteers welcomed cold refugees with warming drinks and needed nutrition. It had been a sleepless night for most of them.

aleppo-food-distribAt midnight, after a series of metallic shrieks from the brakes, a 1940s-vintage train had jerked to a stop with a decisive final jolt, coming to rest in the feeble yellow glow cast by three temporary light stanchions. To the unshaven men and the scarf-bedecked women anxiously peering through windows, a full moon revealed rolling hills, barren trees, and frost-covered fields – but no railroad platform and no buildings. Reminiscent of an Eastern European passport control stop when borders still mattered, it soon became clear this train’s destination had been reached. Lights came on in the carriages, children woke and asked their parents, “Where are we?” – the parents did not know, and a uniformed Macedonian conductor, his undersized hat balanced on curly black hair, strutted through the carriages, announcing, “Granična kontrola. Izlezi sité!” – Border control, everybody get out!

img_9824Borders mattered again. All the train’s occupants were by now painfully aware of that. Carefully negotiating the three steps attached to the train’s doors, lunging the last eighteen inches to the coarse rocks lining the railroad bed, the mostly Syrian travelers numbly disembarked. Children, bedding, and suitcases were handed down the steps with sleepy chatter. Well worn but not uncomfortable, the ancient carriages dating to an era when all passenger trains were dark green, had provided a four-hour respite from the life of waiting and hurrying, hoping and worrying. With babies and bedrolls strapped to winter-coated fathers and mothers, the pitiable human chain robotically followed the officials in the funny hats through the no-man’s land at the border, then a swamp, and finally onto a hastily built road made of coarse crushed rocks. By the time they reached the reception center on the Serbian side, moist clouds of exhaled breath hung over the struggling procession. Fatigued and emotionally exhausted, a dull disinterest had settled over the midnight arrivals.

Hours earlier, a spark of hope had energized Sofia, a refugee from Aleppo, as she prepared to board the ancient train in Gevgelija at the Greek-Macedonian border.img_9857

“Omar, over here. This one is going to Berlin,” she had called to her husband as she climbed onto the stairs of one of the green carriages rescued from the railroad retirement yard. Indeed, in a slide-in slot adjacent to the door, the weathered sign proclaimed Berlin Hbf – Berlin Hauptbahnhof – as the destination. Berlin! Their goal, their hope, the shining city of their dreams, rubbled Aleppo’s replacement. For a moment, it seemed too good to be true.

“Sofie, the signs don’t mean anything. The last one said Budapest Keleti,” Omar, struggling with the luggage, shouted back, as he jerked his head in the direction of the previous carriage. Having heard what a dead-end Budapest’s main train station was for refugees, and taking no chances, he played it safe and followed Sofia onto the steps of the Berlin Hbf  carriage.

aleppo-refugeesThat was twelve hours ago. A packed reception center had forced them to huddle together under the stars until the false dawn peeked over distant hills and creaky joints were prodded into movement again. Now cradling hot chai after a three-mile, pre-dawn trek to the Humedica aid station, Sofia and Omar, beginning to warm up, are gratefully receiving the kindness of the volunteers. It is not Berlin, but they are one country closer to their goal, and one country farther from their lost home.

(Note: The first, second, and last picture are wire service pictures)

Prisoners, and a Boy Named Bastri

Mourn with those who mourn,”

Romans 12:15 (ESV)

Dust clouds billowed in the foothills of the distant blue-gray mountains, announcing the approach of more trucks filled with refugees from Kosovo. For a month the daily convoys had come to the Mjede train station. Filled mostly with women and children, the misery index was high after the six hour trip over mountainous roads. But their ordeal was not over; after resting and recovering, they were loaded into ancient train cars for an overnight journey south to an unspecified destination, sojourners in a foreign country.

Today’s convoy of trucks from the border was different. Not only did it contain only men, they had few belongings. As they walked into the ancient warehouse in groups of twos, their eyes were downcast. Their walk seemed robotic. Once inside, they sat on their meager belongings with expressionless faces. One young man, sitting on the floor, head in his hands, never looked up for six hours, refusing water, bread, or Spam. We learned the men had recently been released from the horrors of a Serbian prison.

oldmenSome, like a man with shrapnel wounds, sought medical care. Two elderly brothers, wearing vests and coats over their shirts, apparently deemed too old to kill, related in heart-breaking fashion how, before imprisonment each had lost their sons in one massacre. Their loves, their joy, and their family name had been eradicated in one afternoon on a hilly meadow near their ancestral village. Facing the heartbreakingly personal reality of ethnic cleansing, it is difficult not to cry.

Two dark haired men, with countenances free of guile, but eyes speaking of unthinkable pain, want to sit next to me and tell me their story. They have an almost palpable telling pressure, needing to talk. img025Theirs is a grim narrative of capture, separation from family, brutal imprisonment, sixty men to a small room, virtually no food, daily beatings and torture, cut off from the outside world, and finally, when hope was lost, a surprising release. The freed prisoners had walked almost one hundred miles, when, just before the border, Serbian soldiers robbed them of their watches and any remaining money.

With bruises and healing wounds to show, and a story to tell the world, one of the men, Luan Kosova, motions for Genti, my translater, to start the videotape. Examining their bruises, taking their blood pressures, and listening to their hearts with the stethoscope, the men appear physically healthy, although their loose fitting pants indicate recent weight loss. My examination seems to bestow survivor status and a renewed vigor on them. Emotionally I doubt they will ever be the same without the divine healing of the Savior who reconciles and forgives, and teaches us to do likewise. I am humbled to be allowed access into lives and hearts at such critical times.

While wandering among the crowd of released prisoners, my eyes had been on a young man who had been following me at a distance. He had not spoken with anyone and did not seem connected with anyone, although he did appear interested in the videotaping of the two men’s testimony. I sought him out, and without the interpreter I introduced myself.young_Men

His name was Bastri Veselï. Through minimal overlaps in his knowledge of English and mine of Albanian, I learned he was 16 years old. He had attached himself to the released prisoners after he had lost his dad and his home. Sensing he had a story to tell and preferred the one-on-one contact without a third person intermediary, we went to the loading dock armed with energy bars and bottles of water. We sat down on the edge of the dock. While munching on Power Bars his story unfolded – in a drawing in my journal.

As he started drawing, a visible catharsis and peace settled on him. For almost an hour he perfected his masterpiece with occasional comments I did not understand. When he was satisfied with it, he signed it in the lower right hand corner. Like artists do.

I had to ask Suela, a very sensitive young woman walking past us, to interpret the drawing and the artist’s comments so I would understand it to the fullest.

The scene was Mitrovicë with the hills and mountains set in the background under a sunny sky with fleecy clouds. Fir trees were visible in the foothills of the mountains. img034A river ran through the scene and was crossed in the middle by a bridge. It was the infamous bridge dividing Mitrovicë into the upper Serbian half, with intact houses surrounded by well-maintained hedges, and the lower half of town, the ethnic Albanian half.

The picture of the upper half had an angry yelling man with a very large open mouth, a soldier, or a leader of the Serbs. The lower half had tanks flying the Serbian flag, shooting at houses. One tank was shooting at Bastri’s house, flames erupting from its windows and the roof. A sniper lying on the ground was shooting in the direction of the house. Bastri’s father lay dead in front of the door to the house.

With no words to express my sympathy, I hugged Bastri and comforted him. He had no tears. I presumed they were all spent. Suela also hugged him and thanked him for sharing his story, and in her warm way, said some comforting words. While drawing was cathartic for him, I sensed some wounds had been re-opened.

For the next three hours I was privileged to be his dad. He was my shadow as I continued to work, intermittently giving him hugs, squeezes of the shoulder, and more Power Bars. img033When it was time to get on the train, we walked around the front of the hall, across the tracks, and onto the platform where the dark green train cars were waiting. He waited to board until almost everyone on the platform had boarded. Hugging him, patting his cheek, and praying a blessing over him with my hand on his head, we said good-bye.  After climbing the steps into the rail car, he found a seat by a window facing me and continued to seek my reassurance. As the train started moving, his eyes finally welled up, and he looked the other way. The way men do.

Also walking around the front of the hall, across the tracks, and to the station platform were the men who had been released from prison. They walked as a group, perhaps out of habit, with shuttered faces, in silence. The bond they had with each other was evident. Getting on a train, headed to one more unknown destination, it appeared to be them against the world. Again. Not in an aggressive, assertive way. Just, again. The silent scream coming from this sad little group was, BROKEN.single_file

A Watershed Moment

“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:44-45 (NIV)

You can’t blame The New York Times or Starbucks. Waiting to pay for our lattes and a slice of banana loaf, a picture in the newspaper display rack catches my eye. A night shot of a blazing five-story building spanned four columns on the front page of The New York Times, the latest drama in the escalating Kosovo war.

A ethnic Albanian boy peers through the window of a bus taking him with other refugees from the border town of Blace to a refugee camp 03 April 1999. Refugees forced out by Serbs from Kosovo continued to arrive today, joining an estimated 15,000 Kosovars, who have been waiting days for trains to take them across the border into Macedonia.
An ethnic Albanian boy peers through the window of a bus taking him with other refugees from the border town of Blace to a refugee camp 03 April 1999.

As I wait in line I scan the headlines above and to the side of the picture and read, “NATO Hits Belgrade Center,” and “Missiles Strike Headquarters for Serbian Police Forces.” But the smaller headline below the picture rivets my attention, “Refugees Flee One Nightmare, Find Another.” I want to know more. Before I can crane my neck far enough to read on, it is my turn to pay.
“Two double tall lattes and a slice of banana loaf, will that be all?” the barista asks.
“And a New York Times, please,” I respond, unaware how this April 3, 1999, newspaper will change my life forever.
We find a table and sit down to enjoy our lattes and each other’s company. On this lovely, warm Saturday, the day before Easter, my wife Anne and I are celebrating. The previous week we had made the final payment of a loan to cover an IRS debt. Delivered of a burden which had shackled us and limited our life for the last eight years, our steps are light. We feel free. It is a turning point for us, a watershed moment.
Sitting down with our lattes I take a closer look at the front section of the newspaper. Proclaiming “all the news that’s fit to print,” as it has every day for over one hundred years,

SKO13:YUGOSLAVIA-MACEDONIA-REFUGEES:BLACE,MACEDONIA,3APR99 - An elderly ethnic Albanian refugee rests in a wheel barrow at a field where more than 25,000 ethnic Albanians are camping at the Yugoslav-Macedonian border April 3.  Macedonia, deluged by Kosovo Albanian refugees, said it would take more refugees only if they could be transferred to other countries, and declared a partial mobilization of the army to fortify its borders after effectively closing them on Saturday.  ds/Photo by Damir Sagolj REUTERS
An elderly refugee rests in a wheel barrow at a field where more than 25,000 other ethnic Albanians were camping near the Kosovo-Macedonian border April 3. Photo by Damir Sagolj REUTERS

The New York Times provides all the news I need on the war in Kosovo and Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of its Albanian population. Chased into flight by unspeakable atrocities, the refugees’ escape from their homes into neighboring Albania and Macedonia is described in vivid detail.
My latte gets cold as I am gripped by this story. Every word and every picture sinks deeply into my being. It is a visceral, moving experience.

Images of refugees in heavy coats trekking through fields and woods, following railroad tracks to uncertain destinations, disturb me.
One particularly haunting picture of a young woman with a child is etched forever in my memory. Part of an ad, the woman’s face appears preoccupied by painful memories and detached from the crowd around her. Eyes above prominent Eastern European cheekbones are squinting, perhaps after too many tears, and stare vacantly to the right. The ache of the soul shrouds her face. A sleeping or comatose tousle haired two-year old hangs limply in her arms. Dazed women with heavy overcoats and suitcases surround her. White lettered words across the center of the full page New York Times picture announce:
“One month after Passover, we are witnessing an exodus of Biblical proportions. But it’s not about freedom.”
Underneath the picture a further caption pleads,
“When the Jews of the world look into the eyes of those fleeing Kosovo, we see reflections from our own past. Fear. Death. Destruction. Flight. Wondering how lives and families will be reunited.”
“We cannot stand idly by.”

SKO08:YUGOSLAVIA-MACEDONIA-REFUGEES:BLACE,MACEDONIA,3APR99 - An elderly Kosovo refugee rests against a tree in a field where more than 25,000 ethnic Albanians are camping at the Yugoslav-Macedonian border April 3. More than 10 people died overnight in the camp due to the cold weather and lack of medicines.  yb/Photo by Yannis Behrakis   REUTERS
An exhausted Kosovo refugee rests against a tree in a field where more than 10 people died overnight due to the cold weather and lack of medicines. yb/Photo by Yannis Behrakis REUTERS

Genocide and ethnic cleansing always look the same. So do the faces of those fleeing it. In these Kosovar faces, in their eyes, and in pictures of lines of disconsolate refugees stretching beyond the horizon, I see my parents and grandparents fleeing the ethnic cleansing of East Prussia in 1945. I see the Jewish genocide of World War II and its Holocaust horrors. I, too, see fear, death, destruction, flight, and splintered families.
And I know I cannot stand idly by either.

Not ready for my deep feelings, I weep. The burden for the fleeing Kosovars touches a long dormant thread to the refugee past in my own life and consumes my thoughts. I know I need to respond to their misery and their needs.
On the way home, Anne and I discuss what God appeared to be placing in my heart. And we pray about it. As always, she is very supportive. Setting out to celebrate a watershed in our lives, this day was becoming more of a pivotal moment than I had anticipated.

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