Behind the Page iii :: Kosovo refugees crossing into Albania

Easter Day 1999, in the northern Albanian town of Kukes, ethnic Albanian Kosovans fleeing the civil war reached the relative safety of Kukes.

Kosovan refugees in Kukes, northern Albania

Kosovan refugees in Kukes, northern Albania :: copyright Tearfund

The NATO war in Serbia escalated at the end of March 1999, and in retaliation the process of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo drove hundreds of thousands of Kosovo-Albanians over the border into Albania seeking refuge.

At Tearfund we had a meeting early in the morning as it became apparent that the situation was rapidly deteriorating , and it was agreed to send out a couple of Disaster Management experts from staff to evaluate how our partners could respond effectively. Within the media team we pushed for a journalistic presence too, and it was agreed I would go – that night. The rest of the day was frantic, getting hold of enough film for trip, getting home and packed, and flying out to Athens late in the evening.

Steve (ex-Royal Marines, disaster expert) and I  drove up from Athens through a totally normal seeming Greece and crossed into Albania surrounded by snow at a ski resort. Albania felt like a country at war, with line upon line of pill boxes dug into the fields every few hundred meters, and high speed Mercedes of dodgy provenance overtaking cattle drawn hay wagons.

Tirana was somehow wild and beautiful and semi-derelict all at the same time. We spent a couple of days visiting refugee centres across the city, one based at a sports club, centred on an empty swimming pool, another in a huge gym. At the gym we met members of a church youth group who’d been about to go on an outing for a picnic when they heard about the refugee crisis starting, so they’d turned around and headed back into town to help, and they’d been there ever since – I think it was five or six days they’d been going by then.

I’d brought along a digital camera for the first time on a trip, a Nikon Coolpix 9-something (with the swivelly body), with about 0.3MP resolution – I banged off a few dozen frames, and edited on a pocket Sony Vaio, which was pretty much the pre-cursor to net-books, and managed to send a copule of images of the gym centre back to the UK on an incredibly dodgy hotel internet connection.  When I got home, this was already in print on an appeal letter – unheard of speed for us as an organisation at that point.

After Tirana we drove north along a rock-strewn road up huge river valleys, with massive Red Cross/Crescent aid convoys heading up too. We reached Kukes, which is just short of the border with Kosovo, and met up with other Tearfund partners there in the closest thing to a straightforward Communist-era apartment block I could imagine.

The next three days were spent as much as possible out in the thick of what was going on. There was a large international media presence, lots of macho jockeying for position, a lot of military, and then the border. On Easter morning, at sunrise, I spent a couple of hours just watching the refugees crossing the border on tractors and in defeated minibuses. All women, children and old men. The young men were being taken off 200m away on the Kosovo side of the border and marched off.

Refugees crossing into Albania from Kosovo, Easter morning 1999 :: copyright Tearfund

Refugees crossing into Albania from Kosovo, Easter morning 1999 :: copyright Tearfund

The picture at the top of the post was taken in the town square of Kukes, overlooking the valley that leads down to Tirana and relative safety. The V was used by many of the refugees as a symbol of their defiance, and I think this image contains at least a little hope. It recently resurfaced and was used by Sheffield Theatres on a production about child refugees, which felt like an appropriate journey for the picture’s life.

There’d been no flights in or out of Tirana for a week or ten days, because of the US Cruise missiles being fired into and through the airspace (though I slept through the only ones we actually saw, one night at the border in the front seat of a Landcruiser). I flew home on the first plane out of Tirana airport, a Soviet jet with canvas showing through the rubber on the tyres, and wood-effect Formica for interior decoration, via an incredibly safe-feeling northern Italy.

Professionally, being able to respond quickly, to get into (and out of) a difficult situation safely, to get images that told the story, to cope with the technical and physical demands, were all greatly satisfying. Humanly, the appeal raised enough money to have a significant impact on Tearfund’s involvement in the rebuilding process once the war finished. And to actually see people moving across a border, rather than settled in camps, helped me a little in my understanding of what being a refugee actually meant.

Technically: Leica CL, 40mm lens – probably shot on Fuji Neopan 400, and printed at the much-missed Joe’s Basement.