Friday, July 29, 2005

Observations by Mike Hartman

The Slovene village was not as bad as I expected, but I guess the bathrooms were horrendous. It was a little dirty, and I did not see as many people and kids as I expected. The homes are small metal shipping containers which I could see us camping in for a few days, but these people have lived there for 6-8 years. I did several screenings, most of the kids were not too bad off. One boy had some hearing loss and a ruptured eardrum that had been oozing for a long time - due to a bomb blast. Madeline helped with the music class there.

In the evening, the whole group got together and sang and danced - lots of fun. We went back to the restaurant we ate at the night before and I had the same thing again - Skenderbeg. Good food - real cheap in the restaurants - 5 euro for a dinner and drink.

Today we went to the school in town. I saw a number of adults - somehow word got out about Dr. Korpi and me and neighbors stopped by (oops!) they eventually were told that we would let them know when all the kids were seen first. Liz told us later that most of the schools kept memorials or recognized the children and sometimes the teachers who were killed in the war, but this school did not have such a thing - too many dead. I

Tonight we went to a village near Albania for trout. It was very good and in the mountains near a nice (if the trash was not there) lake. The bathrooms were literally holes in the floor. The picture attached is of Maddie, me, and her host Blendiana. They are having a blast. Belndiana has thanked Liz many times for letting her host. Madeline has said only good things and she is learning some Albanian ("boys are crazy", "tomatoes are bad, bananas good").

If you can, let the church know we appreciate their prayers and support. We are making a difference - the Kosovar kids laugh a lot, and Liz says that doesn't happen a whole lot. Also let them know that although this is not a traditional mission trip (no bible passing, etc.) we are spreading Christ's message through our actions. I sincerely believe the best way to spread the Word is to share the spirit and they will seek the Word versus spreading the word and hoping the spirit will follow. Our actions and our presence are noticed by the whole town and they appreciate the fact that someone outside of here cares about them.

So many stories from here are so sad, it is somewhat amazing they are so happy. Many of the people I have seen have stress-related problems. From the kids to the adults I see so many health problems from - in part - stress. It is sad, but you see they have some hope when we show we care.

There were some children in the Slovene village so cute you would have put them in your luggage! If I come back here I want to expand the medical stuff to help the adult as well. I can't do much but see them, suggest lifestyle changes, and give out some OTC medications. But it helps...

I can't help from feeling a sadness - impending doom - because I wonder if the UN or anyone can resolve the problems they are having here. I have little hope the root problems will be fixed and if not it is inevitable more fighting will occur.

I know I have not touched on most of the happenings so I apologize - I will do better once we get home. We are all having fun, learning much, and making a difference - at least somewhat. We sure didn't learn near enough Albanian, but it just makes the trip more of an adventure!

The Tale of Two Worlds

More than five years after the fighting ended here in Kosovo there are still thousands of families without a real home. While many of these people have been absorbed into the households of extended relatives and friends, some have no options and end up living in displacement camps.

Slovene Village, on the outskirts of Gjakove, is one of those camps. Built by the Slovenian government immediately after the war Slovene Village was intended to be temporary housing. Five years later it remains the permanent home for hundreds of men, women and children. Liz says the children of Slovene are some of the worst off financially of the thousands she assists throughout the Gjakove area.

Keith and I visited this same camp in 2002. Residents live in small, white rectangular metal buildings that resemble the trailer portion of an American semi-trailer truck. They are grouped by fours (three residences and a shared kitchen connected together in the shape of the letter C).

The conditions in 2002 were terrible by all accounts. I was shocked by what I saw when we first rolled into the compound this morning. The conditions now are 100% worse.

Today we did what we could to make life a little better for Slovene; even if was just for a few hours.

Our entire group plus a number of Liz’s volunteers arrived at the camp around 9:30am.
We immediately got to work. Pete and Kristi Korpi set up their makeshift “Eye Town” in one of the residences. Mike Hartman set up his outdoor health clinic nearby. Jon Fasanelli-Cawelti and Neva Baker led art and drawing classes in one of the two rooms of Slovene’s decrepit community building. Ric and Cynthia Smith and Lori Carroll directed singing classes in the room next door. Outside several of our youth participants and adults played wiffle ball, Frisbee, and games of elbow tag with dozens of camp children.

Despite the blazing sun, oppressive heat (at least 90 degrees) and language barriers everyone really seemed to enjoy the entire experience. I continue to be amazed at how well out youths adapt to new and different situations. If I didn’t already know I was in Kosovo, the laughter and screams of joy emanating from the playground area could have easily been the same sounds I hear as I pass a Muscatine school during recess. Music and laughter are universal, no matter what language.

Making Do with What We Have

Many of the Muscatine participants are already getting a small taste of what it’s like to live like a refugee. My house woke up without any hot water this morning. Hot water is somewhat of a cherished commodity in Gjakove but all of the adult houses have water heaters. Thus, we had been hopeful that we would have a hot shower today. Alas, I shouldn’t have been so hopeful.

We managed to figure out the hot water heater over lunch but by the end of the evening the entire city of Gjakove had lost water service. The reason is unclear but I do know the prospects for ANY shower tomorrow morning are not promising.

Sitting around the breakfast table (snacking on chocolate, chips, diet coke and cookies) we bemoaned another day without a shower. But the situation only reinforces that we take so many things for granted in America.

The Muscatine residents in my Kosovo house may have to live without a shower for another day. The residents in Slovene Village have been living without a real home in which to take a shower for more than five years.

Somehow a hot shower tomorrow morning doesn’t seem so important now.

Slovene Village Photos - July 28

First Impressions

Author's note...There are so many wonderful things happening here that my fingers can't type fast enough. Please bear with me as I try to post as much material as possible. In the coming days I am hopeful that other members of our group will find time to give me comments that I can add to the blog. So keep checking back for new and updated material.

Here are a few "first impression" comments that I gathered from people riding in my van between the airport and Gjakove. Please note that the fields surrounding the airport (and many along the road to Gjakove) are planted with corn. And unlike most farms in the US, there are no cattle fences. Hence, our caravan had to stop a few times on the way to Gjakove to let herds of cows cross the road.

"I noticed the smell right away. The airport was small but it was still an airport. The countryside doesn't look much different from that in America-except for the cows on the road." (Mike Hartman)

"Pretty hot but pretty neat. I think there are a lot of cows." (Maddie Hartman)

"It is a lot nicer than I expected." (Kristi Korpi)

"I love the feel of it. I like the terrain. It feels like being at home. They are cornfields and Queen Anne's Lace." (Janet Barry)

"It's neat. I was amazed at the number of people at the airport. There are a lot of new buildings next to old ones. It's amazing to see people farming by hand along the road near brand new signs along the road advertising new doors." (Dan Gray)

"So many things have changed since my first visit. The signs of progress and growth are everywhere. The airport has been modernized. There is a tremendous amount of new building happening all along the road between the airport and Gjakove. Last time I was here the signs of war were far more obvious. Entire villages along this same road were still in ruins and the ditches were filled with garbage and abandoned or destroyed cars. There is still garbage in the ditches but the number of abandoned cars and shattered houses are few and far between now. Perhaps the most noticeable difference for me was the number of trees. My last visit was during the month of November. There were no leaves on the trees then so I was shocked by the number of trees. The countryside is far more beautiful than I remember. I think the summer vegetation has a lot to do with this observation. Gjakove itself has also changed. There are a few buildings that I recognize but far more that I don't. The Hotel Gjakove where Keith and I stayed looks pretty much the same. The dorm that served as what was known locally as the "Konvict" displacement camp still stands. The building is now abandoned but evidence of the fire that destroyed the third floor of camp before our arrival in 2002 is still obvious. Strangely, however, a brand new German financed high-end apartment/condominium complex is being built just a block away from the old Konvict camp. Overall, it feels like life is moving forward here. Perhaps it is the summer sun, but it also feels much more like a thriving community than a war-shattered town." (Kristin McHugh-Johnston)

A Few Photos

Here are a few photos from recent days.

Keith helps the MayDay bus driver in London load luggage.

MayDay bus driver finishes loading luggage in London.

Perparim, one of the Shropshire Music Foundation participants who visited Muscatine in 2004, welcomes Muscatine residents to the Pristina airport on July 27, 2005.

Pondering how to fix the Shropshire Music Foundation van that broke down on the road between the airport and Gjakove.

A view of Slovene Village near Gjakove on July 28, 2005.

Joe Porter attempts to throw the perfect pitch while playing a game of ball with the children of Slovene Village on July 28, 2005.

Additional Facts About Gjakove and Kosovo

Additional Information about Gjakove

Gjakove, located in Western Kosovo near the Albanian border, is 521 square kilometers including the main city and 84 surrounding villages. It is situated 360 meters above sea level. It is difficult to determine the actual population but UNMIK currently estimates 150,000 people live in the municipality (90,000 in the town and 60,000 in the surrounding villages.)

The old town was built around the Hadumi Mosque (built in the 15th Century) and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old town is considered the one of the largest bazaars in Europe. Approximately 70% are Muslim while 30% are Catholic. Gjakove boasts a public librabry, theatre, two professional choirs and numerous more folk bands, and a local radio station (Radio Gjakove).

Additional Facts about Kosovo
(Source: An April 2005 UNMIK report)

Approximately 1.9 million

2003 GDP was approximately 1.78 billion Euro, or 960 Euro per capita (1 euro = approximately $1.25). Unemployment is estimated between 50 and 60 percent.

UNMIK remains the provisional authority but a Multiethnic provisional self government has been in place since June 2002. It is based on the May 2001 Constitutional Framework. In October 2004 a 120-member multiethnic Assembly was elected. Kosovo also has 30 municipalities with 30 elected municipal assemblies.

The international KFOR-force has been training a local police force known as the Kosovo Police Service (KPS). There are currently 6,282 KPS officers—84% male; 16% female; 84.5% ethnic-Albanian; 9.4% ethnic Serb; 6.1% other ethnic groups.

398 local judges and prosecutors and 24 international judges and prosecutors

420,000 children attending 1200 schools
Nearly 15,000 university students

6 regional hospitals (including one in Gjakove). Total hospital beds in all of Kosovo equals 5,308. The hospitals are supported by "health houses" in the 30 municipalities. Family clinics serve Kosovo’s smaller villages.

Kosovo Status

I think it is important to provide some background and context for those of you reading this blog that are unfamiliar with the political situation in Kosovo.

Kosovo is a province in the vast country that was once known as Yugoslavia. Today it is still technically part of the country now known as Serbia and Montenegro (also two regions of the former Yugoslavia). But since 1999, Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations (UNMIK…The United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo). The NATO-led peacekeeping force is known as KFOR.

In the late 1990’s, Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobadan Milosevic waged what many describe as an ethnic cleansing campaign to rid Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian majority. The campaign ended in 1999 after NATO, with assistance from the United States, waged a 78-day bombing campaign to drive Serb military forces from Kosovo.

In the end thousands of people died and at the height of the bombing campaign more than one-million people fled Kosovo to neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Milosevic is currently on trial at The Hague in the Netherlands for war crimes allegedly committed in Kosovo and Bosnia.
Since the end of the war, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority have sought complete independence from Serbia. Serbia, however, views Kosovo as sacred ground and has rejected calls for an independent Kosovo. And although most of Kosovo’s Serb population fled from the region in 1999, ethnic tensions remain high.

Later this year, a special United Nations appointed investigator is due to issue a report on what the future may hold for Kosovo’s political status. In the meantime, Kosovo’s future remains in limbo. This means foreign investment and any real chance for economic growth in this region is severely limited.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Note to Readers About Photos

Our internet connection here is REALLY, REALLY slow. It can take up to 20 minutes to get a post up. The connection speed means I am having problems attaching photos. I will continue trying to post but you may see more text than photos until I get home and can insert the photos where I want to place them.


The Road to Gjakove

It was cold and raining when we woke up this morning at the Gatwick Travelodge. Our goal was to get everyone to the airport by 9:20am but making the two mile trip from the hotel to the terminal was an adventure in itself.

Sometimes no matter how hard you plan trips take on a life of their own as they evolve. This was certainly the case today.

Last night Keith and I arranged to have several taxis meet us at the hotel by 9:00am. Taking several taxis was cheaper than taking the local shuttle bus (and every Euro counts on this trip). However, the taxis showed up in spurts and were not prepared to haul us AND our luggage. I went in the first car with Lori Carrol and Leigha Phillips. Once I had them settled in a central location in the terminal I headed back outside with a luggage cart and waited for the next car. Soon Mike Hartman arrived he assisted me outside while I directed everyone to the central meeting location.

I know some people in our group openly questioned our decision about the taxis but I still think it was the best solution given our options. If we had chosen to take the airport shuttle everyone would have had to get up at least an hour earlier. I am pretty confident that most (including myself) would choose the extra hour of sleep if given the choice. Especially since the ultimate cost was the same.

Just when I thought this was going fairly smoothly given the rain, the amount of luggage and the number of cars, British Air decided they wanted us to check in immediately…and not as a group.

At this point, all sense of order was thrown out the window. I gave everyone their tickets and they were off. I didn’t see some of the group members again until after I got to the gate (roughly ten minutes before boarding).

In the end checking-in the way we did was the right thing to do. The Porter family and I were the last ones to get to the ticket counter. By that time the flight was oversold and British Air tried to move the Porters to the next flight (which didn’t leave for another two days). I don’t know who got bumped off our flight but everyone from our group made it on the plane.

The flight itself was far more interesting than the last one. There were 45 children on the flight including our group. I want everyone to know that the Muscatine youth were on their BEST behavior. Unfortunately, the others were not. It was a loud, if not humorous, experience.

The chaos continued when we landed. Unlike the last time Keith and I were in Kosovo there is an actual airport terminal in Pristina. Before, the terminal was nothing more than an empty aircraft hanger staffed by KFOR peacekeepers. The new terminal, which bears all the signs of a quick United Nations build, has multiple passport control stations and a working baggage carousel. There were also several planes from other airlines parked on the tarmac.

We finally cleared the crush of passengers that had rushed from the plane to passport control and started the long process of collecting our luggage. Thankfully, there are luggage carts at the airport. They are the same carts that were here nearly three years ago. At the time, baggage claim consisted of a KFOR peacekeeper placing each bag in a straight line in the airport hanger. I remember thinking then, "They don’t have a real baggage claim but they do have luggage carts!"

I am always worried at least one piece of luggage won’t arrive when I head overseas on a trip. Sure enough, one bag didn’t make it from London. It is Kate Johnson’s main suitcase. I felt really, really badly for Kate (remember, the next British Air flight from London doesn’t arrive for another two days.) But Kate was really calm (I would have been in a complete state of panic). I helped her file a claim with the airline. We now have to call the airport on Friday and hope the bag arrives.

Gjakove or Bust…Literally!

Since Kate and I were delayed leaving the airport I missed the big arrival on the other side of customs. Liz, a number of the children who stayed in Muscatine last year, parents and a handful of drivers greeted the group with great fanfare that included a welcome poster similar to the one I held up for the Kosovo group when they arrive at O’Hare a year ago.

We eventually we made our way to the vehicles and once again started the process of loading the luggage. We are all quickly becoming packing experts! In the end it took four multi-passenger vans, Liz’s small Jeep and a small cargo truck to get us to Gjakove.

The last time Keith and I made the journey to Gjakove, the road itself was more like an obstacle course of potholes and craters, and it took over two hours to reach Liz’s house. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the trip is much shorter now (less than 90 minutes) and the road is no worse than sections of the Illinois toll road. We didn’t have to navigate a single pothole. If that’s not a sign of progress, I don’t know what is!

This is not to say we didn’t have problems making it to Gjakove. Halfway into the trip, the Shropshire Music Foundation’s (SMF) van broke down. Burim, one of Liz’s volunteers who also visited Muscatine last summer, was driving that van. Keith was riding in that van and he thinks the transmission may have given out. But any problem here has a quick, if not simple, solution. The driver of the van traveling in front of Burim’s vehicle simply tied a rope from his bumper to the bumper of SMF van. To help get the SMF vehicle moving again, the van directly behind it gave it a little push and we were on our way with Burim steering and braking as needed. You will be pleased to know that the rope only broke once...not far from the outskirts of Gjakove. A few extra knots in the rope got us all the way to Liz’s house.

I fear that Liz has a major repair bill ahead of her…one that she can’t really afford…so keep your fingers crossed that the SMF van can be fixed quickly and cheaply!

Tears Start to Flow

I cried when I found Liz back at the airport. I cried again once Liz, our group and members of the SMF group packed into Liz’s tiny living room. Liz was right, this really is a miracle. I’m sure I will say this many, many times again in the days ahead.

Housing Arrangements

Tonight we settled into the place we will call home for the next 11 days. All of the adults are living in three separate houses that we’ve rented for this trip. All of our youths are stay in pairs with host families. With the exception of one household, all of the host families had children who stayed in Muscatine last summer.

Our youth are so excited about being able to see their friends again. Language barriers aside, you could see the faces of both the Kosovar and Muscatine children light up when they recognized each other for the first time.

Every day our youth will rehearse and perform with members of the Kosovo Children’s Music Initiative, the Shropshire Music Foundation’s program here. The adults meanwhile will work on everything from English classes to arts-and-crafts and from basic construction to medical and eye check-ups for local youth.

Tomorrow we will begin our working schedule. Our goal is to spend Monday and Wednesdays in two surrounding villages and Tuesdays and Fridays working out of a Gjakove school and Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and evenings in the Slovene Village displacement camp; the same camp Keith and I visited in 2002.

Until next time...

(Personal note to readers...these entries probably seem long to you but they really are only a snapshot of our adventures.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Adventure Begins…Finally!

Five years of dreaming, more than a year of planning, and countless fundraisers later; it has all come down to this.

32 passengers
42 checked bags (nearly all at the maximum weight of 70 pounds)
70-plus carry-on bags
1 Wesley United Methodist Church Bus
1 Large Passenger Van

The long journey to Kosovo started at 12:30pm on Monday, July 25th in the Wesley United Methodist Church parking lot. Getting to the meeting point was the easy part. Figuring out a way to get both passengers AND luggage into the two vehicles taking us to Chicago was much, much harder. Our large, overstuffed suitcases quickly filled the back of the Wesley bus and the van’s luggage hauling capacity was pretty limited.

So we resorted to drastic measures.

We packed the back two rows of the bus with youth participants and one adult (Kristi Korpi). Then we packed the aisle between them full of bags (one stacked on top of another). We did the same thing after getting four more people situated into the third row of the bus. Small suitcases and carry-on bags ended up in the storage bins above our heads, on the floor, or in my case on my lap. The scene reminded me of a plane ride I took in Russia once where people sat on their luggage in the aisle of the plane when the airline ran out of seats!

The situation on the van was similar. Youth in the back seat, followed by a mixture of adults and youths filling in the rest of the seats with luggage in between them in the aisle, under the seat and everywhere there was space. Keith Porter was sitting directly behind the front passenger seat with one of my suitcases sitting in front of him. I reminded him that I was in a similar situation the first time we visited Kosovo when the driver we hired to take us to neighboring Macedonia arrived at the border in a Yugo. In that case, I got the short end of the stick and was smashed into the backseat with most of our luggage.

Despite the craziness of finding a place for everyone and the luggage we left the parking lot at exactly 1:00pm (our departure goal). So far, so good.

The ride was hot but otherwise uneventful. We stopped at the McDonalds in Rock Falls for a quick bathroom break. I’m sure we looked more like a series of clowns getting out of a small car than a traveling caravan bound for Kosovo. I had my own laugh when the women of the group were warning those of us still standing in line for the restrooms that the first stall was out of toilet paper. I said, “I have Kleenex packs in my purse. This is a good first test of what awaits you in Kosovo.” The line moved a bit more quickly after that; aided by sharing Kleenex and toilet paper from other stalls.

Smooth Sailing

We arrived at O’Hare International Airport only five minutes past our pre-set time of 5:15pm. Again so far, so good.

Unloading the luggage and hauling all of it into the airport took some finesse. But since we arrived three-hours ahead of our departure time we didn’t have to wait in line at the ticket counter. I couldn’t believe it but everyone had a boarding pass and their checked luggage to the large security x-ray machines in terminal in less than 30-minutes. We are flying British Air to London and then taking a second British Air flight to Kosovo’s capital Pristina.

The entire group then made their way to the busy food café just outside of the main security checkpoint in the international terminal. Doreen Borde and I then went to the customs office to register our higher-end equipment (computers, radio equipment and cameras) just in case they question us upon return (more and more customs agents are demanding proof of prior purchase for high-end electronic equipment upon returning to the US). It is a pain to get the paperwork signed but it is far worse to get stopped coming back (like I did coming back from Uganda earlier this year).

The customs agent handling our paperwork asked me my profession and I told him, “I’m a radio journalist.” He asked where we were headed and I responded, “Kosovo.” He winced and then said, “Well at least it’s not vacation.”

“Actually,” I replied, “it is vacation.” He double winced and wished us luck.

After a quick bite to eat the entire group headed for the security screening checkpoint. I was more worried about this step in the process than anything else. But again to my amazement everyone made it through with no problems. I estimate it took less than 10 minutes to get all of us through screening. Whew!

Too Good To Be True

We waited about an hour in the gate area before boarding our plane. Things had gone SO smoothly up to this point that I was beginning to wonder when the other shoe would drop.

It dropped as soon as we buckled our seatbelts.

Seemingly out of nowhere a horrific thunderstorm with lighting and wind blew though. The wind was strong enough to sway the aircraft from side-to-side as if we were experiencing turbulence in the air. At one point it was raining so hard that I couldn’t see the plane parked at the next gate and the water cascaded down the side of the plane like a waterfall. In the end the storm delayed our departure by about an hour.

The flight to London itself was uneventful and everyone was really, really good. At least one participant (Diana Baker) had never flown before but she certainly didn’t appear to be scared.

Once we arrived in London we had to clear passport control before claiming our luggage. Lady luck was with us. At passport control they opened a special lane for us since we are traveling as a large group. It helped that we are all wearing our Kosovo Project t-shirts (designed by participant Jon Fasanelli-Cawelti). Lady luck stayed with us as we headed to baggage claim. Every single bag arrived.

Long before the London bombing incidents we chartered a private bus to take us from London’s Heathrow Airport to our hotel near London’s Gatwick airport. Gatwick is more of a European hub and that’s where our flight to Pristina originates. We need to spend the night in London because British Air only flies three days a week to Pristina (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday).

The charter bus from MayDay Travel (I’m not kidding!) was exactly was waiting for us as we exited the airport. It wasn’t until we lined all of our luggage up to be loaded into the cargo hold of the bus that I realized just how much stuff we really are hauling (are you sensing a theme here?).

After loading about a dozen bags the bus driver turned to Keith and said, “Americans always have too much luggage.”

I’m not sure we could have stuffed another suitcase in the cargo hold. It was full when the last suitcase was loaded. But our driver was friendly and despite the dubious name of the company we made it to the Gatwick Travelodge in about an hour.

Killing Time in the Bar

We arrived at the hotel just after 1:00pm. None of our rooms were ready since check-in time is 3:00pm so we waited in a lounge area that doubles as the hotel’s bar at night. Some adults slept while others searched for restaurants nearby. The youth played cards and hand-held video games. Keith and I made the arrangements for a series of taxis to pick us up and take us to the airport tomorrow morning.

Eventually we made it to our rooms. But even this wasn’t an easy task. All of our rooms are on the third floor but the two lifts (that’s British for elevator) were not working properly and then finally quit working entirely. This meant we had to haul many of our heavy bags up three full flights of stairs. Luckily, Jon and Mike Hartman with the help of a Travelodge employee brought the remaining bags up the stairs. I am forever grateful since my bags were among the last to make it upstairs! I hope the elevators are working in the morning or it could be a long, long trip down those three flights of stairs.

As for the rooms….what can I say? The rooms are not 4-star. They are what I expect a room to be like at a Travelodge. I am rooming with Lori Carroll. I told Lori she could have the one bed in the room. I took the large sofa. Believe me; I have slept in worse places. Actually, all of our rooms have a similar set-up; one or two beds and a sofa.

It is just after 8:30pm as I finish writing this note and nearly everyone is sleeping (Lori included). I’m sure most of us will wake up early tomorrow morning but at least we will have had a good rest before our journey continues to Gjakove.

Until next time….