A lawyer’s journal of life in Kosovo
by Carolyn McCool
Carolyn McCool is working in Kosovo on leave from her position as a staff lawyer with the Legal Services Society - Vancouver Immigration Clinic. As getting information out from (or into) Kosovo is difficult, Carolyn has asked that her story be published as broadly as possible. BarTalk salutes the many lawyers like Carolyn, and judges, who work to improve life in devastated and war-torn areas of the world.
It’s so hard to describe things, but I’ll do my best. It’s important that you know what it is like here. I’m in Mitrovica, in the north of Kosovo. I don’t know how to tell you why I find it so beautiful. The damage is deep and pervasive—visual, emotional, cultural. I didn’t know that an entire culture could be traumatized, that people could have a collective sense of grief, and a collective rage. One of our interpreters, Rema, weeps a lot; “They are so alone under the sky,” she says, when we talk about one of the mass gravesites on a hill above Mitrovica. “No one was there when they died; it was easier with those whom we saw killed, because they, at least, knew we were there.”
But I was going to tell you why I find it so beautiful here, a broken city, and now I don’t know, once again, how to say it. Maybe it’s the gothic architecture, houses that drip concrete curlicues and whirls—imagine great thick curls shaved off a block of chocolate and stuck on corners and under eaves. Maybe it’s the the tiniest of children on the side of dirt roads, holding up little tin plates of three apples, high above their heads as we drive past, hoping for a sale. Maybe the sweet, thick, Turkish coffee, enough by itself to support life for days at a time. Or the mayor of a village that had been razed, who had a bouquet of wildflowers on the table in front of his UN tent, who talked about the loss of his English literature library, or the bravery of the judges who risk their lives to go to work, or the amazing kindness and honesty of everyone, and their absolute willingness to take us into their homes and lives and love us forever. One has the sense of falling in love with an entire land. It’s the opposite of being traumatized.
At the desperate bottom, when hope is almost extinguished, when joy and promise are as far away as they can get, the possibilities are enormous. You have the sense that the smallest of events might have the most enormous consequences, if we act on the basis of principle and honour and respect for all peoples and all those who have suffered.
The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is supported by four pillars: the UN Civil Administration, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the EU, and the OSCE (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). There are five UNMIK regions: Pristina (“Prishtina”), Gniljane (“Gunyliani”), Prizren, Peja (“Paeya”) (or Pec, “Pech,” in Serbian), and Mitrovica (“Mitrovitza”). I am what is called the “head of region” (director) for OSCE in Mitrovica Region. OSCE has the responsibility for investigating human rights abuses, building the institutions of democratic society (e.g., political parties) providing and supporting the structures which will allow elections, and media monitoring and development. This is without a doubt the most unbelievably vast project I have ever been involved in.
It is also, quite literally, from the ground up. In an office with about 30 people we have one telephone, which only works from time to time. Voice mail is a remote memory. We steal each other’s staplers (of which we have, I think, three.) There are no file folders. We took delivery of a photocopier recently; all of the UN team in the building descended on our office. There is no snail mail except within each organization. The electricity goes out several times a day; a wonderful Russian (Vladimir #1) is doing his best. Sometimes we go two days without tap water; there are territorial fights over who may have access to the water utility to figure out the problem. Personal hygiene becomes a creative art. My office is above the generator; I think I’m going to die of petrol inhalation one day, at the same moment that I go deaf from the noise.
One of the things this means is that to do business you go to peoples’ offices. This is not just because we don’t have electronic communications; people don’t respond to letters either, even when they are sent by messenger. This becomes true even of international professional and business people who are used to living by the written word. When people hit Kosovo a different business culture infects them; I think it’s in the water. You have to go find the person you need to talk to. You can’t phone them first, because you rarely know each other’s phone numbers, even if you have a dial tone. There are no business cards. We walk to peoples’ offices and interrupt each other. Everyone accepts these interruptions. We wait for a break in our colleague’s schedule, apologize and say we only need five minutes (which is never true) and accept a coffee or a glass of water, and have a meeting. I do it to everyone and everyone does it to me.
The apparent inefficiencies arising from this chaos produces two things: extremely close working relationships and a “just do it” attitude. If we realize we need a scheduled meeting we have it within hours, or at most in a day or two. Nothing is ever put off. Of course this cannot last. Once electronic communications are an established reality this practice will be a matter of history, and those of us who have shared it will feel privileged and special, remembering that this was the way we did things then. Bonds are being built that will last lifetimes.
There are four primary working languages in Mitrovica: English, Albanian, Serbian, and French. It’s common to have two interpreters, Albanian and Serbian, in most meetings. When KFOR is involved in Mitrovica there may be a French interpreter as well. At one meeting I was at we had a chain of interpreters, moving from English to French to Serbian to Albanian. Everyone knows what everyone is trying to say, in general, but the possibilities for confusion are enormous and real. Add to this the fact that many of the non-native English speakers in the international community are not in fact perfectly fluent, nor are the interpreters fluent in English either. I don’t think we even know when mistakes are made. Sometimes I have no idea what people are talking about.
I was in a briefing meeting today with some of the international staff. We were reporting to each other some of the things we had done and would do. At first I thought someone was telling me that there was an old community of German missionaries who had been living in an industrial building near the railway for 14 years—I couldn’t believe that no one had told me of such a tiny, but culturally significant minority. It turned out that he was talking about a printing shop that had old German machinery which hadn’t been repaired for 14 years, but that it could be refurbished and used in some of our media development work. We nearly died laughing—and now this problem of communication has become something we call a “German missionary” situation.
I have been to one exhumation so far. It is a shocking event. The dead should not look like that. There is absolutely no privacy when you are exposed down to the bone, when someone has to pick up your head from a pile of dirt to fit it properly onto your shoulders. The smell writes itself in permanent ink onto the hard drive of your brain. At the same time there is the most astonishing dignity to the dead who have been murdered for political or ethnic reasons. We honour them; they have passed into a state of grace. They are perfectly innocent, and they are no longer in pain. The hard part is the living. A woman wept continously and I put my arms around her and told her how sorry I was. It was so little, but as I left in my car we looked at each other. She had dark eyes and wore a blue scarf on her head. I would recognize her if I saw her on my own deathbed.
At the same gravesite I spoke with a man who had a spider on him. He could have been 30 or 70. He had watched as his six-year-old son was killed, and other members of his family that I don’t remember now. The spider kept crawling up his leg; it was quite a big, dark spider. He spoke of his sister who was so traumatized that she couldn’t leave her bed. The spider went into his jacket and out again. He was so thin that he couldn’t have been eating at all. His mouth was stretched across his teeth.
When the spider got to his collar I had to turn and leave. I wanted to tell him to brush it off but I thought that if I did that he might shatter into pieces in the dust at our feet. I believe now that he was the living dead.
My roommates are an Italian print journalist, a German political activist, two British and one Swiss/Peruvian career international aid worker. I hadn’t known, but it is possible to make an entire career going from one of these contracts to another. Once you get one job (like the one I have) you can stay on the track for years. These people have been in Haiti, Rwanda, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, South Africa, Angola, Afghanistan, and so on and so forth. They have been shot at, evacuated, held hostage, and traumatized in countless ways over the years. They have seen mass graves with 18,000 bodies. Their colleagues have died of random and deliberate killings. They have worked in chaotic administrative systems on every continent of this planet. They can drive anything, live in any type of accommodation, and gripe with the best of us about the inability to find a plug for the bathtub. They are an incredibly hardy, smart, funny, loyal bunch of people, and I love every one of them.
I am on what I now know to call my first mission. People on their first mission are vulnerable to all kinds of culture shock, anticipatory trauma, and horror at the lack of proper administrative support. Luckily I haven’t experienced any of that. After all, I am now 53 years old and have been through a fair amount in my short life. The sense of being perfectly placed, for my skills and background, is wonderful. Professionally speaking, I have never been so happy. I am challenged, but I am (I think) meeting the challenges. All of my skills are being tested—personal, administrative, political, diplomatic, intellectual. Nothing could be more fulfilling.
At the same time the pace is very hard. I now know what Justice Arbour meant when she said, at ICTY, “we eat adrenalin for breakfast.” I hit the office by 7:30 am at the latest, hoping for half an hour of quiet. By 8:15 meeting congestion begins—briefings, office meetings. Then the latest crisis is reported, we are into emergency meetings, tasking staff to go into the field to find out what is happening, preparing contingency plans. The stream of people looking to talk in person begins, the paperwork builds up, scheduled meetings have to be attended, the unscheduled VIPs and visitors from Pristina have to be hosted, and it is 7:30 pm before you face your own office desk again. This is six days a week, 12-14 hours a day, at least half a day on Sunday, week after week after week. I am a moderate. When I get to about 12-14 hours I’m pretty much brain dead and have to pack it in and go home to read. Some people stay at their desks 17 hours a day.
We have two types of vehicles: big 4-wheel drives, called Pajeros. There is a second transmission to convert to two different degrees of 4-wheel drive. These are very tall big vehicles, bigger than Land Rovers. The fancy ones “dance and sing” with satellite phone, altimeter, thermostat, and other gadgets that I don’t understand. The second type of vehicle we have is called a Cherokee. It’s an armoured vehicle; each one weighs about 3 tons. The armouring is built into an existing vehicle, so the interior is very tiny, which is hard for the bigger people on the mission, and the windows don’t open, so you have to open the door when you are at a checkpoint, which is not always totally safe. We use them to transport locals in and out of areas where they are in danger, and in case of evacuation.
And yes, we do have an evacuation plan, or we will have; it’s one of the things on my desk right now. The reality is that we will probably never have to evacuate. Of course there is significant political violence here (I think I hear small arms fire right now, or else it’s one of my roommates shutting a door,) but the risk of one of us getting in cross-fire is about the same as the risk of being caught in drug-related cross-fire on the streets of the downtown eastside of Vancouver. So long as we practice some common sense we, as internationals, are not at risk here. Not in Mitrovica. Not yet.
Carolyn McCool is a staff lawyers at the Legal Services Society, Vancouver Immigration Clinic.
This article was published in the December 1999 issue of BarTalk. © 1999 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.