Ten minutes into a conversation with Ray, from Blythswood Care, UK and he casually asked me,
‘Do you want to come to Kosovo – I can arrange all the documentation and you can visit some of our projects. We will also help with the air ticket.”
A week later, 10.30 Monday morning, I was on a British Airways flight to Pristina.
In less than three hours I was touching down at Kosovo’s international airport, under a brilliant blue sky with not a cloud anywhere.
Met by Ray and several of the locals, we drove up into the hills to the town of Gjakova, and its accompanying grey mist and fog, and I never saw blue sky again – until I returned to fly back to London.
It is hard to describe those five days – literally I entered another world. I also understood again that news reports, political analyses, current affairs updates and learned chats over coffee will never be a substitute for going to a place and seeing, hearing, touching what is real – and so inexpressibly heart breaking.
In those five days I was not only looked after and blessed beyond measure by Ray, but was mentored by someone who seems to effortlessly live out what he passionately believes, giving freely and unconditionally to all whose needs were made known, a man who in every deepest sense is a servant and faithful steward of the resources and abilities he has been blessed with.
In one of many memorable conversations, Ray quietly said to me, “I don’t want to die rich – I want to use the money to help people now”.
Humble and deeply compassionate that is exactly what Ray is doing. May we all learn from this beautiful example.
Ray very quickly showed me that nothing was a problem – no matter how insolvable it seemed. Whether it was meeting with local government officials, organising aid trucks from Scotland or contacting relevant UN people about war crimes.
We visited the poorest of the poor – Roma families subsisting in rundown 2 room buildings and helped Richard, another selfless man from the UK who visits Kosovo regularly, install a small solar panel for the ‘shed lady’, so she could have two to three hours electricity during the regular power cuts.
We visited a group of widows whose village saw the largest number of men and young boys massacred by the Serbs, sampled the local brew Raki which could set off dynamite, and made a quick trip into Albania to deliver a wood heater to, again, poor Roma families struggling to survive the coming winter.
Just spending time with the people and hearing some of their stories was, as it always is, the highlight of this unexpected trip.
Throughout the five very full days, with much walking on the cold, rubbish strewn streets ( at night head lamps are mandatory to avoid falling into the manholes whose covers have been stolen to sell ), as we visited various families, the thought kept reverberating in my mind – twelve years since the ethnic cleansing, – twelve years since lives were forever shattered – and the deepest pain and questions remain.
Houses still empty, all railways still non operational because of the bombings, squatters trying to survive in abandoned Serbian homes, little work, sometimes daily power cuts, and women who still believe and hope their husbands are alive somewhere in Serbia.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of my time in Kosovo was stopping by a mass graveyard where 300 men and boys are buried.
That horrific night in April 1999, Serb soldiers came to the villages and ordered all the men over 17 to leave.
While the women and children were marched into Albania where they were refugees for over a year, the men were taken to a field and shot. The youngest was a 12 year old boy who wouldn’t leave his older brothers, and the oldest was a grandfather in his 90’s.
Ray told me that a woman who witnessed the mass murders from outside her home nearby, poured petrol over herself and lighted a match.
Again, I reflected, these are the stories we don’t read or hear – and if we do, tragically the faces and names convert into a set of statistics that horrify us for a moment – until something else diverts our attention on the world scene.
My time in Kosovo was also a stark reminder to me of the ongoing genocide in Burma – where every atrocity against the innocent is being committed daily, while the world carries on its fascination with materialism and superficiality.
Returning to the UK was a paradigm shift in the extreme.
My last 10 days were enjoyed with my aunt and uncle, resting in the English countryside, surrounded by beauty, culture and abundance, with every need and want catered for, in safety and peace.
We live in a bizarre, almost Twilight Zone – type world – where three hours in a plane can transport you to another universe and not only brutally adjust your perspective, but leave you with more questions than before you went.