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.
On 23 June 2009 Burma army troops captured a number of villagers in central Karen State. An entire family, including 2 children (ages 4 and 13) and a grandmother (65), was executed. 2 other children managed to escape and are now refugees in Thailand. These children will live with the trauma of witnessing their family killed for the rest of their lives, though they are now in relative safety across the border.
Burma, in fact, has been ranked as the world’s third largest source of refugees after Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the Thai / Burma border is not the only place you will be confronted with people who have been forced to flee political, ethnic and religious persecution in Burma.
Thousands of refugees escaping extensive human rights abuses perpetrated by the Burmese military junta, have been arriving in Malaysia, with the hope of not only registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but of eventually being resettled in a third country.
Many of the approximately 40,000 Burmese refugees who have resettled in the United States since 1995, have come via Malaysia.
Refugees in Malaysia are regarded as illegal migrants as they have fled Burma and do not have passports. As such they are not extended any of the basic rights we regard as ‘normal’ in countries like Australia. Their children cannot go to school, their sick do not have access to medical care, and those who manage to find menial work are too often exploited and abused by employers.
Upon arrival in Malaysia, refugees are often arrested by the authorities, regardless of whether they have UNHCR papers. They can be imprisoned, taken to detention camps and /or taken to the Malaysia / Thai border for deportation. At the border these men, women and children become the prey of human traffickers, who demand individual ‘ransom’, which according to some reports, includes bank accounts in Kuala Lumpur to which money should be transferred. Those unable to pay are handed over to peddlers in Thailand, ranging from brothel owners to fishing boat cartels. Women are usually sold into the sex industry.
Ikatan Relawan Rakyat ( RELA), translated ‘Volunteers of Malaysian People’, a paramilitary civil volunteer corps, formed by the Malaysian government, is more feared by the refugees than the police. A typical tactic used to harass and arrest refugees is for RELA groups to position themselves outside churches and market places on a Sunday, where they know many refugees will be.
Persons identified as asylum seekers and refugees on their way to a third country, are seen as threats to national security.
In an interview with The New York Times, RELA director-general, Zaidon Asmuni, said, “We have no more Communists at the moment, but we are now facing illegal immigrants. As you know, in Malaysia, illegal immigrants are enemy No. 2.”
When Jo Hain and I visited the Kachin refugees in Kuala Lumpur in April this year, we heard firsthand the stories of abuse and harassment, and the daily struggle to simply survive as a refugee in Malaysia.
Just before we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, bringing with us clothes, baby items, vitamins, toys, and educational items, several hundred refugees from Burma were arrested and taken to detention camps. These included young mothers with children, some of whom had been waiting at a bus stop to go back home.
And what is ‘home’ for Kachin refugees in Malaysia? It is usual for several families to live in one apartment on the outskirts of the city. There is no furniture (perhaps mattresses are spread out to sleep on at night), no air conditioning. Rents are high, and with food and transport costs it is not surprising that up to 15 people can exist in one 4 room apartment.
But the Kachin are resilient, hopeful and are striving to carve out a life for themselves while they wait, sometimes up to four years, for the chance to be resettled to a third country. There is now a school run by volunteer Kachin teachers for primary and secondary students. A pre school is also being set up for the little ones.
Many of the women have begun sewing and crocheting, with the goal of setting up an income generating business in Kuala Lumpur. Jo and I had the joy and privilege of bringing enough money with us, which had been donated by several friends from New Zealand, for two more industrial sewing machines to be purchased. To witness the excitement and enthusiasm of the young girls and older women, as they showed us what they had already created, and chatted with us about future projects, is one of the many highlights experienced on this brief trip.
There are many needs in the Kachin refugee community in Malaysia, especially medical. If anyone is interested to know more and to help in some way, please contact me through FB or my email – email@example.com.
I remember being inspired to write this song after driving home one night to our little place in country Australia, and suddenly being struck – as if for the first time- by the plethora of eerily shimmering blue lights emanating from nearly every home we drove past.
It was dark. And so the little blue light was very visible, shining even through drawn curtains, boldly exposing the recreational activity of countless families in our little town alone.
As the lyrics to this song found their way out of this naive realisation and into penned thoughts, I saw a potter.
This potter shapes many things, with a dedication, persistence and skill that is perhaps unlike anything else we have seen influence our lives and our world.
This potter moulds minds and hearts – our ideas, perceptions and even feelings are pliable clay. We are told to need certain things, we are persuaded to want even more things, we are coerced to shift Self firmly into the centre of our universe – because we have a right to, because it’s cool.
This potter shapes our time – we fit our lives around the programs we are compelled to watch, the next episode of the series that cannot be missed.
This potter even plays around with our relationships – we ‘get to know’ people by watching television together, we have our conversations in the commercial breaks.
This potter is also skilfully adept at replacing and re – prioritising. Good books remain on the shelves, letters and cards to real people stay unwritten, visits to those crying out for companionship and encouragement rarely, if ever, happen.
And the catch cry of these days we live in is – there’s no time! No time to invest in real people and real activities – but seemingly plenty of time to keep up with the latest Reality show or Idol favourite.
The little blue light has become the other member of our family – perhaps more listened to than our spouse, more comfortable to spend time with than our teenagers.
This potter demands so little of us – just to be switched on in fact. And that is enough.
There’s a little blue light
Shining out from the window of this nation
This little blue light is a potter
Working the clay of this generation
Heart and minds gently mesmerised
It’s the time, it’s the sign
In every home tonight this little blue light will shine
This little blue light will shine.
Children want to share the day’s joy
Dad mumbles ‘later’
For now find a toy
Channel to channel the hours melt away
The little blue light has become the truth and the way
The truth and the way
There’s a little blue light……..
Long ago a piper played a steal away tune
Now it’s the little blue light in the corner of your room
It’s not just the kids who are dancing with glee
The little blue light is beckoning you and me
You and me, saying
“Hey, let me think your thoughts for you
I’ll feed your fantasies when you get blue
Hey, I’ll plan your life for you
I’m the little blue light you can’t put out
I’m the little blue light you can’t live without”
Some of you are wondering just what’s gone wrong
Why are we filled, yet hollow inside
Why is the little blue light doing our living for us
As we soak up the details of anonymous lives
There’s a little blue light…….