E-DAY IN KOSOVO.
October 28, 2000, is election day in Kosovo, this war-torn piece of land without independence nestled between Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. The votes of the people will elect municipal assemblies that will take care of basic needs such education, sewage, health care, social services, utilities, roads, transport, fire and emergency services. A lot is riding on this first election since the ending of hostilities.
I go to Kosovo as an international election supervisor, one of nine hundred from the United States and Europe. Our job is to insure that this vital election is run honestly and without incident.
At the Newark airport on the East Coast of the United States, I join president of World Citizen Diplomats Lois Nicholai, who earlier supervised elections in Bosnia. We fly to Munich, Germany, and then to Skopje, Macedonia, where we board buses headed toward a closed summer resort area on Lake Orhid, bordering Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. Upon arrival, we register for our jobs as election supervisors, and we are split into training groups. Both Lois and I are assigned to Group H, consisting of supervisors from Finland, Luxemburg, France, Sweden, Germany, Italy, and Poland. Our two main trainers are from Kenya and Ireland.
Over the next several days, an assortment of military and security personnel from various countries brief us on security measures, such as identifying personnel and antitank landmines, booby traps, and other lethal devices. We are warned that landmines may be at the sides of roads and so we are not to get out of cars. To pinpoint our location, we are taught how to read and use military-style coordinates on Kosovo maps. We are also warned that fatalies are steadily rising from Kosovo drivers who love to speed. Ethnic tension between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars, we are told, is high. In one area, 1500 Serbs live behind a guarded fence, too afraid to venture forth without escort.
Four days before the October 28 election, we are bused into Kosovo. The border between Macedonia and Kosovo is mountainous, and this place is barren and dusty. We pass a kilometer-long string of parked trucks and other vehicles waiting to cross into Macedonia. I wonder how long these vehicles will wait. Twenty-four hours? Maybe.
I am not prepared for what I see in Kosovo. Burned and destroyed houses. Every house burned. The ravages of war here are staggering, shocking.
We travel along in silence looking at the burned and destroyed houses spread out across the landscape, not clustered in villages or towns as we of the West are accustomed to. One house facing this way, another that way. Big houses, multi-storeyed. I see a similiarity between these houses and those of the Palestinians living in Jordan, both built to hold extensive families. Husbands, wives, children, grandparents, cousins -- all living together.
We approach an area that has seen much fighting. The road is badly torn from tank traffic. We are told that Serbian tanks came to dislodge guerillas in the high hills overlooking the road. Mortor fire has put great gouges in the houses. And, of course the houses have been burned.
We move slowly onward, and in a while we reach Mitrovica, a large, active town with open shops and goods for sale along the road, people on the streets. A boy flashes a victory sign. I assume it is a victory sign.
The people here have a tendency to rebel against what they do not like. They caused so much trouble for the Serbs that the municipality, Malisheve, where Mitrovica is located, was wiped off the map, and the residences had to register as living in the five surrounding municipalities. This edict was still in effect when they registered last spring to vote in the October 28 election. However, because of the discontent, the old municipality was restored and the people were asked to register again. We are told that polling supervisors for this Malisheve municipality may expect problems. One thing is certain though: here will be no clashes between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars at the polls. The Serbs are boycotting the election.
We reach a Russian checkpoint. A sign saying ‘Stop’ changes to something looking like 5% and we continue along, looking out the bus windows at the Russian soldiers manning this checkpoint. Their drying wash is hanging behind them on a line.
The countryside is rolling now, vineyards on either side of the road. We are told that the grapes have not been tended, and this year they are small. Before the war, wine from these vineyards was exported to Europe, but now the contacts and contracts have been lost. A new refinery, bright and shiney in the sunlight, Italian built, stands idle. Further on, we pass the destroyed old refinery.
Another industry lost to Kosovo is lead batteries, formerly much in demand throughout Europe. When the chain of supply was broken because of the war, European companies had to look elsewhere for batteries. New supplies were found; contracts were signed. The German Election Officer riding on my bus says the economy of Kosovo is in shambles. Eighty percent are unemployed. Workers must search abroad for employment. At the Skopje, Macedonia, airport when I return to the United States, I watch a Kosovo man stand at the counter to receive his boarding card, then pass through passport control without stopping to say goodbye to his crying wife and daughter. My opinion is that he could not bear to say goodbye, and so he did not.
Lois Nichalai and I share a room in a newly-built hotel that becomes the command post for the election work of international supervisors. This hotel is located in the outskirts of a city called Rahovec. A number of male supervisors are barracked in a nearby German military compound, and the remainder of the group is housed in private homes.
We begin two days of training, and the day before the election, we are given our assignments. My polling stationg will be in a school in Mlecane, a town in the northern part of the municipality of Malisheve. I will share a van and driver with an international supervisor from the Czech Republic, who is given a polling station in the same school. He has earlier participated as a soldier in Zimbabwe elections, and since I am a new election supervisor,I am happy he is there. However, as it turns out, he suffers from a bad case of the flu, and so I am put in charge of the entire operation. For the convenience of both of us, we put our polling stations in the same classroom.
The school is newly built, with desks and chairs for the 300 children. Each classroom has a mobile blackboard and two light bulbs attached to the ceiling. I see no paper, no pens or pencils, no books. Also, no water, no inside toilets, and the electrical system is unreliable.
Local committee chairmen meet with us, as well as committee members whom I assign to different tasks, such as an Identification Officer to check registration receipts, a Ballot Issuer to give out ballots and instruct voters on how to vote, a Ballot Box Watcher to check that each ballot is stamped before it is put into the box.
I have brought from home colorful balloons. We inflate them, tie them with long streamers, and hang them from the ceiling. When the stations are ready, we search for a generator, which I think will be needed for the counting of ballots. The driver bumps our van over tracks in the fields to an old woman wearing baggy Muslim-style pants who points to a generator underneath a house. It won’t start. She gives us parts broken from it, and I ask if the generator can be fixed in time for tomorrow’s election. Yes. Later, I learn that ‘yes’ is a word used liberally here.
E-Day, as election day is called, arrives, and at 4:40 a.m., the Czech and I pick up ballots at the field office in Rahovec, and our van makes its way slowly in convoy to first the Banje polling stations and then to Mlecane. The Czech sits up front maintaining radio contact with his colleagues. We have armed escort ahead of us as well as military in our van. I sit beside a Pakistani military man who, I learn, will be with us throughout the entire election day. To pass the time, we speak about his trip to Canada and his desire to visit the United States in the future. Later, when we are at the station, I am happy I have become friends with the Pakistani. His job is to control the crowd, to make sure everyone stays calm. We make decisions together throughout the day.
Outside, as we are riding along, it is dark, the sky full of bright stars. The constellations Orion and the Pleiades follow us as we travel in our van with our armed escorts and the all-valuable voting ballots.
At the polling station, a tall Kosovar policeman stands the entire day just outside the polling classroom, his presence helping to maintain order. Throughout the day, there is little food and water for him, but he does not complain. The committee members also do not complain about the lack of food and water. For us, the job, no matter how difficult it is, or how uncomfortable, starts at 6 a.m., and ends when the ballots are counted, which is at 2 a.m. the next day.
These Kosovars are hardy people. The voters are hardy. They walk over the frozen land to vote. There are no buses here, few cars. They walk to the school, stand in the cold two or three hours to vote, and then they walk back to their homes. 1054 are registered to vote. 80% come to the school to vote, among them a man without documents. The people stand with him, asking me to allow him to vote. I see their fear that I will turn him away.
I ask where are his documents and they fall silent, retreating into themselves. They do not want to tell me the story of this man. Finally one of them says, “Burned”. I let the man vote. I give him a conditional ballot and I let him vote. Today is a day for the people, for those whose houses were burned, possessions burned, documents burned.
This man who stands in front of me has the features of shell shock. I can only guess that attrocities have happened to him. He has come alone to the polling station, without his family. One can only imagine what has happened to them! Earlier I hear the story about Serb soldiers who demanded from the man of the house all his money. When he refused, his wife and daughter were killed in front of him. I hear other terrible stories. I have seen massacre sites. Here, in my station, the man without official identity votes. On this day, called E-Day, in my station, he is a man with an identity.
Later, I talk with other Americans who ran polling stations, and I learn that they too have allowed all the people to vote. A ballot marked ‘conditional’ can be reviewed by higher authorities. They can decide whether or not such a ballot can be counted. The man who, for a moment, was given an identify, will never know, or care, what the higher authorities do with his ballot. What will be important to him is that for one day he stood with the people, identified. He voted.
The old come to vote. Big families come to vote. Pregnant women. They all come. They wait patiently in the cold to vote. Someone says they have not been allowed to vote for fifty years. I do not know if this is correct. But what I do know is that these people take very seriously their right to vote. An old man says his wife is too old and sick to come to the polling station. Can I come to his house so she can vote? Yes.
I climb into the van with the driver and interpreter and the old man who points the way to his house. He has walked across the fields to the polling station, and so he points that way for us to go. I think how shocked the military would be if they knew we were driving across the field. That old man has walked five kilometers to vote. He has told us his house not far. We find his wife in the courtyard with chickens. She greets us and we take off our shoes and enter the house and sit Muslem-style on low cushions along the wall, a large carpet covering the remainder of the floor. A granddaughter appears with two children and prepares Turkish coffee while the old woman fills out her voting ballot. When she is satisfied she has voted, she sits at a covered cradle and strongly rocks it. I ask to see the baby, and she pulls the covering aside to show me a sleeping, chubby-cheeked boy.
We return to the polling station, and for the remainder of the day I stay there answering questions, making decisions -- I think, one decision every two minutes. Everything goes smoothly. Just before 7 p.m. closing time, the Pakistani military man receives by radio a notice that the stations are to stay open. Later, I learn that in the cities, at 7 p.m., huge crowds are still waiting to vote. 2,000 waiting outside one station. My roommate, Lois, who is in charge of a cluster of six stations in the city, later says the line is pressing so hard against the windows, she is afraid the glass will break, and so she radios for foreign military to come to assist with order. The entrance is so blocked with people struggling to get in to the vote, the ones who had caste their votes had to climb out windows in order to leave the building. She says her six stations stayed open until 10:30 p.m.
The ballot count at my station begins at 8:30 p.m., and we finished at 2 a.m. We are escorted back to the Field Office, and the ballots are turned in at 3:30 a.m.
The next day I return with the driver and two interpreters to the polling station to pick up a box of voting material. The school is locked. I look across the landscape at the people hard at work rebuildig their homes. They are scarred from the tragedy of war, from the tragedy of losing their families, their possessions, their homes, but they are picking up their lives and going forward anyway.
An election supervisor tells me his polling station is across the street from the site of a massacre. Fathers were forced to watch as their children were shot and killed. I wonder what is the feeling of these fathers who come to vote across the street from where their children were killed.
After I leave the polling station, the driver takes me and the two interpreters to Pristina, capitol of Kosovo, a large city with tall, worn apartment buildings. In the center, a large sports stadium is in ruins. I take the driver and two interpreters to lunch at a restaurant with a glass enclosure so one can eat while looking out at an arbor supporting grape vines. Long purple grapes hang from this arbor, and birds are coming to eat the fruit. Suddenly the arbor shakes violently and the birds fly away. A fat, black cat is climbing to the top to hide amid green leaves and purple grapes, waiting for unsuspecting birds. While I am eating and watching this drama, no bird comes.
Later, as we are driving out of Pristina, a woman with a young boy hails our van. I think she is asking for a ride. Everyone helps with rides because there are few buses. But this woman is not asking for a ride; she is asking for money. As she speaks with the driver, I see the reaction of the three male Kosovars in the van. Their compassion is huge for this woman. Muslem men take care of their women, and these three are no exception. Yet, they are helpless to do anything.
She is a pretty, with strikingly beautiful light blue eyes, typical of so many Kosovars. Her face is wide, her hair blonde. There is just the beginning of decay on her face, from the consequences of her current position in life. She has no one to help her. No family. Nothing. She is on the street because she must survive. I give the driver money for her, and we drive away in silence, our hearts still with this woman. Then the interpreter sitting in the front seat puts his hands to his face and cries.
What can I do for the Kosovar people? At the polling station, I shake their hands. Many hands. Strong hands, calloused from building their homes. I give them garden seeds. I give them pictures cut out from calendars for the new walls of their homes. I do not think to bring tape for these pictures. It would have been better to have given them cows and chickens.
I give pencils to the children. At the school, the interpreter brings a small girl to me. Her face is expressionless, her mouth drawn in sadness. I give her a pencil, she accepts it and looks at me without expression. I see her several times and always her expression is that of sadness. She is scarred from the war, and I do not think it is likely that she will ever smile. Another young child gravely accepts a pencil from me. I have to put it in his hand because he cannot do that. His hands are turned around, facing in the wrong direction. Why is there no one to help this child?
Lois Nicholai tells me her interpreter is a young man whose dream is to study aboard. He needs a sponsor, a family who will give him a place to stay while he is studying. I tell Lois I will add this to my report to you.
And, by the way, Lois Nicholai wants to start a Peace Training Center in Princeton, New Jersey, to train people who will be supervising elections. I think this is a good idea, especially for potential American supervisors. Anyone having ideas about a training center, please email Lois at LoisPeace@aol.com.
Peace, Love, and Light,