KOSOVO 1999

thepeaceprojectfoundation

KOSOVO 1999 Peace Project Foundation.

Picnic in

The Diary of Dominic Ryan and the Peace

Project in Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

The Diary of Dominic Ryan and the Peace

Project in Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo

23rd of April to the 23rd of May, 1999


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Contents

Introduction to Albania

Historical Background to the

Kosovo Crisis, April to May 1999

Synopsis of the Journey of the

Peace Project to Albania and

Macedonia in 1999

Cast of Characters: Picnic in Hell

The Diary of Dominic Ryan kept

during the Kosovo Crisis from 23rd

of April until the 23rd of May

1999 in Albania, Macedonia and

Greece.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Preface to Picnic in Hell

...he smiled

with a wide

Cheshire grin

and said:

‘It does not

matter about

the wood

because

the wood

is suppose

to take you

where you are

suppose to go.’

I was in the middle of editing the film of Israel

and Palestine and simultaneously in the middle of

painting the Tear of Joy as the war appeared. I did

not have television. It was only small reports that

were filtering through to my consciousness; seeing

newspapers on the street, reading about the conflict

or hearing sporadic news reports but I was unsure of

what act to engage in, what decision I had to make.

I felt compelled to participate but I was realistic

because I had spent too much money already. The

manner in which I embark upon an adventure is

different each time, and each campaign has its own

rhythm, logic and pace. The argument against this

was security and getting on with the rest of my life

rather than setting off on yet another mission to help

others.

Our departure for Albania was simple. I

telephoned Firouz to accompany me. Descending

a regression with a woman who had been helping

me with meditation I found myself on a very, very

old antiquated train. While accompanying the train

master who appeared like a TV character Casey

Jones I noticed that the carriage behind the boiler

was carrying wood for the furnace. Casey Jones kept

returning to the carriage and removing pieces of

wood, placing them in the boiler. While the train was

passing through some countryside he turned to me:

‘We have run out of wood. We have to return to

the rear of the carriage.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘We have run out of wood.’

He went to the back of the carriages and began

breaking off pieces off the wooden carriage. I joined

him. We broke up pieces of the carriage and then

placed them in the boiler. He turned to me and

smiled with a wide Cheshire grin and said:

‘It does not matter about the wood because the

wood is suppose to take you where you are suppose

to go.’

I was flabbergasted. My greatest fear not of dying

but spending the money. Going broke. My mother

was saying:

‘Dominic you be careful with money and don’t

burn it’, etc.

But Casey Jones was explaining that the wood

was like money, it is energy and that energy is to

take me where I am suppose to travel. And that train

will lead me to my destiny.

I found these words inspiring, profound and

helpful on this dangerous journey.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Historical Background to the Kosovo Crisis, April to May 1999

Kosovo is in southern Serbia and has a

mixed population where the majority are ethnic

Albanians. The region enjoyed a high degree of

autonomy within the former Yugoslavia until 1989

when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic altered the

status of the region. He removed its autonomy and

brought it under the direct control of Belgrade. The

Kosovar Albanians strenuously opposed these changes.

In 1998, conflict between Serbian military and

police forces and Kosovar Albanian forces resulted in

the deaths of over 1,500 Kosovar Albanians and forced

400,000 people from their homes. The international

community became extremely concerned over the

escalating conflict. Also of concern was President

Milosevic’s disregard for diplomatic efforts aimed at

peacefully resolving the crisis.

UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR)

1199, expressed deep concern about the excessive

use of force by Serbian security forces and the

Yugoslav army and called for a cease-fire by both

parties. Limits were set on the number of Serbian

forces in Kosovo, and the scope of their operations,

following a separate agreement with General

Naumann, (Chairman of NATO Military Committee)

and General Clark (Supreme Allied Commander

Europe).

It was agreed that the Organisation for Security

and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would establish

a Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) to observe

compliance on the ground and that NATO would

establish an aerial surveillance mission.

In support of the OSCE, the Alliance established

a military task force to assist with evacuation of

members of the KVM, if conflict should put them

at risk. The task force was deployed in the former

Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia under the direction

of General Clark.

However at the beginning of 1999 the situation

in Kosovo flared up following a number of acts of

provocation on both sides and the use of excessive

force by the Serbian Army and Special Police. The

situation deteriorated with the escalation of the

Serbian offensive against Kosovar Albanians.

NATO agreed on 30 January to the use of air

strikes if required, and issued a warning to both

sides. These initiatives culminated in negotiations in

Rambouillet near Paris, on 6-23 February, followed

by talks in Paris, 15-18 March. At this time the

Kosovar Albanian delegation signed the proposed

peace agreement, but the talks ended without a

signature from the Serbian delegation.

After this Serbian military and police forces

stepped up operations against the ethnic Albanians in

Kosovo, sending extra troops and tanks into the region

— in a clear breach of the October agreement. Tens of

thousands of people began to flee their homes in the

face of this systematic offensive.

On March 20, the OSCE Kosovo Verification

Mission was withdrawn from the region, because

of obstruction from Serbian meant they could no

longer continue to fulfil their task. US Ambassador

Holbrooke then flew to Belgrade, in a final attempt

to persuade President Milosevic to cease attacks on

the Kosovar Albanians or face NATO air strikes.

Milosevic refused to comply, and on 23 March the

order was given to commence air strikes (Operation

Allied Force).


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Events and statistics

Milosevic refused to comply, and on 23 March the order was

given to commence air strikes (Operation Allied Force).

Between March 1998 and March 1999, over 2000 people

were killed as a result of the Serb government’s policies in Kosovo.

In the summer of 1998, 250,000 Kosovar Albanians were

forced from their homes as their houses, villages and crops were

destroyed.

In January 1999, a United Nations humanitarian team

discovered evidence of the massacre of over 40 people in the

village of Racak.

By April 1999 the UNHCR estimated that ethnic cleansing

had resulted in 226,000 refugees in Albania, 125,000 in

the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and 33,000 in

Montenegro.

NATO forces provided assistance to alleviate the refugee

situation by providing equipment and building camps to house

50,000 refugees in Albania; by in expanding camps in the former

Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (1); by providing medical support

and emergency surgery for the victims of shootings by Serb

forces; by transporting refugees to safety; and providing transport

for humanitarian aid and supplies.

At the end of May 1999, over 230,000 refugees had arrived

in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, over 430,000 in

Albania and some 64,000 in Montenegro. Approximately 21,500

had reached Bosnia and over 61,000 had been evacuated to other

countries. In Kosovo an estimated 580,000 people had been made

homeless.

Kosovo Refugees on the Albanian

Border

Human Rights Watch on 2 April, 1999 called on NATO

immediately to start airlifts of emergency supplies to the Kosovo/

Albanian border. They reported that at the Qafe Morina crossing

point, near Kukes, there are almost no emergency supplies and

few aid workers in the area to assist thousands of exhausted

refugees crossing the border every hour.

The UNHCR had only eight staff in Kukes, six of whom had

arrived within the last 48 hours. The Red Cross has only two

delegates in Kukes.

The refugees include thousands of elderly people and young

children, all who have been on the road for several days with no

food or water or warm clothes, food, medication, or shelter. Most

of the refugees leaving Kosovo are passing through Qafe Morina.

The UNHCR said that 150,000 refugees had crossed over

into Kukes, but only 40-50,000 have been sent onward to Tirana

and other points south. It also estimates that some 100,000

refugees in the Kukes area are in urgent need, but it can provide

supplies for only a small proportion of them. The region’s poor

transportation infrastructure is making the humanitarian

operation more difficult The roads from Tirana to Kukes are

mountainous and crammed with refugees. An airstrip near Kukes

would greatly facilitate the relief effort but it cannot be used

for humanitarian purposes because NATO has not yet given its

authorization.

By the end of May, 1.5 million people (90% of the population

of Kosovo), had been expelled from their homes. Some 225,000

Kosovar men were believed to be missing and over 5,000 Kosvars

had been executed.

By the end of May 1999, over 4666 tons of food and water,

4325 tons of other goods, 2624 tons of tents and nearly 1600

tons of medical supplies had been transported to the area by

NATO forces.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Once Upon a Time in Sarajevo

Cast of Characters:

Picnic in Hell

FIROUZ MALEKZADEH

ARBEN “BEN” BERGOLLI

ERMAL TOPPOJAL

EZERUM

GLEN

SIOBHAN “SHUV” RYAN

ARDIAN HASALAMI

MR USIF (JOSEF)

VALBONA ISTREFA

MR JOSI

MR BASHKIM

MR LYMON

FRANK KENNEDY

RAY WILKINSON

VANESSA REDGRAVE

ISABELLE CALVERT

KLA

ZANA SPHIU

DANIEL ROSENTHAL

BEJTA AND OLYINDA DERVISH

RAFAEL LECHNER

SALLIARNE

MRS BRAHAR

Iranian cinematographer, associate and friend. Companion and

cameraperson plus colleague on Peace Project mission to Gaza 1997 and

mission to Kosovo 1999

the single Albanian landlord in Tirana with whom Ryan and Firouz

Malekzadeh stayed while in Tirana April – May 1999

Tiranian student who accompanied Ryan and Firouz Malekzadeh to

Kukes and was dubbed “the political figure” in their entourage

guide in Kukes named after the Turkish town who found the two

travellers lodgings

Spanish nineteen-year-old musician who accompanied the two travellers,

Ryan and Malekzadeh on the bus trip to Kukes from Tirana

sculptor, artist and sister of Dominic Ryan, resident in Melbourne

Australia

second translator that the PP found in Kukes (frustrated writer)

friend and supporter of the billboard who helped erect humanitarian

billboard. Resident of Kukes rather than a Kosovari refugee

the wife of the actor director of a Kosovari theatre in exile troupe

who performed in Titova, Macedonia where we saw the performance

Audienca by Vaclav Havel

48 year old resident of Kukes who befriends the two travellers and helps

in the school to repair the billboard

Executive Director of the Cultural Centre, Kukes, Albania

Maintenance Director of Cultural Centre of Kukes, Albania

the Director of the International Red Cross, Kukes, Albania

the Press Officer for UNHCR, Kukes, Albania

actor and humanitarian activist who presided at the play in Titova,

Macedonia

volunteer of Peace Project in Australia

the Kosovar Liberation Army

the director of the radio station, Kukes Albania

German photo journalist from Das Welt

Kosovari refugees in Kukes, originally from Kastriot Kommuna, Kosova

CNN correspondent Madrid

Albanian Translator who befriends Dominic Ryan Originally from Tirana

and studied as Academic at the University

reader of Albanian text speech at concert, representative of Organisation

for Women in Kukes


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Cast of Characters: Picnic in Hell

DOMCULTURA

DORDOGNE

MR ED

DANIEL KELLER

RICHARD

House of Culture

the theatre troupe in exile from Pristina Kosova

Camp Commander at Stankovitz

Camp Administrator at Stankovitz 1 Camp Skopje Macedonia

humanitarian director of the US Embassy who was originally stationed in

Kosovo but during the crisis but forced to relocate to Skopje Macedonia

DIETER

ERMINE

ALMA SAHBAZ

MELINA MECOURI

FRANCIS DE MARIKIS

cameraman for the Public Broadcasting Service, Munich Germany

cameraman with Kukes Television who also befriends Ryan and

Malekzadeh, negotiator with thieves for bag and tapes

friend, co-director of Exile in Sarajevo with Tahir Gambis

Greek actress who subsequently became the Minister for Culture for the

Greek government. Cannes D’or for Never on A Sunday

former Prime Minister of Greece

Locations

STANKOVICH

BLACHO

NIKI ST

CAPFHTICA

PRESPA

SCANDENBERG SQUARE

BOULEVARD DASHHOMET

DRINE RIVER

LAKE FIEZA

MOUNT GJALICA

MORINE RD

TANGIERS

LEY LADAKH

BASHKIRIA

OSCE

refugee camp in Skopje Macedonia

refugee camp close to Skopje Macedonia

street in Thessalonica

Albanian /Macedonian border crossing close to Prespa

one of the most picturesque ravines in the Republic of Macedonia. It

is situated in the Southwest of Macedonia, exactly where the 21st east

meridian cuts the 41st parallel

the main square in Tirana, Albania

the main boulevard in Tirana, Albania

Skopje

the lake beneath Kukes

the panoramic sometime snow capped mountain above Kukes

the road to the border crossing from Prizren to Kukes

International Zone in the 1950s in Morocco, sits below the straits of

Gibraltar on the coast of Africa

province and capitol in the northwestern province in India

offices of the Mayor in Kukes, Albania

Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Picnic in

At one of the refugee camps I spied a boy in a cotton T-shirt with ‘hello’ stenciled on its front. When I used the

VX1000 video camera to zoom in there was a tear in the fabric, the O was hidden and all I could see was ‘hell’.

The Diary of Dominic Ryan kept during the Kosovo Crisis from 23rd of April until the 23rd of May 1999 in

Albania, Macedonia and Greece.

Once upon a time in the

Balkans there were many wars, punctuated by small

moments of Peace and the times changed but the

wars remained the same. They had different masks

but always the same ugly and deathly face hid from

inside the mask. The roles might be constant, but

the scenes and the names of the places always

changed. There was the first and then the Second

World War and afterwards came the Serbia Croatian

and Bosnia conflict. The story was written long ago

but it was still being acted out by people who had

forgotten the pain of its origins, who had forgotten

that the roles they play would only keep more

suffering alive from generation to generation. This

malignant cancer was always growing and although

it seems as if the source of this cancer had not

been cut out, so this war and suffering had crept

into Kosovo. As a result of the refusal to sign the

Rambouillet Accord, the Western allies and NATO

had gone to war against Slobodan Molosevic and the

Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on March 14.

Waves of refugees were now pouring over the

two borders of Macedonia and Albania. Kosovo had

become a war zone after the expulsion of all western

diplomats and journalists. As more limbs were falling

off and more people were suffering, all Firouz my

companion and I could do was get to that border

and see for ourselves what was happening. The year

was the year before the turn of the millennium and

the time was the end of the month of April. How the

events were to unfold we could not even guess at.

All we could do was to stand and stare, like fleshed

out statues, whilst others fell into the abyss.

Wednesday, 21st of April 1999,

Thessalonica, Greece, Hotel Pella

The cabin of the DC 9 was claustrophobic and

stultifying even with the air conditioning purring

as we flew on Air Italia flight AI 097 from Milan to

Thessalonica International airport Macedonia. My

seat was behind a bulkhead. As I stared through the

oval plastic window the condensation between the

glass panels and the ice outside formed beautiful

crystalline patterns which refracted with the opal

Thermaic Gulf sea below us. I pressed my two index

fingers against the frigid glass and felt the heat from

my hand escape. As the plane descended rusted

hulks that only just resembled ships became slowly

visible as specks growing. I could see them now

birthed in the harbour of Thessalonica looking like

sleeping humpback whales with their stomachs lazily

turned towards a golden light of sunset to reveal rust

and crustaceans. The container ships shimmered

as the plane descended to land around 7.15 this

evening.

I am now sitting in the Hotel Pella foyer dictating

this diary into the GENEXXA micro cassette

recorder. It is my lazyman’s diary, ready to stop/

eject, record and fast forward this yet to be recorded

journey. This will be the Monitoring Report for the


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Peace Project and my personal observations of my

journey. Firouz my companion on this trip will film

as we go as well with the SONY VX 1000. It’s a video

camera. We have twenty-four tapes. And so I begin –

I would never have believed that three weeks

ago I would now be reclining here in a white fake

leather divan in downtown Thessalonica staring

out at the Mediterranean sky. It would never have

crossed my tiny mind. It took the innocence and

hope of two twenty-year-old women in Melbourne,

Australia to give me the confidence: ‘Yes, Dominic

- go!’; rather than the fear and caution of nineteen

others who demanded that I wait and be careful.

Even my reason held me back. A nagging conscience

had commanded;

‘You must work; you

need to persevere

with the painting

exhibition and to

be editing a film.

You have financial

commitments. No

matter what people

say I cannot escape

to a war zone.’

Before our

departure there was

a build-up of restrained energy which was strangling

me. Like in the cabin of the aircraft, I could not

breathe. I was caught in the dilemma of whether

to go or not to. But I made the decision. It is now

twenty-three days into the war between Serbia and

NATO and I want to take this billboard to the areas

where the refugees are—close to the Albania border,

then to Macedonia, and if we can, try and import the

billboard across into Belgrade.

Firouz Malekzadeh, my friend and I, arrived

fashionably late in Thessalonica. The time was dying

at 11.20pm at the Hotel Pella on 65 Ionos Dragoumi,

and after a sobering shower we wandered out to

Café Neon which was around the corner. The night

air is fresh and balmy while Café Neon turned out to

be the only betting place in town. Since we did not

drink Ouzo or play baccarat we continued ambling

past Dimitrion Square and soon found ourselves

sitting at a nameless bohemian dive with pulsating

rap music massaging my tinnitus. Across the alley a

dirty linen white sheet was hanging like yesterday’s

laundry onto which the DJ (a wannabe artist) was

projecting his slideshow of sixties psychedelic water

and oil slides. Janis Joplin had finally arrived in

Thessalonica and so had we.

After a sleepless marathon of twenty-seven hour

intercontinental flight across two hemispheres, I

touch down in a virgin city. The initial moment is

always unsullied. It’s like hotel sheets you know are

going to end up dirty and ruffled. But I will enjoy

the freshness for the moment. The magic of the

new assaults me and I appreciate the astonishing

and unique beauty of where I am. As my mind shuts

down I perceive the magic of the moment more

clearly, before the habit of repetition steps in. But

is not habit also a part of life? Sipping on an ice

chocolate I make a note on the napkin that in Greece

the signs in pharmacies have green crosses with a

snake which threads up through the centre of the

cross. Sometimes the green crosses are in the shape

of Maltese crosses.

Thursday, 22nd of April, 1999,

Thessalonica, Greece, Hotel Pella.

Today, is the 22nd of April in Thessalonica. Above

our heads a cloudless azure sky smiles in a travesty

that the world is a beautiful place to be alive.

There is going to be a lot of travelling and we

are already tired before the trip has begun. Since

there were no direct flights from Milan to Albania,

Thessalonica became the nearest crossing point. All

flights except for military and foreign aid to Albania

have been cancelled three weeks ago due to the

war. Our only direct route to the Kosovo border is

to cross by plane from Milan and then catch the

overnight bus from

Above our heads a

cloudless azure sky

smiles in a travesty

that the world is a

beautiful place to

be alive.

Thessalonica to

Capfhtica. The bus

will then travel to

Prespa where we are

to change to another

bus travelling to

the capitol, Tirana,

Albania.

I have returned

from buying three

rolls of black plastic

adhesive tape because we may have to censor naked

figures on the billboard in respect to the muslim

population. They may not even permit us to erect

the billboard without censure. We will see…Because

of the scrambled and hurried departure we left

with only five days notice and the majority of the

time was spent printing the billboard and getting

the humanitarian text translated into Albanian,

Macedonian and Serbian. There was no time to pack

or even buy basic requirements. We have neither

watches nor a still 35 mm camera to document the

project. So today I began scouring the camera stores

for a camera.

My soul searching conscience is getting me

nowhere fast…like Alice in Wonderland, Dominic

in Albania is in the gymnasium on the walkelator

striding faster and faster but rapidly getting

nowhere…I am only importing a plastic billboard sign


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

My soul searching conscience is getting me nowhere fast….like Alice

in Wonderland, Dominic in Albania is in the gymnasium on the

walkelator striding faster and faster but rapidly getting nowhere…

Following months of strikes on ethnic

Albanian villages in the Yugoslav republic

of Kosovar, NATO has mounted air raids on

Serbia beginning on March 24, 1999.

into this war zone where people are suffering. It will

not save lives, or feed mouths or clothe or provide

refuge. It is only a message. I do not know whether

what I am doing is right. I cannot determine whether

what I am doing is appropriate or not. But in my heart

I feel this needs to be done. It is a method to voice a

peace message. Is it giving these people a voice or is it

only piggy-backing on a catastrophe for my own selfish

benefit I ultimately believe that it is a way of speaking

to people and reaching out to people, but deep within

I am uncertain.

Following months of strikes on ethnic Albanian

villages in the Yugoslav republic of Kosovar, NATO

has mounted air raids on Serbia beginning on March

24, 1999. These raids were immediately followed by

systematic attacks on Kosovars led by the Serbian

army and paramilitary in towns and villages. Force

and aggression were used to empty entire villages.

Police we understand from news reports have gone

from house to house demanding residents leave.

Populations are being organised into groups and

deported in convoys to border-crossing points.

Once the villages had been emptied, many are being

burned.

Alleged Serbian abuse of human rights and

alleged killings perpetrated against the ethnic

Albanians in Kosovo needs to be resolved in an

International Court of Law. For a major war to

spring from this crisis, where more death, blood and

carnage develops, must be carefully gauged. A small

spark must not ignite into a major bonfire. How

can two people be separated without bloodshed?

Extreme care must be taken, when a person or

army separates two fighting groups and in the

process inflicts unjustified violence. When the

punisher becomes even more wretched and evil

than the one who has perpetrated the first evil, the

police become the punishers. This is the danger

that must be checked at every step of the way. But

in seeking to save others, every tactic must be used

to both preserve life but exercise pressure to help

these helpless refugees.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

if victims of this war are suffering

we must aid them and prevent

further suffering. We also cannot

permit these abuses to continue.

When the punisher becomes even more wretched and evil than the one who

has perpetrated the first evil, the police become the punishers. This is the

danger that must be checked at every step of the way.

How can we say that when one innocent person dies because of a war, that war is justified? I do not know.

I think not. Equally so, if victims of this war are suffering we must aid them and prevent further suffering. We

also cannot permit these abuses to continue.

Here in Thessalonica my thoughts are now based on the need to act. I am focused on the task at hand.

Although prior to departure I vacillated, it is difficult to gauge how correct my actions are now. All I can do is

continue, one step at a time. In the act of travelling to the Kosovo border we are attempting to import both

a pure energy and a message about refugees in war. I use the metaphor of creating a homeopathic remedy.

Importing one small drop of purity or peace and releasing it into in a million parts of the frequency of war. From

the homeopathic perspective this will create a healing crisis. But is this just a dumb metaphor? We will soon

find out.

The woman who recommended that I embark on this adventure and mission is the first hero of this odyssey.

I don’t believe in heroines. Everyone is a hero for me. She was Melina, a Greek-Australian, mother-Goddess

archetype, who was a volunteer at Friends of the Earth, an NGO close to my house. I was passing her after

donating a painting for an exhibition. Lingering to talk, I saw her in Smith Street Collingwood with her raven

black and lustrous hair and crumpled dress, looking beautiful. I had been asking many people over the last

week whether I should go to Kosovo or Albania to help? Each had replied with the same cautionary fear and

stereotypical trepidation: ‘No, Dominic, going into that area is far too dangerous…don’t go!’ But Melina’s

response was strangely direct: ‘Dominic, it would be awesome’.

For her, the enormity of this tragedy was an opportunity to witness and even help. Whether it came from the

heart or not, her dark almond eyes glistened. That was what clicked. Now alone, I walked through the autumn

leaves of the oaks up Victoria Parade in Fitzroy towards twilight, and I wandered into St Patrick’s Cathedral

where I stood in the vestibule and saw a psychedelic stained glass image of one of the apostles. Here the light


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

In Thessalonica there are large avenues, parks and squares, where elegant lines of trees frame

commercial streets with showy shop windows.

was shining through the stained glass windows.

It sounds such a bad worn-out cliché but at that

moment I felt resolved. I believe in the eternity of

the soul and the judgment of souls, but I am also not

someone who believes in the sanctity of organised

religion. All religions are hands pointing to the same

mountain of truth. But they also have the capacity to

control, the potential to undermine freedom rather

than to give it credence. Nonetheless this moment

sharpened me and I felt that the time was right for

me to depart.

Meanwhile back in the Hotel Pella I am dictating

in the foyer gazing out onto the busy metropolis.

I can see a beautiful clear blue sky and hurrying

pedestrians near stalls of ice-cream sellers. In

Thessalonica there are large avenues, parks

and squares, where elegant lines of trees frame

commercial streets with showy shop windows.

Neoclassical buildings stand side by side with

modern dwellings as the old and present merge

at old taverns, ‘ouzeries’, restaurants or ‘bouzouki

halls’.

Just now a mysterious woman with blonde hair

has strode confidently into the foyer where I am

dictating looking as if she is late for an appointment

and made me think of my father, Patrick, on the

Italian Rivierra. He once fell in love with a Greek

actress called Melina Mecouri…another Melina. It

was in Italy, 1957, while providing a yacht which

was being used as a prop in a film, a single masted

schooner called Dwyn Wynne. I think the film was

called The Woman who came from the Sea. Her

red Fiat convertible had broken down and she

needed a lift back to Rome from Fumicino. Instead

of giving her a lift Patrick fixed her car and in the

process lost his chance at love. Now, in this waiting

room, the woman who reminds me so much of this

actress has found her friends. She is hugging and

kissing them and it is heart-warming.

I am also waiting for Firouz who is just about to

arrive. He is the gentleman that accompanied me the

last time to the Middle East as the assistant on the

Peace Project and camera operator.

‘Firouz you have arrived. Was it successful?’

He replies blandly with his deadpan irony: ‘Not

so successful. The bank is closed and everything is

changing. Not good.’

Thursday, 22nd April, 1999, Hotel

Pella Thessalonica, Greece

The Hotel Pella has seven flights of stairs and

we were sleeping in room 701 on the top floor.

Bored, I lounged on my unmade bed and stretching

my arm found the select button on the Panasonic

remote control and aimed. So we had discovered

there are four channels of twenty-four hour sex,

where silicone breasted women gyrate and slowly

undress to techno Flash Daddy and His Cosmic

Suck Sucks music as acid pink telephone numbers

flash pulsating across the screen. It was advertising

TV-sex or telephone-sex — anything after twenty


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

On television NATO has bombed the Serbian Television station in Belgrade, while

Serbian television and foreign stations are broadcasting civilians in the centre of

Belgrade walking across the bridges with target circles on their bodies.

So we had discovered there are four channels of twenty-four hour

sex, where silicone breasted women gyrate and slowly undress to

techno Flash Daddy and His Cosmic Suck Sucks music...

seconds would be incredibly boring. The other

television stations had sitcoms and Greek soap

operas.

Greek Thessalonicans are friendly and enjoy life;

nobody appears unhappy and there are few beggars.

The small streets are congested with traffic and cars

here double-park. There was a casual demonstration

in the afternoon where two hundred serious and

concerned people were carrying candles because

a hospital had been closed and the workers were

being retrenched. While last night south in Athens

there was a hostile demonstration, with cars burning

in the streets, and Molotov cocktails being hurled

across empty pavements lined with riot police.

The socialists and anarchists with their black-isbeautiful-fashion

balaclavas are demonstrating

against NATO and the bombings.

On television NATO has bombed the Serbian

Television station in Belgrade, while Serbian

television and foreign stations are broadcasting

civilians in the centre of Belgrade walking across

the bridges with target circles on their bodies. As

I turned the television on, the talking heads voice

was dead pain and the eyes remote and his tone in

neutral. The same voice was heard every other day -

“The fourth week of Nato’s bombing campaign

began with an admission from the Alliance

that it had accidentally bombed a refugee

convoy, leaving Kosovo refugees dead. The

media fallout from the event, and attempts to

determine exactly how it happened, dominated

media coverage of the crisis for several days.

Meanwhile, there was a fresh surge of refugees

out of Kosovo, and air strikes across Yugoslavia

continued.”

Today is Francis De Marikis birthday. I would

imagine a human being is born every second of

every day of every week across this planet. The

person who owns the copyright to Happy Birthday

must be a very rich person. Who does own the

publishing rights to ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in any

case? A good question whose answer is that they

were acquired by a New York accountant named

John F. Sengstack when he bought the Clayton

F. Summy Company in the 1930s and it earns 2

million a year. Every moment is a birth celebration

across the Earth, but instead we are faced with

the exodus of expelled ethnic Albanian refugees

pouring over borders homeless and hungry. When

people fail to understand their true brotherhood the

shadow of the human soul exhibits an empty and

evil blackness. Even though I believe the crisis must

be resolved diplomatically and non-violently often

the dilemma is in how to elicit that resolution. It

can often be done through economic sanctions. But

the act of actually forcing people through bombing

with the NATO strikes I feel is non-productive. But

expulsion and abuse is worse.

Soon after our next three days I will be subject to

a foreign and hostile environment, I question how I

will survive. Even though my mind seeks to project

into the future and neurotically plan, it seems clear

that I will have to take each day as it comes.

Our aim is to bring the billboards with a

humanitarian message not only to the Albanian

border with Kosovo, but also to erect the billboards


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

in the refugee camps. Afterwards we anticipate

crossing to Macedonia, and then hopefully to the

bridges of Belgrade which are now being bombed by

NATO.

After the traditional Domenico-cappuccinoand-croissant

we were prepared to submit to the

treadmill of a Greek 9 to 5 and visit the Yugoslav

Embassy for our hoped-for visas at 11.35 in the

morning.

I have made the first negotiations at the Embassy

of Yugoslavia today. It has not been a relief to arrive

here, but a frustrating anticipation of what may

soon occur. As we approached the electric buzzer

and video camera eyeing us dispassionately the

Embassy of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was

sombre and silent. The shuttered windows had also

been barred up

with black painted

iron grills. The

venetian shutters

were closed. An

internal police circuit

television monitored

all personnel in

the office. It was

business as usual

and we were here to

do a little business. A

The office staff were

cautious and stared

at us through the thick

bullet-proof laminated

glass peep holes with

eyes that incredulously

looked with a – ‘Who

are you?’

Slavic icon hung from the pale grey walls reminding

me of Russia. Because of a state of war they were

neither friendly nor hostile. The ambience was

different to anything that I would have experienced

in the city but the concierge was friendlier once I

started to speak my bastardised Russian.

We completed our negotiations in the Yugoslav

embassy this morning and returned to the bustle

of Greek life outside on…xxxxx. The office staff

were cautious and stared at us through the thick

bullet-proof laminated glass peep holes with eyes

that incredulously looked with a – ‘Who are you?’

I produced my documents which indicated that I

wanted to enter their country (and at a later date

I will read the letter that I wrote to them). Since

the Australian Embassy of Yugoslavia had failed to

provide us with a letter of support the Embassy here

may either request such a letter or simply deny our

application. In Australia the Embassy was so snowed

under and over-worked that they were unable to

give us any assistance. There was a war and wars

can be inconvenient even at the best of times. I

will attempt to remedy this in the next day—to see

whether they can send us embassy support for visas

either in Macedonia or Albania. We returned in the

afternoon and presented them with more documents

which we had to print up in a make-shift office,

typed up by Interlingua, and they instructed us to

return tomorrow. But I am not hopeful.

As we patrolled the markets the watches that we

bought were cheap Chinese imitations of the real

thing—$15 or $25 US dollars each. Mine says water

resistant and is a sports watch with a toy compass

attached to it and we feel like it is Christmas in that

respect.

After our visit to the Embassy, Firouz and I

dined at a small Greek dinner in the heart of the city

where a six year old child with a stain of chocolate

across her cheek was sticking her hand in the cash

register and then racing out. It was a small family

run tavern next door to a basement pastry shop

that offer a delicious variety of famous Macedonian

specialties—a small Greek tavern just off the main

street of Egnatia Odos. We sat awkwardly at plastic

tables with plastic

floral cloths watching

...a pair of sixteenyear-old

identical

twins, one fat and

the other thin, and a

younger sister were

rifling the till...

strange aquarium

images on an old

bakerlite television.

Children ran in and

out; a pair of sixteenyear-old

identical

twins, one fat and

the other thin, and a

younger sister were

rifling the till, and

the father, probably my age, but totally white-haired

stood there and reluctantly scolded them in an

impotent fashion. He accepted their actions without

punishment.

Friday, 23rd April, 1999, Tirana,

Albania

Last night I slept for ten hours and awoke

refreshed at eight am on the 23rd of April. We

went and bought bus tickets for Albania and

are scheduled to leave at midnight tonight. We

purchased two second-hand Greek army ponchos

from a disposal store. I hear it is raining across the

border and we might need them. There were badly

painted signs draped outside the railway station,

with anti-NATO slogans daubed on sheets which

reminded me of the Janis Joplin DJ and the first

evening of our arrival. We also waxed paranoiac

again. Since the people in Albania are Muslim

we may have to conceal the naked figures on the

billboard. So we bought more black tape and big

black Texta-colours. I waltzed everywhere searching

for a shop to buy a telephone card.

I went to the American Express office on Nikita

Street which overlooks the sea and wandered up and

down to eventually discover there was no Memphis

Travel which housed the offices of American


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Express. (In the heat of the moment I had left

my credit card at home in Melbourne and we are

without the back-up that a credit card would provide

if anything goes off beam.) I am both paranoid and

cautious in equal amounts today.

First there is the endless waiting game, but can

we get the visa? We again visited the visa section of

the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

and they brought out our visa cards. After half

an hour of cross-examination we discovered that

it was necessary to reconfirm our existence with

the Yugoslav Embassy in Australia. I am faxing a

document to the second secretary in the Yugoslav

embassy in Melbourne today. I do not know what I

can do except this. The decision has been made. For

the time being

the visa cannot

be issued. For

the moment

we will not be

entering Serbia

or Kosovo

but travelling

directly to

the border of

Kosovo with

Albania. We

might have

waited but we had no time and time was ticking

for nothing and no one. So we had to leave for the

border now or not at all.

Eight hours later in the bus foyer waiting, Firouz

is slumped catatonic beside me in the chair. We have

another hour before we depart. He has had a warm

Heineken beer at a greasy sandwich bar and is now

nodding off to sleep. Our bus leaves at midnight and

goes only through to a town on the Albania border.

From there we make our way over land to Tirana.

From there we go towards the refugee town of

Kukes, which adjoins the border of Kosovo.

I have decided it is not necessary to send

confirmation. Enough faxes have been sent to those

people and if they can not help then we will have to

wait. If it is meant to be they will help.

One minor but positive feature of this expedition

is the knowledge that I can read Greek Cyrillic as

a result of my Russian. Although there are a few

letters, the Omega sign for example, which I am not

exactly clear about.

As I read into my dictaphone and stare up, there

are three pseudo Greek Doric pillars in this foyer

and ultramarine blue denim couches with little

tartan rectangles set like diamonds. I want to sit in

the railway station and just talk with Firouz while he

is sleeping.

‘O.K. the problem has been that there are no

flights to Albania so we had to come to Greece. We

are now in Thessalonika, taking a bus tonight at 12

o’clock which is eight hrs, seven hours time to go

straight to Kukes and then to Tirana. Then from

Tirana we go to the Albanian border and we erect

the billboard for the refugees which says “We have

all suffered enough”.’

When Firouz recommended that I exhibit the

billboard without censorship, it nudged me. Doubtful,

I began to question my motives: why I was doing

this? While there exists a trace of goodness in the act,

there is also something missing. Nonetheless when we

are caught up in the act of giving, in reaching out to

people, we gain a sense of who we are. That is why I

gravitate towards human suffering, because it creates

better human contact. People who are involved in

their own selfish gaols are closed and locked within

themselves. They deny free exchange, whereas in the

moment where there is crisis and suffering there is the

desire to communicate and reach out to others. I am

reminded of a peace

volunteer called,

Isabelle Calvert,

who said: ‘It is the

act of what you are

doing Dominic that

is important. Are you

doing it for yourself

or are you doing it for

other people?’ I have

to discover this. But

I believe it is to give

the refugees a voice, and maybe I can do something

towards assisting as well.

It was Michelle Williams, my last girlfriend, who

was remarking on the telephone two nights ago that

the uncanny feature about what Firouz and I are doing

is that we are bringing a work of art creation into a

zone of destruction. There is a paradox at work here,

but it is also unique paradox.

Saturday, 24th April, 1999, Tirana,

Albania

It is the 24th of April and it is a Saturday. Firouz

and I have now arrived in Albania. We departed last

night from Thessalonica at 11.12pm. We clambered

into the stationary bus, where shining black haired

and chocolate-skinned Albanians were sitting there

in this quiet, almost unearthly and deathly silence,

waiting to travel. As Firouz commented, it reminded

him of the workers from Gaza, the Soweto of the

Middle East, who would commute each day to Tel

Aviv. Ironically this is definitely the case. After

labouring in Thessalonica, they were returning by

bus to the smaller provincial homes in the south.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Are you doing it for yourself

or are you doing it for other

people?’ I have to discover this.

‘O.K. the problem has been that there are no fl ights to Albania so we had to come

to Greece. We are now in Thessalonika, taking a bus tonight at 12 o’clock which is

eight hrs, seven hours time to go straight to Kukes and then to Tirana.’

Just as I was gazing down at the crumpled brown

ticket which I had squeezed into the palm of my

hand I simultaneously saw there was no number

on it and at the same time heard the muffled and

alien words of the conductor explaining to us. We

presumed this meant that it was not our bus. His

hands raised like a violent orchestra conductor were

indicating us to descend the bus. Since our luggage

was already comfortably stowed underneath, Firouz

was frightened that it would be stolen. We were

incapable of comprehending what was happening

because we did not speak their language and the

following moment we were getting off. Confronted

by our own impotence in a foreign city without the

tool of language, we snatched our travel luggage and

stumbled towards the next bus.

The following moment there was a ruckus of

panicking energy as we tussled with straps and

broken leather belts holding it all together. We then

proceeded to extract our belongings in rucksacks

and removed them to the next bus. Once inside,


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Just as I was gazing down at the crumpled

brown ticket which I had squeezed into the

palm of my hand I simultaneously saw there

was no number on it and at the same time

heard the muffled and alien words of the

conductor explaining to us.

So we were to travel across the border to

Capfhtica which is next door to Prespa. It

was a small insignificant border crossing but

for what it lacked in size it made up in raw

unbridled chaos.

it was apparent that it was a very different bus,

complete with closed-circuit television, bubbling

air conditioning and a video of a Greek 50s movie

Zorba the Greek. As I leant into the upright seat I

felt my neck muscles involuntarily seize as I leant

against the napkin on the headrest. It seems the last

week we have had as many days of sleep in chairs

or cramped up with bent legs as flat on our back.

Firouz is asleep at the moment.

So we were to travel across the border to

Capfhtica which is next door to Prespa. It was a

small insignificant border crossing but for what it

lacked in size it made up in raw unbridled chaos.

On the Greek side we disembarked from the bus

at a 2.16 in the morning and I strode in to receive

my smart customs departure stamp. It was not as

if I needed to receive it, or maybe I had to, I don’t

know, but in any case I got off the bus. I could

not pass across the border without receiving a

stamp while Firouz retrieved our valuable camera

equipment. As all the passengers walked across

to the customs house in the darkness the bus

remained waiting for us empty, the engine idling

then coughing then purring again. But by the time

of our return the bus had not waited for us. The bus

had already left. Firouz was explaining breathless:

‘We had better run’ which I did. Thirty seconds

later I found myself in the middle of a black night,

a cold wet wind on my brow and high above me

remote and unfriendly stars winking as I began

running after this disappearing bus down a muddy

dirt track. The stars were glinting in the sky, and

the lights of some unknown village over half a

kilometre away shedding a dull bronze glow.

As we ran laughing and exhausted in equal

measure between Albania and Greece inside the

No-Man’s-Land through swamp and muddy earth

and half-dry mud we at last arrived at a decrepit

and decaying building. Without lights and in the

half-light of darkness I could discern one shadow

as being the edifice of the building while the other

shadow was the night sky. Half the rooms had


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

As we ran laughing and exhausted in equal measure between

Albania and Greece inside the No-Man’s-Land through swamp

and muddy earth and half-dry mud we at last arrived at a

decrepit and decaying building.

Thirty seconds later I found myself in the middle of a black night, a

cold wet wind on my brow and high above me remote and unfriendly

stars winking as I began running after this disappearing bus...

masonry and rubble in them with the occasional

flickering light bulb. I was walking beside one

man and the next instant he disappeared into

the darkness, swallowed by a huge hole. He had

fallen fifteen feet into a culvert. It was a broken

staircase, but in the darkness it could not be seen.

The following moment the poor man clambers out,

thankfully unharmed, and as we walked together,

there around the corner was an assortment of odd

passengers surrounding a desk or booth. The vision

I witnessed before me was utterly fantastic. The

crowd of haggling passengers with their hands raised

high above each other sweatily gripping passports

were rocking backwards and forwards. Finally they

had located an area where they could submit their

passports. After finally handing in our passports we

had to fill out some forms on pieces of desiccated

oily paper which looked like bark or parchment.

By this stage a 57-year-old Italian journalist, who

specialised in armed conflicts had joined the cue and

the next moment we were assisting him to fill out

his personal entry documents with a stolen biro. He

seemed lost. He was a small hunched-up man with a

luxurious burgundy cravat that hung from his neck

like a spinnaker without a wind and he wore either

an old flak jacket or a prim vest beneath a great coat.

It was difficult to see in the near darkness and as

we scrambled through the debris he spoke of all the

campaigns that he had been employed to report.

He had always commentated on conflicts, indeed

maybe he never had any family, I don’t know, but

there was something indescribably sad yet engaging

about him. An affable and humane Italian journalist

who was asking us what to do and where to go

and whether this was the customs section like an

unloved puppy dog who needed to have someone

pat it on its hind quarters and put a little chain

around it and lead it home where it would be fed and

kept warm.

After finally receiving the visas, we paid an

entrance fee and the following moment we were

travelling again in the bus into the night. I seemed

to doze, no, I slept until the border, and then it must

have been half-past-five when I was awoken as the

day dawned golden around us. It was beautiful. As

the swarthy chocolate-tinted Albanians around us

began to awaken with muffled coughs and stifled

yawns, we were suddenly introduced to the jolt

of an original culture and country. In spite of the

poverty, and injustice when I first come in contact

with an alien country untouched by the West it is

magical. There are vistas here which are amazing

to behold! The romance of travelling in a remote

geography which has been veiled from Europe for

so long possesses a mystical quality that cannot be

described. This morning was a beautiful admission

into another world and I was entranced. We had

arrived in Albania. This liliputian, sunny wedge of

Adriatic coast has been crushed down by years

of poverty, blood feuds and too much communist

inefficiency. But Albania still manages to retain its

traditional Mediterranean attraction and Soviet-style

incompetence. It is a nauseating mixture of religions,

styles, cultures and landscapes, from Muslim to


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

This morning was a beautiful admission

into another world and I was entranced.

We had arrived in Albania.

All the way I witnessed crumbling cement bunkers spaced every 400 meters which punctuated the landscape like

marker posts which had been built with slave labour twenty years before in preparation for final Armageddon.

But as we travelled all we could

see were the remnants from

one of the longest tyrannies in

modern day Europe nudging with

embarrassment orange orchards...

Albanian Orthodox. But as we travelled all we could see were the remnants from one of the longest tyrannies in

modern day Europe nudging with embarrassment orange orchards, and pastoral wine growing regions.

The initial leg of this winding twenty-eight kilometres toll road weaves through alpine mountains and bald

hills. After arriving at Capfhtica where the bus off-loaded us we immediately caught a minibus diagonally north

east across to Lake Ohrid Pogradec and then veered to the west until we finally reached Tirana. All the way I

witnessed crumbling cement bunkers spaced every 400 meters which punctuated the landscape like marker

posts which had been built with slave labour twenty years before in preparation for final Armageddon. Now

the bunkers seemed only sad and rotting, the last crumbling remnants of the Communist State paranoia and

tyranny. We travelled round blind bends and figure eight passes and along roads which were unsealed that

weaved up and down. It was bumpy and everywhere that I look I can observe huge pot holes on the road

from crumbling bitumen. My immediate reaction is that everything is disintegrating. It is a world of decay

and the factories are either neglected or abandoned. I was sitting opposite the Italian journalist who was still

accompanying us when he turned to me as I spoke:

‘What sort of journalism do you do? Political journalism?’

He paused and then flinched somewhat. ‘Ah, I do war!’

‘Only war?’ I queried him.

‘Yes, mostly.’

‘So you’ve been to Iran, what other wars have you been to?’

‘I was in Iraq in ’79.’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

the bunkers seemed only sad

and rotting, the last crumbling

remnants of the Communist

State paranoia and tyranny.

I was travelling into the future towards a destiny I and my friend and cameraman Firouz Malekzadeh could

only guess at. As actors in this true life drama, we had left Australia our home with only four days preparation

to try and travel through Albania to the border of Kosovo to erect a Unilateral Peace Billboard, about war and

suffering for both the Serbs and the people of Kosovo to see.

As an artist I have created an image dedicated to the futility of war as a means of solving the problems of

humanity. Sometimes in moments of silence, the future comes and visits us.

As we travelled I thought, here is one of Europe’s last unknown geographies with its majestic landscapes

and postcard lakes. Some parts of the country had been subjected to ecological rape after the communist party

first were swept from power. I witnessed denuded hills in Fier and on the fields of central Albania. We saw

abandoned factories with tall twenty metre columns covered with sump oil leaking from nearby wells. In one

factory I see every window broken beside a wall which has collapsed.

The world’s attention was caught in November 1990 when a closed communist country was finally opened.

In a deck of five-card-stud Eastern block communist countries it was the last card to be upturned on the table.

After the death of Henri Hoxha, the communists were toppled and the non-communist opposition headed by a

new leader Ramiz Alia was elevated to power.

The profusion of rubbish tips littering the sides of the roads beside the bunkers seemed as if the country has

been treated as one pile of refuse. The minibus halted at a pit stop for the driver to refuel and weary travellers

to urinate while we stretched our legs Firouz remarked walking past a building:

‘There are more rubbish bins’.

And I retorted: ‘Firouz, this country is one rubbish bin.’

At the pit stop we drank a boric which tasted like cement, but ate the most amazing meat soufflé. I do not

eat meat but for some reason I did this morning. It was full of red chili and was just tasteful. I can travel to some

weird geographic sub-village in the sub continent of India and out of nowhere a peasant will pull out a plate of

dhal and rice and blow my taste buds. This is just what happened today.

As the van resumed the journey we were greeted by tens of thousands of wrecked bunkers and empty

factories. There were sprawling plains without fences and country people quietly cycling on rickety bicycles

simultaneously juggling cumbersome milk containers. I see virtually no private cars in the country.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

I was sitting opposite the Italian journalist who was still accompanying us when he turned to me

as I spoke: ‘What sort of journalism do you do? Political journalism?’

He paused and then fl inched somewhat. ‘Ah, I do war!’

He seemed lost. He was

a small hunched-up man

with a luxurious burgundy

cravat that hung from

his neck like a spinnaker

without a wind and he

wore either an old fl ak

jacket or a prim vest

beneath a great coat.

The profusion of rubbish

tips littering the sides

of the roads beside the

bunkers seemed as if the

country has been treated

as one pile of refuse

Upon our arrival in the city of Tirana in the late morning we caught a taxi, and drove to an apartment block

with its fourth story apartment owned by a man called Arben Bergolli. Tirana was made capital of Albania in

1920. In the thirties bulky Italian government buildings sprung. In the communist era larger-than-life palaces

of the people blossomed around Scandanberg Square and along Boulevard Dashhomet. As we drove towards

the centre we could see Italian parks and a Turkish mosque but the market area in the east side of Tirana was

beyond visibility.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

I was travelling into the future towards a

destiny I and my friend and cameraman

Firouz Malekzadeh could only guess at.

There were sprawling plains without fences and

country people quietly cycling on rickety bicycles

simultaneously juggling cumbersome milk containers.

As the van resumed the journey

we were greeted by tens of

thousands of wrecked bunkers

and empty factories.

After consulting Arben at his apartment, I

spoke on the phone to a professor of English at

the Tirana University, and then a translator called

Ermal Toppojal. Because of the air strikes by NATO

the city is filled with khaki camouflage suites and

rumbling squads of armoured personnel carriers,

while deafening Chinook helicopters shudder the

air. The command build-up appears to be only just

beginning, while tomorrow we will travel up to the

refugee camp in Kukes to erect the billboard in the

coming days.

As the local taxi cruises up the main boulevard

the capital hums with an electric ambience as

if something is going on and something going

down. It has a vanished feeling which feels like a

Shangri-La which went very wrong. It also has a

hard-to-believe tucked away atmosphere which I

find enchanting. A Chinook helicopter passes 100

meters above our heads and with my hand out the

window I can feel the air pressure…A glossy street

sign suggest a cosmetic facade of capitalism painted

across the veneer of this communist capital but

like any cosmetic it is not only skin deep but razor

sharp. Dirty street vendors are loitering on corners

pretending to sell the odd popsicle or black market

cigarettes while the shops are incredibly cheap or

incredibly expensive and, like all war zones, hotel

accommodation for foreigners is mostly the later.

We stopped the taxi and wandered out to drink

at one or two of the cafes, passed by kiosks selling

fake jewellery, stationary and pornographic Hustler

magazines in Bulgarian. A grandmother in her sixties

chewing gum sat next to rows of SNICKERS bars,

calling ‘News’ to her son behind the counter. There

were moth eaten mattresses on the footpath beside

a brightly painted Ducatti.

In Tirana the buildings went up in the thirties

and have not been painted in ten years. There are

tonal combinations of bright salmon purple columns

which are flanked by greeny ochre walls.

Back at Arben’s I stare blankly out the window

where I see distant foreign CARE workers motoring

in smart white station wagons and Cherokee jeeps,

(the aid workers) who drive around disconnected

from the real world and the local civilian population

living on the streets. The aid workers live in

decaying yet opulent hotels with little connection

with the locals. They are social workers, but what

the fuck are they doing? My conscience tells me

these people are here to execute the distribution

of humanitarian aid but they appear cocooned in

architectural steel and glass. When we travel to

the camp tomorrow I wonder whether it will be

completely different, but I don’t know.

What more can I say? Tirana is a pleasant city of

440,000 people compared with 30,000 before World

War II, but unofficially 650,000 is the real figure.

The man whose house we live in is called Arben.

He is forty-two years of age, and with broken teeth,

appears twice my age but is nevertheless kind with a

good heart. Like a deaf man who stubbornly refuses

to talk to an Englishman in anything but his mother

tongue Arben discusses everything with us in rapid


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

In Tirana the buildings went up in the thirties and

have not been painted in ten years.

Italian. Either my language skills must be improving

(since I do not speak Italian), or his language skills are

such that he communicates with us telepathically. We

understand each other perfectly.

With a few dysfunctional female relationships he

remains single (at least as of today), and has built

a little apartment next door to his house for paying

guests such as ourselves. There are a few sick plants

in ceramic pots hanging on the walls and a kitsch

painting of the sea by an unknown Albanian artist.

I will occasionally walk in to find him curled up

asleep on the couch in front of the twenty-four/

seven television spewing out South American soaps

wearing a modest beanie cap knitted from mohair.

The sound is always off so there is a flickering light

show reflected into the hall that we can see. The

electromagnetic waves pulse silently into the day.

At about five this evening I am going to venture out

onto the boulevard, since the rain has stopped, and

go to the ‘Café Artist’ to try and find whether we

can solicit some students to help with the project.

Back at Arben’s I stare blankly out the

window where I see distant foreign CARE

workers motoring in smart white station

wagons and Cherokee jeeps, (the aid

workers) who drive around disconnected

from the real world and the local civilian

population living on the streets.

We stopped the taxi and

wandered out to drink at

one or two of the cafes,

passed by kiosks selling

fake jewellery, stationary

and pornographic Hustler

magazines in Bulgarian.

Sunday, 25th April, 1999, Tirana to

Kukes, Albania

It is Sunday, the 25th of April. Our departure

from Tirana is scheduled at 5.00am in the morning

and we are travelling to the border town of Kukes,

which abuts onto Kosovo. We are not certain, but

maybe between 50,000 to 100,000 refugees are up

there who have crossed the border over the last

three weeks.

It is dusk, miserable, cold and raining as we

arrive to meet our guide at the corner of Rouga

Myslym Shyri and Boulevard Dashhomet. A light

uncomfortable drizzle which seems to mix with

the first rays of the morning becomes a muddy

watercolour. As we are loitering on the street corner

a person strides up to us with a querulous look. He

has funny quizzical eyes, dark olive skin, a shaved


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

head with a jaw that looks as if it has been broken in

an amateur boxing match and it is our guide, Ermal.

We walk another block and soon find a minibus.

Ermal suggests we should get a taxi but while the

taxi will cost three hundred US dollars if we go by

minibus it will cost only twenty dollars.

The drive took seven and a half hours on a

winding, perilous road which slowly but relentlessly

curves its way up into the mountains. We pass

through the initial flat country. As the van blurs past

at 60 kilometers an hour, thousands of unemployed

Albanian itinerants, either wandering aimlessly

across the road or sit, looking bored in coffee shops.

All the grey factories are derelict and empty. There

appears to be no industries which are functioning.

The country appears to have economically shut

down and, as

our new friend

and landlord

Arben said to

us yesterday:

‘With no

infrastructure

and a 1950s’

Chinese

technology

in every

factory the

entire country haemorrhaged after the collapse of

communism.’

From the finger-print smeared window of the

bus the road we drive changes from urban slums to

country slums. The land has gone to waste. As we

pass it seems as if the farmers have given up, their

children have left the fields and livelihoods have

been squeezed dry. As the van grumbles on along

the Albanian country people stare back at us blankly,

people just sitting on rocks, sitting on mountain

sides in the middle of nowhere. We pass citrus

groves with rotting oranges and green citrus fruit.

When the bus finally stopped for petrol and

passengers to file into a toilet block that resembled

Stalag 13, I saw across the road a man in a denim

jacket and black T-shirt sitting almost crouching

alone in the centre of a field reading a newspaper.

He looks up lazily from the crumpled newspaper and

then three seconds later casually looks back down.

Here everybody has nothing to do. It is unbelievable.

On the single bitumen and pot-holed road we

passed from coastal plain to the mountain. As we

approached the Drine River I could see that large

parts of the country had been subjected to ecological

vandalism during the final communist years. The

country has also suffered from the industrial fallout

from the Chinese built steel mill in the Elbasan

valley. We passed fields and farms along endlessly

winding, isolated roads connecting each village.

The communist quest for high production

was carried out with little consideration for the

environment and it is a desolate wasteland beyond

anything I have seen. We passed stagnant ponds

covered with slicks of oil leaking from nearby oil

wells and crumbling buildings. People are living

on the rubbish dump of a nuclear winter. Albania

is beginning to clean up its act up but there is not

much to show.

The van slowly commenced it ascent into the

high country. Every sharp turn was followed by

another sharp counter turn. We had bought a oneway

ticket on a reckless big-dipper, while every so

often convoys of supplies from the aid agencies

would rumble past us.

In the van to Kukes were an odd and eclectic

assortment of travellers. There was Ermal, our

guide, a sophisticated yet sensitive gentleman, in his

early twenties who spoke about the Albanian push

to remove all firearms from the mafia and peasants

and how there had been a gun lobby. One of the

posters said: “For every gun which is surrendered

there is one life saved”. And as we drove Salliarne,

a lecturer of English at the University of Tirana

introduced himself. The conversation in the bus

went like this;

Salliarne: ‘Salliarne.’

Dominic replies: ‘Hi Salliarne, my name is

Dominic.’

Salliarne: ‘Dominic, ok nice to meet you...the

Balkan crisis, because Milosevic then felt involved

over the crisis with Albania. It had been Iran, then

Albania and the Balkans.’

Dominic: ‘Alright.’

Salliarne: ‘When I have been in Munich, seven

months ago and Tichazaf (his Professor) came just

from Belgrave, you know and he tell me that it is

really crazy how people live there. They don’t have

nothing to eat; they have something to eat but they

are almost starving them, and he (Milosevic) wants

to distract the people from these problems, the

real problems, the life problems, with such kind of

bullshit like Kosovo and Serbia and stuff like that.’

Dominic: ‘It has always been a tactical strategy of

politicians to distract…’

Salliarne: ‘...of dictatorships!’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

On the van there is also a nineteen-year-old

musician, a moody boy with a large ear ring whose

name was Glen. He appears intense and brooding.

As we sat in the car I noticed the way he was

hunched up, his brogue shoes and somber pants

with three day stubble. He seemed apoplectic and

distant, but when I looked into his eyes I saw wells

of compassion and generosity. It was a strange bond

to be with these people as we drove up to Kukes.

Stopping outside one of the guest houses everybody

jokingly laughed about the hypocrisy of the aid

workers and how they were incapable of mixing with

the population.

On the road to Hell we had brought with us one

translator Ermal. We had decided to travel directly

to the border post and meet those who were now

either escaping or had been deported into Albania as

they arrived

hobbling,

separated

from family,

castigated,

murdered or

alone.

Everytime

Ermal opens

his mouth

to give us

ignorant

foreigners advice Firouz becomes angry. Raising

his eyebrows and rolling his eyes in exasperation

under his breath he complains about Ermal. Often

the guides misunderstand because of their divided

loyalty. Do they give us the best price (which is

not as often the case), or do they want to be the

big man — spending the money that we have or

that they think we have? Firouz’s eyes would glaze

over and he would start to fume as Ermal cavalierly

suggests that the price for the bus could be higher,

or that it would be preferable for us to take a taxi

for hundreds of US dollars. I have learned never to

assume that because they are a native they will (1)

do the best for us, and (2) know where to get the

cheapest prices. It is always divided loyalties and

conflicts of interest.

After seven nauseating hours in the van we arrive

in the border town and transit camp of Kukes—the

most beautiful setting of any I have seen in Albania.

Comfortably nestled between Lake Fieza and the

summit of Mount Gjalica, the guide book says “it is a

pleasant place to get in tune with Albania if you have

just arrived from Kosovo, and a good stop on your

way around the country.”

Well, the people have arrived from Kosovo, but

too many and for evil and unjust reasons and it is

not a good stop. Here is a sprawling wet refuge-

camp full of empty faces and shuffling track suits.

Upon our arrival we are confronted by thousands

of expressionless faces of people who have recently

crossed, evicted from their homes at gun point who

are now loitering in the rubble and the mud, waiting

for God knows what. Everyone here is waiting not

knowing whether they will return or not. Everyone

is grubby and besieged under plastic sheets. It is so

sad to see.

We soon rented an apartment on the third floor of

a run-down cement-cracked four story socialist flat

from a Kukes guide called Ezerum which is where I

am dictating now. Here we are staying for $US50.00

a night. There is a fat school boy, sitting listless in

our flat opposite me who I did a drawing for, and it

is probably not generous of me to describe him as

being also shy, awkward and pushy.

The landlady is a widow and we are her new

lodgers. She

After seven

nauseating hours

in the van we

arrive in the border

town and transit

camp of Kukes.

is forty-five

years of age

yet appears

old beyond

her years with

a heavy even

stout frame.

The next

morning she

entered laden

with a gilt

tray with a huge cooked breakfast but I am always

left with the bitter taste that rather than legitimate

friendship it is economic needs which are foremost

on her agenda. But is there anything wrong with

this?

Firouz exclaims: ‘Every step we move, every

move we make, we are walking greenbacks.’

In spite of this there is a generosity of spirit

within her. She was shy and although we could

not speak to each other in the same language, she

would tell us through her son that man does not

live by bread alone but by bread. She was receiving

for our board US$50 a night, plus US$10 each for

food and washing. A person in Tirana as a lecturer

on an average wage would make US$80 a month

in Albania, so the amount she was receiving was

beyond her wildest dreams.

Her dark auburn hair is neatly held in a bun,

and she has a crippled mother who must have been

tipping the scales at 120 years who sat motionless

in front of the television which was permanently

kept on. Our room has two beds and a kitchen table

which sat between them.

Ezerum, who brought us to stay in the widow’s

apartment, was named after the Turkish town

famous for its siege against the Russians in the

last century. With heavily pigmented skin he could

not speak English. He had an expression that was


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

...they have something to eat but they are almost starving them...

“....and he (Milosevic) wants to distract the people from these problems, the real problems, the

life problems, with such kind of bullshit like Kosovo and Serbia...”

Here is a

sprawling wet

refuge-camp full

of empty faces

and shuffl ing

track suits.

Dominic: ‘It has

always been a

tactical strategy

of politicians to

distract…’

Salliarne: ‘...of

dictatorships!’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Firouz exclaims: ‘Every step we move, every move we make, we are walking greenbacks.’

But like many here, it was either

greed or survival which was

expressed in his every move.

half-daft with an idiotic-grin which stretched across his broad face which occasionally lapsed into a snarl

with greedy eyes like raisins. On the first few days he would follow us around like an old fox pursuing a piece

of succulent meat. But because he could not speak English this fox had lost all its teeth and could not eat

the meat. In spite of the fact his eyes betrayed this greed he was continuously confiding through translators

how much he was here for his love of us and that he was our colleague and friend. He would pronounce

bombastically:

‘All Albanians are loyal, when they have friends.’

And then how he would support us to the bitter end. When all was lost he would be there for us.

Every time we would see him at a coffee shop or at the ‘America Bar’ he would run over to sit beside

us; impose himself in order to be our friend. But like many here, it was either greed or survival which was

expressed in his every move.

(Note: We knew our judgment was correct when we discovered he had gone to the widow’s apartment

and asserted that every night that we stayed the widow must pay him a US$20 commission fee for

having found us for the apartment… Ardian the new translator who we met later had emphatically said

that this was unacceptable and that for her to stand by her guns.)

I suppose in a banana republic like Albania everything is possible or everything is impossible.

Along the roads in the town there are abandoned and rusted automobiles and files of sad, bored people,

waiting and chain smoking around telephone booths attempting to telephone loved ones in distant countries.

Our arrival in Kukes has catalysed mixed reactions. I was affronted by the way the journalists are separated

from the refugees. They were all sitting huddled insecurely in one group as we strode into the ‘America Bar’

decorated with a two and a half meter plastic Statue of Liberty draped in the American flag with walkie talkies,

satellite phones and savvy technology. They would be coming in, drinking coffees and then leaving to document

and record a new exodus. This was CNN Disneyland and they were on overfuckingdrive...And all I could think

is: ‘What the f…. are these people doing?’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

He said to me that he had heard later from friends that his

video store had been looted and everything that he had owned

in his house had been stolen and the shop windows smashed.

Women, children, and older

people have been deported from

their villages and sent to this border

region often after being separated

from the men of the village.

This was CNN

Disneyland and

they were on

overfuckingdrive….

And all I could

think is: ‘What

the f…. are these

people doing?’

I managed to ring my sister, Siobhan, to reassure

her that I was safe as I am sure she is worried. Right

now I am contemplating what I have got to do with

the billboards, but I should probably talk a little bit

more about the situation on our arrival. So this is

Kukes. It sounds like the term Kookey and that is

exactly what it appears to be—kookey!

The town of Kukes, has served over the last three

weeks as a stopping-off point for many refugees.

The camps began being erected around the time the

NATO bombing began, and an estimated two-thirds

of the million Kosovar Albanians have arrived at the

rate of 10,000 a day. Because it is not considered

safe to keep refugees close to a border, Kukes was

only considered a transit area. Initially it had been

planned to send the refugees to camps farther

towards Greece. However, the Kosovars appear

to have resisted this now preferring to remain

close to the border, in the hope that the conflict

would be settled quickly and they would be able to

return home. As a result, the camps have become

extremely congested as more and more people

poured in and most remain here. The weather is cold

and rainy, the earth is muddy, and the air glacial. It

is tent city here, with plastic sheeting with UNHCR

stencilled across it draped from old socialist tractors.

Women, children, and older people have been

deported from their villages and sent to this border

region often after being separated from the men of

the village.

After speaking to people we understand that they

have fled by bus, car and tractor, often limping the

last few kilometers. We have been told that once

they refugees have reached the border at Merino

seven kilometres north on the Serbian side, nearly

all of the refugees were body-searched, and their

identification was confiscated.

One minor note I would like to make is that

Firouz is becoming impatient with my need to talk to

people. He will respond with: ‘We can’t do this; it is

not on the schedule’.

But I believe it is important to reach out to

these people, to be with them and to touch them.

We stayed with one family and this person was so

touching the way he said that to see the suffering in

their eyes is something which was beyond words. It

is everywhere. Every set of eyes I meet, every place

I walk, every person I see, and they are everywhere

and I can see the people. Many of the people are

farmers.

Monday, 26th April, 1999, Kukes,

Albania

We had a conversations with the office

translator—a black-haired gentleman who was

looking after the sick in an International Red Cross

bureau. He had recently arrived from Kosovo after


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

“...these refugees do not get anything else….but

bread and water. Which is, maybe, I think as worse

as the massacre to these people.”

So where are these tonnes of food, coming from the most powerful

aid organisations of the world, which do not arrive here?

Serbian paramilitary had arrived at his house and

ordered him to immediately leave. They had given

him half an hour’s notice, and he had to leave with

his wife and two children. He said to me that he had

heard later from friends that his video store had

been looted and everything that he had owned in

his house had been stolen and the shop windows

smashed. We passed along the road towards a lorry

acting as a bread truck with canvas awnings and a

que of refugees waiting for food. There seems little

Aid arriving at present. We stood and stared at the

long line of people waiting. As it rains drizzling

with a depressing and relentless regularity Ermal

explains:

‘Yes, we are here, but we are doing nothing. When

I was here a fortnight ago it was the same situation. I

worked with a German journalist, from Berlin. What

we are facing her is a serious catastrophe. In fact

these refugees do not get anything else….but bread

and water. Which is, maybe, I think as worse as the

massacre to these people.’

I replied: ‘We are complicit with this situation,

but it is the hypocrisy.’

‘Yes it is a big hypocrisy.’ He continued: ‘Yes, we

are in Kukes. It looks like we are doing nothing.

We can do something for these people…But I don’t

think so. So where are these tonnes of food, coming

from the most powerful aid organisations of the

world, which do not arrive here? So the rain, renders

the situation even worse for these people, but they

(the aid organisations) could have done it better,

look at this row!’

We then caught a local taxi and drove to the

three refugee camps in the valley. There we decided

to see where to hang the billboards. We also put

down a further deposit for US$30.00 for rent for our

apartment. We paid the taxi driver who was a weight

lifter.

Each camps that we visited was on the Morine

Road which travels to the border crossing with

Kosovo. There was the Italian camp—Kukes One,

and the MSF (Medecin Sans Frontiers) camp, the

Greek camp, the United Arab Emirates camp, and

the two other Italian camps.

The other area we are contemplating hanging

the billboard is in front of the Bashkiria, the city

hall, directly opposite the square which looks out

over the mountains. In front and below us is Lake

Fieza while above it is the summit of Mount Gjalica.

One of the boys was explaining that during the

summer period people would make pilgrimages

to the summit. Fifteen metres down beneath the

summit there is this eternal spring where Muslims

pray and where it was obligatory for people to wash

themselves.

Driving to each of the refugee camps I am struck

by the structural differences, While some camps are

organised, some are disorganised. The Italian camps

seem specific in the way that the tents are made,

whereas the Arab Emirate Camp has large canopied

areas where Muslims can pray. Each camp portrays the

individuality of the country providing assistance. Aid is

pouring in from everywhere but at the same time there

is so little that is available for these people.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

We then caught a local taxi and drove to the three

refugee camps in the valley.

“So the rain, renders the situation even worse for these people, but they (the aid

organisations) could have done it better, look at this row!”

“We can do something for these

people…But I don’t think so. So where

are these tonnes of food, coming from

the most powerful aid organisations of

the world, which do not arrive here?”

Each camps that we

visited was on the

Morine Road which

travels to the border

crossing with Kosovo.

One man in a blue denim track suite I spoke to

explained: ‘The first night, I mean I slept here. Last

night I was in the camp over there.’

‘In the big white tent?’

‘No, the last one over there.’

‘The Arab camp?’

‘No Arab, no German…the third camp.’

‘The third, is that Italian?’

‘No, I think that is French.’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

The ration food is left abandoned and uneaten on the roadways.

Here it is hell in heaven. Such a region of exquisite almost

divine beauty is playing host to incredible suffering and

anguish in this biblical exodus of a people sent into exile.

Children beside our feet

are pouring out cans of

baby food which had

been distributed by the

Red Cross and using the

baby food as writing

paste or just pouring it

blindly onto the grass.

Here it is hell in heaven. Such a region of

exquisite almost divine beauty is playing host to

incredible suffering and anguish in this biblical

exodus of a people sent into exile. As I said to

Salliarne, the Albanian translator, tonight here in

Kukes the most idyllic spot is hosting a crisis in its

midst of unearthly beauty. At one of the refugee

camps I spied a boy in a cotton T-shirt with ‘hello’

stenciled on its front . When I used the VX1000

video camera to zoom in, and there was a tear in

the fabric, the O was hidden and all I could see was

‘hell’.

As we walk, I step over cans of discarded food.

The ration food is left abandoned and uneaten on

the roadways. In our tour of the camps and across

the unpaved streets we stumble across cardboard

containers of food. Once we bent down to inspect

the refuse and saw that it was a gift from the United

States but the use by date was long past. When

I opened one box of food and tore off the plastic

container it revealed a mulch of soya bean paste,

beans and starch, emulsifiers and preservatives. I

can understand that the people do not want to eat

it. They prefer that is cooked or fresh. They do not

know what to do with it since they cannot even read

English, so it is soon discarded. Children beside our

feet are pouring out cans of baby food which had

been distributed by the Red Cross and using the

baby food as writing paste or just pouring it blindly

onto the grass. That this is food is completely lost to

them.

What are we going to do about water?

Monday, 26th April 1999, Kukes

to Tirana, Albania

After these few days here it was necessary to return

briefly to Tirana to collect the billboard which we had

left at Benny’s. Our return is marked by Ermal’s fear

that by leaving later than 12.00 midday on the day of

the 26th we are going to draw out danger on the road

from the Albanian mafia who regularly carjack cars at

gunpoint after 4pm. Ermal is visibly pale and his lower

lip trembles as he explains about the danger. It is a

seven hour trip on a winding road which weaves itself

through the mountains. Every five hundred metres

is marked by gravestones and markers of roadside

accidents. But we decide to leave early and the issue is

resolved. As the van trumbles back down this winding

tortuous road Ernal turns to me to explain: ‘We are still

in the dark zone.’

‘The dark zone?’ I enquire.

‘Yes, it is called the dark zone because you can

be robbed or attacked by masked, or by people in

masks.’

In Tirana I am reclining in a small outdoor café

and my mind has completely ceased, my sinuses

blocked and as you can tell by my voice my throat

is hoarse. I hope the music behind it is not going to

interfere as I have the flu.

Meanwhile back on the Road from Hell every

five hundred metres is marked by a wreath of roses,

usually plastic, and a masonry memorial with photo

of a departed cousin, aunt or friend who had left the


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Once we bent down to inspect the refuse and saw that it was a gift

from the United States but the use by date was long past.

road and fallen three hundred metres to their death—seven hundred metres in some instances. Those living

felt that it was important to leave a memorial. I presume this is the tradition here.

We had to leave Kukes early to pass through into the safe zone and depart from ‘the dark zone’, as Ermal

put it, which was the half-way point between Tirana and Kukes. At one point on the road we passed a NATO

armoured convoy with outriggers. It felt as if we were being escorted by the cavalry.

As one truck nearly collided with us, Ermal translated the drivers remarks as:

’He drives like a wanker.’

The NATO convoys have a quiet detachment as they plough through the countryside on patrol. They are

detached from the culture of the people.

Ermal was frightened we would be attacked by the masked bandits who had plagued this area four years

before and who had held the country a ransom in a civil war. These people, he explained, had revolted against

the injustices they felt had been perpetrated against them.

The bus driver was a burly man of fifty-three. He was a former weight lifter with black thick waxed hair,

receding hairline, edged craggy face who kept on calling Firouz ‘uncle’, (which I suppose equates to brother

in his own language). Every person this age that was a compatriot or equal he would refer to as ‘uncle’, rather

than as a brother.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

‘The dark zone?’ I enquire.

‘Yes, it is called the dark zone because you can be robbed or attacked by masked, or by

people in masks.’

At one point we passed an armoured

convoy with outriggers. It felt as if we were

being escorted by the cavalry.

The NATO convoys have

a quiet detachment as

they plough through the

countryside on patrol.

Ermal was frightened

we would be attacked

by the masked bandits

who had plagued this

area four years before

and who had held the

country to ransom in a

civil war.

During this bus trip there was bantering about money and, because we did not actually leave with an agreed

price, at the end of a journey there is the difficulty task of renegotiating the price. Even if it is agreed upon

often the price during the period of the trip seems to double or triple.

Soon we had left the high steppes and plunged towards the flat terrain where the roads were pot-holed,

making it even more dangerous. Once we entered the flatter terrain it was a wasteland—passing poor farm

houses with broken corrugated iron and unpainted picket fences or slice wood palings made from birch trees,


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

...The bus driver was a burly man

of fifty-three. He was a former

weight lifter with black thick

waxed hair, receding hairline,

edged craggy face who kept on

calling Firouz ‘uncle’...

it is as if people are playing within the ruins of

their former empire after a nuclear war.

Meanwhile

back on

the road to

hell...

Soon we had left the high steppes and plunged

towards the fl at terrain where the roads were potholed,

making it even more dangerous.

plain trees and oaks. Soon this wasteland opened up

to reveal ‘fabrica after fabrica’ of industrial factories

that had decayed and emptied after the collapse

of communism. Even though the technology of

Albanian Communism ceased to develop after

the 1950s it is as if people are playing within the

ruins of their former empire after a nuclear war.

At every turn we are confronted by an awesome

decay. Before there was a organisational structure

but now there is chaos in this society: a territorial

imperative.

As the van hits a bump I lunge into the

passenger beside me as I witness people standing

in an arid field doing nothing. Some are walking on

the road; some are sitting in the middle of the road,

and as we pass them they stand and stare blindly or

blankly back at us as if we are an alien spacecraft

that has appeared and will as briefly as it has

arrived disappear.

It is a different society which they live in the

countryside. Maybe they are more connected to the

earth but it appears as if they have nothing to do.

When we enter to the villages all we see is the men

walking rather, and I wonder where are they are all

walking to. No one is working, they are walking.

The trip along the sinuous mountain side is

beautiful but for the fact that every tree that could

have been there has been razed. Apparently this

did not happen during communism but after the

fall of communism. All the forests were sold to the

Chinese in 1993, and nothing is growing in its place.

For seven hours there are no forests.

Again we are subjected not only to industrial

wasteland but ecological catastrophe they have

made for themselves. Now they must live within it.

As the convoy rolls past the people stare at us.

Nobody actually waves or looks, they just stare

blankly as if we are aliens interrupting their world.

Sometimes they will catch our eye because they will

see a foreigner in the convoy and they will stare. It

is not like in Asia where we as Caucasians are half

prince-half leper.

On the way into Tirana we were stopped by


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

the police because they wanted to check whether

incoming refugees were slipping through into the

main city. Their desire is to limit the number of

refugees from entering the capital, but ironically

there is no real documentation as regards the

number of refugees which are allowed into the

country.

After the tragic poverty of Kukes and the

relentless drizzling rain, Tirana is sunny, urbane and

opulent. It is like the film The Sheltering Sky based

on the book by Paul Bowles. After the protagonist

passes through Tangier to the Sahara initially the

port appears exotic, but when he finally returns to

Tangiers from central Sahara the traveller discovers

that he is returning to a very western environment.

Tirana

seemed

more

funky yet

the same.

The city

has been

sandblasted

by coffee

shops and

bars but

absolutely

nothing

else. Here is the first tentative attempts a cowboy

capitalism, similar to Russia, but it is a cosmetic

veneer. In Kukes there are a thousand coffee shops

and one mosque. In Tirana it’s the same. So this

is a place where their Muslim religion has only

just begun. The Albanians ability to procrastinate

is cultivated with great acumen and discipline. If

laziness be a discipline than this they have.

As we enter the city in the main square in front

of the Opera House there is a big billboard which

says ‘NATO and Kosovo’. I remember the train

station in Thessalonica and how it was the opposite.

The shadow of the past hangs over the grandiose

stucco buildings that have an imperialist stamp.

Everything is decaying, and on every street corner

instead of a Macca’s or Seven-11 there is a 1960s’

bunker in the paranoid Dr Strangelove preparation

for final Armageddon and all-out nuclear war. A

little bit of Mutual Assured Destruction to get your

citizens to stay well behaved—a war they were

anticipating but which never occurred. So that as

good little workers they could be distracted from

their own unhappiness and keep their betters in fat

supply of caviar and ZILLS, how does the cliché go?

Divide and conquer.

Arrival at eight that evening on the corner of our

street. We walked across and went straight up to the

fourth floor to see Arben, our friend, and crashed

out immediately from fatigue and an overdose of

benzine fumes from the van and slept twelve hours.

Tuesday, 27th April, 1999, Tirana,

Albania

The day was composed of visiting the ‘Café

Artist’, the translation of a document to the people

of Kosovo, and then spending the evening with

Arben.

The document went something like this:

‘To the people of Kosovo an invitation to come.

We are unveiling the billboard at the centre square

Kukes on the …. of May 1999 at ….

‘The billboard shows something of people from

war and violence and says we have all suffered

enough. This message, because it is English,

can be your message to the world. You have all

suffered enough and you may have lost your homes

temporarily but you have not lost your dignity as

human beings. By being present at the billboard

you can speak through the media to the rest of the

world; we have all suffered enough. This is an image

to the futility of war and those that instigated it, that

war cannot solve the problems of humanity.

‘Please come and fill your afternoon by sending

a message to the world that you have all suffered

enough. The artist who has made the invitation

hopes that the image of people suffering will not be

offensive to those have already suffered. We look

forward to

see you there.

Dominic Ryan

and the Peace

Process.’

’Café

Artist’, the

guide book

told us, was

the café where

‘the arty types’

hung out.

Therefore it

seemed the

appropriate

place to find

an enthusiastic

student who could help us with the erection of the

billboard. As it so happens it was hardly a bohemian

hangout but just a plumed garden where mature

women in fake Chanel sunglasses with blue rinses

sipped Devonshire teas, while men in lounge suits

lounged around with young secretarys.

I could see overhanging umbrellas and a wooden

duck board over the mud which crisscrossed the

area so people would not be affected by it.

Firouz had tea, or rather, he asked to purchase a

glass of hot water and pulled out from his pocket his

traditional tea bags that he carried around with him.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

‘Please come and fill your

afternoon by sending a

message to the world that

you have all suffered enough.

The artist who has made the

invitation hopes that the image

of people suffering will not be

offensive to those have already

suffered. We look forward to

see you there. Dominic Ryan

and the Peace Project.’

Two hundred meters south we found the Art

School of Tirana where the odd cracked plaster bust

from a Communist past stared nostalgically down

its broken nose at us, while students languished

chatting innocently on the chipped steps along

with the odd mangey dog. I erected a notice up on

a notice board. Otherwise it was a sedate morning

while we wandered around feeling separate from the

milling population.

Firouz and I went separately on selective chores

of finding various items to purchase, including tape

for the exhibition and paints. I still must delete

some human anatomy from the billboard in case it

will offend people, but I do not think the Muslim

sensibilities here are extreme or radical.

On the same street where we lived we found in

a basement a Xerox shop, where a woman who was

able to translate the invitation into Albanian. I sat

with her while she translated and also typed it into

English.

She was sweet and had a huge raspberry blotch

that covered one side of her face. With a slim build,

fair skin and black pantaloons, she wore her hair

bobbed and had nylon slip-on shoes with a floral

pattern. A possessive, heavy boyfriend lingered

on the other side of the counter while I sat beside

her. I felt anger and jealousy exude towards me as

I sat with her and proceeded to assist her in the

translation. Once we had finished I smiled at him,

and again there was an empty blank expression and

sneer that eclipsed his face and then we were gone.

The capital, Tirana, is filled by men who have

cultivated the fine art of the café society. Idiomatic

for doing nothing. I must find a new word to describe

the professional art of sitting in cafés. It is the urban

art of doing nothing but appearing to be accepted.

It is a café doer; no that won’t do. Café-sitter?

Perhaps that could be the word. When the door of

communism fell open, or closed shut, or fell off its

hinges, these people whose jobs were specific had

one long endless holiday imposed upon them.

Another coffee has just come my way. Espresso.

Too many coffees I drink.

So the afternoon was spent with this woman

doing the translation and then we left. On the way

back to our apartment we encountered the security

guard who sits on the second level beneath Benny

guarding a judge’s home. His Justice Department

had been blown up two months ago. I gave the guard

of the Peace Project cards and then we met up with

Arben.

Although Benny is only a year older than me with

graying hair and an olive complexion he appears

ten. Age is irrelevant and appearances even less. I

like him and that is enough. His swarthy appearance

is Mediterranean, yet because his parents were

diplomats he has had more privileges than the

rest of the population he has a cultivated and

sophisticated air. He has built a small apartment

beside his apartment that has a separate door, metal

of course, where paying guests come and stay.

Because of the influx of journalists and aid workers

to the country this accommodation has given people

like Benny a new financial lease of life.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

As we were returning home he caught us

and with each arm sliding through one of ours

we became a daisy chain. Off he ushered us to a

gelateria which had been open for one month. Here

we sat and had cappuccinos as his guests and we

spoke. This was the first time that I had spoken

Italian as a fluent language. It does not mean that I

speak Italian, no, on the contrary, but because Arben

could only speak Italian this proved to be a time for

ad-libbing.

I increasingly warm to Arben who is a

sympathetic and empathic person. The chemistry of

relationships suggests that when I meet someone,

knowing that I will never meet them again, or our

lives will not cross, in meeting once, in touching

their life a bond is

formed. That bond

can never be broken.

It is the linking of

different arms of

humanity which

permits the bonding

of two hearts or two

souls. This is not

on a sexual level,

nor even a Platonic

level. So we spent

the evening at the

When the door of

communism fell open,

or closed shut, or fell

off its hinges, these

people whose jobs

were specific had one

long endless holiday

imposed upon them.

gelateria and went home to a television show with

Italian subtitles showing Jean Claude van Damme

exploits—the cultural face here is either Arnold

Schwarzenegger or Jean Claude van Damme as hero.

then having to haggle prices. Because they use old

Albanian currency as well as new we were confused,

and the prices this gentleman was asking were

more than we thought. (It was actually less than

we thought —he was asking twenty thousand or

thirty thousand old currency lek as opposed to two

thousand lek which was only twice the amount that

a normal person had to pay.)

It was a misunderstanding, but the gentleman

was so aggressive in his assertions that it was a

tricky moment. Often when I do not possess the tool

of language a situation will snowball out of control.

Sometimes it is a situation is over-exaggerated by

the intensity— the people were pushing against us,

while the whites of their eyes were bloodshot and

their pupils olive black.

Finally this businessman turned out not to be

the bus driver but was a commission guide who was

there to find occupants for the bus. He was swearing

in French and since my French is limited it was a

question of mistakes and misunderstandings.

As an alternative we sought a big orange minibus

that was more suitable. The driver looked the

spitting image of James Dean, with his face thinly

edged by crease lines. Still I could see he was twenty

or thirty years older than Dean. He was a mixture of

very old and very young with subtle cheek bones and

Wednesday 28th April, 1999, Tirana

to Kukes, Albania

This was the day we decided to return to

Kukes. It was again a crazy trip. While exhausted

we smelled only diesel fumes on a twisting big

dipper dirt road. This morning we awoke at an

ungodly hour of 5.00am to find a clear sky without

brooding clouds. The past days in Kukes were filled

by drizzling rain. Even I feel bedraggled in wet

clothes and I do not wish it upon the refugees. In

Thessalonica we had bought big plastic coveralls or

ponchos and, half-exhausted we had left them on

the bus with my drawing book. It is the first casualty

of our trip.

Arriving at the minibus area in Tirana without a

translator, a swarthy ‘businessman’ and his friends

started to hustle us aggressively. Soon twenty people

had congregated around us, staring and bored out

of morbid curiosity. Street life here is better than

television. We were exhausted from carrying the

50 kilogram billboard bag and all the other luggage

half a kilometre to the minibus pick-up zone and

brown coloured tobacco stained teeth. Yet somehow

he seemed good looking. We negotiated the price

satisfactorily.

The truck was ancient and run down. The trip

proved exhausting and frightening, because the

suspension was loose and he drove recklessly.

Every corner we took up the careering and winding

mountainside, the truck seemed on the verge of

leaning and then tipping into the abyss. Since I was

close to the outer side, my nose squashed against

the grimey window, each time we took a corner I

stared rigid down into the sheer ravines, spotting

wrecked truck chassis and roadside memorials.

Then the truck would swing back. With this rocking

effect, Firouz and I were pathetically clutching our

vinyl seats. There was one moment when I suddenly

thought to myself, ‘My God, I am in the middle of the

highlands of Albania in a truck with no breaks and


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

...each time we took a corner I stared rigid down into the sheer ravines,

spotting wrecked truck chassis and roadside memorials.

‘My God, I am

in the middle of

the highlands

of Albania in

a truck with no

breaks and loose

suspension…hail

Mary mother of

god protect us…

about to kill me.

What the fuck

am I doing here?

You are probably

wondering why I am

here and so do I.’

The trip proved exhausting

and frightening, because the

suspension was loose and he

drove recklessly. Every corner

we took up the careering and

winding mountainside, the truck

seemed on the verge of leaning

and then tipping into the abyss.

loose suspension…hail Mary mother of god protect us… about to kill me. What the fuck am I doing here? You

are probably wondering why I am here and so do I.’

Inundated with diesel fumes, not only were we nauseous, but becoming disoriented and perplexed by fear

and anxiety as well.

There seemed to be very little means of escape from the situation and all we could do was pray. Every

second corner we were faced with a monument to someone who had died on the descent. It was thrice as bad

as the trip from Kashmir to Ley Ladakh through the mountains I had made a few years before. Three American

journalists and their driver were killed last week when their car missed a corner and careered down to the

bottom of the gorge.

At last we ended up making it to the half-way point. There were some Kosovo soldiers from the KLA

(Kosovo Liberation Army) at the pit stop, and they were sitting, eating and laughing. The soldiers were

easily identified. They wore khaki bandanas around their heads and had a fatigued bravado that soldiers or


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Three American journalists and their driver were killed last week when their

car missed a corner and careered down to the bottom of the gorge.

Every second corner we were faced

with a monument to someone who

had died on the descent.

One got up and I could see that

he had a prosthetic leg.

warriors often do. It was just more Jean Claude van

Damme…They possessed an ugliness combined

with a bravado but deep within I could sense

disappointment. They think they are fulfilling

the roles of hero but beneath lies an uneasiness

that this is not the truth. This uneasiness can be

detected by their discomfort. They have both selfconfidence

and an agitated lack of understanding

that is always covered by bravado and camaraderie.

There were five of them there at one

particular table. One got up and I could see that

he had a prosthetic leg. Even in those instances

they continue to fight for their cause under

circumstances of duress or amputation.

They had shifting eyes that looked around the

room suspiciously and then refocussed on the table.

Firouz went out and filmed in the outskirts. A child

was urinating in a corner and we sat by ourselves

and had the usual fare of soup with meat. I tried

to have something without meat but often it is not

possible.

The arrival in Kukes was as per usual, and

we quickly made our way to our apartment on

the third floor which had been found by Ezerum.

In the apartment where there was a mother, a

slightly fey and over weight son I have described

before who has a queer and infatuating gaze, and

a grandmother who we only occasionally see.

The apartment has one bedroom with two beds.

Absolutely virginal pressed sheets. It is a place

where we feel secure.

I asked Firouz as we sat unpacking and stowing

the billboard under the bed:

‘How would you describe this place?’

‘America does not show itself on the ground

here. There is their presence but it is not here.

The “Voyagers” armoured personnel carriers motor

through with their machine guns. The armoured

personnel carriers cost two hundred thousand

each.’

‘Do you see it as a potential Saigon?’

‘Yes. All the aid organisations are not working


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

together but for themselves so there are conflicting

interests. Each aid organisation has a different

quality of giving. Some have good tents; some have

good toilets; some have got really good views, and

some are very clean while some are very spacious

but not well insulated. It varies from camp to camp

and some are very disorganised, but the people are

giving the refugees enough food—it just seems to

vary.’

I asked him: ‘There is always the sound of gun

fire on the other side of the hill. Do you think that is

just manoeuvres because I can always hear gun fire

when I am walking over the hills?’

‘It does not sound like it is NATO bombing

because that would be a different.’

So the Kosovo army receives US dollars; a

hundred dollars

per soldier?

Yesterday

three thousand

four hundred

and forty people

crossed from

Prizren, in

Kosovo over

the border into

Albania. The

moved the refugees out of Kukes—four thousand

people towards the south and at the moment the

Albania government is becoming increasingly

agitated about large numbers of ethnic Albanians

remaining here. They want to separate and

distribute them further south.

There was a family outside the taxi station or the

minibus stand in the main street and they were from

Kosovo. They had been here a month and they were

living in a one room shop front with huge mattresses

wrapped in big grey towels. They were paying a

thousand deutschmarks a month for one room and

these were Kosovar refugees. The Albanians are

stealing from these refugees…

The father, Ameil, spoke a little bit of French,

and there were eight people living in the apartment.

His point was: ‘What alternative do I have? Everyday

I am anticipating or expecting to return.’

That day we attended a Press Conference

organised by the UNHCR spokesperson at the

‘America Bar’, Ray Wilkinson. The ‘America Bar’ is

the international centre of the city where journalists

and the aid workers congregate. The congregating

foreigners are not a homogenous unit. They appear

more like insecure foreigners clinging to one

another, and there is a sense of separation between

them and us. That is not to suggest that these

people are not helping or trying to repair a difficult

situation. Here it reminds me of what Saigon might

have been without the bar girls. Everything is in

flux and everything is changing in the city from one

day to the next. In the bar there stands a large one

and a half meter Statue of Liberty with an American

flag draped over it. The statue is made of resin. The

prices escalate and the inflation seems to be for

foreigners. At the beginning of the week when we

arrived there was one price for cappuccinos and that

price doubled during the week.

Ray began his Press Conference outside on the

lawn to the raggle taggle international reps for the

media and press. The problem has been with the

UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for

Refugees) who can not convince the people to move

south because everybody is frightened that they will

lose contact with their families or it will mean less

chance for them to return home. So the UNHCR

are trying to find reasons, saying how good it is for

them to go south. The authorities are increasingly

concerned about the possibility of random shelling—

it is only fourteen kilometres from the border and

one shell in a camp can decimate a large group of

people.

The UNHCR has said another pattern has been

appearing. First there were the large caravans with

tractors, and that was all that we were seeing. Then

in the last three or four days we have started to see

more and more cars, and better cars with all the

number plates taken off. Now they are saying there

is a larger percentage of intellectuals, city leaders,

people of that nature who are migrating under

involuntary force across the border. These people

are more urbanised and higher up in society.

The other matter that Ray Wilkinson reported on

was what he called gratuitous violence. For example

at the border children were being separated by

their parents right at the very end, so that in one

instance nineteen

people in Drushnik

were killed and

the bodies were

burnt in one house.

These reports

are not verifiable

reports which

means that these

are first hand

reports. Still the

people had no reason to doubt that the bodies were

burnt and the house was then burnt.

Ray continued on the lawn as the journalists

listened intently: ‘A total of 7,399 people came

across the border yesterday, um it finished late in

the evening about 9 to 9.30. These were amongst

the most traumatised group of people that UNHCR

Field staff have seen at the crossings. Most of the

women and children, even a lot of the men were

crying uncontrollably. Another lot of people who

have recently crossed, saw Serbs burying bodies in

the city of Drushnik as they passed through, and the


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

The full extent of what is happening...the horror of what is

happening is slowly but inexorably being digested by the

journalists and aid workers who are here.

The authorities are increasingly concerned about the

possibility of random shelling—it is only fourteen

kilometres from the border

“A total of 7,399 people came across the border

yesterday, um it finished late in the evening

about 9 to 9.30. These were amongst the most

traumatised group of people that UNHCR Field

staff have seen at the crossings.”

...at the border children were being separated

by their parents right at the very end, so that in

one instance nineteen people in Drushnik were

killed and the bodies were burnt in one house...

third thing that they said was what we heard yesterday, how people are actually being randomly harassed and

having knives pointed at them.’

The full extent of what is happening...the horror of what is happening is slowly but inexorably being

digested by the journalists and aid workers who are here.

In Kukes there is an air of expectancy, even foreboding, while every so often I can hear on the other side of

the mountain shelling. We do not know if it is from NATO. At night I hear ‘pops’ as if a champagne cork is being


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Dominic: ‘Which situation?’

Ardian: ‘That war in Kosovo. When I see these

refugees and the way they live it is hard and too

hard to write something beautiful when you have

this sadness.’

Dominic: ‘I agree.’

opened and a gentle cocktail party is underway but

I know it is something more sinister. It is not peace

time and even though Firouz says this is an occupied

city with NATO remaining unseen just as the enemy

is unseen, nonetheless the soldiers walk around in

army fatigues and different fashion camouflage.

Firouz is becoming more angry and difficult as we

both become frustrated by this situation. I know it is

not his fault. He is requesting schedules to be made,

and the schedules have to be continuously broken

because nothing here is fixed or guaranteed. He

expects it to be peace time but here circumstances

change from minute to minute. We have a new

translator Ardian who we found at the ‘America Bar’.

I have just decided to interview him.

Dominic: ‘This is Ardian who is helping us as an

assistant here. He is a student from Rreshen and he

wants to become a writer and hopefully he will.’

Ardian: ‘Greetings from Rreshen. I think this

situation has to be resolved soon, I hope; God

willing. I am praying everyday that God helps these

people to be back soon to their places. God willing.’

Dominic: ‘Do you want to tell me something about

yourself?’

Ardian: ‘No; top secret. Okay, My name is Ardian,

I am the camera assistant, I am twenty two years old

and I work as an interpreter.’

Dominic: ‘Does that mean that no one will ever

know about who you are?’

Ardian: ‘Once again.’

Dominic: ‘No one will know who you are?’

Ardian: ‘My diary and my books.’

Dominic: ‘Are you writing at the moment?’

Ardian: ‘I am writing to my brain and I will put it

to letters.’

Dominic: ‘When will this happen?’

Ardian: ‘It is just temporary. It will happen soon.’

Dominic: ‘You have been slowly hatching this

situation and it will take time to be born.’

Ardian: ‘Perhaps now my mind is a little bit

confused. What I wanted to write before was just a

story of my life and some events that happened into

my life but now everything has completely changed

because of that situation.’

After our discussion we also went to one of the

camps to interview a different family while we were

waiting to erect the billboards. After a few meetings

with different families we encountered one who

became friends. In the Italian camp I saw Olyinda,

and the family of Bejta Dervish. She was one of

his daughters who was only eighteen, and in this

instance she was the only person throughout my

entire time here with whom I had a connection but

not as a romantic bonding. Even though it was only

eye contact from this day I will never know whether

it was something greater than what I thought it

was or whether it was nothing. Because we never

spoke. As I left the parents’ house she would tie my

shoelaces. She was

boyish and had short

cropped hair. She

was tall, gangly and

had an abstract look,

and would be lost in

a strange thought

process that was

alien to all around

her. For me that was

really attractive.

Like Ardian she was

one of two people with whom I felt connected and

special. Maybe also the widow.

(Note: I was to later meet a man called Josi

who I also felt a deep connection)

We were not without friends, although our

friends were limited in this place where a foreigner

was both prince and leper. It was in the Greek camp

I visited Bejta to see Olyinda and her family. The

Greeks, who had established the camp close to the

United Arab Emirates camp, had fifteen thousand

refugees. When I saw Olyinda she guided me straight

to her particular tent. Entering I met her father. I

did a pencil sketch portrait of him. The drawing was

clumsy, even bad and it made him appear sad and

worn out. But polite he looked at it and said that is a

picture of an old sad man, and I felt terrible. I tried

to explain to the family that I am not good at doing

portraiture but under the circumstances and due to

Ardian’s faulty translations it was not communicated.

Bejta Dervish introduces himself: ‘Bejta Dervish.’

As we shake hands I introduce myself, ‘Dominic

Ryan.’ Turning to Ardian, I said: ‘tell them that this

is not easy for me and every interview, or every


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Entering I met her father. I did a

pencil sketch portrait of him.

The drawing was clumsy, even bad

and it made him appear sad and

worn out. But polite he looked at it

and said that is a picture of an old

sad man, and I felt terrible.

Dominic: ‘Do you know what happened to them?’

Bet’s wife: ‘No one knows...they took the children away. So the

military forces, they have taken the thirty persons and nobody

knows what has happened to them.’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

person I see ...it is difficult. But I know that it is more difficult for them, to be in the situation that they are in.’

Bejta Dervish: ‘I have seen massacred people, I have counted 103 dead with my own hands. Bodies had no

heads, no noses, no arms.’

His wife then explains: ‘We were at the school: the elderly, children, men and women. All the people from

ten different villages were concentrated in one school. Then they separated the men aged from 15 years

upwards and the elderly. They only left the weakest. These they returned to us. Of that group which was sent

to this huge field, no one, not one person has returned. None!’

His wife in a striped top almost crying began then began to explain what had happened to others: ‘They

were waiting in a queue for bread and sugar. The first day, it was Saturday. The first day on Saturday…..They

took about 300 young away. On Tuesday they broke down the doors, entering the house.’

His wife then explains:

‘We were at the school: the

elderly, children, men and

women. All the people from

ten different villages were

concentrated in one school.

Then they separated the

men aged from 15 years

upwards and the elderly.

They only left the weakest.

These they returned to us.

Dominic: ‘Do you know what happened to them?’

Bet’s wife: ‘No one knows...they took the children away. So the military forces, they have taken the thirty

persons and nobody knows what has happened to them.’ She continued: ‘We were eating...they broke the doors

down, the second group of young were inside the house...our children were sobbing. They were eating when

some military forces entered the house forcefully and they took her children and saying: ‘We will take them

away and return them in three days. It has been fifteen days and we have heard nothing.’

We pass across and see other families always the stories are the same but different.

One woman in a tent explains: ‘The Serbs came inside the house and they killed the son there. They ordered

the father and other son to cart the body away to bury him...and they were also executed. We left their bodies

behind. They remained, unburied…left for one month…the birds were eating the bodies.’

In half disbelief horror at the immense enormity and gross abuse I explained outside to the camera: ‘It

doesn’t matter what side a person is on, if that person is innocent and suffers, then it is a crime against

humanity. When someone escapes justice in this world, they cannot escape it in the next. This evil feeds off


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

In half disbelief horror at the immense enormity and

gross abuse I explained outside to the camera:

‘It doesn’t matter what side a person is

on, if that person is innocent and suffers,

then it is a crime against humanity.’

good and only when it has consumed that good will

it die of its own accord. So it hangs on you, other

peoples pain, other peoples loss, their invisible

scars begin to enter my own dreams to become

nightmares and the only way to stop them is to

reach out to these people. To heal if I can, to survive

if I know how. Have you ever had that feeling of

utter helplessness, of staring into another persons

suffering and knowing that you cannot take away

their pain, no matter how hard you try, no matter

how much you would want to? Its a strange, curious,

weird feeling, like being swept out to sea in a life

raft, now watching someone drown, whilst you sit in

the raft with your video camera and document the

suffering.’

Thursday, 29th April, 1999, Kukes,

Albania

We, Ardian, Dominic and Firouz Malekzadeh

meet at the ‘America Bar’ where the journalists

are lounging and chatting eloquently ready for

their debriefing from Ray, prepared to help but

disassociated from the problems at hand. The

Western journalists, as I have said, are full of a

feigned bravado.

Waiting outside for the Press Conference I

exclaim: ‘I’m not an actor, I’m not a talking head, I’m

just a dumb artist who has come here.’

Our new guide is awkward, while the day is

composed of deciding on an area to hang the

exhibition, listening to rifle fire and guns, witnessing

the situation with refugees, and otherwise

orientation of the camps.

In the town square we decide that the best

place to hang the billboard after visiting the refugee

camps would be in the town square. There are three

major buildings: one is the Bashkiria which is the

town prefecture, and the other is the culture centre

bordering the telecommunications and radio station.

The square is full of International Red Cross

trucks from Switzerland, NATO trucks, UNHCR

trucks, Chinook helicopters, soldiers dressed in

khaki, and of course shuffling refugees arriving and

departing. After deciding to visit the mayor on the

fourth floor of the Bashkiria, we climb endless flights

of stairs over cracked cement, falling masonry and

vacant eyes to stand in a queue, behind people

waiting to see the mayor.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

In the town square we decide that the best

place to hang the billboard after visiting the

refugee camps would be in the town square.

the Mayor Safat Sula .... said that we have to get rid of the Serbian, we have to get rid of the Macedonian, now

we have to get rid of the Russian if we are to erect this billboard in the city square in front of the refugees. My

position is this message is for all people, Serbians, Macedonians, Russians, for the whole world.and by putting it

here and having those texts, then we get to speak to people, to all people about Peace.

Everywhere we walk are staring refugees who plead with us, asking us if we have a satellite phone, or they

shove into our palms crumpled and scrawled notes or a letter in a language that they do not understand. In one

instance the letter was a Xerox copy of a letter that was sent by a humanitarian organisation to a Committee for

the Minister for Refugees in Belgium requesting assistance for this person. The person clutching this oil-stained

crumpled letter believes this pathetic document is somehow going to grant them priority or immunity above

the others who are here. But there can be no priority. No one is better than anyone else here. It is a simple fact

that the authorities attempt to do the most they can for the most number of people which is very little under

difficult and trying circumstances—and everyone goes without, but obviously some people can not understand

that.

We learn the basics of the Albanian language.

We ascend up the cement flights of stairs laid with cracked and scuffed linoleum, the lake against the muddy

windows placid and serene almost mocking the tragedy which is now unfolding before our very eyes while the

people stare blankly at us. We arrive to the mayor’s office, meet him while Firouz films our meeting and discuss

the billboard.

As we are waiting in line I turn: ‘Thank you very much, but I think we need a translator for this.’

Once inside a small modest office he introduces himself with impeccable English: ‘Mr. Safat Sula, Mayor of Kukes.’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

He understands the message, but he takes

offence that the text is in Macedonian,

English, Russian and Serbian.

... But his position is: ‘well there were some Serbian National songs...at a

radio station and the radio station got bomb threats...’

(So much for the translator.)

Dominic: ‘My name is Dominic Ryan and I…’

Safat Sula: (interrupting) ‘What country are you

from?’

Dominic: ‘Australia.’

Safat Sula.: ‘Ah, Australia.’

Dominic: ‘My work is also to take billboards, do

you know what a billboard is?’

Safat Sula: ‘Billboard?’

Dominic: ‘Large images about problems around

the world. I want to hang this from your building, a

billboard which says about the Albanian people “We

have all suffered enough.” Now the thought was we

could hang it somewhere in the square, so that the

people of Kosova could speak to the World.’

Outside I explain the issues that Safat Sula has

with the project.

“The situation is, that the Mayor Safat Sula saw

it and said that we have to get rid of the Serbian, we

have to get rid of the Macedonian, now we have to

get rid of the Russian if we are to erect this billboard

in the city square in front of the refugees. My

position is this message is for all people, Serbians,

Macedonians, Russians, for the whole world.and by

putting it here and having those texts, then we get

to speak to people, to all people about Peace. But his

position is: ‘well there were some Serbian National

songs that were sung, or just Serbian music at a

radio station and the radio station got bomb threats

so he’s saying, you know, I’m frightened.’

He understands the message, but he takes

offence that the text is in Macedonian, English,

Russian and Serbian. His suggestion is that the

Albanian text and English text remain but the

Serbian, Macedonian, and Russian be excluded or

removed. Always in these instances I am assaulted

by a prejudice or the desire not to offend. He says

that it did not matter what the words were on the

billboard - people will be offended.

It is a knee jerk rejection without any

understanding of a bigger picture. Maintaining

the Serbian, Macedonian or Russian text is a way

of speaking on a grander level to the people of

the world rather only to an Albanian or English

population. But the people here have suffered

immensely and without just warrant and the

situation is not just.

We are presented with two options. One is to not

show the billboard at all. The other is to make the

compromise and get remove the texts in Serbian,

Macedonian and Russian. By removing the text

with the materials we have I can not do justice to

the billboard—but we will buy some black tape and

attempt to erase the Macedonian, the Serbian and

Russian and left the Albanian and English. I decide

to compromise and edit the billboard.

At this point faced with the dilemma of

compromise Firouz becomes angry and exclaims

that I should have been fighting for what I believe

and storms off. He is becoming increasingly more

difficult to work with and his anger appears to be

disassociating and alienating people all around him.

But at least the anger is short-lived and disappears

rapidly.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Firouz storms off up the street, walking five metres ahead with a purposeful frozen stride, brooding with

anger that I have fucked up by compromising with the mayor rather than going for the bigger picture. But we

can present the billboard with the message in different places with different texts, and if the mayor is not going

to allow us to do it then how can we control the situation? His decision is final. Not ours.

Firouz’s wonderful anecdote or parable comes to mind of the Guardian Director of a Public Toilet in

downtown Tehran. There were twenty-five toilets and every day magistrates accountants and postal workers

would descend from the street to an underground toilet block to wash and use the facilities. Every day the

director would stand at the door and direct each person to a particular booth. No one booth was better than


M I N U T E S T O WA R : : Picnic in Hell


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

All the refugees describe in dramatic yet deadpan tones the

violence which has been inflicted upon them these last weeks.

another for defecating but the Director would always indicate where even a magistrate would defecate. The

population of office workers sheepishly accepted the wisdom or lack of wisdom of these directions. But one day

a man came down and questioned ‘why because each both is equally the same, why do you suggest that I shit in

booth A rather than booth B?’ and the director’s reply was ‘if I did not tell you where to go then I would not be

the director, I would have no purpose of being the director.’

We bought a paintbrush, plastic tape to erase the text, and water. The most beautiful thing here is the

manner in which the children come up to us and ask us what is our name. They are so open.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

We walked to the Italian camp and the United Arab Emirates camps where the people came out to us asking

questions and telling their sad stories. The UAE camp is like the Hilton in its opulence. The budget seems to

be opened-ended, and the cooks are from India or Pakistan. Here the refugees receive two hot meals a day.

Someone might come in and say there are thirteen people, and the assistants dish out massive platters of rice

with bits and pieces, but it has the best reputation.

The families we interviewed talked about the circumstances which had happened. There were almost

stereotypical recounting of events, except that these events were of life and death. When we interview people

there is the usual statements. Each person’s story is so horrific that the stories start to bleed into one another;

and slowly, after listening to story after story, the horror starts to numb me.

One young man in a dirty torn white shirt explains: ‘Paramilitary forces came into my uncle’s place. We were

at my uncle’s place; they came to my uncle’s place. The army came in. I had a car.’

‘Did they take your car?’

Young man: ‘They destroyed the car into small pieces...like crumbs and they told us to bugger off.’

Ray’s words were echoing in my mind: ‘Certainly widespread abductions of men. Abducted, kidnapped I

don’t know what the right word is, in these circumstances…numbers we simply don’t know, but we do feel

there were executions that went on.’

Returning today to the widows apartment today I said to Firouz that slowly we become inured to the

poverty, and it is replaced to become our zero or neutral. We become part of the fabric or the pattern, so that

we are no longer separate and unable to compare: ‘I look around and everybody here are still waiting to return.

Waiting. Everybody is waiting here. Unbelievable. It’s the same horror, the same suffering and it just goes on

and on and on.’

This feelings about this extreme suffering slowly dissipates and it becomes part of the fabric, another day,

another refugee convoy, another group of crying faces, and there are only so many times that these effects can

enter into my consciousness. It is a very difficult and strange to embrace.

Thursday, 29 April, Kukes, Albania, the ‘America Bar’

Still the 29th April, I am slouched in a vinyl bucket chair in the ‘American Bar’ while across from me a

thirty-something gonzo journalist with a three day stubble is wearing a T-shirt which has stenciled across: ‘trust

me I am a journalist’. There is staccato rifle fire outside in the hills two kilometres away, while in the centre of

the town queues of twenty fidgeting Kosavars in dirty track suites are banking up continuously day and night.

Smoking cheap cigarettes, exchanging jokes, staring into the fog of an unknown horizon. Sometimes the people

are very kind and permit us to jump the queue, but I believe it is unjust since these people also need to urgently

telephone anxious relatives. I was able to telephone Lower Templestowe, Melbourne on one occasion, and on

two occasions to let Firouz’s family know that we were okay.

The rain has decided to disperse and now we seem to be half-filled by days of blustering winds and hot dry

air.

Seven hours later I have another moment to speak into the dictaphone: Currently I am attempting to talk

softly so that the people who are sleeping in our apartment are not awoken. It is twenty to eleven and the night

is still like Albanian death and I am cross-legged in the bathroom on the wet fungus tiled floor looking at red

plastic buckets and the copper pipes of the hot water system. The people that we have spoken to have seen

so much tragedy. At every turn somebody accosts me with a futile request. Everybody here is drowning, and I

sometimes I try to help people with food or I don’t help them at all but either way it actually kills me as well.

All the refugees describe in dramatic yet deadpan tones the violence which has been inflicted upon them

these last weeks. Refugees whom we have met some who are now friends have witnessed massacres and

families being separated at the border; the men being taken away and the woman released to cross into Albania;

sometimes its is the reverse. I have heard accounts of the Serbian soldiers allegedly placing knives to the

children’s throats so that the families are forced to hand across their jewellery, their money or their car.

As I am speaking into this dictaphone somewhere out in there in the night along the one hundred and thirty

kilometres of roads from here to the capital or Prizren an unknown family we can do nothing about with a

fading flashlight, and their simple belongings are trudging, walking to nowhere in particular. They are frozen,

unfed, stripped of their money, hungry and very, very frightened—and perhaps they are lucky in that they

are alive. They have only lost their houses their tractors their kitchen utensils but not their lives. They are so

lucky…Ogh so lucky…


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

In one instance a family explained how their next door neighbour who was Serbian came to them with a

loaded shot gun and said: ‘Give us your car.’

And the next day he was driving around in their car. The family were instructed with threats and ultimatums

to leave within five minutes with only being able to collect their rudimentary luggage, and the next they heard

their video shop had been plundered and people had stolen videos and ‘liberated’ all their electronic goods.

There were instances of one man having seen thirteen people killed before his eyes and the house they were

in burned. Obviously it is difficult to corroborate those events but the authenticity of these tales mounts up to

present a picture of great trauma and alleged abuse. These testaments cannot be argued that they are only acts

of war when the violence is gratuitous, inflicted upon innocent civilians and if people are being ejected from

their homes then, at the very least, they are to be given safe-passage and not be disturbed or separated.

Ray Wilkinson at the Press Conference, the Daytime 9.30 am Press Conference - the KHNP broadcast as I

call it (Kososovari Horror News Programme) today was recounting two cases of paramilitary extracting gold

There were instances of one man having seen thirteen people killed before his eyes and the house

they were in burned. Obviously it is difficult to corroborate those events but the authenticity of these

tales mounts up to present a picture of great trauma and alleged abuse.

stripped of their money, hungry and very, very frightened—and

perhaps they are lucky in that they are alive. They’ have only lost their

houses their tractors their kitchen utensils but not their lives. They are

so lucky…Ogh so lucky…

teeth, and children witnessing violence.

When I find someone who has recently arrived to speak to, in each instance their eyes well up with tears and

they cannot talk any further. On occasions they cannot speak.

In one example a UNHCR spokesperson had said refugees had have crossed the border at Merine and the

children put up their hands with a V for victory sign, but there were tears in their eyes.

Friday, 30th April, 1999, Kukes, Albania

After seeing the mayor a second time, he gives the permission to proceed with the exhibition provided that

the text in Macedonian, Serbian and Russian is removed. We spend our time working in a disused school hall to

black out the offending texts with tape. As we unroll the banner in this school hall adjacent to the main road we

encounter a charming and eccentric gentleman called Mr Usif, who has thinning hair, eccentric mutton chops

and a spiraling moustache, beady glass eyes and an Albanian cigarette pouch slung from a hessian belt.

Today brought the arrival of a further 9,000 new refugee from Merine. All in all, over quarter of a million

refugees have transited through Kukes since the beginning of the crisis and although the figure is difficult to

ascertain. One hundred thousand are now in Kukes.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Ardian, our translator, talks about his heavy metal record

collection and dreams about being a writer and chatting

up seventeen-year-old Kosovar girls in the ‘America Bar’.

Searching for the nearest toilet the next best option

was the nuclear bunker outside the front door.

After finding a small high school at first

glance it appears derelict and abandoned

but like all of the institutions here they are

a hive of activity.

This benevolent Mr Josi, who soon became

one or our loyal friends allowed us to roll

out the billboards in the boys’ canteen.

After finding a small high school at first glance

it appears derelict and abandoned but like all of the

institutions here they are a hive of activity. Because

the lead paint is peeling and the cracked windows

frames are shards of wood holding the glass does not

mean the place is unused. There is excrement on the

door step, and I cannot find any toilets. Searching for

the nearest toilet the next best option was the nuclear

bunker outside the front door. Every block in this

town of 13,000 people has a nuclear bomb shelter.

Imagine the propaganda stroke paranoia these people

must have been forced-fed to have a fucking bomb

shelter at every street corner where we have a Seven

–11, and gun tower every 300 meters throughout the

country side. No wonder they are now incapable of

even crawling out of the slime of that state of mind.

They are crippled by the past just as a child whose

father beat him or her must meet the future crippled.

Racing over I opened the door, and a wave of odorous

excrement hits me like a wall of mustard gas.

We met Mr Josi, who was only forty-eight-years

old but appeared as sixty-five as do most here soon

in the school in Kukes. The people here like in

Gaza have aged at an accelerated rate because of

poor diet and lack of stimulus. Every morning it is

habitual to drink a glass of cognac and a beer for

breakfast rather than eat a bowl of oats.

This benevolent Mr Josi, who soon became

one or our loyal friends allowed us to roll out the

billboards in the boys’ canteen. Rolling out the

forty-two feet image we proceeded to censor with

black tape the Serbian, Macedonian and Russian

text. As we are working people would enter the hall

drifting in, linger curious, make an undecipherable

comment then become bored and depart. It was

reassuring that Mr Josi appreciated our sentiments

about violence but at this stage I am hesitant about

what I am doing. The mission could be misjudged

and the information mistaken.

Ezerum would pride himself on trekking up

into the mountains above the town and with a

hunting rifle killing animals or wildlife—not that I


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

There are sporadic blackouts of

electricity during the day; but mostly

we just focus on the work at hand.

We have diligently stretched “our

star spangled banner” across the

wooden slated fl oor and I am shitscared

that, (1) the black tape is not

going to adhere and curl up its toes

like a mafia hit and, (2) that new

lettering that we have decided to

cut out with white plastic will not be

distinct and readable.

I realise even

if they do not

that they have

exited one

nightmare

and they are

about to enter

another.

saw any wildlife, presumably the act of killing them

has erased most from the northern mountains of

Albania. Mr Josi was quite the opposite. He was a

gentle, kind, spirited man with quizzical eyes. He

did not support the bombing by NATO, although

the Albanian government did. He did not support

violence in any way, shape or form. He had a bald

head and a funny little wispy moustache and a

wrinkled brow. And soon he would become one of

our loyal supporters; someone who helped us in all

stages of the work.

Initially the black plastic tape was applied

in strips to conceal the Russian, Serbian and

Macedonian texts. Then we had to cut as

improvised stencils each of the letters from white

plastic and lay them carefully over the offending

texts. On the Sunday night, we super glued the

letters onto the billboard together. You would

think that as an artist I would have been the great

graphic designer but under these conditions

here searching for materials in a one horse town

resources are scarce. But Firouz rescued me from

my trembling hand and cut them like paper dolls

or origami. He was amazing. It was very difficult to

find the appropriate glue and we were continuously

experimenting with different ways of sticking on

new letters.

We have diligently stretched “our star spangled

banner” across the wooden slated floor and I am

shit-scared that, (1) the black tape is not going to

adhere and curl up its toes like a mafia hit and, (2)

that new lettering that we have decided to cut out

with white plastic will not be distinct and readable.

The frightening alternative if the lettering sucks

(doesn’t glue or looks sloppy), odd as it might

sound, is to return to Tirana and have the computer

cut the letters. The difficulty is one simple fact.

Having to return to Tirana by that winding kamikaze

road is a greater fucking nightmare than this

humanitarian camp of homeless or the Serbian

gunfire or the pounding NATO bombs. Scouts

honour…peace project honour or whatever…

There are sporadic blackouts of electricity


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

...As dusk begins to commence Firouz explains there is a young lady, a

Kosovar refugee camped on the steps of the Cultural Centre, who wishes to

come to Australia. I am brought like the pedigree pit bull terrier...

Meetings here

are departures.

Like ricocheting

billiard balls we

can bounce off

one person never

to see them again.

The family is Leton Lubovci and the place

that they lived in was Leborn in Prizren.

during the day; but mostly we just focus on the work

at hand: stretching the billboard and trying to deal

with each problem as it arises by looking at various

options of buying different tapes.

The telephone rings but we cant get through.

We are scheduled to meet with the Director of the

Cultural Centre, but alas he is not there. Just a

receptionist who chews as she speaks but it seems

as if eventually we will meet. As dusk begins to

commence Firouz explains there is a young lady,

a Kosovar refugee camped on the steps of the

Cultural Centre, who wishes to come to Australia. I

am brought like the pedigree pit bull terrier at a dog

show to be exhibit for inspection and introduced

to the family. Everyone is friendly but they are

traumatised. This is not a social exchange. Often

the protocol is that conversations are addressed

through the male representative. Therefore I speak

to her brother not her. There could be no formal

conversations with the women unless authorised by

the male representative. We meet this family, one

of the three thousand inhabitants who had escaped

Prizren. Whenever they say the name of the town, it

sounds like ‘prison’.

The family is Leton Lubovci and the place that

they lived in was Leborn in Prizren. The other

family members are Agnesa Lubovci, Shefart, Albera

Lubovci. The mother speaks Turkish.

Time and time people are arriving in the town

square in lorries, on disabled buses, on crippled

tractors, in buggys which are reminiscent of the

eighteenth century rather than now. I realise even if

they do not that they have exited one nightmare and

they are about to enter another. I see the transition.

We have to witness each person, each separate

group of people arrive who believe this is only a

weigh station, and that they can soon return to their

homes. But possibly they are feeding off empty

hope.

Meetings here are departures. Like ricocheting

billiard balls we can bounce off one person never to

see them again. The Lubovci family speaks English

and I gave them my dog-eared Peace Project card

with contact details of my address in Australia and

I said ‘I will try to help you gain refugee status or

any assistance if you require help. I can write to the

government. I cannot promise but ring me and tell

me what you want to do and I will do my best to put

the wheels in motion. That is all I can do.’

We saw them again later that night. Leaving

with them we escorted them to one of the small

neighbourhood restaurants in search of chicken

which I was hoping to buy for them. But the Turkish

speaking mother refused to enter the tobacco fumed

restaurant because it was full of beer drinking men.

This village of Kukes is unlike Gaza, with one bar

and a thousand mosques. Here it is one mosque

and a thousand bars. When we went to the ‘Chicken

Restaurant’ because there are rotating chickens

on spits frequented by fat foreigners the mother

refused to enter so I bought three greasy chickens

in a brown paper bag and returned to give it to them

while they waited outside. We returned to the steps


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

The first suggestion was for the humanitarian message

to be erected on the main ‘Bashkiria’ or Mayor’s

building. Now, we have decided to place it on the wall

of the Cultural Centre.

Here it is one mosque

and a thousand bars.

Everyone is getting paid except for

the poor fucking refugees. This is

business…their fucking business

and the cash registers go click,

click…CNN gets paid to show this

tragedy; the news feeders auction to

the highest bidder news of the dead…

blood sells...we know that…all under

the guise of human compassion...

of the Cultural Centre where they had made a blanketed home, and after sitting with them for ten minutes left

them to have their meal in peace.

Some je ne sais quoi about them touched me. I do not know why; maybe it is because we are dealing with

such significant numbers of exiled people and it blurs into one grande horror, but every so often I meet a family

and I connect with them. This family was one. They were cultured, although not sophisticated.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Saturday, 1st May, 1999, Kukes, Albania

The following morning as the sun’s dawn was streaked through clouds like cottonwool swab discards on

a Red Cross aluminum surgery tray we returned to look for the family to see if they were alive and safe, and

found them asleep under the cement steps of the cultural centre and there they were. They had already arisen

having survived the night and explained that they were going to sleep near the mosque that next evening, or

in one of the large white UNHCR tents that they had been erected in the last days. They had sheltered last

night under the arches of the cultural centre; while this morning here in front of the steps children were using

these huge li-los which contained water, jumping on them as water beds/trampolines. The Lobovcis informed us

that they would try to find other accommodation here although they had been given the opportunity to travel

south but they were frightened of being both separated as a family, and being too distanced from their precious

homes.

They were lucky as some of their family were resident in Turkey, New York, and a niece in Germany. But in

their instance, the Serbian police had arrived at their the door and instructed them: ‘You have half an hour to

leave. Collect the belongings you have. Do not carry anything heavy.’

Under these circumstances often the people don’t have time to decide or act with intelligence. In the panic

and horror of the moment people find only half a telephone number or address to contact somebody in their

panic, desperation and haste. Everything here is upsetting.

Finally we had scheduled the meeting with the Director of the Cultural Centre, Mr Bashkim. Then we briefly

returned to check on the Lubovcis. As I am dictating in our apartment, can you hear that sound? The sound is

actually the clock. The clock every hour plays a different tune. At 10.00am it is ‘Home Sweet Home’, at 11am it

is Beethoven, and after a whole series of kitsch melodies. ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’ at 12 midday.

The first suggestion was for the humanitarian message to be erected on the main ‘Bashkiria’ or Mayor’s

building. Now, we have decided to place it on the wall of the Cultural Centre. We went out and purchased

different types of super glue to attach the cut-out doves onto the billboard. It soon became clear that the only

way to stick the doves onto the billboard was while we are attempting to hang it. Next we had the important

meeting with the Executive Director of the Cultural Centre Mr Bashkim. He seemed a gaunt, thin man with a

strong purposeful stride. I surmised that he was a clever communist who had jumped the rails and embraced a

new ideology. Like a character out of a Charles Dickens novel he had thin, pointed features, always wore a three

piece suit, a dark tie, with gomeed hair that was thinning on the crown, and spoke a smattering of English that

was barely understandable. Now one of the leading figures in this small town we stood undecided downstairs

beneath the tall walls of the Centre—the small group stared up at possible areas to present the image and

negotiated the deal.

Sometimes my naïve idealism gets in the way of others’ profit motives. There are always people who will

profit from catastrophes, and we had only to look up the street to see the hawkers at all the money changers

in Kukes who lined the avenues and their pockets at the same time, or the people that sell to the refugees, the

begging in the streets, or the guy that owns the ‘America Bar’ and all the journalists who come.

Everyone is getting paid except for the poor fucking refugees. This is business…their fucking business and

the cash registers go click, click…CNN gets paid to show this tragedy; the news feeders auction to the highest

bidder news of the dead…blood sells...we know that…all under the guise of human compassion…The refugees

are the stars in this horror movie but they are the unpaid extras as well who get peanuts, dried milk powder

and a plastic sheet for their pains…Then one day the conflict is over; the foreigners leave; the oil dries up;

the gold cannot be dig out of the ground anymore and everyone goes home or looks for another war or circus

to entertain the people on their televisions at home with… and the money dries up. As I was thinking these

thoughts Mr Bashkim squinted and asked how big the billboard is as we stared at the neo-Maoist building. I

awoke from my reverie. Ardian was translating our negotiations.

I explained: ‘It is forty-two feet, twelve metres by nearly four metres.’

Mr Bashkim: ‘Over, off the window?’

‘Yes!’

And then of course as the question of how much became the topic. He had what we wanted…but it was

going to be for a price.

Ardian translating for Mr Bakshim:

Bashkin: ‘400 dollars, it’s possible that I can make you a favour!’

Dominic: ‘If it’s more than $600, we walk away and we go to see Safet Sula tomorrow and we try to hang it

from the big wall.’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Dominic: ‘If it’s more than $600, we walk away and we go to see Safet Sula tomorrow and we try to hang it

from the big wall.’

Mr Bashkim went on to explain to us: ‘We need $600 or $800 US dollars to put a concert on for Kosovars

and I also need a couple of hundred dollars for the exhibition tax.’

Mr Bashkim went on to explain to us: ‘We need

$600 or $800 US dollars to put a concert on for

Kosovars and I also need a couple of hundred dollars

for the exhibition tax.’

I was stunned. I said: ‘What do you mean

exhibition tax?’

‘Well if you are going to have an advertisement on

our walls then there is a tax.’

To which we said: ‘What! You are a cultural

centre—you exhibit things!’

He explained, ‘these are the rules.’ So we

reluctantly complied although paying for the concert

had its good side…we would be helping to entertain

these bored frustrated people… and Firouz managed

to get $100 dollars off the price when I allowed him

to negotiate. But in this instance I did not really

think that it was particularly good and $700 has

really set us back as far as our budget goes.

Ardian interrupted: ‘The concert will be at 6.00

on Friday, but if Bashkim who is the Director of the

Cultural Centre is anything to go by and we were to

judge him by his previous actions. We don’t know

what will happen; is that true?…by the way, how

did the technical man seem? Did he seem he was

unhappy from a funeral?’

Dominic: ‘We are just saying that in Kukes in

ten years time there will probably be no bars; at the

moment there is one.’

Sunday, 2nd May, 1999, Kukes,

Albania

At 10.25 in the morning a radio interview in

Kukes Radio 1 was scheduled to discuss the message

of the billboard. There was no receipt for $600 plus

the $100 for advertisement tax from Bashkim. We

paid $300 for the rent, $50 for costs, and of course

it went up to $70 because there were items like

laundry and food. It always begins like that but

of course we expected it. The mother who looks

after us plies us with food and then three days

later requests for money. No agreement first and

foremost—but it is fair.

During the day we went for lunch behind the

Prefixtura, the office of the Prefect of the town,

where a battalion of soldiers are stationed. A Dutch

cameraman and an engineer assisted us hang the

billboard with friends.

The length and strength of the metal pipes

proved to be inadequate so Firouz had to go off and

get new pipes cut. We went from shop to shop and

bought a hundred super glues; all of the super glue

in Kukes!

Something like US$1,100 dollars is gone now;

US$700 for the cultural centre, US$300 for the rent

and a US$100 for change. We have only brought

$3000! Firouz said something to me before in

relationship to the experiences confronting us of this

exodus of people: ‘Anything that happens is not your

business, you are the witness and it is just a movie.’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Firouz said something to me before in relationship

to the experiences confronting us of this exodus

of people: ‘Anything that happens is not your

business, you are the witness and it is just a movie.’

But I disagree. We must utilise our compassion

to help in whatever way our skills and finances

allow. It is my business and it is not a movie. I

leave that to the people back in Australia who

are watching these events from the comfort of

their home on sofas

But I disagree. We must utilise our compassion

to help in whatever way our skills and finances

allow. It is my business and it is not a movie. I

leave that to the people back in Australia who are

watching these events from the comfort of their

home on sofas exhibiting feigned concern and then

picking their teeth from a recent pizza napoletana

and wondering what next is on the television.

In one occasion I noticed Albanian dwarfs

getting children to throw rocks at dogs with three

legs. This is a reality. Everything is so surreal here

that when I hear myself describe this it genuinely

sounds untrue. Today, I have been experimenting

with the glue, meeting with the Cultural Director

and his family. The Director said:

‘Tomorrow we meet at 12.00pm’.

Then we went to the TV station and the radio

station where they requested:

‘Well, if you give us a documentation of your

acceptance by the director, we will help you.’ We

also met the director of the radio station at 2.30pm.

Monday, 3rd May, 1999, Kukes,

Albania

We have just tried to test whether this will

work in conditions of music sound background.

Monday, a brief resume of the day; preparation of

the exhibition began by seeing Mr Bashkim and

deciding on where the erect the billboard. The

negotiations with Mr Bashkim left a nasty taste in

my mouth.

We were waiting for Mr Bashkim and finally he

arrived and we went through the most disgusting

negotiations where he said that we had to pay

$800 for the concert, which included a $US200

exhibition fee, and we are saying ‘but we have a

humanitarian statement for the refugees of Kosovo’,

and Bashkim’s reply was: ‘basically I don’t care

whether you have a humanitarian statement, I have

a Cultural Centre and I am just interested in the


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

The experience of this journey has brought forth neither

enlightenment nor inspiration but battling against the

greed in people who are trying to rip us off.

At 7.00pm I am exhausted and in an hour

and a half my fingers are just covered by

layer upon layer of super glue ...

The wind is blowing with strong, stubborn and lazy

gusts while the sheet billboard like a sail was fl apping

spasmodically up and down, backwards and forwards.

I have a leap of exhilaration when I see it hanging - to feel that we have achieved

one important step on our journey here. Tired and grumpy but at least we have

achieved in a matter of days what I took three months in the Gaza Strip to do.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Cultural Centre. I am not interested in the refugees.’

Whenever I travel into these conflict zones I am

continuously accosted by greed and people who

desire more. They have no understanding that

what we are doing is non-profit. No one ever says

because I am doing this that they will help us (it is

rare) or that they will give us a less of a price. Every

commodity is made more expensive, while every

cent we have is screwed from us. The experience of

this journey has brought forth neither enlightenment

nor inspiration but battling against the greed in

people who are trying to rip us off. It is dealing with

one taxi ride for $200 or $300 to a place, which

becomes boring and draining having to negotiate

with these people.

Ardian, our translator, talks about his heavy

metal record collection and dreams about being a

writer and chatting up seventeen year old Kosovar

girls in the ‘America Bar’. Otherwise he is being

slightly lazy, slightly gentle, and charming, and it is

fun to watch him on all accounts.

When Ardian is translating he fails to translate

exactly what we want, but becomes unwittingly or

knowingly hesitant and stops half-way because he

feels it is inappropriate that we understand the full

story.

Now Mr Lymon, the Cultural Centre Maintenance

Director, appears and we spend time with him,

and the following day is a fun day. We briefly see

Bashkim and explain that everything is okay and

we linger for the whole day until about 5.00pm.

The keys finally arrive and we are let out. So now

the technician allows us to use his ladder to climb

through the manhole onto the roof so that two iron

pipes can be threaded together, and the billboards

sewn between the pipes. At 7.00pm I am exhausted

and in an hour and a half my fingers are just covered

by layer upon layer of super glue but you will see

that in the film I think. Firouz was filming it all.

I stand in front of the VX 1000 video camera

and explain: ‘These are my fingers, from a million

packets of Albanian super glue with one squeeze

per packet’, as I scratch the glue off my fingers. As

the billboard is erected I triumphantly or at least

relieved explain: ‘My idea is, to give these people a

voice and for them to actually speak to the world to

say that they have all suffered enough.’

The wind is blowing with strong, stubborn and

lazy gusts while the sheet billboard like a sail was

flapping spasmodically up and down, backwards and

forwards. Finally

the billboard is

erected. It is up,

thank God! We

return through

the manhole and

walk down onto

the street to view

it. And it looks

stupendous. I

have a leap of

exhilaration when

I see it hanging - to feel that we have achieved

one important step on our journey here. Tired and

grumpy but at least we have achieved in a matter

of days what I took three months in the Gaza

Strip to do. Having passed through fairly difficult

circumstances of needing to delete all the letters,

because we did not have appropriate lettering—just

tracing letters—and then cutting them out to super

glue them in place which was a a very unprofessional

way to do it, but under these circumstances, in this

hell of Kukes where chaos reigns, it was satisfactory.

Tuesday, 4th May, 1999, Kukes,

Albania

Tuesday, we were escorted to the radio station

where we were introduced to the director about the

possibility of announcing the festival to the people

of Kukes. The English version of this announcement

was read by me over the radio.

The few democratic sophisticates who inhabit

the town of Kukes work at the radio station, a

small disfigured two story cement blockhouse. The

administrative coordinator was different from the

rest of the savvy brown-pigmented Albanians we

had already met. He had lotus-red hair which was

bleached, combed across in waves and spoke French

in a lilting style.

My invitation for the concert was broadcast to

the people in Kukes explaining there would be the


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

‘My idea is, to give these people a voice and for them to actually speak to the

world to say that they have all suffered enough.’

opening of the billboard, which would give them a

voice to the world, that they had all suffered enough.

They might have lost their homes they have not lost

their dignity.

The technology of the Cultural Centre was

ancient, even Edwardian, fossilised from the 1950s.

The room was filled by Dr Who valves and diodes

which looked like they hailed from another century.

A prehistoric magnetic tape recorder to broadcast

the interview whirred like a two bob widget and then

snapped at the end of my announcement as the whip

lashed magnetic tape flik-flaked in the engineers

control booth.

The invitation was broadcast in English and in

Albanian throughout the day every hour. Then when

I finished, the engineer clapped his hands, shouting

‘bravo!’… I should have been a broadcaster while

Firouz stood with the steady-cam filming it. Smoking

black market Marlboros, it was a celebratory

atmosphere.

Zana Sphiu, the Director of Kukes Radio then

took me into her office and discussed her husband,

one of Albanian’s most prominent political poets

who had had been assassinated, found dead in the

streets of Tirana for reasons unknown. Three years

ago his social conscience had triggered his death by

an unknown assailant. It became apparent that with

a smattering of Russian, our ability to communicate

was helped by the childish Russian we both could

only half speak. An attractive mature woman in her

forties with a heaving cleavage and gentle smile, she

said to me that all artists must be the conscience

and heart of the people. She said with tears in her

eyes that I reminded her of her husband. I wonder

whether this was the one who once lived or who is

now dead? Did that mean I would soon be dead?

I was unclear but our language was too basic to

explore the subtleties of meaning.

By this time, our nascent problems with the

translator, Ardian, were beginning to grow. Every

time that he came to reply to a request or translate

an ethnic Albanian testament he censored the

speech. This was unacceptable. Each time we would

meet refugees who had been assaulted or involved

in massacres, Ardian would alter the information or

he would explain: ‘No I won’t tell you’. Had we been

in a powerful financial situation I would have fired

him earlier, but we were paying him a minimal wage

(although a good wage by Albanian standards).

We marched to the small dirty news agency and

stationary shop, the only one in town where there

is a working Xerox copier. We sat down and printed

the invitations. A bearish man with a bald head

sat with us and typed them up on a very antique

typewriter. Then he would retrace the typescript

where he had made mistakes with a razor blade and

flick off the little pieces of ink debris. Afterwards we

made copies of the invitations yet again on a very

antiquated Xerox machine.

Our time was spent walking through the streets

of Kukes distributing hand bills We distributed these

crumpled invitations and with sticky tape stuck

them on onto cast iron light boxes, broken letter

boxes and the sides of shops. Within half an hour


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

None of the people crossing from Serbia seemed to

be in bad condition from malnourishment but many

of them were traumatised and there were continuous

accounts of people being separated; children being

separated from parents, mothers from fathers, old men

taken off, executions, and people being threatened

with knives to have their jewellery removed.

As we are about to leave, a cigar smoking American reporter with bifocal

glasses and a safari jacket, tugs my shirt and in this weird western slur

says: ‘What do you think of all this, it sucks doesn’t it?’

curious pedestrians and Kukes locals would gather to read the little bills postered on street lamps and tobacco

booths and then five minutes later like termites they had been removed and torn down.

The harsh chilly wind which skis straight down from Mount Gjalica blowing hard with an unwelcome dust,

lodges in our eyes and hair. On the Tuesday it became apparent that the billboard, which is in the town square,

was beginning to lose some of its letters, and one of the ‘U’s had begun to peel off. So on the Tuesday we

lowered and reset the letters. The billboard is partially torn. It took us two hours before we found Mr Lymon

the Maintenance Director of the Kukes Cultural Centre, and upon finding him in the darkness of the night we

managed to erect a rickety ladder and climb through the ventilator shaft onto the roof to repair the broken

billboard before we hang it properly.

Wednesday, 5th May, 1999, Kukes, Albania, the ‘America Bar’

After the Press Conference with Ray breakfast occurred at the ‘America Bar’, but we were tired and dogeared,

very unprepared for a new installment to this crisis. There had been an appointment with Salliarne a

fluent English speaking academic, but he failed to rendezvous. I had hoped to have a last interview with him in

front of the cameras but Salliarne had to leave by helicopter to return to Tirana to continue with his students.

We rendezvous at the ‘America Bar’ with Daniel Rosenthal, a German photojournalist for Das Welt. The

twenty-five year old, semi-independent journalist hitched five of six consecutive nights from Berlin through

Barbera down the shoe of Italy on a humanitarian convoy to get here. It was his second day. He was bemused

but helpful and we suggested that he accompany us to the border checkpoint Morine between the Federal

Republic of Yugoslavia and Albania in half an hour.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Before we leave I make an eyeball of the

restaurant. We are sitting in the ‘America Bar’ and

there is cheap electronic bar music playing…The

sound of Tender Years - John Cafferty & The Beaver

Brown Band:

“When the moon hung soft and low,

Catchin’ stardust in the light

You held me closer and closer…”

The barmen are wearing black Velcro vests with

cartridge case pockets. The two metre Statue of

Liberty is still draped with the American flag. Cokea-Cola

is the icon of this town, and the twinkling

faerie lights were purchased maybe I surmise

as a gift by

the Chinese

ambassador in

the diplomatic

thaw in

international

relations with

China. There

is a grandiose

kitsch

fluorescent

mural behind us with one, two, three, no four

rainbows. On it is an Albanian mountain range

cascading water, leaping catfish and the Shangri-La

alpine chateau. Albanian graffiti in chalk is scrawled

across the wall, while sleepy journalists are sitting

around nodding into their Raki: the infamous

Albanian liquor, which makes Jack Daniel’s taste like

Fruit Punch.

I am dying for a badly made ‘America Bar’

cappuccino. I am not dead yet but I am certainly

dying. On the bus journey to Kukes there was graffiti

on the wall on a corner pit stop restaurant which

said ‘love is blind’ and my response to Ermal at the

time was ‘and so are the corners.’ I have sunstroke

as I sit sipping a luke warm cappuccino in name

only—an espresso with gelatine cream turned into a

sagging Mont Blanc.

I find the journalists weird here. They have

this distant and cold reserve which is difficult to

understand. I cannot work out what it is. They are

machines. The journalists are like big game hunters

coming to bring back their trophies and spoils of

war…While not engaging in compassion or empathy,

they are witnesses. They document but rarely

reflect. I know this is a generalisation. There are

some who are deeply moved by this crisis but I can

not escape from feeling. The expressions and body

language tell me otherwise. A group of fresh faced

students from Tirana who have made the pilgrimage

up here up here to act as journalists have just

entered the bar. It is an opportunity to make money

and help in the same breath.. A few intellectual

Tiranian students have dropped their studies in midsentence

to make some pin-money.

As we are about to leave, a cigar smoking

American reporter with bifocal glasses and a safari

jacket, tugs my shirt and in this weird western slur

says: ‘What do you think of all this, it sucks doesn’t

it?’

Fifteen minutes later attempting to commute to

the border Daniel, Firouz, Ardian and I begin our

journey to Morine the border crossing by walking in

the dust. There are no taxis. Like failed hitchhikers

with our thumbs out the cars and traffic ignores

us until a passing Italian ambulance with its siren

wailing stops en route to the border crossing. When

the driver recognizes Ardian it pulls over. Ardian

seemed to know him from somewhere and we climb

in, squeezed into stretchers and jangling trays

with ointments and syringes rattling as we journey

along the winding countryside. It was a twentyfive

minute trip past mortared bunkers, looming

alpine mountains, desecrated, vacant factories, and

shoeless or sockless Albanians walking on the road.

Every time the ambulance driver would pass the

refugees he would press his ambulance horn and

then accelerate like a kid.

Hundreds of the refugees on foot were here

and we passed each until we came to a streaming

cavalcade of

tractors carrying

the refugees on

corrugated iron

trailers. Many had

broken wheels,

while the tyres

were shredded

and revolving

at different

angles on the

empty dinted

rims, hitting the

bitumen up and down.

We stepped down shaking ourselves.

An English OSCE (Organisation for Security

and Cooperation in Europe) operator with a jolly

hocky sticks English ratherrrrrrrrr manner and

crisp-pressed blue and white stripped cotton shirt

stared in comic disbelief at the tractor tyres that had

no rubber, mere hubs that were bent and twisted

and barely able to cross the border: ‘What the hell,

who the hell, it seems to be such an absolute curse,

because these people don’t, um, you know they all

have different size tyres, they don’t have this size

tyre in Albania. I mean just look at that bloody thing!’

As we stood by the wayside it seemed like we

were drinking diesel and eating dust. At the Morine

customs checkpoint there was a bank up of aid

workers distributing food rations. Every car without

number plates coming across the border was given


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

“What the hell, who the hell, it seems to be such an absolute curse, because these people

don’t, um, you know they all have different size tyres, they don’t have this size tyre in

Albania. I mean just look at that bloody thing!”

“Many of

the people

coming over

told stories of

wide spread

abductions

of men and

of deliberate

killings of at

least some of

them.”

The horror was palpable,

the sky unmoving and

the tractors grated

…everything converged to

speak of an insanity that

was like a virus spreading

across this land from

another country next door.

a big blanket and water rations. The militia who

were processing the continual queue of tractors and

packed cars would occasionally swear: ‘Big deal;

move on!’

None of the people crossing from Serbia seemed

to be in bad condition from malnourishment but

many of them were traumatised and there were

continuous accounts of people being separated;

children being separated from parents, mothers

from fathers, old men taken off, executions, and

people being threatened with knives to have their

jewellery removed.

In the chaos of the arrival Daniel had

disappeared with Ardian while Firouz was filming

somewhere else. Alone, one man shoeless in his

sixties shuffled to me, an old disheveled guy in a

worn pin-stripe suite with its cuffs rolled at the

shoes with a startled child-like expression. He had

to say even though his words would not return what

had been stolen from him: ‘We arrived here, they

chased us, they beat us. They did everything they

could and now we are here. What can we do?’

Another man in a blue shirt with blackened face

from the diesel came up to me and I asked him:

‘Before you came here how long were you in your

home for, in Prizren, without leaving the house?’

‘I was 20 days without going out anywhere.’

‘Did you feel that maybe you could stay longer,

that it would just, it would all blow over?’

‘Yes, I just plan to do anything, to remain close in

the basement.’

The next instant someone else had interrupted

us in broken English: ‘A soldier of Serbia came in,

took me out of the row, of queue and said to me

you be killed now or you have to pay 600 German

marks.’

The horror was palpable, the sky unmoving and

the tractors grated…everything converged to speak of

an insanity that was like a virus spreading across this

land from another country next door.

The words of Ray from UNHCR during the Press

conference at the ‘America Bar’ this morning rang

echoed in my mind: ‘Many of the people coming over


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

A refugee I had not seen ambles up and tugging my shirt

tail starts to talk to in unintelligible Albanian to me.

First, paramilitary forces surrounded the village

of Ibberdamaj and Berbati.

Then the OSCE monitor interjects: ‘Well hang on, you said

as soon as they started to shoot, well what are you saying?’

told stories of wide spread abductions of men and of deliberate killings of at least some of them. There were at least

four different groups of people who came across yesterday. Some of the refugees continue to come from the Jakava

area, and reported some individual new stories of atrocities in that region. The reports from Jakava have been so

consistent from the region that it truly is one of the most violent and cruel of the whole Kosovo exodus, seems it’s

almost been turned into a killing field at times.’

As we ambled closer to the border more and more caravans appeared, like horse drawn buggies on two

wheels, sometimes four wheels with stretched plastic canopies to form primitive huts for people to sleep.

Everything was made even more bizarre because of the pale blue sky, the serenity and stillness which

surrounded this biblical exodus of these ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo.

As they had only just arrived people were coming up, imploring and explaining what had happened. We were

the first people and they need to get it off their chests. From a group who had just arrived from Jakova region,

one of the worst hit, resting outside the wagon one old man in a white Muslim turban seeming a hundred years


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

old begins: ‘I know what he is going to ask and I

thank him very much’. And I thank him for the

interview: ‘On the third of May at about 10am, Serb

paramilitary forces entered the village. Immediately

on arrival they started to massacre people and when

they had killed them, they burned their homes.’

He spoke for minutes...some of it was

unintelligible but we recorded it all nonetheless:

‘The dead are scattered like leaves on the ground.

Snipers kill shepherds when they remain with their

cattle in the field.’

An Albanian woman whose eyes are wet

interrupts. She is wearing a poncho or a bulky

jumper She is articulate, not a farmer but maybe

a student. She

catches her breath

and begins: ‘It was

night, the policeman

was holding her by

the throat with the

gun pointed at her,

calling her, saying:

“come, come!”’ That

was something which

touched me deeply.

She was constantly

crying, saying: ‘Oh, I have children, I have children.’

From this group another woman in her fifties

with a hooked nose adds:

’We were all together yesterday and out of the

blue the bullets were raining on us, above our heads.

We escaped into a yard and we had to lie down with

our bodies flat.’

The old man in a dirty white turban continues

with this horror movie of tales:

’They burned us, they killed us, throwing the

bodies onto the fire. They stabbed our little children,

gauging their eyes. They had gauged my only

grandchild’s eyes whilst he was alive, throwing him

into the yard, leaving him in agony.’

Everyone of these statements is allegedly

real. I have not made it up and it is coming like

staccato gunfire from their mouths. We were the

first witnesses as they crossed the border so they

hoped to tell us and therefore tell the world what is

happening.

I stood there stunned and exclaimed: ‘This is no

holiday in hell; this is hell.’

Even if we cannot escape from any form of

suffering, in the embrace of suffering there is a

release. But what can be done for these people?

Closer to the border, a helicopter is hovering and

ambulances wail. The chaos is everywhere made

and intensified by a dry wind which has picked up.

It all reminds me of Apocalypse Now. There is an

OSCE monitor nearby. This monitor recounts and

documents all human rights abuses. I walk past him.

A refugee I had not seen ambles up and tugging my

shirt tail starts to talk to in unintelligible Albanian

to me. This ethnic Albanian Kosovar has come up

when I am interrupted by the Englishman who had

originally commented on the broken wheels five

minutes before: ‘Yes, um well, well my translator will

be over to help us both.’

This refugee, a swarthy well dressed man in his

fifties spoke. The translator paraphrases or at least

renders the Albanian into a doggerel English as we

both document the abuses: ‘First, paramilitary forces

surrounded the village of Ibberdamaj and Berbati.

Paramilitary groups….immediately afterwards they

came out of their cars. They were shooting at us to

kill us.’

Then the OSCE monitor interjects: ‘Well hang on,

you said as soon as they started to shoot, well what

are you saying?’

‘They were...they start shooting and as soon as

the other people, they hear the shooting then they

just run away. And we had no time to resist.’

‘How many people were killed?’

‘There were about 13 cousins...At that moment

4 people were physically maltreated, then executed

with a bullet, then cut with the knife. Because there

is first of all they cut them with the,.. Then they

execute them with a single bullet, now with a knife.

The following day we managed to calculate, the size

of the bodies were reduced to this format, the next

day we were able to

see the corpse, they

were this size.’

This refugee

wanted to explain

that he witnessed an

execution of thirteen

people, their bodies

were then burnt

and the bodies were

reduced to the size

of two and a half

feet long. The human rights monitor from OSCE was

then very specific about wanting to get a written

statement from him and then whether he could

actually verify the names of people and what had

happened to them and whether he would recount

that story again. The people killed were in their

sixties.

It is all harrowing. People are missing. People

have had their children, separated from them. This

is galvanising for the human psyche, and I can see

how people are traumatised.

Ray was also saying in the UNHCR press

conference today: ‘Um, I think we’re certainly talking

about many dozens, ah maybe in the low 100s,

abducted, kidnapped, I don’t know what the right

word is in these circumstances.’

Another man in a blue shirt explains: ‘The first

day was only the men can cross the border, the


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Everyone of these statements is

allegedly real. I have not made it up

and it is coming like staccato gunfire

from their mouths. We were the first

witnesses as they crossed the border

so they hoped to tell us and therefore

tell the world what is happening.

“Um, I think we’re certainly talking about many

dozens, ah maybe in the low 100s, abducted,

kidnapped, I don’t know what the right word is in

these circumstances.”

“How many people were killed?”

“There were about 13 cousins….At that moment 4 people were physically maltreated, then executed with a bullet, then cut with

the knife. Because there is first of all they cut them with the... Then they execute them with a single bullet, now with a knife. The

following day we managed to calculate, the size of the bodies were reduced to this format, the next day we were able to see the

corpse, they were this size.”


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Like a picnic from hell sobbing refugees were sprawled over the emerald grass and bent daffodils with broken

packets of baby food, shawls and dirty anoraks lying in the sun, women in tartan weeping, crying with tears

swimming down their faces; children holding up victory signs and again tears streaming down their faces. An

empty victory at that. It is like a holiday in hell except it is not hell, it is hell on earth.

women should stay there.’

Then yet another: ‘My wife and my son, my son

is one year old, and they have been sent, have been

pushed back from the border. If they’re alive or

dead….I don’t know exactly.’

(Note: A couple of days later I just saw people

coming in again in the buses and their faces

are shocked and because of the events that have

swept me up I did not really have time to take

on their pain. It is like what Alma Sahbaz from

Sarajevo said to me: “A lot of people don’t have

the actual ammunition; emotional ammunition

to deal with other people’s suffering because

their own cups are so full.”)

“Yesterday

they came,

they got into

the tractor

and started

to beat me.”

Soldiers and militia have now stopped us from

entering into the bay where all the broken Ladas,

1985 Fiats and a cavalcade of caravans are, but we

walked round the rear to a broken cement pylon

and climbed up onto a slopping grass embankment

and filmed from that point. Like a picnic from hell

sobbing refugees were sprawled over the emerald

grass and bent daffodils with broken packets of

baby food, shawls and dirty anoraks lying in the

sun, women in tartan weeping, crying with tears

swimming down their faces; children holding up

victory signs and again tears streaming down their

faces. An empty victory at that. It is like a holiday in

hell except it is not hell, it is hell on earth.

After lingering to collect more documentation

of abuses to interview further people at the border

crossing we left. All the stories just seem to merge

into one horror story.

Just as we were leaving another spoke:

‘Yesterday they came, they got into the tractor and

started to beat me.’

It is just continuous, there does not need to be

any selective process.

‘They took my son he’s fifteen years old. He had

no identification card.’

The events are continuous and yet even if each


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

We are still sitting in the tray when the mother explains to me what she has witnessed

Illum dolore eu feugiat

nulla facilitis ad vero

eros et accususam et

A man turned

to me with a

trembling lip to

stare straight

through me as he

recounts:

event is small, evil is a multiplication of many insignificant acts of injustice which breed into one great injustice.

My speeding mind is leaping to the next event. We decide to return on one of the tractors and film the

refugees along the road. Forty-five people are sandwiched into this tray. It was not a tractor it was a large dump

truck for earth moving and forty-five people are passively wedged in the back, with half a dozen babies cupped

in the arms of anguished relieved yet frightened mothers. One child is new born and suckling on a women’s

breast. We are now in this truck going along, bumping up and down with the biting wind, the invading dust and


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

the diesel

blowing into

our mouths,

asking

questions of

these people.

Again the

same answers

are delivered;

the same

shit is going

through their

minds.

A man turned to me with a trembling lip to stare

straight through me as he recounts: ‘At four am they

kicked us out. We left everything. We were three

metres away from our home when they set it on fire.

What can we do? And here we are.’

That the children are exposed for so long to the

hot biting sun is frightening. There seems many red

rashes on the children’s faces which appear look as

blemishes or rhubarb splotches. Perhaps they are

heat rashes, which spread run from their forehead

down to the beginning of their nose. At one point

on the dirt road back to Kukes the truck seemed to

pause; missed a gear then coughed to a shuddering

splutter, screeching to a halt very abruptly which

made Firouz lurch forward and then backwards.

He or I knocked this shawled woman who is

desperately clutching her baby. The baby after being

so dramatically jolted completely freezes up for one

second. It could not breathe. Twelve, then fourteen

seconds had elapsed and still it had not breathed.

What the… an epileptic seizure? The mother hit...

no slapped the child on its chest and it began to

breath and cry again. I just breathed one sigh of

relief because there would have been nothing more

upsetting than having this child dying here and now.

We are still sitting in the tray when the mother

explains to me what she has witnessed: ‘Four

members of the Iberdamaj family have been killed

and they were burnt, and they burnt the house. In

the Kuqi family, they killed father and son, and the

uncle. One woman was executed. Her destiny is not

known. We don’t know where she is, her name is

Bute Husad. There are many others killed and they

are not buried as yet. Our homes are burnt down,

our husbands are separated from us. Yesterday they

took my husband away from the tractor, and I am

left with my four children. I have no idea what they

did with them, or where they are.’

Has my presence here helped? I know that it

has done something but in relationship to the big

picture, what is happening now? Yes and no, and

I don’t know. Seven thousand people have just

crossed over this border in the last three hours and

we have been interviewing some people in the back

of the truck

and I is just...

the stories,

some people

just can’t say

anything. The

people are so

traumatised.

Still five

kilometres

from the

Morine

crossing we climbed out of the first truck and into

a second to bump along with the cloudless blue sky

racing past us and the wind. We interviewed yet

another mother with a child. At a petrol stop when

more people started to get on we realized we were

needed to leave to make more room for others.

Once we had disembarked I walked up to another

passing wagon with a crying child leaning over the

tray. I put my index finger out of my right hand and

this child instantly wrapped its tiny little pudgy

hand around my finger and immediately she stopped

crying.

We returned to home, or at least our temporary

home, to recharge the camera batteries on the

Sony VX1000 video camera. Ardian took two hours

off. Firouz remained home and I came here to the

‘America Bar’ to read and recount my journal.

Thursday, 6th May, 1999, Kukes,

Albania

While recounting my diary to the cassette in the

‘America Bar’, Whitney Houston is playing and I was

thinking about her.

Where You Are

I saw the news this morning

Saw your face across the screen

And as I poured my coffee

I picked up a magazine

(Chorus)

But as I turned the page, and looked inside,

there you were again

Oh these lonely times, they never seem….

I was thinking about how in the West, there is

nothing wrong with people being great singers. I was

contemplating excellence and then my meditation

returns to these refugees.

It does not matter who they are and what they

are; it does not matter what talent or wealth or

beauty a person may possess, because a person’s

birth right is the most important, illustrious and


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

beautiful possession. That is the most important

right that we must, respect and honour. The right to

life!

The technology of the aid workers is intriguing.

The technocrats here are the elite rulers through

their authority and power of their technology. The

refugees have nothing while the others, the media

journalists and aid workers are the powerful. I

know they are here to help. They are not the ones

initiating the abuses, but the disparity does seem

apparent.

Firouz also seems to be on an emotional

pendulum swing while I must be the recipient to

his recurring bouts of anger. I do not know whether

the anger is more focused on me or the general

situation. He sadly can not seem to release this

anger and this I find this really difficult to deal with.

He is not happy with himself and not happy with

the sound quality on the tape, but the manner in

which he deals with this anger is to inflict it on those

around him. This forms a stain which is difficult to

erase especially when I am with him twenty four

hours a day. Of course this is only my opinion.

After hanging the billboard, I had decided that

what we could give to these people a concert. We

had paid an exhibition tax to hang the billboard

from the wall of the Cultural Centre, and now we

were going to pay the musicians to sing. A few

posters and every roll of sticky tape in town was

how we were going to advertise the concert, and I

think the western journalists just laughed quietly to

themselves. We are hoping for at least five hundred

to come, but I will be happy with two hundred

people in the town square in front of the billboard.

That will be enough.

On Thursday we searched for the Mayor in his

office where we were informed he was at present

in Tirana on business. We then tried to invite the

Deputy Mayor, and if Safet Sula did not know what

was going on at least his deputy could attend. We

felt that it was important to invite the Deputy Mayor.

Ray at the Press Conference was still iterating

what we had seen the days before. A variation on

the same theme: ‘That UNHCR believe there were so

many wide spread abductions of men that took place

during that forced evacuation of peoples almost

been turned into a killing field at times. About three

days ago police then moved in and separated many

men out. One man reported to us that 24 people

from his family had been killed and he had seen their

bodies.’

Today we began distributing the invitations for

the concert throughout the city and amongst the

people at each of the camps. More copies had been

done, when I had an argument with Firouz at the

United Arab Emirates camp. He wanted to film the

children but I wanted to distribute the invitations

instead.

His loyalty is unquestionable. His commitment

to the ideals are solid. But his moods are so

difficult, but the same can be said for me. I find

that sometimes he misunderstands and believes

that I am here only to make a documentary rather

than contribute by erecting a billboard. So instead

of desiring to put these invitations up, he started

complaining that I was disorganised in my schedule

and that the invitations should have been done a

week before. And if they had been he would have

had time to do his filming.

We walked to the Irish camp, one of the more

distant camps and placed invitations on cork

information boards. At every point people would

crowd around gawking and staring. There is so little

in these people’s lives that even this badly typed

invitation is something important to these people.

We have to go ahead and without anticipation see

what will happen. I must try and make a good event

from this no matter what might occur. The billboard

is up and I can see it from so many different angles.

It is now part of the city square and the surrounding

area.

That afternoon I had walked across the town to

Frank Kennedy, the Director of the International

Red Cross in Kukes, and had also spoken with

Ray Wilkinson the Press Officer for UNHCR. The

International Red Cross quarters were on located

on the second floor of a non-descript corner shop.

When I went upstairs the aid workers were deep in

conference. I had to wait for half an hour downstairs,

but when I went up I could feel that there was

an energy change or shift which suggested a real

positive influx. I could feel a healing energy that

was there and how it was capable of being utilised.

Frank met me with open arms and was enthusiastic

about the billboard and concert which I had done.

He felt that more things of this nature ought to be

done; that not enough was being done for the people

from a visionary, or how do you say, inspiring point

of view.

I rendezvoused with Salliarne, the Tiranan

academic late that night and gave him the

translation of my text. I also sat with Dieter, the

Munich cameraman and the other Public Broadcast

Television people from Germany and when the lights

fused in a black out we used tiny torches while we

ate the fish. I had a wonderful conversation with

one of the German camera operators, whose name

escapes me now, about Beirut and his experiences

during the war in 1983 there.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Please come and fill your afternoon by

sending a message to the world that you

have all suffered enough.

Friday, 7th May, 1999, Kukes, Albania

What a day. That was the day of the concert and the closing ceremony for the billboard. We spent it

Xeroxing copies of the invitation and sending them around town. The copies were humble as a result of

the technology at hand. We bill-posted them with threads and messy sticky tape on all lamp posts and then

handed them like pamphlets around to people in the streets and in the camps. After a brief meeting with the

deputy mayor at the Bashkiria, I went to the radio station and spoke with Zhana, the woman who was the radio

director. She had already found Mrs Brahar, the head of a feminist women’s organisation who would make a

speech. I was happy for her as well as the Executive Director of the Cultural Center, Mr Bashkim, who I had

forgiven as well as the deputy mayor to speak.

Our idea for the concert was to collect as many refugees in front of the billboard as possible, and then use

the billboard as the means for them to speak to the rest of the world. And the concert was there to entertain

them.

The event turned out in an extraordinary fashion. The square with the prefecture and the centre of culture

allowed fifteen thousand people to congregate. The fourth side revealed a panoramic view of the lake and the

cascading mountain of Gjalica.

At 5.00pm that day after racing around like frustrated chooks because we were anticipating that maybe

three hundred people might come, Salliarne had done my speech, translated it, but was unable to be the

translator at the reading at the concert because of his helicopter trip early this morning.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

I said a few introductory words, and then

the woman Brahar spoke, and then there

was an actor who read the text with me

alternating in English and Albanian that had

been translated by Salliarne into Albanian.

‘I speak to all people who are the

innocent victims of war. This is not

my day, this is your day.’

‘If someone creates injustice through murder or theft

or dispossession then they are the victims because

they kill what is beautiful within themselves.’

I was anticipating was just a maximum of two

hundred people. We had been to the radio station

the day before and the television station and

they promised to relay the information, but what

happened was beyond my comprehension.

First at 5.00pm there were twenty-five kids, and

the opening was for 6.00pm. By 6.00pm there were

about five to eight thousand and by 6.30pm there

were ten thousand people. Maybe fifteen…who

knows…a sea of people… it was one magnificent

moment in a person’s lifetime…

For me that was just a remarkable and

wonderful experience to feel these refugees here

congregating for an event where there was music

and speakers. It was utterly electric. And the boy

Daniel who was there to take photographs and I

must contact to get a whole series of photographs

from him of the event, because the ones we took

were insufficient. So I went up on the podium firs

but the first person to speak was the Deputy Mayor.

‘On behalf of Kukes Municipality I open this

concert in homage to the people of Kosova. And

now in front of us is Mr. Dominic Ryan and friends.’

I said a few introductory words, and then the

woman Brahar spoke, and then there was an actor

who read the text with me alternating in English

and Albanian that had been translated by Salliarne

into Albanian.

This is how it went:

“I speak to all people who are the innocent

victims of war. This is not my day, this is your

day. This is not my message that you have all

suffered enough. It is not my message to the

world this is your message. It was written so

that you might speak to the world to the media

in some fashion to give you a small but strong

voice. To show that although you may have

temporarily lost your homes, you have not lost

your dignity. It is only out of weakness that

people seek to control others or to separate them.

It is only out of this sense of inferiority that

people try to be superior.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

You are not victims. Anyone who suffers in innocence is made great in God’s eyes.

The Mustafa Sisters from

Kosovo sing.

So I went up on the

podium firs but the first

person to speak was the

Deputy Mayor.

‘On behalf of Kukes Municipality I open this concert in homage to the people of Kosova.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

“If someone creates injustice through murder

or theft or dispossession then they are the

victims because they kill what is beautiful within

themselves. Only when people cease to regard

each other as separate as inferior and superior

that is one humanity will there be peace. The

eventual worth of every human being is their

birth right and cannot be denied through any

series of injustices. We must respect no matter

what their race, creed or political ideology; the

inherent value of humanity. There can be no

compromise with injustice or evil but we must be

careful that in seeking to eradicate or neutralize

injustice, further injustice is not created.

“You are not victims. Anyone who suffers in

innocence is

made great

in Gods eyes.

Anyone who

is wounded

by injustice

will

eventually

be healed by

God’s hands.

Do not fear

what is truly

yours and can never be lost and can never be

taken from you.

“I thank you all for coming.”

In some ways I was thinking that this is as

applicable to the people of the Republic of Serbia as

it is applicable to the refugees, but in this instance

it was addressed to the people of Kosovo. Yesterday

was their day, yesterday it was the day for the

people of Kosovo.

So it was wonderful speaking to a crowd of

eleven thousand or more refugees from Kosovo and

giving them those words. The feeling of electricity

was in the air but also the feeling that it was an

event that I had imagined happening and I knew

it was going to happen, but then again I could not

allow myself to imagine that it was going to happen.

Up to the last minute we were anticipating the

worst to happen, not many people to arrive, But on

the contrary it fell into a perfect heap in the right

way. But all along it was Firouz’s fear and paranoia

that it is going to fuck up; that everything that I do is

unsatisfactory, and do does not work.

During the opening ceremony what a blast to

speak to twelve thousand people in an event like

this. It happens once in a life time. During the

concert a guy call Rafael Lechner from CNN in Spain

filmed the whole event. (Note: It was subsequently

made into a 2 minute promo which I never saw.)

Saturday, 8th May, 1999, Kukes,

Albania

Today part of the ubiquitous Press statement

by Ray read: ‘There were at least two incidents of

refugees tractors being attacked, also between the

border on route to here. One during the daylight

hours and one last night, where armed men

attacked the trailers and robbed them.’

On Thursday we had met Daniel and

accompanied him on the Saturday where we

departed for the border checkpoint Morine which

two days later was bombed by NATO; great huge

puffs of smoke could be seen. Everyday I can hear

these #*@#$*& and they sound like champagne

corks and I think what on earth is happening. There

is no reason for the human mind to believe that this

is bombing. It becomes part of one’s psyche, and

always in this war I never see the enemy or what one

side perceives as the enemy. It is from a distance.

The front line of war is never, never here. I stood

out in the beautiful pastoral landscape knowing

that unseen events were transpiring that were the

absolute antithesis of this light. Some people say you

can walk into a zone like this and remain impassive,

remain untouched, but still the suffering here clings

to me like a lime green plasmic slime which I cannot

wash off.

That day we were introduced to a NGO officer

called Brian Webster, the Director for CARE in the

Italian camp. Afterwards we crossed to the Italian

camp to meet met Olyinda and her family who were

so happy to see us. Bejta asked us whether we

would like their company and I said yes! We then

walked into a transit camp next door to the Albanian

camp where people flocked around us and explained

what had happened in the massacres. These

documentations were all in Albanian.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Weird shit had been happening behind our

backs, like a delicate minuet of bad karma, but

we were too tired and too confused to see it.

So Monday came and it was a bad day, and then

it continued while the badness continued. Today we

had all of our film and video equipment stolen. A

long day. A long three weeks but it is war and so

you can’t have it both ways.

Sunday, 9th May, 1999, Kukes,

Albania

Sunday, was a day when not much is happening.

We spent the whole day procrastinating and waiting

for Mr Lymon to appear to give us the one ladder,

unlocked from his little office so we could get up

onto the roof through the manhole and let the

billboard down. As it turned out at about six that

evening we did this. My aching throat has been

getting increasingly worse and worse as the days

continue but even though the flu has not abated it is

manageable.

We have decided to leave on the Monday for

Tirana. The mission has been achieved and we are

intending on moving off to another area.

I said my last goodbye to Olyinda, or so I thought.

Upon returning Ardian and I went to the ‘America

Bar’ and had a few coffees and I was intending upon

meeting Firouz at 7.30pm. I showed up at 9.30pm

and he was angry like a father because I had failed to

return at the time I said would.

Because there had been major fighting in the hills

between the KLA and Serbian paramilitary close

to the border and spreading down towards Albania

Firouz was concerned about my safety. He was

worried that something could have happened but in

his unique approach he was incapable of expressing

this concern except through anger.

After dismantling the billboard we donated to Mr

Lymon the rusted metal pipes we had used. Standing

on the sandy tarmac beneath the site in the town

square I gazed momentarily down at my feet and

there was excrement all around us. We removed the

little pieces of tap. Children were following us and

it was a sweet and happy event as they assisted us

like a game. Standing around this shit and dust and

flied I think how the people of Kukes are submerged

in the earth and excrement. If it is not the mud, it

is the dust. And the dust just gets into us and I can

never really properly remove it.

Meanwhile something was nagging in my mind,

pulling desperately, whispering that something is

very, very wrong. People had been following us, I

guess it’s normal…let’s not get too paranoid. It’s not

home or anything.

Monday, 10th May 1999, Kukes,

Albania

Departure from Macedonia or at least so we

thought

Weird shit had been happening behind our backs,

like a delicate minuet of bad karma, but we were too

tired and too confused to see it. With people who

would say one thing in front of us and then tell us

another thing behind our back.

So Monday came and it was a bad day, and then

it continued while the badness continued. Today we

had all of our film and video equipment stolen. A


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

...someone ran past and snatched the camera case with our video and

the three weeks work we had on tape. The case was to my left but not

in eyesight. The snatch only gradually drifted into my consciousness

and then like a slow release exploded into fuming reality.

long day. A long three weeks but it is war and so you can’t have it both ways.

I awoke zombie-like from a protracted flu…Even the sparrows could not release me from the throbbing

pain... This was no post card heaven; I had been coughing, vomiting, these last few nights not that the diary

could fully understand but my voice throughout is always hoarse. With aching pains in every joint, I thought I

cannot escape from the pain but at least we were going to escape from this dreaded place.

We moved all the luggage including the dismantled billboard at 6.00am on the Monday morning. Firouz and

I carried the six bags including the forty kilo billboard to the taxi and autobus stand on the main street. While

a milling crowd gathered around us, with this flu and feeling dreadful, I sat on the luggage with Firouz on the

cement footpath. Firouz went off attempting to barter or negotiate with the other taxi drivers. We needed a

reasonable price to travel to Valadet, the border-crossing village from Macedonia. It was a pot-holed earth road

where first stop would be Pogradec, and then after fourteen kilometres we would be across the border. A few

drivers optioned US$100 return. In hindsight we should have taken it.

As it turned out while I was coughing, feeling sorry for myself sitting with the baggage someone ran past and

snatched the camera case with our video and the three weeks work we had on tape. The case was to my left but

not in eyesight. The snatch only gradually drifted into my consciousness and then like a slow release exploded

into fuming reality. All the video documentation of the human rights abuses, the stories, the record of the

concert...everything we had filmed was in that case: 20 cassettes as well as the camera.

Not as important…my heart raced…palpitations and mirrored conjectures… Firouz was momentarily

angry at me…but later subsided. At this perplexing and harrowing moment for Firouz and I a small family from

Kosovo befriend us. The family head Armeil takes us in and allowed us to store the rest of the baggage in the

small alcove on top of a car while Firouz seeks the police.

Armeil and his family of eight from Kosovo were paying a thousand deutschmarks a month for the privilege

of sleeping in this shell of a hovel, a former shop comprised of one dilapidated room with leaking rafters, broken


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

“A reward of $500 US dollars will be given for information leading to the return of twenty-five

video cassettes and/or a video camera with an apparatus. With those people with any before

knowledge or knowledge of the theft of a black camera case at the upper end of the main street

where the minibus collects passengers please telephone either radio Kukes or radio television.”

And there we left the telephone number.

plaster, and strewn dirty blankets on the floors. The Albanians are stealing from everyone, even their

cousins and even the Kosovars.

Armeil’s daughter had witnessed the theft of the camera and tapes. Five teenage boys had been

talking and one raced from behind their group to snatch it while I was not looking. With my flu my

concentration has not momentarily lapsed but continuously.

Often when I am in an alien and hostile environment every move is an exhausting challenge. The

shelling, trying to give to people who need, while simultaneously others are stealing with the other hand.

How can I possibly give when everyone is stealing from us? How can I be generous when everyone wants?

When everyone is drowning they will drown us with them.

Armeil’s daughter had witnessed the theft but she was only five years of age.

Firouz red faced and breathing hard returned with a bemused Albanian, Mr Plod, the policeman. They

were both talking and gesticulating, breathing hard. He was in khaki fatigues and gave us the complacent

knowledge that under his fatherly guidance the stolen goods would be returned immediately.

He was happily prescribing aspirin for cancer. And the patient was already dead. Needing a resurrection, I

had to develop a game plan. I decided that our departure for Macedonia was to be postponed. To the widows

apartment we returned with our bags minus one, stone-faced and numb. The widow was out and only that

evening where we able to communicate to her, or rather she could finally ascertain the greatness of our

misfortune.

I exclaim: ‘So we…I’ve just lost , ah, 15 hours of video tape.’

Back at the ‘America Bar’ feeling crumpled and disheveled, the PR girl from one of the Kukes papers…with

her slash of lipstick and a Turkish wisp to her countenance translated a document which we were to place on

the radio and television:


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

“A reward of $500 US dollars will be given for

information leading to the return of twenty-five video

cassettes and/or a video camera with an apparatus.

With those people with any before knowledge or

knowledge of the theft of a black camera case at

the upper end of the main street where the minibus

collects passengers please telephone either radio

Kukes or radio television.” And there we left the

telephone number.

We printed the text up on a broken old Olivetti

and Xeroxed a hundred copies which we sticky

taped to lamp posts, dilapidated kiosks, pine trees

and broken avenues. Hordes of children follow us

while the pieces of paper had a shelf life of four

hours before being dismembered, torn into two by

agitated hands and thrown to the wind.

It is almost like a white ant which goes through

the wood work of a building within days. Here

everything is eaten

including pieces of

paper stuck on walls.

The television

advertisement about

the reward was

announced three

times. We went to

the radio station,

Zhana was there as

we explained our

plight. Her hands

lifted up in despair: ‘Oh Albania. It is an old and

sorry story’.

We were attempting to illegally negotiate with the

thieves. In another world with laws and enforcement

this would have been unacceptable but here in a

country of insanity, lawlessness and war only the

path of insanity can be followed. So if we could get

the footage returned through financial inducement

well and good.

We had US$1,500 dollars left. That was all. That

day we heard about the journalist from Finland

who had been abducted by the Serbs at the Morine

border. He had strayed too close to the border

crossing and had been snatched. And it was that

day that I heard from Ardian that our surrogate

friend Ezerum, a bony businessman with dopey

eyes and a fluffed pate, was attempting to squeeze

US$20 dollars per night from the widow from our

stay. He was always trying to talk with us but he had

no English, so he was like an old canine mongrel

without teeth who could not get his bone; he could

not even suck on it for that matter.

As we crossed the street numb and dejected and

clumsily stuck the reward poster to walls, to dead

trees, to pine trees to derelict kiosks the thieves

were laughing. I’m sure it was so obvious to them

because they knew the city, they knew what we

were doing and they were just laughing away.

At 7.15 we returned home after having

completed as many leaflet drops as humanly possible

and at 9.00 pm the widow raced in to our bedroom

to say that it had been announced on television that

the bag had been found.

This was not to be the case. We ran on foot

breathless across town to the television station;

climbed the ceramic stair well to the second floor of

the Television Station Kukes which was the size of a

scout hall with a corridor. I strode straight through

the centre, a dozen rooms placed either side of a

corridor to greet a man in a grey camera vest. The

cameraman from Kukes TV who had been at the

concert and photographed the concert proceeded

(but his English was minimal) to help us negotiate

with the thieves. They had telephone 45 minutes

before to say that they had the bag. They were in

command of the situation; they had what we needed

and they were not

going to expose

As we crossed the street

numb and dejected and

clumsily stuck the reward

poster to walls, to dead

trees, to pine trees to

derelict kiosks the thieves

were laughing.

themselves to an

arrest.

Firouz’s

remarked: ‘I would

not be surprised if

the thieves were

the police who had

already requisitioned

the stolen goods and

were deciding to

make a profit or make a little pocket money.’

So we sat down ejected and exhausted even

before anything had happened. We knew it was

going to be a long night. We sat in the director’s

office waiting for the telephone to ring. It rang,

and then it rang, and then it rang. The information

relayed backwards and forwards. It was like a

kidnapped child was held hostage and the child was

being negotiated and ransomed off.

The most important point was not to retrieve

the camera equipment but to return the video

footage of the event. The footage contained the

concert, interviews with the refugees, and important

declarations about human rights abuses if not

genocide. I was hoping that by regaining it we could

use it as a tool to bring people’s attention to this

titanic tragedy that was surrounding us.

We were now another victim of this tragedy. But

we may have lost the camera but we had not lost our

homes or our lives.

Ermine (and I will get his full name later) was a

sweet, slightly glaucous-eyed, and heavily pigmented

cameraman for television Kukes. He used to

complain that as a poor cameraman from Kukes TV

his tool was a bad clumsy VHS Panasonic to film, but

it was his respect or camaraderie with Firouz that

made him decide to help us.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

He pleaded: ‘Look, I have a wife and children. Do

what you have to, but there is no point in killing me

for a dumb camera.’

I followed him into the television room where

he just slumped down and explained how he

thought they were going to kill him and retain

both the money and video.

Maybe he was naïve and inexperienced or

maybe he did not know the full consequences

what was about to happen. None of us did. He was

dressed in black corduroy trousers and a slightly

grubby woolen jumper and like all journalists or

surrogate journalists he had that ubiquitous canvas

photographers vest with the multiple pockets. As I

said even the bar men at the ‘America Bar’ had one.

As I dictate this I think Firouz is sleeping

upstairs.

The sun had set setting and twilight was turning

to velveteen darkness. We waited in the Kukes

television station on the second floor, pacing

the aisles backwards and forwards that evening.

The telephone calls ricocheted backwards and

forth. Our demand was US$500 in return for the

videocassettes. Ermine negotiated as he spoke with

the thieves on the phone. They said they would

return everything and that Ermine would act as

the courier and they would pick him up and take

him to an undisclosed destination. He was to meet

them at a particular place drop off, the tourist hotel

at the end of the city, on an isolated promontory

surrounded by two lakes. The area was the bygone

era of the Albania communism. As my friend Brian

Webster said: ‘if you look at this area it is almost as

if hell has returned and has risen into heaven. The

French Rivera could be placed here and the beauty

would be the same.’

But here there was only “the tourist hotel”.

It was finally agreed that Ermine would meet

these unknown people in the car park after which

they would all to drive to a derelict sports stadium.

There he would pay the money and they would hand

over the goods. In theory it seemed negotiable.

Finally it was negotiated that US$1,300 was all

we could pay for the return of all the video cassettes

and the camera. This left us with only a few hundred

dollars. Ermine went out with the money, stuffing

it in the sock on his left foot, and returned an hour

later with the bag. But he did not return with the

tapes and that was not what we wanted. He came

back looking bedraggled and the telephone rang

again and he went out a second time to pick up the

tapes and that is when it all went side ways.

Five and a half hours had passed since he left the

first time. I paced backwards and forwards along the

aisles of this small TV station. He had not returned.

Something had gone very wrong. It was 4.25 in

the morning and there he was as the bottom of the

stairs of the station. He had left looking like Rambo

shouting as he left: ‘Don’t worry everybody knows

me in Kukes…No one would ever hurt me.’

He returned a shadow of that former self,

dragging himself into the editing room. It was 4.27

am. Dazed and traumatised with his balding head

in his trembling hands, sweat on his face yet it was

the middle of the night and cold, slumped over the

table staring at the ashtray. In front and above him

multiple television screens of monitors projected a

montage of shots of refugees, and news reportage

while badly made laundry advertisements flickered.

He sat there stunned by these recent circumstances.

I went over and gently placed my hands on his


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Thieves: “Hold it well... they are English... I don’t

know how... who has it?... Hide it... cover it well,

so no one can see it... It will cost $500... hide it...

should I take this? No, no, no... yes, yes.”

shoulders but he didn’t notice me.

The second time he returned with the tapes six were missing. But we had the body of tapes. And as it

turned out the missing footage contained two and a half hours of the concert and another four hours of footage

that we shot around the period of our stay.

Ermin had done his best. He was in a state of shock. They, the thieves, upon picking him up had been

wearing black balaclavas and all he could see was their arms. At that stage when he went the second time he

had underestimated the situation.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

I followed him into the television room where he just slumped down and explained how he thought they

were going to kill him and retain both the money and video. For some reason the second time he returned

everything turned furious and nasty. He did not know why but they announced rather mater-of-factly that they

were going to kill him. As it was, they didn’t.

He pleaded: ‘Look, I have a wife and children. Do what you have to, but there is no point in killing me for a

dumb camera.’

We are tired, fatigued and it had been a long, exhausting and bad day. Our hope was that the next day we

could put another radio or television message to the crooks, that we could do something so that we could get

the rest of the footage back, but alas it was not to be the case.

What could we do? We were hoping that the people were going to reply but since they had their money,

since they had everything there was no reason for them to reply. All they had to do was get the fuck out of

there.

(NOTE: Three months after our return to Australia I was going through the video footage of the

returned tapes. One of the tapes towards the last minute was completely black. Up until now it had

remained undetected. With a VX1000 camera even if the lens cap is on but the lock on the trigger is off

it can if film without anyone realising it. The thieves must have hit the film button and even though

nothing was filmed their voices were recorded. So the Albanian thieves recorded themselves as a final

performance, by pressing the record button as they were going through the tapes.

Thieves: “Hold it well... they are English... I don’t know how... who has it?... Hide it... cover it well, so no one can see it... It will cost

$500... hide it... should I take this? No, no, no... yes, yes.”

Tuesday, 11th May, 1999, Kukes, Albania

After a series of written communiqués to the UNHCR, we received a document to grant us free passage on

the helicopter back to Tirana. Because the videotapes for the concert had been lost we collected two tapes from

Ermine, one was from the television Kukes, and another one was from the radio station which recorded the film

footage. As we left Firouz filmed the departure by helicopter. Ardian at times kindly helped us, as did this little

boy called Balbeon, even though we had no money to pay anybody.

I said a few brief goodbye to the refugees: ‘I wish you every success, bon chance. I hope that the future is a

lot happier than the present. God willing you can go back to your homes.’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

A few vintage CNN people were waiting with us. One

was an Australian who behind the ray ban sunglasses

seemed a million years old and had been with CNN

as a freelance editor and cameraman.

There was one family of

people there: a father with

a big jaw and his wife who

kept on wiping tears back.

‘Peace…our homes are probably burned.’

‘Well, even if your homes are burned, then at

least you have the earth to build on. And I know

there will be many scars and those scars will take a

while to heal.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Good luck, and good bye.’

We have decided to return home tomorrow,

which will be Wednesday—well home, could you

call it home—Tirana. I telephoned Arben but he was

not to be found and it was a weird thing.

Wednesday, 12th May 1999, Kukes

to Tirana

Today is Wednesday and we have taken the

flight from Kukes to Tirana by helicopter. Firouz

filmed the helicopter coming down to pick us up

and the refugees that were waiting. There was

one family of people there: a father with a big jaw

and his wife who kept on wiping tears back. There

was also a son who looked almost like the father.

They were dressed in new clean pressed clothes.

The son in denims. Not fashionable. Baggy. I could

see the trepidation they had in leaving here and

beginning the first tentative steps of migration to a

new world—a new environment. It was difficult for

them to encompass. The unknown can be a difficult

experience and these people were stepping into

it. A few vintage CNN people were waiting with

us. One was an Australian who behind the Rayban

sunglasses seemed a million years old and had been

with CNN as a freelance editor and cameraman.

I asked him whether we were leaving at 10.00 to

return to Tirana, and he said: ‘No.’

Then I asked ‘Well it is 11.00?’ and he said to me

in a really defensive way:

‘You could ask me whether it is 12.00, 1.00 or

2.00 and I will say I don’t know.’

But when it came to actually departing he ended

by being very, shall we say, solicitous when I offered


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

I have forgiven Bashkim, in that the big picture was that

there had been a concert and I had helped, as had he.

Whenever I see a pair of

Nike sandshoes or Adidas

tracksuits, or any tracksuit in

nylex or dacron or a synthetic

shiny fabric, I will think of the

people of Kosovo.

to help him carry one of the camera cases which was

too heavy for him to carry on his own.

We made a series of aerial shots that Firouz

filmed which we may use in the film. The helicopter

flight was for UNHCR personnel and free for

journalists, although all the journalists are to take

the last position. Aid workers, refugees or military

personnel are priority one. We were priority seven

or six. It was still an adventure, and seeing the town

from the air as we ascended it was curious gazing

down and viewing the dappled topography of Kukes

which appeared as if a virus had infected the rocks,

the stone and parching the leaves. An epidemic had

passed through this countryside and consumed it in

one fell swoop. We are passing a town from the air

appears as if it is pockmarked by scars. All the parks

have been demolished, the pine trees razed, the

rodents have been burrowing, and where there was

once grass and park benches are excrement. One of

my memories of Kukes will be the inordinate amount

of excrement that littered everywhere, its sidewalks,

roads, and halls…

As in some camps we only saw eight latrines and

in the city of Kukes itself there was only twelve built

by the Red Cross. Near the Cultural Centre where

we erected the billboard there was shit everywhere;

every fifteen, twelve, or three feet there would be a

human turd that was sitting caked.

I will always think of the expression of the

refugees of dejection, a traumatic, comatose

numbness. Whenever I see a pair of Nike sandshoes

or Adidas tracksuits, or any tracksuit in nylex or

dacron or a synthetic shiny fabric, I will think of

the people of Kosovo. When I arrived in Kukes I got

the flu and when I left the flu seemed to recede. It

is as if I had taken on the sickness of the place and

the sickness of all the people around me. I know it

sounds ridiculous and its only a thought. We carry

the problems of the people. Every event that we

did participated in me feel terrible, and the longer I

remained there the worse I got and that was the way

it is. I gazed out from the helicopter porthole and the

sound was so throbbing that the passing landscape

numbed me.

My thoughts still returning to Kukes. There was

disparity between the position of the journalist

compared with the refugees. The powerful are the

technocrats. Every journalist, every aid worker

is walking with a satellite phone, mobile phone,

walkie talkie, video camera, camera, digital watch,

ray bands, country road sneakers, smart Adidas

tracksuits, while the refugees have nothing. At the

last press conference Ray was speaking of the safari

tourist, the journalists who pay a thousand dollars

a day to tour with the KLA (Kosovo Liberation

Army) as disaster tourists travelling through the war

torn areas on the other side of the border to view

the people protected by the KLA. I have forgiven

Bashkim, in that the big picture was that there had

been a concert and I had helped, as had he.

At 10.16 the helicopter touches down at the

Tirana airport which has been requisitioned for

NATO airspace. Inside the Russian-built helicopter


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

There were no tears leaving here but the sadness was for Kukes and the

people we would leave behind there.

‘Well guys say goodbye to Albania; say goodbye to Tirana.’

Dieter, the German cameraman

from Munich PBS, had said to

me in his dreams he was living

in Kukes. In his dreams he was

returning to be with the people…

cabin everything is screwed down and looked basic with all the electrical wiring, like an animal, with arteries

and veins exposed to the air.

A dead pan hostile driver drove us into Tirana, and of course we negotiated the price with the commission

guy who had found it for us, and then upon our arrival outside Bennys there was the usual misunderstanding.

Diplomatic speak for being ripped off. I immediately jumped out of the car and fled to Arben’s apartment hoping

that he would be there. He was not there and he did not know of our arrival. We were not expected. I even tried

to telephone him last night but because of the nature of the city with one hundred thousand people and twelve

telephone booths it is an impossible question with no likely answer. Like the rats on the sinking Titanic making

a phone call in Kukes is futile. Just enjoy the sea and its debris and don’t get sucked in.

Peaking through the half opened door Arben looked despondent when he saw us. Before we had departed

the last time Firouz had convinced him that he would grant us one free night’s accommodation. So when we

appeared on the doorstep bedraggled and unkempt his face fell like a Russian lift. He had to acknowledge that

out of friendship he would help us. It was only a couple of hours later that we told him that was not the case,

and that we were willing to pay our way. He was not to worry.

We spent the last night with Arben, but I can’t even remember whether we went out for dinner or not.

Tirana was the same. It had not changed. But we had. We did some steady camera shots through a hundred of

the thousand bars in the city. In Tirana as we wandered about, and it is like Russia or Papua New Guinea where

the woman work. We pass these women who are digging in the parks. It is not the men—the men merely sit

in cafés, flicking their beads, staring at the passing traffic; at the world going by—or they have the honorable

profession of money changers. Tele-bingo is also big here.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Why is it that we can only

measure a tree when it is cut

down? Why is it that the value of

human life can only be measured

once it is dead? This diary is not

about the good side, or the bad

side but about the pricelessness of

human life, when it is alive.

Thursday, 13th May, 1999, Tirana

– Pogradec – Ohrid – Macedonia

We bid Benny adieu and the following morning

we caught a taxi and travelled to Progradec (the

town on the border of Macedonia) by minibus and

then from Progradec we crossed the border on a

NATO carrier full of English soldiers which took us

the rest of the way from the border to Ohrid which is

on the lake.

A woman who had accompanied us to the

minibus with Arben had said:

‘Well guys say goodbye to Albania; say goodbye

to Tirana.’

Once we had begun the trip to Macedonia

we passed the massive river which goes through

the centre of Tirana but it seemed more like an

overgrown sewerage viaduct. There were no tears

leaving here but the sadness was for Kukes and the

people we would leave behind there.

I am speaking aloud in the bus: ‘Goodbye Tirana,

goodbye Albania; Goodbye Kukes.’ We are leaving.

I still have not caught up with my journal. We are

going down the main street and we can see bulbous

pines.

I am thinking about Kukes and my mind is

wandering back to that isolated place. The road

from the Kosovo border which weaves its way up

into the hill country until we arrive at an a isolated

pocket, originally of 12,000 and now 120,000 people,

sandwiched between this winding, dangerous road

and a border which is closed, and yet the only entry

as an exit for the refugees of Kosovo.

And we did it…. that’s it…good bye Albania…

But this journey is not finished. Nothing is ever

finished, there can never be an end because life

merely changes. Somebody dies and then another

else is born, life goes on...so this diary continues.

Why is it that we can only measure a tree when it

is cut down? Why is it that the value of human life

can only be measured once it is dead? This diary is

not about the good side, or the bad side but about

the pricelessness of human life, when it is alive.

But I cannot give people the answers, I can only

pose the questions. For me a humanitarian war

sounds like a contradiction in terms: how can moral

indignation punish the punisher with the same

violence the criminal has first inflicted others with.

Do we collectively punish a nation, when some are

innocent? Do we bulldoze a house and leave the

children homeless, because the father is a murderer?

The lesson is not only for justice to be sought, but

for forgiveness to be found. The lesson is for those

who use violence and war as a means of solving

political and national problem cannot know peace in

their hearts, they do it because of the disease of fear.

We only just succeeded given what happened…

Dieter, the German cameraman from Munich PBS,

had said to me in his dreams he was living in Kukes.

In his dreams he was returning to be with the

people…

We sat on the bus beside a young seventeen-


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

year-old girl who was able to speak a smattering of English. At a truck stop

restaurant en route to the border beside a rushing babbling river we talked

with her and discovered as she limped that she had had polio and was

selling dentistry She was a very sweet, gentle girl with flashing green eyes.

Firouz was particularly sweet to her and showed his charm in a gentlemanly

way.

Crossing from Albania to Macedonia, an unknown unnamed Frenchman

who refused to give us his name raced up to us and said: ‘Are you press?’

I replied: ‘Sometimes we are, sometimes we are not, but anyhow, today,

we are press’.

And he said: ‘Look, there is this humanitarian aid which is backed up; it

cannot get through from Macedonia to Albania. The authorities will not permit it.’

I looked across at the other side of the checkpoint. There were twenty-five to forty convoys of trucks that

had travelled via Bulgaria and Romania through to Macedonia on the way to Albania. They were stopped at the

border. The Macedonian authorities would not let them through. At the border we explained: ‘We will try and do

something and get the names of those responsible.’ We passed through the border control and some man asked

us to scribble down what particular equipment we had and then that was it.

We are finally and at last in green and domestic Macedonia. Even the crisp pure air smelled different. A

NATO commander unofficially gave us a forty minute ride in the three group convoy from the border to Ohrid.

We sat in the back of a jeep abut were not permitted to take photographs of any of the radio equipment. The

soldiers, two corporals and a sergeant with expletives running wild continuously programmed us full of verbal

assaults on every Macedonian woman that the jeep convoy passed: ‘If she old enough to put her feet on the floor

when she has a shit she is old enough to get fucked’.

They explained that sometimes people here are throwing stones at the van because of their antipathy to

NATO. The van, like an IDF jeep, had grills over the front windows.

They deposited us in Ohrid and the guide book explains that Ohrid is a cultural, spiritual and tourist centre

while both Ohrid and Lake Ohrid have been named a world cultural and natural heritage listed city under the

protection of UNESCO since 1980. We soon negotiated with some taxi drivers but they refused to drive us to the

capital so we ended by staying in Ohrid in one of an old but vast Soviet-style hotels. Firouz and I then went for a

walk down on the beach.

Ohrid, a border town, was one of the Soviet ‘riveria’ destinations for the Soviet nomenklature and elite. Now

a holiday resort, it is deserted. A few kids are riding past on bikes, eating ice cream. The sun is setting and we

witness here a sudden transition from apocalypse and decay to a warm and waning comfort, not opulence but

comfort. Everything now seems secure once we are across the border. The greenery is green, the trees and the

poplar trees are of rhythmically dancing in the wind.

‘Firouz, how would you describe Ohrid?’

‘A place for ex-communists, leaders to come together and have a good time, and of course to spend

somebody else’s money.’

In the hotel the lifts did not work; there are big plastic bauble lights with chrome chassised freeform

structures. The glass cases on the second floor were very intricate wood work. The lifts which did not work, and

a sleepy publican is sitting there, nodding off every so often as he takes the people’s money.

Firouz has just interjected that the NATO truck driver indicated I was posing too many questions: if they

were able to go on leave, whether they could fraternise with the natives, whether they were capable of going

outside of the compound. When they were free they could not visit the town and it was only the little children in

the street that they spoke to.

Here in Ohrid there are manicured lawns, looking out onto quiet endlessly filled lakes, children babbling with

laughter and a gardener clipping roses, Macedonians are strolling with ice creams.

The sounds of the soldiers still echoing in my ears. One soldier, was bending down saying: ‘Boy you travel

light don’t you?’ looking at our cascade of goods.

‘The fucking Macedonians don’t give us a break; we have to be attentive to their every move.’

He continued: ‘Sometimes I think that they think that we are the enemy. The way she looked at me you think

she would want to fuck me.’

The hotel foyer is now empty while in this ghost resort a few strolling residents are appear out of place. It

is as if the place should have been isolated and kept as a sanitarium with a concierge and chefs. We pass by the

kitchen and there is a Soviet-style kitchen, and dwarfed by the architecture, two small Macedonians working in

front of the oven.

It is a really welcome relief to be in a new environment after the strains of Albania. To step into Macedonia is

a welcome respite.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

A friend of the man in the hotel from

Slovenia sits here every day waiting for

his truck to be released because he had

the wrong documents and now he has to

pay five thousand deutschmarks.

...we found a location called the

Ambassador Hotel in the capital, Skopje,

with white ugly sculptures of the Statue of

Liberty, and we settled for this place.

The painful past is being

washed and cleansed from

us. We attempt to regain

composure; feeling half

starved and drained by the

experience of Albania. It is

funny, that although it was

a rich experience and we

achieved a lot, it left us,

because of the events that

happened, drained by its

drama death and tragedy.

The painful past is being washed and cleansed

from us. We attempt to regain composure; feeling

half starved and drained by the experience of

Albania. It is funny, that although it was a rich

experience and we achieved a lot, it left us, because

of the events that happened, drained by its drama

death and tragedy.

In Ohrid, a lonely and solitary winter hotel,

we paced its floors momentarily and then at six

in the morning took a bus to Skopje, the capital

of Macedonia. On the way on the bus there was

a woman behind us who kept on flashing almond

eyes, and we began talking to her after a side stop,

and she asks us where we were from.

Explaining she was from Kosovo she mentioned

that her husband was an actor and that her name

was Valbona Istrefa. We would be most welcome

guests if we attended the Doma Cultura in Titova—

the House of Culture in Titova. Precisely that

evening would be a performance by the Dodogne, a

Theatre of Exile, a Kosovar theatre troupe, would

perform Vaclav Havel’s Audienca.

She was tall, graceful, and with a child of twoand-a-half

years of age. We should come and see the

actors at work.

She left us at Titova while the bus continued to

Skopje. We had a disoriented morning wandering

from hotel to hostel, from one star to five to three

star in search of accommodation, feeling like Joseph

and Mary in Nazareth. We had two hundred dollars

cash to our name, and another week to continue

this journey. Everything was booked out. After

visiting seven hotels, all not taking credit cards, our

tight budget was feeling emaciated because of the

loss of the one thousand dollars.

After having been to the Continental, the

Palace Hotel and the Macedonian Hotel we found a

location called the Ambassador Hotel in the capital,

Skopje, with white ugly sculptures of the Statue of

Liberty, and we settled for this place. It was close

to the Russian Embassy in the centre of town, and

half-bleary-eyed from eight hours on a bus we took

another bus to Titova and to set up the cameras to


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Here in Macedonia

people don’t wear

helmets on motorcycles;

they don’t use seatbelts

when they drive, and the

prices change for a cup

of coffee every day.

It was a play called Audienca by the current Czech

Prime Minister, Vaclav Havel about a brewery where

the officer of the brewery and one of his workmates

proceed to get drunk.

film the theatre performance.

It was a play called Audienca by the current

Czech Prime Minister, Vaclav Havel about a brewery

where the officer of the brewery and one of his

workmates proceed to get drunk.

Although I could not understand it I told

Valbona’s husband that his hand movements were so

fluent and fluid that they themselves articulated the

nature of the story to me.

It reminds me of the Cherry Orchard which I

saw in Russia with Alicia, a beautiful young Russian

friend some four years ago. Again it was in Russian. I

sat through it blind to its contents, piecing together

snippets. There were milk crates everywhere. It was

a good play but it was not a great play, but under the

circumstances it was exciting to see people in exile

doing this performance.

The actress Vanessa Redgrave was present at the

performance in the audience and she spoke about

the Red Lantern Club, a theatrical group composed

of a small group of immigrant Russian Jews who

were forced to flee as refugees from Vienna to

London at the beginning if the second world war.

They organised Sunday evening performances at

her father Sir Robert Redgrave to a select group of

people in an attempt to keep their creative candles

or fires burning. Vanessa Redgrave likened the

Dodogne theatre to this club. She was very effusive

and looked a little older, but the years had been kind

to her and she younger than what I would imagine

her age to be.

At the end of the talk she was given a standing

ovation with applause and again I felt that were they

giving her the ovation for what she said? Or for what

she represented? I can recommend her spirit and

her humanity and gesture of intent to these people.

Firouz was angry at me for the umpteenth time,

because I was too shy to speak to Vanessa Redgrave

for the sake of the film. That was the long and the

short of it.

The situation was one whereby I did not feel

it necessary and perhaps because of the state of

fatigue that day. The fact that we had very little

money and we could not find a hotel to check into

was instrumental in our anxiety.

Sometimes I think Firouz fails to realise that

his anger precipitates situations which are in

direct response of that anger. It is almost as if he is

unhappy about a situation and then the unhappiness

instigates further chaos. He is his own worst enemy

and that his own anger has been a pivotal force.

Saturday, 15th May, 1999, Skopje,

Macedonia, The Ambassador Hotel

We are in Macedonia and there is music in the

background singing and it is another day. I am

explaining to Firouz that the service industry here

serve us here with unhappiness and whether it is

genuine or they are taught to be so it is unfortunate.

They are taught here not to give.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Three Albanians were severely maimed, one lost his leg in the car bomb.

There was the customary

blood stain mixed with oil

slick , cracked glass and a sad

disheveled leather jacket lying

on the seat of the car.

It is 7.00am in the morning, breakfast time in some over-hung place. People are having spirits for breakfast

and the continental breakfast menu is one where I have to pay for the coffee but receive the milk free. The next

day when we appear there is no milk and no responsibility for that. In a country where everybody is insane

one sane suggestion is seen as insanity. In a country where there is no tax, everybody has to make their own

particular tax.

Here in Macedonia people don’t wear helmets on motorcycles; they don’t use seatbelts when they drive, and

the prices change for a cup of coffee every day. The Macedonians have lost their identity and cannot find a new

one. There is nothing different between here and Tirana except more buildings. No buildings have been built

here for the last eight years.

A friend of the man in the hotel from Slovenia sits here every day waiting for his truck to be released

because he had the wrong documents and now he has to pay five thousand deutschmarks. It is like the coffee—

the prices change every hour.

Macedonia is not a like a country with an identity but rather, sandwiched between Serbia, Albania, Kosovo,

Greece and Romania it is a mixture of all. And therefore difficult for them to find their identity. The same

occurs in Gaza. There is one dictator so every soldier at every checkpoint or every shop becomes the little

mini-dictators. I have also noticed is that it is chic here for women to chew gum. At a restaurant the other night

this woman in the middle of a débutant or graduation night with streamers and flowers, is sitting at the table

chewing gum and blowing bubbles.

Firouz brought thirty thousand Albanian lec (in Albanian currency it was about thirty-five dollars) across

the border and the people here can not look at five thousand lec. They require that the Albanian currency be

changed into their own. Firouz would bring to the exchange places and they would look as if he had leprosy

or the black plague, pushing him out of the shop saying ‘No, we don’t take that’. Not a simple ‘No, we have

problems with Albania’—an emotional disdain.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Wednesday, 19th May 1999, Skopje,

Macedonia

On Wednesday, the 19th of May, about three

in the afternoon as we had just been crossing a

badly painted zebra crossing to the centre there

was a loud explosion four hundred metres away.

Three Albanians were severely maimed, one lost

his leg in the car bomb. The area was cordoned

off and we went directly to view the carnage like

pathetic journalists. I said on camera: ‘Well, eighteen

months ago at Ben Yehuda mall in Jerusalem we

had something similar to this, but in that instance,

a lot more people were killed. Its all the same, it’s

the same horror, the same suffering and it just goes

on and on and on. More blood for more journalists.

I don’t know nobody knows, if it really was a Serb

attack and what is it going to prove, its going to

make more chaos and three more maimed people.

Again the press are swarming like flies around a

piece of dead meat. I’m sick of being a journalist.’

I walk away in disgust.

There was the customary blood stain mixed with

oil slick, cracked glass and a sad disheveled leather

jacket lying on the seat of the car. Grime, dust, soot,

shopkeepers wiping up glass, morbid pedestrians

wandering through making someone’s misfortune

their business.

Okay terrorism does not prove anything but nor

will this diary.

We linger for half an hour. War and murder is

a disease, yet

what is the

cure? Why do

we continue to

kill each other?

Why do people

kill their fellow

human beings?

Out of fear for

what another

will do. They

have brutalised

themselves and

made their brothers and sisters into enemies.

The morning we spent at Stankovitz refugee

camp which sits close to the border with Kosovo

interviewing people, shaking hands through the

cyclone wire fence. There does not seem much

we can do now, we have explored every thing, and

filmed every refugee, and that is overkill.

This last week from Saturday to now was a week

where although we had little money, we visited the

camps Stankovitz One and Two refugee camps, run

by the Macedonian government fifteen kilometres

out of Skopje.

The camps held a refugee force of fifteen

thousand. They are closed camps and are more

organised than the ones in Kukes, Albania, and here

the quality of existence is higher, but I can see that

they have a strength and energy. They are fresh and

that freshness has not been squeezed from them.

Another six months and that freshness will have

been.

We visited the camp Stankovitz One on three

occasions. The people there are mostly refugees

from Prizren fifty kilometers away. There was not

the same drama or despair. Many of them came by

train, many were urban and more sophisticated.

It is difficult to separate those who were Kosovar

refugees from their fellow countryman in the centre

of Skopje.

For example

when we were going

on the bus to see

the performance

at Titova a group

of girls started

talking to us and

explained that they

were refugees from

Prizren. It was a case

that we could not

differentiate between them, the Kosovar refugees

and their fellow countryman.

We approached the head of the Catholic relief

services (who are the controlling officials of

Stankovitz One) and requested that the billboards

be put on the aircraft hanger, but after much

waiting, I think we waiting from one to four to speak

to a Mr Ed who was the camp commandant, we left

without any meeting or conference. The next day

a man called Daniel Keller told us that our request

had been put before their tribunal and assessed,

and denied. Their reasons were that there were too

many pressures, and a peace statement would be

misunderstood. I was not exactly certain why, but

that seemed to be the case.

Stankovitz One and Two, are two refugee camps

built on a dilapidated and disused aerodrome. They

are enclosed by barbed wire and cyclone fences. Not

even the local residents can enter, just the press,

and NGOs, and humanitarian organisations.

The geography of the camp is very different

to the one in Kukes where the people in the tents

can mingle and enter. Here it is separate. It is selfcontained

and the aid organisations are all in an

enclave, whereas in Kukes each of the particular

organisations or countries had set up their own

separate camps; whether it be the Greeks, United

Arab Emirates, or the Italian camp. I believe there

was a CARE section run by a man called Brian

Webster.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

An American photographer was speaking: ‘We have

to push, push, push. Shoot, shoot, shoot. We can’t

waste a second.

This last week from Saturday to now was a week where although we had little

money, we visited the camps Stankovitz One and Two refugee camps, run by

the Macedonian government fifteen kilometres out of Skopje.

...a man called Daniel Keller told us that our request

had been put before their tribunal and assessed,

and denied. Their reasons were that there were too

many pressures, and a peace statement would be

misunderstood.

It is today Wednesday that I sat and drew pictures for the children; portraits and children in queues wanting

to have their pictures taken.

Mr Ed seemed had taken the wind out of our sails, but because we had succeeded quite successfully once

in Kukes, there seemed to be less of a desire on our behalf to instigate a second showing of the billboard.

I realised because of the limitations of finances we are unable to do anything more than an erection of the

billboard, and my priorities lay more in doing something in Serbia and Belgrade and taking the billboard to yet

another refugee camp.

We had coffee in tent C111 with a doctor of anesthetics and a meeting with a gentleman who had been a

contender for the Minister for Health or deputy Minister for Health in one of the elections three years ago in

Kosovo and now he was simply another refugee whose girlfriend had to go out and find some tea for us. He

seemed agitated and his head would flip from side to side in a buzzing seesaw-like motion. Forty-five years of

age, small build, again olive complexion, salt and pepper stubble, and a grandmother who spoke Turkish.

Here at Stankovitz One and Two there are bigger tents, more space, carpets, great blankets—horse hair type

as carpet on the floors.

The Macedonian experience is more sedate and less prominent than Albania, which was a roller coaster

visually, metaphorically, and in all ways.

I awoke early one morning to film refugees departing by buses for Australia but we did not have appropriate

accreditation so we could not enter, and had to film from a distance.

An American photographer was speaking: ‘We have to push, push, push. Shoot, shoot, shoot. We can’t waste

a second. I have been through this before. You come here you don’t have to tell me what I don’t already know.’

We returned one day from the camp in a taxi with Richard who was the humanitarian director of the

American Embassy in Skopje and had moved out of Kosovo. He spoke a fairly articulate Macedonian. Tall,


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

“Yesterday they came. The police told us if we find you in your homes by 12 noon we will

finish you all. And there was nothing left for us to do but run for our lives. Even though my

mother is 90 years old we had to take her with us.”

‘The people keep on coming and there is nothing we can do. We watch them arrive in

droves. Whether it is three thousand, five thousand. I can put up the stupid billboard

but they just keep coming.’

that the only thing that he saw crossing the Morine border returning into

Serbia was a three-legged dog—literally, he said.

thin, and he kept on saying to us ‘I hope your mission is successful’, and he had that bland conservatism that

embassy bureaucrats seem to have.

When we arrived with Richard the American embassy has been closed off because of Serbian

demonstrations. The road leading up to the Embassy is barred.

We also met the Australian embassy contingent at Stankovitz who for some reason or other all have these

white furry beards and look like bushrangers and are all very, very paranoid. Firouz seems to be unable to


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

detect this but they have that wariness, ‘Oh god you

are an Australian citizen, what do you want from

us?’ There seems to be some estranged disdain or

disfavour. There seems something strange going on.

I went to the Macedonian Embassy—correction,

the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Embassy on

Monday. Friday I rang the Embassy in Greece,

who said no they had received no contact from the

Serbian Embassy in Australia and therefore they

could not grant us any visa.

I then went again on Monday to the Serbian

Embassy, it

was actually

off Theodore

Roosevelt

Avenue and

very close to

the American

residence,

strange as it

may seem.

The Embassy

had a high

cyclone reinforced fences, electronic circuitry. I

went through a back door. There was a television

intercom and I explained to them what I wanted and

said I spoke Russian and English then they release

an auto-lock and I entered as the door swung open.

I had to pass through an electronic surveillance

porthole, where there was a weapons check. I then

went behind the Perspex into an empty room,

apricot walls and a brown mahogany veneer which

goes up half way around the wall, and spoke to a

man through a Perspex peep hole for a quarter

of an hour, and he basically said ‘look there is no

possibility only to grant you a visa and the only way

that you can get your visa is through returning to

Australia.’

Ray Wilkinson, the Press Officer for UNHCR,

Kukes, Albania said to me at the press conference

that the only thing that he saw crossing the Morine

border returning into Serbia was a three-legged

dog—literally, he said. All the traffic was coming

across the border from Serbian Kosovo and the

only thing going in the opposite direction was the

three-legged dog. Nothing else. Forty percent of the

people here in Albania are unemployed. The other

thirty percent work in bureaucracy or ministries and

the rest are soldiers. Half the soldiers are police, and

half own bars and this is the sum of the Albanian

economy.

I feel numb, confused and in shock mode because

everything that has happened. The three weeks that

have transpired were a long three weeks and a lot

has been experienced and accomplished but with a

few setbacks.

I am taking my shoes and socks off to let them

breathe. The big calluses rot beneath my feet so

I end up with tender baby feet. I can hear a child

crying and that is haunting.

2.25pm Thursday 20th May, 1999,

Blacho Border Crossing between

Kosovo and Macedonia.

On Thursday, 20 May, we drove to Blacho the

border crossing which abuts onto Macedonia and

filmed another set of refugees crossing from Prizren.

En route to the border the taxi driver explains in

a hysterical aside, that he used to be able to fish in

this area and now look what has happened. These

at the border were mostly urban refugees. They

had been relocated from outside villages and then

transferred from the capital of Kosovo in trains to

the border. Unlike the people from Janqovich and

Prizren who were much more shell shocked and

numb They seemed relatively fresh as opposed to

those who had crossed in Albania who had walked

for days; sometimes incarcerated in houses up to

thirty to forty days. These refugees here in Blacho

were left for about an hour in No-Man’s-Land before

they were taken via shuttle buses to the Blacho

weigh station.

A group

of journalists

including CNN

waited for

their arrival

brandishing

Steinhausers and

video. There was

the Israeli clan

from the youth

movement going

to the border taking photographs of the refugees

crossing with funny little cameras. The girls had

anorak jackets; always bulky and the men fluffy

moustaches.

I stood in the chill spring air on the border and

felt with my thumb and finger the trip wires and

barb and exclaimed: ‘New improved razor wire, just

to take the edge off that skin.’

A journalist behind me requested information:

‘With the numbers increasing steadily day by day,

how many do you think could still be there waiting?’

One official replied: ‘We don’t really have any

idea, but there could be over one hundred thousand,

we know for sure there are tens of thousands.’

The shuttle bus momentarily stopped here in the

DMZ No-Man’s-Land and hydraulic doors opened

with serene whoosh and haggard faces stared out

at us. One old woman explained: ‘We came from

Pristina. The whole family came here safely. God

saved us! It’s a real catastrophe. It can’t get any


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

I stood in the chill spring air on the border and felt with my thumb and finger the trip wires

and barb and exclaimed: ‘New improved razor wire, just to take the edge off that skin.’

One official replied: “We don’t really have any idea,

but there could be over one hundred thousand, we

know for sure there are tens of thousands.”

It makes me sick because we’ve been

here now for a month, nearly five weeks

and we are powerless to do anything.

The shuttle bus momentarily stopped here in the DMZ

No-Man’s-Land and hydraulic doors opened with serene

whoosh and haggard faces stared out at us.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Dominic: ‘...and they would show almost disbelief that they had been living side by side with Serbs for twenty,

twenty-five years. And then one day those Serbs, that were their neighbours, turned against them.’

Illum dolore eu feugiat nulla facilitis ad vero eros et

accususam et lustro odio dignissim qui blandit praeset

lupatum auge duis aplore. Mimimum veniami ex ea con

dolor nisi ut aliquip. Consequat duis autem vel

Willy: “I saw it by myself, with my neighbours what they

were doing, what they did…And I hate them, because

I have to leave my home, my everything and live alone,

start a new life.”

Dominic: ‘I understand why

you hate them, but can hate

dispel hate? Can hate take

away hate.’

Willy: ‘No, I believe in peace.’

It is over and we return from Blacho hitchhiking with stuck out thumbs

and raised arms. A car from CNN passing us slows down then stops

and we are generously chauffeured to the Alexander Hotel with the

driver and the CNN translator who is called Willy.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

The 21st of May and it is Dominic’s

birthday. Not a soul including Firouz

was informed of this fact.

...and so I am sitting by the bags.

There does not seem to be much we

are able to do at the moment. As he

said, from this time forth it will be three

days of travelling back to Australia.

worst. God willing we will return to our homes.’

One other: ‘Yesterday they came. The police told

us if we find you in your homes by 12 noon we will

finish you all. And there was nothing left for us to

do but run for our lives. Even though my mother is

90 years old we had to take her with us.’

I interjected as an aside to the camera: ‘It

makes me sick because we’ve been here now for

a month, nearly five weeks and we are powerless

to do anything. The people keep on coming and

there is nothing we can do. We watch them arrive in

droves. Whether it is three thousand, five thousand.

I can put up the stupid billboard but they just keep

coming.’

It is over and we return from Blacho hitchhiking

with stuck out thumbs and raised arms. A car from

CNN passing us slows down then stops and we are

generously chauffeured to the Alexander Hotel with

the driver and the CNN translator who is called

Willy. Firouz filmed the driver as he digressed about

his personal situation and told us about how he was

in the country all alone, his parents back in Kosovo.

He had a brother in Albania but he was unable to

get his brother across to Macedonia.

He was twenty-one but looked five or six years

older. He said he came to the country Macedonia

with 150 deutschmarks and that was about all that

he had, and yet on the third day he was able to

luckily able to get work as a translator. He lived with

three other men, two of them were employed and

one was not; all from Kosovo. He had approached

the Red Cross but the reply was that their business

was getting refugees to Albania, not getting them

out of Albania to Macedonia. His name was Willy

and he seemed quite discomfited about his other

brother and his brother’s wife and his concern was

no longer for them.

Willy, the translator from CNN: ‘I’m an

interpreter and I’m refugee too.’

Dominic: ‘From Kosova, Pristina or..?’

Willy: ‘Pristina.’


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

There was a nice time when Firouz was filming the waiting at the train

station and it was a slightly, how do you say, emotionally distant, and

then as I was careering through the countryside with my sunglasses on

and the countryside passing refl ected on the sunglasses.

I began to explain to him what we had just

completed omitting the events about the thieves.

Dominic: ‘It was interesting when Ardian our

translator in Kukes spoke to me, he said, “because

we had a message that we brought to Kukes….”.

and he said to me: “Take that message to the

Serbian people, because they need that message

about war, more than the people of Kosova. All the

people of Kosova have suffered enough.” I think

many experiences that we had in Kukes, from the

refugees was that they would say….and they would

show almost disbelief that they had been living side

by side with Serbs for twenty, twenty-five years.

And then one day those Serbs, that were their

neighbours, turned against them.’

Willy: ‘I saw it by myself, with my neighbours

what they were doing, what they did…And I

hate them, because I have to leave my home, my

everything and live alone, start a new life.’

Dominic: ‘I understand why you hate them, but

can hate dispel hate? Can hate take away hate.’

Willy: ‘No, I believe in peace.’

Friday, 21st May, 1999, Skopje,

Macedonia

The 21st of May and it is Dominic’s birthday. Not

a soul including Firouz was informed of this fact. It

was a quiet day; I woke in the Macedonia Hostel and

it took forty minutes before I haphazardly scribbled

down a date and it dawned upon me that this is

my birthday. My birthdays have always remained

forgotten. It is strange. The only one I truly

remember was in Moscow 1994 when Sergei Ritas

quasi-sweet but quasi-mafia boyfriend turned to me

and said in front of the ruins of our burnt-out home:

‘Happy Birthday…’.

I remember that one. Perhaps because I have

never wanted to make a big issue of them. It has

always been an issue for me to remember them

because in memory they exist on a level where I

am supposed to acknowledge myself with gratitude

and maybe I don’t do that enough. Some emotional

significance might galvanize me into saying this is

my birthday. Today I would rather it be forgotten.

I walked, finished my journal; wandered over the

city; had dinner, and departed for Macedonia on the

train. There was a nice time when Firouz was filming

the waiting at the train station and it was a slightly,

how do you say, emotionally distant, and then as

I was careering through the countryside with my

sunglasses on and the countryside passing reflected

on the sunglasses.

When we arrived at the border to Greece where

there was this woman in purple. I asked for a cup

of flappa and a fat woman from a table got up and

made one, but from behind her, this woman with

deep opalescent beaded eyes gazed at me. Then she

was gone, and that was the day’s specialness.

I am standing in the railway station in Skopje;

it is my birthday and nobody knows; Firouz does


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

If we could see into

the hearts of our

enemies, we would

know only that their

pain, was something

which prevented them

from understanding

the consequences of

their actions.

not know and I have chosen not to tell anybody.

The Slovenian truck driver whose world was turned

upside down a week ago is having his fiftieth on the

31st and he had to get back for it, but I decided to

keep my lips sealed. It is not so important; not so

important at all from where I sit. From where I sit I

can see alpine mountains and little zigzags, Soviet

condominiums, birds scratching their calves in the

midday sun.

Everyone is waiting here; waiting their lives

away. Tonight we travel by train from Skopje to

Thessalonica, and the next morning to Milan then

onto Australia. Firouz is documenting my every

move; people walking up the stairs with back packs

and plastic bags. The train station in Skopje is bereft

of any train. One left forty-five minutes ago, another

maybe in another fifteen. Things are not swinging

here.

After the earthquake in 1961 the Libyan

Government decided to build the train station as

a gift to the people. The telephone building was

donated by the French Government; it has arched

corrugated iron cylinders and a couple of empty

kiosks, it looks like a plastic model you could piece

together like Lego, all painted in a Russian blue.

The last week has transpired as a discolored blur;

bits and pieces assembling them all together, trying

to make it into a whole. But like Humpty Dumpty it

is impossible. They remain as pieces I cannot glue

together. A pair of lovers J-walked past and sit down

as I speak into the dictaphone.

All the escalators in Skopje have decided do not

work. Those in the gift emporium, the ones here

in the railway station, the ones in the bank, every

escalator that exists has ceased to operate.

Today in the Skopje railway station: birthdays

are suppose to be days when I focus on myself, on

my tasks or on my mission. I am burnt out at the

moment; not burnt out, but it will take me a week or

so to sort myself out and get back on track. I need to

do a solid five months work on my painting before I

feel happy. Then I can do other things. We will see

what happens; maybe I will try and edit this film very

quickly so that people can see and understand the

colossal magnitude of the suffering of these people.

I do know that I have to spend more time doing my

own creative work. Even this month has been time

off, it was good, and it was needed, but it was not

really what I wanted to do.

Firouz will film a train arriving and so I am sitting

by the bags. There does not seem to be much we

are able to do at the moment. As he said, from this

time forth it will be three days of travelling back to

Australia. These three days are going to be a long

time even when we have brief pauses for reflection.

It is not a question of reassessment of my life. It

is a question of wanting to finish what I set out to do

and to finish the Millennium, finish the museum,

finish the book of the heart, finish; that seems to be

the word on my lips and it is all just taking so long.

It is an interesting conundrum that I have set myself

up but life has also made it more difficult for me

that’s for sure.

It is not really a question of changing track; it

is more a question of following through and for the

next three years, God willing, doing what I have set

out to do.

Whether what I am doing is pioneering; whether

what I am doing is useless or irrelevant. Today at

one of the camps a woman was talking about how

much she adamantly believed she was able to solve

problems and I am thinking, well, can I solve things?


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

I don’t think I can. When I am so convinced about

what can I do; more often than not I am able to

solve situations.

It is another forty-five minutes before the train

departs.

So we are leaving with a kaleidoscope of tragic

and magnificent and sad and horrific memories and

a job well done but not enough video film because of

what happened along the way. I will now finish this

off. And so we might have lost six hours of video

footage but that is resurrectable and, as Dieter, the

man from the Public Television in Munich, said: ‘I

returned to my home town but I kept on returning

in my dreams to Kukes.’

Sunday, 23rd May, 1999,

Thessalonica, Greece, Hotel Pella

Here in Thessalonica there are a few thoughts

lingering in my mind as I wander through upstairs

at Café Mignon full of the old Greek men sitting

slumped at the tables there with their beads and

their half drunk Greek coffees, but it just came to

me—all they are doing is waiting to die. Time is

passing; time is passing. Time is a wave and they are

not surfing it; they are drowning in this wave.

Tomorrow I must organise our tickets to return

to Australia. American Express seems to be able to

pay the bill; I have paid my bills only just so they

haven’t bounced on me thankfully.

(Note : On the 4 of June, after 71 days, the

Balkan war ended with the capitulation by the

Serbs. It was over and they were all going home,

all of them. But there was always going to be a

part of me I would leave in Albania, and there

was always going to be a part of me that would

remain on the road to hell.

“Look at these people - Is it sad to kill them

and to take out their insides? Is it or isn’t it?”

“We could see for ourselves people dead in the

street.”

After a decade of repression, which

culminated in a three month killing spree

by the Yugoslav army and paramilitary. An

expulsion of more than half the ethnic Albanian

population, most of the Kosova/Albanians were

able to return. Yet for the provinces’ minorities

and especially the Serb and Roman gypsies, as

well as some Albanian collaborators (all political

opponents of the KLA) these changes have

brought fear, uncertainty and in some instances

violence. But the story must finish here. In

seeking to remedy injustice, we must be careful

in doing so, we do not create more injustice. If

we could see into the hearts of our enemies, we

would know only that their pain, was something

which prevented them from understanding the

consequences of their actions. To forgive does

not mean that we ignore what has been done,

but rather we realise the evil within the person

has enslaved them and therefore we know that

to focus on the good is the only way to free

them from their own prison which they have

imprisoned within themselves.


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

And all this happened in the last year of

the twentieth century...


M I N U T E S T O WA R : Picnic in Hell

Minutes to War

The Diary of a Gonzo Diplomat

1. Moscow 1994

2. Sarajevo 1995

3. Israel-Palestine 1997

4. Kosovo-Albania 1999

5. Cyprus 2000

6. Qaliya 2001 - Jerusalem 2002

7. The Peace Project

Seven Diaries by Dominic Ryan

Edited by Christopher Race

Graphic Design by Walter Ochoa -

Leigh Woodburgess - Pat

Photographs by Dominic Ryan - Daniel Rosenthal -

Tycho Sierra - Deaudeaux - Firouz Malekzadeh

-UN forces Cyprus & Madeline Garlick–Tahir Gambis

© Dominic Ryan 2005

This is an inhouse publication for private purposes only.

The Peace Project

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