Designing Kosovo

(an article originally printed in the Sunday October 17, 1999 Bimingham News)

I spent most of September in Kosovo at the invitation of the U.S. Army's 94th Engineer Battalion (Combat Heavy), whose men and women have volunteered much of their precious spare time to help rebuild schools in the American sector. For a decade the children of Kosovo's majority Albanian population were forbidden to attend public schools, so it was hardly surprising that their Serb oppressors would attempt to destroy these schools before fleeing NATO's wrath.

I returned to Birmingham in October to find local politicians preaching and preachers politicking, primarily on the race card. Old enmities die hard, especially where they can be milked for personal gain. The Serbs are still fighting a battle they lost in Kosovo 600 years ago, which is why Slobodan Milosevic remains in power even as his country crumbles around him.

The 94th Engineers and I made good progress on the schools. Each day I visited and photographed a facility that had been adopted by one of the battalion's companies. Using a digital camera enabled me to get photo prints immediately. When I returned to base at night I was able to draw sketches of new design ideas, scan the images and send them via Internet to our network partners in America. Soon, I was far enough along on the school project to attack my secondary objective.

My experiences in Bosnia as director of the Global Network for Rebuilding, a charitable organization located here, led me to expect that urban planners in the Kosovo capital of Pristina would be in extreme need of design assistance. I was anxious to offer a link to corporate providers like ESRI of Redlands, California, who donated mapping software and training to Bosnian planners; to academics like Dr. David Johnson of UT-Knoxville's Department of Urban Planning, who arranged a grant that brought 14 Bosnian engineers to the TVA as observers; and to the many international aid specialists with whom we communicate.

In venturing from Fort Bondsteel to make contact with architects in Pristina I would be beyond the protective umbrella of the Army. But the local workers whom I joined on the bus from camp knew I had volunteered to be there, so they were eager to help me find my way to Pristina.

Before going to Kosovo, I had traveled to New York to meet a refugee architect, Cydim Puko, and his wife Aieda. We had made plans to meet in Pristina, but when I arrived at their house in the Old Town district no one answered my knock on the gate.

Fences and walls bordered the property from the narrow, winding street. I loitered on the sidewalk uneasily until a curious neighbor invited me in. His children spoke English, explaining that Aieda was stuck in London with visa problems but Cydim was at work. He had returned to his old job. Like most ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Cydim had been forced from his profession around the time that the children had been expelled from public schools.

Cydim greeted me like an old friend, and showed me around the capital and nearby towns. The restaurants and cafes of Pristina were peopled with an international cast similar to the ones I had seen in Sarajevo: UN bureaucrats and officials from various aid agencies, correspondents, refugees, a few locals, and of course the shadier types drawn to the legal vacuum. More than one local made a comment I had heard in Bosnia: "This is not my home anymore. I do not know these people who have taken over my city."

Cydim drove me into the countryside to the town of Jackova, where he had designed a hotel interior. We paused along the way to observe the results of NATO air strikes as well as towns that had been destroyed by ethnic cleansing.

There was much devastation, but the pattern of destruction inflicted by NATO was far different from that of the Serbs. The NATO attacks had been astonishingly accurate, targeting only Serb forces and their assets. In Pristina the police headquarters was destroyed by NATO bombs but apartments nearby were not hurt.

Areas that were ethnically cleansed covered much larger spaces. Throughout Kosovo, homes and cities were burned and religious structures destroyed. Jackova's Old Town was torched completely. Not one historic building remained. Several other cities we visited had suffered similar fates. People barely noticed me taking pictures as they tried to clear rubble, starting anew.

When Aieda returned from London, she took me to Pristina's Institute of Town Planning, where Albanians had come back to their old jobs to find virtually nothing to work with. Departing Serb planners had taken every map in the office, as well as the computers. The lack of information makes it all the more difficult for Kosovo's trained planners to construct rebuilding strategies for the city and region. The people are rapidly preparing for winter, but they have no plans and little capacity to produce them. All the rebuilding is "illegal" because it is being done without permits or in accordance with any ordinances or building standards.

I had seen this kind of chaos and desperation in the wake of war in Sarajevo. It strengthened my resolve to help bring design assistance to the people of Kosovo. The school project was wrapping up and I was anxious to get home. But there was one more piece of business to attend to.

Before I left for Kosovo, a friend and colleague in Washington had told me of her college sweetheart, Bekhim, a Kosovar Albanian long missing from her life and feared lost to Serb repression. It seems Bekhim's brother had spoken up against Serb repression as a student, and lost a hand for his impertinence. It was rumored both brothers were on a hit list. I promised to make inquiries.

I enlisted Cydim in the search. At first hesitant, he grew increasingly dogged as we bounced from one hamlet to the next, climbing higher and higher into the wild mountainous country that stretches along the Albanian border above the ancient Kosovar city of Prizron. We were looking for a village called Zhum, where Bekhim's family had once lived.

We were already on edge after hours of negotiating rutted switchbacks, when we rounded a downhill curve to find a group of soldiers in the road. The area was a stronghold of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and tensions had been rising daily between NATO and the KLA because the freedom fighters had refused to give up their weapons by the September 19 deadline.

Cydim and I traded a nervous glance as the men approached. They wanted a ride down the road and we knew better than to refuse weary soldiers. But their rugged aspect belied warm feelings. They thanked me and they thanked America. They said they loved America for taking a stand against ethnic cleansing.

In the end, we found Bekhim's whereabouts. He is alive and well, and living in Switzerland. His brother was not so lucky: the Serbs had tortured and nearly starved him to death. They had taken his other hand and perhaps his sanity.

On our return to Pristina, Cydim and I found ourselves in the midst of a KLA victory parade. The people were very happy to have survived a hard period, as they faced the coming winter and an uncertain future.

(James Craig is director of the Global Network for Rebuilding and can be reached at or 1-205-933-2159. He wrote this for The News.)

Return to The Bosnia Network Home Page