A Survey Trip to Kosovo

Original Airdates: March 29, 30 and April 1 (2011)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

Decades of friction between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, Serbia, came to a head in 1998-99 during the presidency of Slobodan Milošević. He and fellow Serbs felt Albanian nationalism was gaining too much of a foothold in Kosovo, an area long considered sacred by the Serbs. Serbs' use of excessive force and ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians filled headlines worldwide, and NATO stepped in.

Back in Waco, Texas, Don and Helen McNeely, volunteer coordinators with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, watched events unfold on TV and wanted to help. They left for a survey trip, and Helen recalls entering Kosovo from Macedonia and traveling seven hours to the city of Gjakova:

"We waited at the border for hours to get across the border. There were UN [United Nations] trucks backed up with supplies for them.
And you don't stop along the way. You don't drink any water either because there's no bathroom along the way, and there's also landmines along the road. First thing we did when we drove in that city that had been bombed and looked like a war—it was a war zone. We saw a big sign that said, ‘Samaritan's Purse.' We pulled in there, dry as a bone. We went in, walked in. They said, You all want something to drink? And we said, Yes, and the bathroom. (laughter) We went, talked to them. They said, Well, come help us. Come work with us. So we sat down and designed a program to help rebuild houses before the winter snows came."

Don describes meeting local residents:

"Whenever we'd see a Kosovar Albanian who could speak English, they'd tell you their story. They needed to talk, and the stories were horrible. They tried to destroy their culture; they used rape as a major weapon to ruin the family and ruin everything. So these people were just full. And they said—we got tickled—they said, To us, Clinton is a god. (laughs) And by the way, they have a statue of Bill Clinton now in Pristina."

Interviewer: "Oh, really."

"Yes they do because he liberated them from horrible oppression."

Interviewer: (speaking at same time) "He saved them."

Helen shares more experiences from Kosovo:

"Don and I were walking down the street one day, and we saw two women—looked like a mother and a daughter. They were both crying. And so we walked up to them; they explained that their son had been taken away by the Serbs. They did not know; they were sure he was killed. Every Thursday the women would walk down the street with a picture of their loved one, either had been killed or missing. About twelve o'clock noon they would walk in a parade. There were mass graves; I have pictures of mass graves. You'd go along the hillside, and you'd see a mound, and you'd see some flowers there in plastic. There are other stories: one that, a man came in and said, ‘Sit down. I want to tell you my story.' And he started telling me about his father he hid between two walls and how he jumped in the river when he knew they were coming. He jumped in the river and went underwater so he couldn't be detected and nearly drowned."

Upon returning to the States, the McNeelys were able to find volunteers quickly, including a group from First Baptist Church–Waco. Over a period of ten weeks, volunteer teams traveled to Gjakova and Pristina to help rebuild.

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