EDITORS’ NOTE: The following is a layman’s first-person account of a mission trip to Macedonia and Kosovo to aid refugees from the conflict between Yugoslav Serbia and NATO this spring.
A visit among Kosovar refugees: ‘This was no longer CNN for us’
SKOPJE, Macedonia (BP)–An Albanian refugee with graying hair sits with papers and pictures of his slain son. Tears stream down his face.
His hands demonstrate how automatic weapons fired upon his family. He shows us his wounds. The rest of the family, approximately 20, crowds into the basement room of the farmhouse with our volunteer missions team from North Carolina. We are in a rural village of Macedonia not far from the border with Kosovo.
We had finished bringing food to the site when we were invited to this home which, like many others, is filled to overflowing with refugees from neighboring Kosovo. Quiet prayers fill the room, then hugs and kisses on each cheek. Stark reality of the terrible cleansing war sets in. This was no longer CNN for us.
Our team of eight had been put together by North Carolina’s Baptist Men organization with the mission of going to Macedonia to help International Mission Board missionaries distribute food and clothes to Kosovar Albanian refugees. Nearly 1 million refugees had been driven into Macedonia and Albania, many to cities and many to homes like the one we visited.
We left June 13, flying to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, for the two-week mission. Each of us paid our way as volunteers, and we lived in a two-bedroom apartment, several of us scattered into the pantry and porch.
Kyle and Jackie Kirkpatrick are the IMB missionaries in Skopje, assigned there for the past two years. They have a vivacious 3-year-old, Rebecca, and were expecting a new baby any day. Kyle’s rapport with the people and his excellent language skills enhance his mission of carrying the gospel. He works closely with a local Baptist church called “God’s Voice,” whose minister’s name is Bore. He is a Macedonian who humorously likes to answer the church’s phone by saying, “God’s voice.”
According to Kyle Kirkpatrick, less than 1 percent of the population is active in an evangelistic church. Most people are Muslim or Eastern Orthodox. Churches like God’s Voice are tiny boats in a sea of mosques, minarets and icons. But there is a fervor and spirit that we witnessed in the church that seems to be similar to the sense and feeling that the Apostle Paul wrote about in his letters to the early churches of this very region. Although small, the little sanctuary was filled every service we attended, and the music and hymns were sung with spirit and meaning.
Historically and politically, this region has had much to assimilate: from the New Testament Acts account of Paul being beckoned to “come over to Macedonia” to the starting place of World War I, and now, the largest refugee and displacement of persons since World War II. The final peace agreement with the Serbs was secured one day before we arrived; President Clinton visited the area while we were there. In fact, the Secret Service took over the hotel, forcing our Sunday morning worship into a nearby park.
Our team labored long hours every day except Sunday, sorting food and clothes in a central warehouse, packing them into boxes which we assembled ourselves with taping machines. The clothes came from Great Britain through Mustard Seed Ministries, one of many non-governmental organizations working in Macedonia and Albania.
We sorted clothes for women, men, children and infants, as well as for the seasons. Food came from local and U.S. markets. Flour sacks, some weighing more than 100 pounds, were moved in human chains and a tractor-trailer rig with dried soup had to be unloaded, to name a few activities. Local families connected to the church were involved in driving the distribution van, as well as translating and recording passports of refugees receiving goods.
Things were extremely well-organized, although the van did break down one day and the goods were transported to a farm on a trailer pulled by a tractor. Our youngest team member, 19, and a refugee about the same age, rode atop the boxes to the distribution village. Tracts and booklets describing Christ’s word were placed in each box. Attention was given to cultural sensitivity of foods.
As a physician, I was invited to work in a free clinic in Shopje, supported by several evangelistic churches and with a director who was a born-again Christian Serb woman doctor. On two occasions, with other local doctors and nurses, we took mobile clinics into the villages, one time setting up in the back of the van.
On June 25, some members of our team accompanied Kyle into Kosovo to look into new distribution places because the refugees were now streaming back over the border by the thousands each day. Some crossed in wagons, some in trucks and many simply walked. We passed the huge tent cities near the border, then the military convoy of huge tanks, half trucks and soldiers from Great Britain, France, Germany and the United States in full battle regalia.
As we entered Kosovo, we began to witness the destruction: factories bombed out, burned homes, businesses with shattered glass fronts, many blackened hulls, disparaging graffiti reportedly painted by retreating Serb forces, people aimlessly poking through what was left of their homes, bullet holes sprayed in walls and windows, and rooms and drawers turned inside out with the contents thrown in every direction.
In the street I spoke with a soldier from Rocky Mount, N.C. He knew of my uncle there. Suddenly, a volley of shots rang out two to three blocks away. The soldier immediately went on alert. I quickly took cover. Crushing reality set in again.
As we drove out of Kosovo, huge red flames engulfed a house near the highway. A military helicopter came in low overhead to investigate. The words of a returning Albanian refugee echoed in my ear, “We will never forget what the Serbs do to us.”
One of Kyle’s messages also echoed with poignant meaning from Luke 15:1-10, “We are like lost sheep and cannot save ourselves. God comes looking for us.” The people of Kosovo are lost and angry and in despair. We pray that they will know God’s love, that he gave his only Son, who died for us all, to do away with a thousand years of hate, to live in peace.
Hartness is a member of Snyder Memorial Baptist Church, Fayetteville, N.C.