Touching Kosovo

Reaching Out to Refugees

By Meleisa McDonell-Alwin

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 1999.

There comes a time in every person's life when they are given the opportunity to do something great, to make a difference, and to grow in directions they never thought possible. This is the story of such a time, in a place inhabited by faces that regularly graced the evening news. It is a story of strength, of horror, of faith, of suffering, and, hopefully soon, redemption.

I'd Help Those People Tomorrow

It began in early April, and I recognized it as a beginning. My husband and I were watching the news, curled up on the couch with each other and a glass of merlot after a hard day of work. As we gave half an eye to the news, we chatted about monumental problems such as squeaky brakes, no-show appointments and having way more month than money. Suddenly the screen was filled with the eyes of a small, crying child who looked lost. I turned my full attention to the television.

It was a Kosovar refugee, one of thousands fleeing the country in an endless line of misery and shock. I knew about the air strikes, but I was ignorant of why we were bombing Serbia. When I heard the stories of atrocities committed against Kosovar Albanians by the Serbs, my heart dropped to my knees.

Through my tears I told my husband that if "$6,000 fell into my lap today, I'd be over there helping those people tomorrow." He asked how I came up with that figure. I told him I didn't know; it just popped into my heart.

The more I thought about it, the more I knew I had to go. By the end of the evening, the decision was made. I was going. Never mind I didn't have the money, or know where to go, or whom to contact; those things were trivial details to me. I knew that absolute faith would open all the doors for me.

For the next few weeks, I told everyone I knew the same thing I originally told my husband: "If $6,000 fell in my lap today, I'd be there helping the refugees tomorrow."

The basic reaction was that it was a sweet thought, but really ... fly halfway around the world to work on people you don't know? Why not work on people who need you here? It was difficult to explain how I felt so led to undertake this mission, so I stopped trying. Those who needed to understand would. And someone did.

I was working on a client (she prefers to remain anonymous, so I will call her Grace), and we were discussing the situation in Yugoslavia. I told her that if $6,000 fell in my lap today, I would be there helping the refugees tomorrow. Normally a chatty lady, Grace suddenly grew quiet. Finally, she asked how I had arrived at that figure. I told her it had popped into my head two weeks ago.

She said nothing during the rest of her session. When we were finished, she and her husband (I'll call him David) pulled me into a back room of the office and told me to sit down. Confused, I complied. Grace proceeded to tell me a story that was to change my life.

"Dear, we believe very strongly in your gift as a healer, and your skill as a massage therapist, but most of all, we believe in the strength of your heart. Some time ago, a very dear friend of ours died of cancer. She had no family to speak of, and we were her only true friends. Shortly before she passed on, she entrusted me with an envelope, saying only that I would know what to do with it when the time came."

I wasn't breathing. The world stopped: "Inside that envelope, dear, is $6,000 cash."

I was glad I was sitting down. Even so, I felt like I was falling. The tears came suddenly, like a faucet turned full blast.

"Find a camp and plan your trip," said David.

Who to Help?

I went home that night with the strongest sense of purpose I have ever experienced. I knew I had the resources now to get there, I need only figure out where, how and with whom.

The most pressing question was "Where?" Albania? Macedonia? Or one of the dozen other countries accepting refugees? My husband Michael worked with a Turkish man who told him of a camp in western Turkey, about 60 miles from the Bulgarian border. We decided that would be the place. Airfare was reasonable and a guide was easily and cheaply arranged.

Next, I booked a meeting with the owner of Earthlite, who was also my husband's employer. He listened to my story, and asked me why I was doing this and what I hoped to gain from it. I told him that for once in my life, I wanted to do something entirely selfless. I wanted to burst out of my comfort zone and face the world as it really is, not as most Americans fantasize it is. I needed to do something that would make me realize wholly how blessed we are as Americans. I wanted to feel it in the darkest corners of my soul, not just know it with my intellect. I told him that I wanted to take a massage chair into the camp to work on the refugees and the relief workers. He not only agreed to donate a massage chair and supplies to me, but also gave my husband the time off from work so he could go with me.

All of the details began to fall easily into place the moment I stopped stressing about them. A large electronics chain gave me a discount on a camcorder. More people began to donate money and supplies. I was given a letter of intent by this magazine (

Massage & Bodywork

) to help me gain access to the camp. I took a Red Cross first aid course and received an official-looking Red Cross badge. Shots, passports, toys for the Kosovar children, military-style sea bags to use as luggage—all of these things fell into place. My mind was always on the refugees, and what I would need to take with me to serve them best.

As the day to leave grew closer, I began to realize that this trip was becoming more than just my once-in-a-lifetime chance. It was becoming a mission. I decided that when I returned home, I would incorporate, file as a non-profit organization and continue to make relief trips to wherever there was a need. I knew that I would henceforth dedicate my life to easing the physical and spiritual suffering of humankind through massage therapy and compassionate communication. Operation Healing Touch was conceived then, and will be born when I have the money to incorporate.

The Journey Begins

Finally the big day arrived. We landed in Istanbul after 16 hours of traveling. After collecting luggage and being waved through customs, we saw a young man holding a sign with our names scrawled. His name was Murat Büˆgüs and he was going to be our guide for the trip. He bundled us into a cab and took us to his sister's flat in Istanbul.

Monday, May 10

– We boarded a bus to Kirklareli, a small town in western Turkey close to the Turkish-Bulgarian border. We encountered a man on the bus who was returning to the camp from Istanbul. He told us security was very tight at the camp and we would need permission from the local authorities to enter. Since we had arrived too late in the day to begin the proceedings, we decided to go to the local government office first thing the next morning.

Tuesday, May 11

– Morning dawned clear and hot. We gathered our things: massage chair, credentials, passports, a sea-bag full of toys for the children and cameras, and headed to the government office. I was certain that getting permission would be just a formality, quickly granted. I was soon to learn otherwise.

The local government, after several hours of wrangling, finally gave us their blessing to go into the camp. It was Murat who convinced them, pleading our case with much emotion. But regardless of our pleas, the government refused to allow us to perform massage therapy of any kind at the camp, citing "medical control concerns" as their justification. We would, however, be allowed to take our cameras in and conduct interviews with the refugees. The next step was to go to the local police station, to pick up our permission slips.

The local police were polite, offering us tea and coffee while we waited for the Foreign Ministry to fax us our permission slips. At 5 p.m., when the police station closed, we still had not received our permission. Dejected and frustrated, we left.

We walked around town, talking to shop owners and street vendors about the Kosovar camp. The consensus was that the whole thing was a tragedy, and should be over soon. In the meantime, the Kosovar "guests," as they were always referred to, could stay as long as they liked. We learned that the camp had been built in 1988 to house an influx of Bulgarian immigrants, and had been filled with Bosnian refugees in the early 1990s. Now it was home to some 6,500 Kosovars, and by all accounts, would be for some time to come.

Wednesday, May 12

– More wrangling with authorities and pleas from officials, until finally permission was granted.

Thursday, May 13

– After weeks of planning and days of waiting, the bus dropped us off to the entrance of the camp at noon

At Long Last

We were inspected carefully by the guards at the gatehouse, then permitted to proceed to the press liaison office. We had tea and discussed our objectives with the two men in the press office while our passes were written up. The head Kosovar-Turkish liaison met us, and offered us lunch. We met the camp director for the Turkish Red Crescent (part of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent), as well as the camp administrator for the Turkish government. We learned there were 6,500 refugees there, 1,600 of them children. Many families had been separated in the mass exodus from Kosovo, and an office had been set up to help people in the camp locate lost family members.

On a tour of the camp we saw that the medical facilities were crowded, but well-supplied and clean. The Red Crescent had many medical personnel on staff; slowly but surely they worked their way through the countless ills and ailments almost always associated with a displaced population. We learned there were "social workers" on the scene who worked to care for the psychological needs of the Kosovars. I explained to several of these people how massage therapy could benefit, but my words seemed to fall on deaf ears. Most of them thought of massage therapy as fluff; good for relaxation, but useless as a healing modality.

We saw the building where the refugees received their everyday supplies—soap, toothpaste, shampoo, diapers, snack foods. We saw the school every Kosovar child was required to attend. We saw the dwellings they now called home; each family was assigned a small one-room shed, or a heavy tent. Unlike many of the camps, each dwelling had electrical power, beds, storage cabinets, and a one-burner electric or propane stove. The Red Crescent had even supplied every family with a small radio so they could listen to the news.

After our tour, we were introduced to a 16-year-old refugee boy fluent in Albanian, Turkish and English. He offered to translate for us, and informed us that although many of the younger Kosovars spoke English as their second or third language, many of the older generation did not.

As we walked through the camp, the children I saw amazed me. Kicking balls, swinging, running, laughing, playing—it was almost as though the war was just a bad nightmare, not a harsh reality. Then I saw a child leaning against a tree. She was maybe 7 or 8 years old, and had the expression of 40-year-old. Her blue eyes were wide, her brown hair mussed and windblown, and her little fists were clenched tightly at her side. She looked at me, and her eyes were hollow and far away. It was at that moment that the connection was made between my mental self, which knew about the war, and my emotional self, which felt badly for the victims of the war. Believe me when I tell you that no matter how much sympathy you have for them, no matter how much information you have about them, you cannot understand and empathize with them until you have seen them firsthand. In that moment, they were my people; it was my war, and my tragedy, as well as theirs. I staggered with the weight of it. I know that feeling will always be a part of my life, and though it is painful, I am glad for it.

Atrocities Untold

Our first interviews were of a refugee couple from Pristina. They both spoke English, and told us how they were driven out of their jobs at the airport, where they had worked for 20 years, and then driven from their homes. They said they were comfortable here, and felt safe, but wanted to go home, no matter what was left of it.

A similar story came from "Gina." Pushed out of Pristina, Gina was separated from her mother and children while attending her father's funeral. When Serb police chased away mourners from the gravesite, Gina lost sight of them. She still doesn't know where her family is.

We were then introduced to a wonderful woman who I'll call "Maria." She had been a lawyer and human rights activist in Kosovo before being thrown out by the Serb military. We made arrangements to meet her the next day, when she would take us around the camp to talk to refugees who had been on the receiving end of some of the worst crimes against humanity imaginable.

At the hotel that night, the three of us fought hard not to cry. We knew if we broke now, we would never find the strength to return to the camp and face the stories of torture and abuse that awaited us. None of us slept well that night.

The next day we arrived at the camp on time for our meeting with Maria. In Kosovo, as an attorney, Maria was involved with human rights and women's rights issues. She was separated from her people and her country on March 24, but said she hopes to return soon. In the meantime, she strives to document the perils of her fellow refugees and to be a comforting force to those she lives with in the camp. Maria took us to interview several families who had been separated and torn from their loved ones and their homes. Each story was more poignant than the next.

We met "Anna" and her son "Larry." The two escaped Pristina with their lives. "I know I am safe here," Anna said through translators, "but I am still afraid. Any loud noise frightens me. My other children are in Skopje. Soldiers in tanks kicked us out of our house and burned it down. I want to go home, but my son wants to go to America."

Little "Noah" sticks vividly in our minds. He and his family were hiding in their home when Serbian paramilitary broke in. They found the children and demanded to know where their father was. When Noah refused to answer and tried to escape, they cut off his fingers. After interrogating his family, the soldiers told the boy's grandfather to take the child to a doctor, but to lie about how he lost his fingers or they would come back and kill him.

Today Noah asks if his fingers will ever grow back. To comfort him, his mother tells him they will. In the meantime, he is looking for "good wood" to put where his fingers should be, and is sad because he can't find any in the camp.

Abe's Story

Maria also introduced us to Abe whose story continues to dwell in our minds.

An 18-year-old Kosovar, Abe's story begins in his home. "Serb military came to the house asking if I had information about the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) activity. As they were asking the neighbors the same thing, they killed my neighbor's brother and his daughter." At one point, with his own brother missing, Abe took his mother and sister into hiding in the mountains, where many others had found safety. "We stayed in the mountains that night...but in the morning, I discovered that my mother and sister had gone back to the house. I decided to go back and find them." On his trek to find his family, Abe heard machine gun fire. "I saw bullets hit the ground 2 meters from me and realized that snipers were aiming at me. When the shooting stopped, four soldiers surrounded me. I had a chance to get away, but I didn't run because they would follow me and find where everyone else was hiding."

Aiming their guns at Abe, the soldiers asked him, "Where's your God now?" They hit him in the head with a rifle and cursed him. While one soldier put a knife to the back of Abe's neck, another stuck a rifle into his waist. "He said, 'Let's see how lucky you are today. I'm going to pull the trigger and if there are any bullets left in the gun, you die.' He pulled the trigger and nothing happened. He laughed and said, 'It looks like you have luck today.' To scare me, a soldier pulled the trigger to his gun; I looked down to see if there was any blood, if I was hit. While I was surrounded by these soldiers, I saw there were women and children trying to escape into the mountains and the soldiers were firing into the crowd like it was a game, trying to hit them. I saw a few people drop, but the others made it..."

Eventually the soldiers took Abe to their camp. "I had my hands above my head...a young Serb soldier repeatedly punched and kicked me for no reason. I couldn't even move to protect myself."

The question everyone asked of Abe was where the KLA was based. "One of the soldiers took my shoes and socks while I was still standing and said, 'Either tell us where the KLA is based or we are going to cut your toes and one ear off.' I told them I had no knowledge of, or ties to, the KLA. They said they would give me more time to reconsider my story. They said I had a chance to save myself right now if I obeyed their orders."

The soldiers handed Abe a uniform to wear. "When I had it on, I read the patch on the uniform. It said 'Arkan's Tigers.' Arkan is the head of a sniper group famous from the days of the Bosnian war for the atrocities they committed. They were vicious killers."

The Serbian soldiers put Abe in one of five trucks full of soldiers and took him to loot houses. "They started breaking into homes and asked me what was I waiting for, take whatever I want. I told them I didn't want to take something that didn't belong to me. They forced me to steal valuables from the houses and load the trucks."

When the looting was over, the soldiers asked Abe where he lived. "I told them..., and they asked me why I would want to live there when I could have one of these nicer, empty homes. I told them these aren't mine. They asked if I really wanted to go home, and said I should stay with them in their army and fight the Albanians and KLA. They dropped me off 5 kilometers from my home. I wanted to give them back the uniform, but they laughed and told me to keep it, because I was 'one of theirs' now."

When Abe finally reached his home, there was no one waiting for him. "I saw that dinner was on the table, ready to eat, but no one was in the house. My family must have been sitting down for dinner when soldiers arrived and chased them out of the house before they could take even one bite. I took off that uniform and went looking for my family. I went to several different houses looking for them. In the fifth house, I saw the Serb army. They saw me and began shooting. I ran away in a zigzag motion to avoid being shot. I got away and ran back to the mountains to hide."

For two days Abe traveled toward the Macedonian border. Along the way, Serbs caught up with the group and shot anyone who refused to give up their money and jewelry. The ones who did give them over were spared, but all of the IDs and documents were torn up and destroyed. "I crossed the border, but I couldn't find my family. When I was taken to the Turkish camp, the Turkish Red Crescent located my family. They had been taken to Sweden."

Saying Goodbye

After talking with Abe, Maria took us to her bungalow where she shared her story with us. With two children, it is their future she worries about most. "The good thing about all this is the NATO bombings against the Serb military. The hard thing about this is that I had to take my children from their homeland to a different and unfamiliar place. They will never be able to forget these events," Maria said. It is certain, neither will Maria.

"Thousands of people are walking out of Kosovo because of the military — these masked men who enjoy terrorizing innocent civilians, coercing them to leave or face certain death. Our life was in Kosovo. Our death would have been in Kosovo."

Maria thanks the U.S. government and its people for their involvement in the Kosovo conflict and says no matter what remains of her country, she dreams of the day when she can return home. Maria then showed us photos of she and her family, outside a nice house, basking in sunshine and smiles; another documented a visit to the United States to meet with a group of women attorneys. Now here she was, hundreds of miles from a home that was likely burned to the ground. I was amazed by her strength.

Too soon the sun began to set, and we said our last goodbyes. I promised I would return in two months to check in on them, and this time I would get permission ahead of time for my massage chair.

I thought back to that haunted little girl with her fists clenched so tightly. I thought how just a simple touch, a short massage, could have unclenched her shoulders. I knew that a lot could have been done to help her and others like her had I been allowed to minister to their needs with therapeutic massage. I vowed to make the officials at the camp understand how physical and emotional ills are so closely bound together. The touch of massage therapy would not only relax muscles, ease breathing and release pain, but also help unclench the mind and spirit from the pain of families and homes destroyed. If one simple touch can relax the body, then the heart has more room to cry, grieve and finally move forward in a healing direction.

Our long walk to the gate on a gravel road lined with children playing seemed so short, so final. As we stepped through that gate, I took a long look back into the camp, memorizing every detail, every emotion, every face, knowing that a large piece of my heart was in that camp to stay. I made a promise to myself that this would be only the beginning of my journey, that I would come here again, and anywhere else where people could benefit from massage therapy, from empathy, or from just a smile and a prayer.


Two months ago, my idea of a bad day consisted of no-show appointments, a boring dinner and nothing good on television. Two months ago, my idea of a problem was too many bills, high gas prices and dogs that barked too loudly. Two months ago, I was fearful that a knock at my door was the gas and electric company giving me a final shut-off notice.

Two months was a lifetime ago.

Never again will I view these issues as anything but petty and inconsequential. Never again will I take for granted the house I live in, the man at my side, the country that I live in without fear of invasion, and the other amazing privileges I have as an American.