Exodus From Kosovo

The Seattle Times
June 13, 1999
By Alex Tizon

The human body, even a small one, is all limbs sometimes. Or it seems that way when you need them least: long dangling bones that only get in the way. Such a thing was not meant to slip through the teeth of a barbed-wire fence, as one Kosovar mother learned while sneaking her son out of a refugee camp on the Albanian border. The boy bent his body as needed. Survival called for it.

Along the southern Kosovo border, a million refugees continue through the contortions of war. The Serbs have begun withdrawing and NATO bombs have stopped dropping, but there will be no swift return to life as usual. For tens of thousands of Kosovars, most of them ethnic Albanians, there is no life to return to. Much of what they left behind — belongings, homes, businesses, communities — has been looted or leveled.

Many still have not recovered from the great exodus, when Kosovar villages emptied into Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania. It was the start of life on the run. Long limbs paid off. The bodies of many — who did not run fast enough, did not hide well enough, did not talk smoothly enough — lie buried under newly turned Kosovar soil. Occasionally, a decapitated corpse — a trademark of Serbian execution — will float down the river to Albania with only its luminescent limbs to distinguish it from a tree stump.

In the refugee camps, reunions happen. Family and friends, believed dead, emerge from the crowd. Joy breaks out like a burst of band music. Arms stretch open. Sometimes it is a private moment between a man and his granddaughter, a small hand cradling an old face. Sometimes it is two men bear hugging, growling affections, in the middle of a watching crowd.

Photographer Thomas James Hurst of Vashon Island spent six weeks in Albania and captured some of these images. Twenty-eight and restless, he bought a plane ticket to Greece, then hired a driver to take him into southern Albania. He moved north along the Kosovo border, hitching rides, renting one-room hovels and crashing with fellow vagabonds. He broke bread with Kosovars on the run.

His photographs show a reality most of us have never experienced and never will. The images are spare, intimate, hard to let go once the eyes have fastened on them, whether it is of a flip-skirted girl blithely skipping rope along a muddy road, her arms forming a cross over her heart or a sea of hands reaching out for a single bottle of water. The faces may tell the story but the hands define the moment.

One of Hurst’s favorite photos is of an old man and his granddaughter. To comprehend the moment, he said, you have to know what preceded it.

“None of us knows what it’s like to have someone come into your house in the middle of the night, put a bullet through your father’s head, rape your mother and sisters, take away everything you own, and force you to leave behind everything safe and secure,” Hurst says.

“You live in mud and nastiness. Then you discover someone you thought was dead. You have to go through that to understand the expressions on their faces, the innocence in the girl’s hand.”

At 21, Hurst sold his motorcycle to fly to Bosnia. At 25, he took out student loans to travel to Haiti. At 26, he went to Afghanistan, Rwanda and Zaire. He has seen and photographed the worst that human beings can do. Mostly he is drawn to those who have lost the most. The calling is part voyeuristic, part humanitarian. Maybe a picture will compel someone to help.

Typically, some of the images he remembers most are those he did not, or chose not to, capture on film. One in particular stands out:

It was early afternoon of a sunny day in the Albanian city of Morina on the Kosovo border. Only a barbed-wire fence and a pole marked the boundary. In the distance, on the Kosovo side, a group of 10 or 12 made their way toward Albania. It was a family. Some walked, others rode on a tractor. Their clothes were soiled, their faces drawn.

Once over the border, the family stopped, maybe for the first time in days — no one knew. The driver of the tractor, a teenager with long skinny limbs, stepped off to the side of the road. He stood like a man and cried like a boy. Like the child handed through the gap of the barbed fence, this boy did what he had to, and it did not matter at road’s end who watched.