Locals witness relief at work in Kosovo

Scott Condon

Chris Lane and Auden Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Co. have a little extra to be thankful for today after getting a first-hand glimpse this month of conditions in war-torn Kosovo.

Lane and Schendler, from the Skico’s environmental affairs department, made the trip Nov. 2 to help distribute about 5,000 winter jackets, sweaters and pants their company is no longer using.

They were invited to check out the desperate conditions and the successful goodwill efforts by the director of Refugee Direct Aid, a Colorado relief agency that’s helping distribute the Skico’s old outfits.

“Without exaggeration, we learned our uniforms are going to save lives,” said Lane.

Their tour took them to three Albanian villages in the province of Rahovic. They saw areas where virtually no homes escaped damage from Serb artillery or tank fire. Some of the places resembled Dresden after the fire-bombing of World War II, said Schendler.

In some villages, the roofs on most homes were damaged or completely blown off. The remaining residents typically packed into the homes that were least damaged.

While they were touring with members of the international peace force, they saw people emerging from places that appeared uninhabitable.

Both men said the most mind-boggling aspect of the trip was the lawlessness of the area. They stayed with a family in the capital city of Pristina, in an apartment complex in a neighborhood best compared to the South Bronx, they said.

The streets were packed with cars stolen from Germany. The stoplight in their neighborhood didn’t work, justifiably earning the intersection the name “Suicide Corner.”

Electricity worked about half the time. Celebratory gun fire wasn’t uncommon.

It was a cold, dark, dirty city with drab concrete structures typical in the former Communist countries.

“I’ve been explaining to people that it’s a combination of the Wild West, Mad Max and the Star Wars bar scene,” said Schendler.

While Pristina was their headquarters, they ventured out to the southwest to see the villages that would benefit from the Skico relief effort. Pictures and slides attest those villages resembled something more from the Dark Ages than the cusp of the 21st century.

Along the route one day, Lane stepped out of a vehicle to snap a picture of a car that had been run over by a tank. He suddenly found himself getting screamed at by members of the international security force.

He ducked, thinking some danger was approaching. Instead, he learned he committed the major mistake of wandering off the road.

“You cannot step off the concrete for one second,” Lane said.

“Everywhere you go there are signs saying mines, mines, mines.”

Lane and Schendler didn’t get to see the Skico outfits distributed. The material was held up at the border until the day the men were departing.

“At first we were disappointed we weren’t able to literally hand them to people,” said Lane. “In hindsight, it would have been a logistical nightmare.”

But Schendler received word this week that 739 families in the town of Petkovic were among the recipients of the Skico outfits.

“The entire town lined the streets and applauded [the relief workers] as they left,” Schendler said he was told.

In another town, relief workers noticed few residents had shoes. They raffled off one of the old cranberry outfits worn by ski instructors and raised money for shoes.

The Skico first worked with Refugee Direct Aid four years ago with the donation of 4,000 uniforms to Bosnia. The nonprofit corporation covers all overhead expenses, ensuring that 100 percent of all donor materials and money goes directly to refugees.

For the Skico, the contributions provide a double benefit because it keeps the old outfits out of the landfill and gives them to the needy.

Schendler said the trip to Kosovo this fall helped him attach faces and a human element onto a story that has long dominated the news but had little meaning.

Lane agreed. “It sounds like a cliche, but it’s life changing,” he said.