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Driving change

June 8, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Arsim Ukaj behind the wheel in northern Kosovo. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Drivers are the unsung heroes of humanitarian work. Their jobs are among the most dangerous in our field: carrying staff and supplies along often-perilous roads to some of the most isolated places in the world. They are jacks-of-all-trades, frequently having to fill in as logisticians, mechanics, security officers and even makeshift translators.

Without them, we simply couldn’t do our work. Lifesaving supplies wouldn’t get delivered during emergencies. There’d be no way to reach the villages where buses or cars would never go otherwise.

In the aftermath of my recent move, I’ve been sorting through a big box of notebooks from my field travels. One of these journals was full of scribbled pages from a journey to Kosovo — that’s how I came to reacquaint myself with a brave man named Arsim.

Arsim is a middle-aged man built like a stone wall, quiet with an easy smile. Over the course of a few days in March 2006, he transported me to some of Kosovo's most troubled and infamous places, including the cities of Peja/Pec and Mitrovica. In the latter place, Arsim helped me negotiate with young-faced, machine gun-toting French peacekeepers to gain entry into a municipal office building where I had a meeting. I doubt I would've gained access without him.

We drove down cratered roads through the coal-spoiled countryside toward mostly-ruined villages to interview families Mercy Corps was helping. Occasionally we passed places or objects of obvious significance and, even though I wanted to be sensitive to what might be sore subjects in relation to the Kosovo War, sometimes I had to ask.

One day, on our way to Mitrovica, I noticed a stone tower on the north side of the road, so I asked Arsim about it.

“That’s Kosovo Polje,” he said. “Kosovo field, where the decisive battle between the Serbs and Turks took place more than 600 years ago. To the south of here is the tomb of Sultan Murad, the Turkish commander. This is also where Slobodan Milosevic rose to power and planted seeds for the Kosovo War.”

It was a road carefully traversing the shifting stones of history — a dividing line unlike any I’d ever experienced. Arsim continued the story.

“During the war, many in my family had to flee their villages when the militias came. They came to Pristina, the capital, to find me. At the worst part of the violence, we had a couple dozen family members hiding out in our apartment to escape being deported — or worse,” he explained.

And that’s a moment I will never forget: caught between ancient history, the recent past and the still-unfolding present before Kosovo’s independence. My ignorance of what had happened here, and why. The bravery and sorrow of the man who was talking, underpinned by a strangely appropriate Robbie Williams song.

The weight of the moment, of the million things it meant and would continue to signify, weighed hard on my chest and felt heavy all the way down in my lungs. I recall that feeling now, and my respect grows for Arsim and the many Mercy Corps drivers I've had the good fortune to meet.

These are men who have seen change, felt it, survived it and now drive it every day.