Getting Home
Photos by Keith Nordstrom

May 19, 2001

OPERATION KOSOVO
BY CRAIG BORGES / SUN CHRONICLE STAFF

KOSOVO -Getting home from Kosovo wasn't easy.

When the Greek soldier got on the bus at the Kosovo-Macedonia border, pointed his gun in my direction and said 'Off the bus. Now!' I should have taken it as an omen. Getting home wasn't going to be easy.

The four of us, me, Sun Chronicle photo editor Keith Nordstrom, WHDH-TV reporter Caterina Bandini and WHDH photojournalist Trung Dang, were in for a difficult few days.

The soldiers at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo had told us before we headed out for our return trip to the states that our KFOR press passes wouldn't be accepted at the border and we might have to get off the military bus and walk the dusty, chaotic mile or so into Macedonia.

They warned us: "Follow their orders. Don't give them any lip." We didn't. It's tough to talk back to a guy armed with an M16.

I stepped off the bus first, walked a few feet and spotted a GI smoking a cigarette. "How's it going?" I asked. "Want a ride?" he asked. I jumped in his humvee figuring the other three had sought out another humvee. Minutes later Bandini's face was at the door with the others trailing behind. The four of us packed in the rear with Keith and I using an oily spare tire for a seat. The fun was just beginning.

Once in Macedonia we had to surrender the press passes we had hoped to hang onto as souvenirs, and then waited around for hours for the scheduled C-130 flight back to Germany.

Late in the afternoon we jumped aboard the old plane which was already revved and ready to go. A crew member gave us rapid instructions on what to do in case the planed crashed, cutting it short because we were taking off with the words " Hey, what can I tell you? If we crash, just find a hole in the fuselage and jump out." Omen No. 2.

The flight itself was calm and filled with breathtaking views of villages below in the snow-covered Swiss Alps.

We arrived at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany too late Tuesday night to book a room in the charming B&B we had spent a night in a week earlier, so we ended up bunking at a hotel in a mini red-light district next to bars named after women -- "The Lisa Bar" is one example -- and decorated with large hearts made of neon lights. Omen No. 3

The hotel turned out OK, however, and we enjoyed what we thought would be our last night in Germany eating well and drinking some powerful German beer. For the first time since the trip began a week and a half before, we were able to get more than a few hours sleep.

We spent Wednesday sightseeing in the picturesque town of Kaiserslautern before checking in at Ramstein at 5 p.m. for our return trip home on a gigantic C-5 Galaxy cargo plane.

That's when the real fun began.

Upon arrival we learned a few things: The plane was delayed by a few hours; we'd be the only passengers on it, and oh, it's carrying sensitive cargo, i.e., explosives. Omen No. 4.

Just before 10 p.m. we finally boarded. Pallets of grenades and other explosives filled the cargo bay. We clambered upstairs, plugged our ears with earplugs to lessen the engine roar (one of the many negatives of flying on a C-5), and prepared for the eight-plus hour trip to Dover, Del.

"Did they tell you guys we are refueling over the Atlantic?" one of the crew members asked. They hadn't. Refueling, he told us, is quite an experience. "Do you like rollercoasters?" he asked. Great. Omen No. 5.

Turns out the plane had some mechanical problems that first had to be worked on, then there were deer on the runway that had to be chased off, then the crew had to seek permission from the town's officials because they had missed the take-off curfew of 10 p.m. Omens, 6, 7 and 8. At around midnight we finally took off.

The trip, however, wasn't meant to be. About an hour out, one of the crew members came running up from the cargo hold to inform us we had to prepare for an emergency landing. Our landing gear had become locked with the wheels turned to the side instead of forward. Omen No. 9. Great. Well, we figured (at least some of us), if we crash we'll go out in a big way thanks to the explosives on board.

Turns out the crew was able to land the plane rather smoothly and without incident. We were greeted by a dozen or so fire trucks and other emergency crews. It was now closing in on 2:30 a.m. which meant our chances of finding an inn were slim. We ended up bunking in crew quarters -- something that is apparently against Air Force rules --thanks to some finagling on the part of our media escort, U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Rick Scavetta.

Bandini called Channel 7 and I called The Sun Chronicle to tell them not to count on us being back at the office anytime soon. The four of us then shuffled off to bed after 3 a.m. for about four hours sleep.

On Thursday, though exhausted and stressed out from days of little sleep and lots of work, we set off to visit the ruins of a castle. It beat hanging around the air terminal all day. We ended up spending hours eating and enjoying a picture-perfect day at a superb hillside caf'e9 just below the castle. Live it up, we figured. It's our last day. We were wrong.

Again we checked in at 5 p.m. only to be told that the plane was again delayed and this time, instead of having the luxury of an entire row of plane seats to ourselves, the plane would be full. Omen No. 10. Military, their families and retirees often use the C-5 for transport.

"What about the explosives?" we asked. Turns out it didn't matter. Families with children simply sign a waiver and they, too, are good to go.

After hours of waiting around we took a bus to what they call the `` hot pad'' where the explosives are loaded. Again we waited. Finally the plane's captain came out to tell us that this plane, too, wouldn't be flying. The rear emergency door wouldn't open, he said. No passengers allowed in the rear. Omen No. 11.

The scene back at the air terminal was chaotic -- two pay phones and a hundred or so people scrambling to call family, cabs, hotels. We learned another C-5 was scheduled to take off Friday morning, spending about six hours in the Azores, before continuing on to Dover. Ground crew members, however, who we learned knew more about the fickle ways of the C-5 than just about anyone else, told us on the sly we'd be risking it. Getting out on a C-5, apparently, wasn't meant to be.

If that one doesn't take off, we'd be stuck in Germany until at least Saturday. Not that that's a bad thing, but we knew we had jobs to get back and besides, we were beginning to stink. By this time we had run out of clean clothes and those we wore were splattered over with thick red Kosovo mud. We were tired of hauling our backpacks around along with WHDH's heavy TV equipment. We were tired of spending hours in the air terminal, tired of making late-night hotel arrangements and our money was quickly disappearing.

There was only one way out -- go to Frankfurt and fly commercial. We phoned our offices and within an hour or so The Sun Chronicle's ever-efficient Danielle Fournier, with the blessing of our publisher Oreste D'Arconte, had us booked on a last-minute Air France flight from Frankfurt to Paris to Boston for Friday. WHDH, with the help of Fournier, was able to book the same flight for Bandini and Dang. We were able to get a room at the B&B. Things were finally beginning to look up.

At the B&B the owner, Anna, told us that a military officer waited for almost two weeks last summer to leave Germany on a C-5. That made us feel a little better.

On Friday morning our taxi driver told us that our media escort, who had tried for the 5 a.m. C-5, wasn't able to take off and was also on his way to Frankfurt.

The flight to Paris was smooth and comfortable. Drinks and snacks were served. When the pilot announced in French "Welcome to Paris," we looked at each other and smiled. Finally, we were on our way home.

THE SUN CHRONICLE'S Craig Borges and Keith Nordstrom, and WHDH-TV's Caterina Bandini and Trung Dang, returned to Boston from Germany Friday evening, May 11, after covering local troops serving as NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo.