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Real lives: 'It's chaos out here'

Aid worker DALONI CARLISLE is on the front line with the Kosovan refugees. From Twickenham to Tirana, this is her diary for April
1 April 1999

I arrive back in London feeling completely exhausted. I've been through such a lot over the past few weeks, but leaving Pristina must have been one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. Six days after the Nato bombing started we were the last foreigners to leave the city. We'd been told to get out for our own safety but we were leaving behind Kosovan colleagues who had no idea what was going to happen to them. I'd worked there since February. These were my friends. Watching them watching us go will stay with me for a long time. The emotion I felt on the way home wasn't sadness - more like grief.

9 April 1999

I've had a haircut and spent the past three days in bed with my boyfriend Abdul, watching TV. When I got back home to Twickenham he said, "Do you want to talk about it?" I said, "No. Do you want to listen?" He said, "No." "Let's go down the pub."

It's hard to relate to one another when you're leading such different lives. While I'm working for the Red Cross, he's a musician. I don't think he approves of what I do because he cares for me and worries about what's happening. But on the other hand he understands that this is what I want to do with my life.

The only way I can cope is to do normal things: go to the pub, play pool, watch telly. It's great to see my sister Julia. She has two wonderful daughters: Rose, 12, and Georgia, 7. When they greet me on the doorstep for the first time they're going on about some netball match. Back to humdrum normality - it feels good.

10 April 1999

The Red Cross is expecting me to go back to the Balkans but I'm not sure if it's the right thing to do. I need a few days out of the field to think about it. This kind of work takes such a toll on your private life, on your ability to get on with people and to lead a normal life. I worry that after 10 years in the field I'll come home one day to find that I've no partner, no friends, no family, no life to come back to. I don't want it to happen.


My mind keeps going back to two women we helped back in Kosovo: an old lady who'd had a stroke and a pregnant woman. We managed to get them through both KLA and Serbian lines and to hospital. Their feeling of fear was almost tangible. Yet it was amazing to watch their faces when they realised that at last they were safe. I know now that there's no question of me not going back.

15 April 1999

I'm on my way to Tirana, the capital of Albania, via Macedonia. Today I saw Bleirhim, one of the radio operators we had to leave behind in Pristina. I was worried he'd be angry about us leaving. But he gave me a smile and I smiled back. Tonight, five or six of us gathered round and held hands. It dawned on me that there was no need to be frightened, no need for explanations or recriminations.

I find people very much in shock. I try not to ask too many questions. We all know what everyone has gone through.

I borrow a satellite phone and ring Abdul - "I'm safe, I'm here," I tell him.

16 April 1999

It's complete chaos in Tirana. Three weeks ago there were three aid workers, a handful of local volunteers and 20,000 refugees. Now there are 40 volunteers and 300,000 refugees. In the office there aren't enough chairs, let alone computers to go round.

Albania's population has increased by 10 per cent in three weeks. There isn't enough food for the locals, let alone the refugees. I'm lucky to get a bed. There's a sheet and a blanket, but not much else. I don't even have a towel.

17 April 1999

Each night I listen to the World Service. There's a big debate at home about what's happening in the war but for us there's no time to argue. As an aid worker for the Red Cross I have to be impartial. Last year I worked in Belgrade. The people there are suffering too. I remember when I first heard that Nato had started bombing. There was a real sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I really hadn't seen it coming.

We keep asking ourselves whether we should have been better prepared. Should we have had more people here? Should we have foreseen what was going to happen?

18 April 1999

Sixteen-hour days are becoming the norm. In the evenings we go out for a drink and moan about the day. It's good to be with people you can trust. I need to sound off to someone. It's my only way of coping. The temptation is to drink too much but we're trying to be sensible. We're eating regularly and making an effort to get enough sleep. Some things get better. I've got a towel now. But I'm running out of clean knickers.

19 April 1999

Every day more people arrive in Tirana. A lot of them go to a surreal place called Magic City Camp. It's on the site of a funfair. Thousands of refugees sleep in the old swimming pool, yet the bumper cars are still going round.

Today I heard about a colleague from Kosovo whom I'd last seen in Pristina. He arrived in Tirana with his family, not really knowing what to do next. A local came up and offered water and chocolate. When they got talking, the local man invited him and his family to stay in his house. It's amazing. About 200,000 refugees have been taken into people's houses. "We have very little. You have nothing," they say.

I hope I never get inured to any of this. It's this strength of the human spirit that gives me hope.

20 April 1999

On Sunday we broadcast in the camps in Tirana the names of four children who had been separated from their parents in the panic to flee Kosovo, but we heard nothing. Then we read their names out on the radio. Today there was wonderful news. Amazingly, the parents had heard the messages and travelled 150km from their camp. We're planning to issue 30,000 wind- up radios in the hope that more families can be reunited.

As the days go by I wonder about what's going to happen in the future. How long will the rest of the world be interested in what's going on here? These people are human beings; they're not just news stories. They are going to need help for years and years to come. What worries me is the fact that, psychologically, they're looking to go back home as soon as they can. They're not prepared for the idea that they might not get back for a very long time. Still - today, at least, was a good day.

Donations to the International Red Cross: 0870 6060900.