The Colgate Scene
March 2005

A new ERA for Kosovo

Seniors Lindsay Mackenzie and Ellen Frank, who created an NGO in Kosovo while interning there to help promote a peace park in the Balkans [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

What is an NGO?
Carolyn Kissane, who teaches Evolution and Operation of Non-Governmental Organizations in the educational studies department, explains
Ellen Frank and Lindsay Mackenzie are the type of pals who finish each other's sentences.

They speak a language of glances, laughs, and gestures that developed between them during the summer of 2003 when they held internships in war-torn Kosovo arranged by Antonia Young, a research associate with Colgate's department of sociology and anthropology. The two lived together, worked together, solved problems together, and even founded their own Kosovo-based non-governmental organization (NGO) together.

It's no wonder they're so close.

The pair's friendship began in June of 2003 when they set out for Peja, Kosovo, to work for an environmental NGO named Aquila. They were supposed to help colleagues at Aquila coordinate the first couple of days of a two-week "hike for peace" Young was organizing that would start in western Kosovo, travel through southern Montenegro, and end in northern Albania at a conference. (Two other Colgate students, Devon Haynie '03 and Meryl Feingold '03, ended up arranging the Albania portion of the trip.)

The purpose of the trek was to promote the idea of a transnational "peace park" in the Balkans.

Yet upon arriving in Peja, the young women found that Aquila was in disarray, and that they had to take over the planning of the hike themselves.

The twosome faced the daunting tasks of finding lodging and arranging food for the hikers, mapping out a route through Kosovo's Rugova Valley (of which they had no prior knowledge), and enlisting volunteers to lead the trek. Matters were made somewhat difficult by a language barrier; although some people in the region speak English, Frank and Mackenzie often had to figure out how to communicate with many who didn't.

"It was improvisation from day one of our trip until we got on a plane home, but we managed," said Mackenzie, a senior from Whistler, Canada.

In Daci, Montenegro, the hometown of their guide Ali Daci (most of the town's population is in some way related to the Daci family), Mackenzie and Frank enjoyed a lunch consisting mainly of cheese the family made at home, as well as the view of the local mosque's minaret and the hills they were trekking in. [Photo by Lindsay Mackenzie] While scouting out trails with their friend and NGO partner Fatos Lajçi (right), Frank (left) and Mackenzie stopped at a viewpoint in Cafa Cufes overlooking Peja on one side and the mountains of Montenegro on the other. The local villager (middle) who joined them "was so excited when he saw the view that he used up all his cell phone minutes calling his brother in New York to tell him about it," said Mackenzie. [Photo by Lindsay Mackenzie]

Not long after they settled into their apartment in Peja, the pair made the acquaintance of an activist filmmaker associated with Aquila named Fatos Lajçi. A native of a small village in the Rugova Valley, Lajçi had once lived in the mountains for 18 straight months and had extensive knowledge of the area.

He took Frank and Mackenzie on a number of exploratory hikes in the area and served as an unofficial translator/negotiator for them when he could. He also convinced a few Kosovar friends to serve as guides for the trip and filmed the hike -- all without any kind of monetary compensation.

"You don't find someone like Fatos everyday," said Frank, a senior from Tewksbury, Mass. "His genuine compassion and generosity make him one of the most amazing people that I have ever met." With Lajçi's assistance, the trek came together quickly.

From July 13 to July 26 -- six short weeks after coming to the Balkans for the first time in their lives -- Frank, Mackenzie, and a handful of volunteers led an international contingent of 36 hikers of all ages, nationalities, and abilities through the wilderness of the Rugova Valley.

On a break, Frank and Mackenzie visited Ulcinj in southwest Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea, where they were surprised to run into people they had met in Peja, Kosovo, including a local shopkeeper. A popular vacation destination for Kosovar Albanians, it is one of the few places that Albanians can travel to outside of Kosovo without a visa. [Photo by Lindsay Mackenzie]
The trip, said Chris Rossi, a participant from Hubbardsville, N.Y., was an overwhelming success and an amazing experience for everyone involved. "Ellen and Lindsay were so key in [putting together] the trek, which was quite a feat in a country that is still recovering from war," she said. "I can't imagine what our time in Kosovo would have been like without them."

Throughout the experience, Frank and Mackenzie said they became acutely aware of the terrible state of the environment in Kosovo. Litter is everywhere, they explained, and the air and water quality is poor due to unregulated industry.

Inspired by Lajçi's passion for preserving the wilderness of the region and encouraged by a representative from the United Nations Ministry of Youth and Culture, the women teamed up with Lajçi to create a Peja-based NGO called the Environmentally Responsible Action group (ERA). ERA's mission is to promote the conservation and awareness of nature in Kosovo, and support Lajçi as he makes films about the environment.

Before leaving the country at the end of the summer, the three set the wheels in motion. ERA became an official NGO a few months later.

While founding such an organization may sound difficult, doing so was actually fairly easy, Frank noted. In Kosovo, three people with a mission statement and a name for their group can fill out the necessary paperwork, and register with and be approved by the government usually within half a year or less.

Nevertheless, being part of a formal, recognized entity has opened several doors for ERA and Lajçi, who oversees daily operations. (Frank and Mackenzie have helped out from Hamilton when they can.) He has received funding from the government, which has made it possible to complete several high-profile film projects for various agencies in Kosovo, and he takes on new jobs regularly.

This past summer, for example, he worked on a short movie about the state of the environment intended for this year's renowned Banff Mountain Film Festival.

"Thanks to Ellen and Lindsay, ERA legitimized all my work in nature and with the wildlife in Kosovo," said Lajçi via e-mail from the Balkans. "I do believe in the very near future that ERA will mobilize many to think about saving and protecting nature."

The NGO already has Frank, for one, doing her own part to "mobilize." She returned to Peja this past summer to help Lajçi with the Banff festival film project, and she hopes to return to Kosovo to work with ERA full-time, or possibly for the UN there when she graduates.

Mackenzie has slightly different plans. She has been accepted for an internship with National Geographic, where she will be working in the education and children's programming department starting in September.

In the meantime, the pair have been busily spreading awareness of the state of the environment in Kosovo by speaking at various brown bag lunches arranged by Young on campus and in the Hamilton community, and displaying pictures of their trip at the Barge Canal Coffee Co. in town.

Young said that although the two may have separate plans for the future, one thing is certain: "I feel pretty confident that this wasn't just another experience for them. They'll go back to that part of the world someday and do some pretty remarkable things."

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