Follow Janine on Facebook and Twitter.
From the Kosovo frontline, 1999
One boy with spiky hair lost his legs and lay white-faced on a stretcher. Another, still spotty with acne, was razed by shrapnel'
By Janine di Giovanni
Thursday May 13, 1999, southwest Kosovo
It was the heaviest night of the Nato bombing here in Kosovo. The commander with the kind face, a former hero of the war in Bosnia, told me and the soldiers in my tent to sleep with our boots on.
He was right. At 3am, the blackness of night was shattered by the terrifying crack of a Serb MiG dropping cluster bombs on us. "Go. Go. Go," ordered the Swede, a former UN soldier. We tumbled in the darkness to a nearby muddy ravine and threw ourselves on to the ground. It was not easy, the trench is used by soldiers as a latrine.
It was our second day of heavy bombardment. The day before, the skies lit up at 5am as I crept out of my tent to see the illumination of the bombs against the crescent moon. They were rockets dropped from MiGs and they were soon followed by heavy mortars. A major Serb offensive, according to the commanders, was under way.
Reports that Serbs were pulling out of Kosovo to defend Belgrade led us to believe they wanted to obliterate the Kosovo Liberation Army. Some of the soldiers said that a Serb unit was trying to encircle our camp. The KLA, strong and passionate young fighters who have too few guns but huge determination, quickly moved in four lines of defence.
By 9am, the attack had intensified. I was sitting near a command post when a rocket landed 300 yards away, killing two soldiers. A young soldier tackled me to the ground and we dived over a makeshift table. Two more would be killed by the end of the day and 15 wounded.
A commander ane out and screamed for us to run over the hill and take cover. We ran to a ditch and fell flat on our faces as more bombs landed with a terrifying high pitchedwhine.
One commander, a Moroccan, distributed helmets and said we were being punished by Allah for celebrating a birthday the night before when the soldiers sat around a campfire singing KLA songs.
The thing that struck me most during the next three hours was chaos. One soldier was crying. "My two brothers have been killed, I don't want to die." Soldiers were running to hide in the forest when their commander ordered them to the front, and people were trying to get the wounded into the ditch with us. One boy with spiky hair lost his legs and lay white-faced on a stretcher. Another teenager, still spotty with acne, was razed by shrapnel. I wiped the blood off one soldier's legs with my towel and poured water over his head. He was badly overheated and in shock. He looked at me with terrified eyes and kept trying to offer me cigarettes from his torn and bloody jacket.
"The Serbs are very close, 2,000 yards," one commander told me and turned to his men: "Every soldier grab your arms and ammo and go, get to the front".
The young doctor Nazi - her name means wild rose in Albanian - was treating a moaning soldier. The 38-year-old frontline doctor was exhausted, with black circles ringing her eyes. "I can't take any more emotionally," she said in a dead voice. "The Serbs are now in the last stages of losing Kosovo and they are desperate," the Moroccan commander commented. "They want to leave their mark on Kosovo now." His voice was drowned out by heavy machinegun fire 300 yards away: it was the Serbs' attempt, I would later find out, to penetrate our base.
About 200 shells fell around us, according to the commanders, but the KLA managed to take out two tanks and said they had killed more than 60 Serb soldiers. The biggest prize was that Nato, whose bombs were dangerously close to our camp, took out one MiG. Later I climbed high into the hills and found parts of the wing and tail lights.
Then I moved further through alpine hills filled with flowers deeper into Kosovo to the first front lines. Here, high in the mountains, the soldiers were exhausted. They had been in their position for days, perched behind their machine- guns and mortar launchers. With the help of a Macedonian anti-sniper soldier I ran across a field like something straight out of Sound of Music and straight into a skirmish. For 15 minutes I was pinned down in another ditch, while the soldier crouched next to me and motioned with his hands when to move forward.
It was dark when I returned to base - the soldiers gave me soup and bread and as I rolled out my borrowed KLA sleeping bag, not warm enough for the freezing night, I smoked a cigarette with two of the youngest soldiers. They were Albanian-American recruits with fresh faces and Ralph Lauren ski hats under their helmets.
Mortars crashed around us as we began to prepare ourselves for a terrible night. One of them tried to make light of the moment and erase the darkness of this terrible day of heavy bombardment.
He was going to the front the next day; it was his first time. One month ago he was a bartender in Chelsea. "I don't want to die," he said. "I'm a simple guy; all I want to do is sit in Starbucks in London and drink a good coffee."