As a boy Clint Borgen dreamed of having an interesting life, radically different from the humdrum sleepiness of Anacortes, Washington, his commercial-fishing-oriented hometown. He played spy games with a seemingly fearless older brother and best friend. At 20, Borgen became a firefighter. No small wonder that the next year (1999) he hopped a flight to Macedonia for a month of volunteer service, simply because he had watched television images of Albanian refugees and wanted to see the war zone for himself.
Returning safely to another somnolent community, this time Pullman, Borgen (’03 Comm.) published a book late last year about his four-year, 13-country marathon of travel, some of it done while pursuing a degree at Washington State University. The book, Geneva Nights: Kosovo Refugee Camps to Swiss Hostess Bars, The Colorful Life of a Young International, details-well, travel, sex, and politics.
There’s Borgen’s brief stint as a ground crew member/bin jockey for American West Airlines in Phoenix, Arizona, where he loaded planes with everything from tropical fish to corpses. (“It’s not uncommon for poorly wrapped bodies to leak fluids into the bin, which often ends up on the luggage.”) The job’s only perk was free travel.
There’s his three-month stay in Geneva, Switzerland, for an internship with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Borgen worked in UNHCR’s media relations office by day and dodged high-class prostitutes in the hostess bars surrounding his apartment by night.
But it all started with that first trip to Macedonia.
“I realized it was crazy ahead of time,” he said last December. “I didn’t realize how crazy it was until I got there.”
His first five hours in the Balkans, Borgen had a customs agent at the airport nearly pull a gun in front of him, shared road space with armored vehicles, saw anti-American graffiti, kept his window rolled up because of the threat of Molotov cocktails, and was nearly run over by an angry teenager on a motorcycle.
Borgen taught English and asked survey questions at refugee camps next to the Kosovo border, working among tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes for the bare shelter of a tent. Whether infants or elderly, the refugees lived, breathed, and slept on packed earth, some so battered by their experiences they could only sit in their tents and stare at the ground. The treatment for one seven-year-old’s toothache was a visit to a filthy office to have his tooth yanked out with no benefit of painkillers by a drunk, angry dentist.
Borgen also saw firsthand the results of America’s abysmal foreign-policy. In one refugee camp, two children playing in their family’s tent discovered a pair of landmines, not an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence in a region peppered with the explosive devices.
Borgen learned about the United States’s refusal in 1997 to sign a U.N. treaty to ban antipersonnel landmines. Why? To keep mines on the North Korean border, according to the official response. Landmines made in the U.S., once their largest exporter, are found all over the world.
Borgen writes, “Across the globe, 18,000 people are killed or maimed by landmines every year. Eighty percent of those are civilians, with children accounting for a third. Most troubling for me was learning of the United States’ lack of participation in eliminating these devices from hell. The country I imagined would be the leader in banning landmines is in fact th single greatest obstacle to a landmine-free world.”
Even after witnessing a war zone’s miseries, Borgen says he would repeat the experience. He says he wants to help refugees again and ultimately work with another aid agency and the United Nations.
“It’s incredible to see a totally different side of the world,” he says. “As soon as you meet one of the refugees, you realize, ‘I could be one of these people.'”