Less dangerous and less publicized, but still a job to be done in Kosovo
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo — Thousands of American soldiers taking on the role of peacekeepers in a foreign land, the world’s attention focused on their efforts.
That certainly might sum up the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But five years ago, the world was locked on another volatile region: the Balkans. A historic, 78-day NATO bombing campaign finally had convinced Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to begin pulling his forces out of the embattled province of Kosovo — an area virtually unknown to Americans a short while before.
On June 12, 1999, allied troops entered Kosovo.
Five years later, American forces — part of a multinational Kosovo Force that has broad support around the globe — still are doing pretty much what they were doing in the beginning.
“Our mission truly hasn’t changed since ’99,” says Brig. Gen. Rick Erlandson, commander of the American sector in Kosovo, Multinational Brigade-East. “The operating environment has changed, even though the mission hasn’t.”
That environment generally is far less threatening for American troops than in Iraq. While Kosovo is no paradise — the United Nations estimates that 57 percent of the working population is still unemployed — troops say they’re still seen by most people as liberators.
“Americans have done a good job of treating people equally here, treating people fairly,” says 2nd Lt. Ryan Gore, leading a patrol of fellow members of the Minnesota National Guard through the city of Vitina.
But Gore, along with just about every soldier in the province, saw how quickly the relatively peaceful conditions could change during a few days in March.
A day after the deaths of three ethnic Albanian boys in the city of Kosovska Mitrovica — reportedly after they were chased into a river by ethnic Serbs — chaos erupted throughout the province. Angry ethnic Albanians lashed out at the minority Serb population, burning homes, committing murder and putting the spotlight briefly back on Kosovo.
No one was killed in Vitina, but several homes were destroyed. Small groups of American troops tried to stop the attacks and kept the town’s Orthodox church from getting damaged.
“We had four guys holding off 400 to 500 people,” says Spc. Matthew Vander Plas. A few rocks were thrown, and some youths tried to hit the soldiers with sticks. But the crowd eventually dispersed, leaving the soldiers with a new perspective on their mission.
“It really reinforced in our minds why we’re here,” says Spc. Anthony Duong, a member of the Iowa National Guard, looking out his Humvee while traveling between a few villages surrounding Gnjilane. Duong is stationed at Camp Monteith, the second and smaller American base camp in the province.
Neeraj Singh, a spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Kosovo police force, told reporters last week that about 270 people have been arrested so far for their roles in the riots. Some already have been convicted of charges, such as disturbing public order. Others facing more serious crimes still are awaiting trials. Investigations into the initial incident have found no proof any Serbs were involved in the boys’ deaths.
For his part, Erlandson is tired of talking about the riots.
“We’re two months away and people are still asking about it,” he says with a slight grimace.
Still, he admits, the riots did show tensions in the province are still there, if mostly kept under the surface. So he calls the security situation “still somewhat fragile.”
But he bristles at the idea that the province has regressed to what it was when troops first entered.
“I certainly don’t think it took us back to ’99,” he says.
Trying to be seen
The situation in Vitina has calmed enough that American troops no longer operate out of Camp McGrath, which once was the third U.S. base camp in the province.
That leaves only Monteith, on the outskirts of Gnjilane, and the sprawling main camp of Bondsteel, where most troops live. Others rotate in and out of smaller facilities for short stays.
So Gore’s two-Humvee patrol has a bit of a drive to make before it reaches Vitina, the responsibility of Company C from the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment. The patrol drives around the city, making occasional stops, before coming to a halt near the city’s center.
“We’re just out here really to be seen,” Gore says of the day’s task.
And that’s a large part of the U.S. mission these days, soldiers say. They conduct patrols constantly. They set up checkpoints. They check abandoned buildings. They cordon and search houses when acting on specific information. But mostly, they try to keep themselves visible.
That seems to be a bit harder to do these days, though. Many Kosovars have gotten used to the troops being around. Groups of young ladies, arm in arm, stroll down the street in front of the soldiers, who stand in front of their Humvees. Packs of young men are interspersed between them.
But not many give even a casual glance to the Americans standing by, weapons in hand.
“The kids are still fascinated with us,” Vander Plas says. “But as far as the general population, I think they’ve gotten used to us.”
There are aspects about Kosovo, though, that the soldiers can’t get used to. The biggest one is the hatred between the ethnic groups. Many more Serbs used to live in Vitina, but they’ve fled or been driven out.
Almost all Americans have a tough time telling Serb from Albanian without the telltale signs of religious clothing. But the local population doesn’t share that problem. Asked what would happen to the Serb population if the Americans weren’t around, Gore turns grim.
“They’d have them hanging from the street poles,” he says. “Every Albanian I’ve ever talked to says that if [the province] goes back to Serbia, there will be war again.”
That constant undercurrent of hatred — though not shared by all members of the population — and the slow pace of positive changes can wear on soldiers.
“This place, to me, is depressing,” says Staff Sgt. Jeff Holden. “The people don’t seem like they want to better their lives. They want us to do everything for them. They need to have initiative.”
More work ahead
Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the U.N. mission, says it’s understandable if soldiers have trouble seeing improvement on a daily basis. But he says there have been “tons of changes” since he first came to the province at the end of 1999.
“If you look at it from a larger point of view ... it’s easier to see,” he says.
Kosovo now has an elected government that everyone accepts, though they might not like how it’s working, Lindmeier says.
Commercial banks exist now and have helped fuel a seemingly booming environment for small businesses. Cafes are everywhere and other businesses spring up daily. The Kosovo Police Service — with about 6,500 members — is now about twice the size of its international counterpart.
“It’s getting better and better,” Lindmeier says. “Is it perfect? No. It could be much better.”
Infrastructure still is a problem. The province has two plants that produce electricity. Lindmeier describes one of them as “old, rotten, badly maintained for decades” and says the other one isn’t a lot better. Roads and water systems also are primitive by western European standards.
That lack of infrastructure, coupled with the uncertain future of the province’s status, largely has kept international investors away. So large employers, desperately needed with the burgeoning labor force, are virtually nonexistent.
“You’d either have to make a huge profit, because you’re taking some risk, or you have to be emotionally involved,” Lindmeier says.
Looking to the future
Troops are emotionally involved in their work. It’s hard not to be affected by the plight of many of the people they’re protecting.
Staff Sgt. Casey Bultman, a member of 1st Battalion, 113th Cavalry Regiment, leads a patrol through several small villages outside of Gnjilane. One of them is a Serb enclave. It’s not a happy place.
“This town’s got a big problem,” Bultman says, pausing briefly, “with basically everything.”
The United Nations estimates unemployment in such areas is more than 90 percent. Even those with jobs aren’t happy.
While trying to conduct a basic survey of businesses in the village, the patrol makes two stops and gets the information easily. The store owner of a third shop isn’t so helpful. He refuses to give his name or acknowledge that he actually owns the business.
Bultman finally loses patience. Standing in the background initially, he takes over the questioning himself. His voice clearly indicates he’s not happy. The man quickly answers the questions before getting a brief lecture.
“You need to cooperate with KFOR, sir,” Bultman says. “If we come here 15,000 times, you need to cooperate with KFOR.”
Most of the time, though, people do cooperate, if for no other reason than the troops wear down resistance with hundreds, if not thousands, of such visits. Soldiers say someone needs to change attitudes and help move the province to more prosperity.
And, at least for now, they’re the ones doing it.
“They’ve got this invisible wall between them,” says Sgt. Grant Van Beek, talking specifically about the relations between ethnic groups. But he might as well be talking about local residents’ current status and a more prosperous future. “It’s going to take a lot of years to change that.”
U.S. playing small role in Balkan region
CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo — Unlike the NATO bombing campaign, where American bombers and jets played a dominant role, the United States has always been only a small part of the peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.
That’s not any different today. Dozens of countries inside and outside of NATO have contributed troops to the effort from the start.
At one point, there were about 7,000 American troops among the 50,000 peacekeepers in country. Today, only a little more than 2,000 of the 17,000 peacekeepers are from the United States.
General officers from France, Italy and Sweden lead operations in the other three sectors of the province. German Lt. Gen. Holger Kammerhoff has been heading up KFOR operations in theater since October.
On the U.S. side, just as in Bosnia a few hundred miles to the northwest, the mission largely has fallen to reserve components. National Guardsmen from 19 states — with large contingents from Minnesota and Iowa — are currently serving in Kosovo. Soldiers generally serve six-month tours, though some are staying three months longer currently.
The next two scheduled rotations will be headed by Guard elements from the Ohio and California.
The majority of Americans in country live on Camp Bondsteel, a sprawling compound outside of Ferizaj/Urosevac that U.S. forces created on a series of hillsides shortly after arriving in theater. Hundreds of local residents are employed in a variety of capacities. A few live on the base, along with the soldiers and American contractors.
They eat from three dining facilities, a Burger King and an Anthony’s Pizza restaurant.
The AAFES exchange still is a popular destination not only for American troops, but those from other countries. There are almost as many fitness centers (three) as there are trees on base, but efforts have been made to make the base greener and less dusty.
Fewer soldiers on base mean that there’s far less crowding in the rows and rows of sea huts, though many soldiers spend more time in Humvees off base than they do in their quarters anyway.
Soldiers say they’re able to talk to families back in the States frequently and many already are looking forward to reunions in late August.
— Kent Harris