BRIGHT DAYS FOR KOSOVO
Written and produced by AJ du Fresne
It has been more than ten years since the war ended in Kosovo, and while Kosovars have much to celebrate in their independence from Serbia, many struggles remain in this post-war country. Tensions persist between Serbia and Kosovo, while a constant military presence has remained since 1999 in an effort to keep the peace. The Kosovo government continues its struggle to find its footing as naysayers openly root for its failure or simply refuse to recognize its existence in the world as a legitimate sovereign nation.
This was the political climate when, in May 2017, I was able to gain access to one of several KFOR (Kosovo Force) Army bases to learn about the ongoing presence of the multi-national force, including U.S. Army troops, in Kosovo since the war ended in 1999. I wanted to determine if its mission is successfully meeting its objective. Despite the challenges facing Kosovo, brighter days are in its future.
Camp Bondsteel is the primary base of the U.S. Army under Kosovo command. Located near Ferizaj, about a 45-minute drive southeast of Pristina. It serves as the NATO headquarters for KFOR’s Multinational Battle Group East (MNBG-E) 37th Brigade Combat Team. Named for U.S. Army Staff Sergeant James L. Bondsteel, a Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War. The camp once housed a division of 20,000 soldiers under the command of a two-star General. It is now a Colonel-level command with over 1,000 troops in camp and less than 5,000 NATO troops in the country.
After settling in my hotel room, which was decorated in early 20th-century Russian Oligarch, I logged on to the wifi with my cell phone, answered a few emails and texts, then headed off to pick up my rental car for my appointment at Bondsteel. As soon I left the hotel, I lost service on my cell phone. After a few moments of tech-related panic and horrific thoughts of being disconnected from the world in a former Eastern Bloc country, I was soon greeted by a helpful car rental agent who offered me a slightly old-school solution: download the map of Kosovo to my cell phone. He asked me where I was going. I told him Camp Bondsteel, south of Pristina. I asked him if he knew where it was? He smiled and said in perfect English, “everyone knows where it is.”
There is new construction everywhere in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. New apartments and office buildings are under construction in every direction, including two new Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, but no visible Burger King or McDonald’s just yet.
The streets are filled with students and professionals walking the sidewalks laughing and enjoying life in peace. War is a distant memory, though the underlying tension of history remains, even in 2017. Exiting the city into the country, I drive by the old communist television station, RTV21, where a graffiti artist tagged its exterior wall with Fuck NATO. Clearly, political change is not easy, especially when the remnants of war remain fresh in citizen minds.
Everything in this country has surprised me. I expected to see the remnants of Soviet rule – like East Germany before the Berlin Wall fell. Instead, I found bustling municipal areas and, just beyond the city limits, rolling green hills blending into sparse housing units and minarets in the distance. After driving twenty minutes through the beautiful, hilly landscape, the interstate comes to an unexpected end and I find myself on a back road, populated by several businesses that are selling only light fixtures. It is an odd combination of indoor and outdoor light purveyors in industrial-sized warehouses with very little human activity one would expect for late-morning. At this point, I am still unsure if I am driving in the right direction, not having seen one road sign for Camp Bondsteel, until I see a sign named in honor of Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau Biden. Just off “Beau Biden National Road,” on a large manmade hill, lies Camp Bondsteel.
I was greeted at the camp security gate by the Public Affairs Officer, Lieutenant Dustin Lawson, who apologized for some confusion over my arrival time before climbing in the car and directing me up the hill to base headquarters. On the drive, the Columbus, Ohio, native spoke about the path that lead him, and about 1,000 other soldiers to a land most Americans couldn’t point to on a map. “Simple,” said Lawson, a published author, and cancer survivor, “my sense of duty lead me here.”
Lawson has a quick and fairly official-sounding answer to questions about the camp’s purpose in modern Kosovo. After generations of disorder, rebellion and violent repression, peace remains precarious for this small, secluded nation. “The primary responsibility is to patrol the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL), or green line, that separates Kosovo and Serbia,” Lawson explained. “NATO soldiers conduct joint patrols daily with the Serbian Armed Forces (SAF) and Kosovo Border Police (KBP) in order to ensure coordination and foster cooperation between SAF and KFOR.”
I had no idea what to expect of Kosovo. I knew nothing about the Balkans, other than its location, much less its history. Fortuitously, the KFOR brass assigned me a local interpreter, Burim Myftiu, a month before my arrival in Kosovo. After a few email exchanges, Myftiu suggested that I read Noel Malcolm’s, Kosovo: A Short History, to help me understand the historical framework of the country. A 498-page turner, charting over a thousand years of history from the Etruscans to the dictator Tito.
Kosovo is a country that that has seen its borders and people manipulated because of its geographical location as a crossing for merchants and armies. It has seen rebellion, repression, and protracted disorder by various occupiers since the first century. Its origins start with rule by the Bulgarian Empire, controlled by the Byzantine Empire, occupied by the Romans, then Serbian medieval states, and later oppressed by the Ottoman Empire. In 1913, it became part of the Kingdom of Serbia, which became part of Yugoslavia in 1918, and later occupied by Germany during World War II.
The end of WWII brought the establishment of communist Yugoslavia, and in 1946, Kosovo became an autonomous region of Serbia. It eventually gained its independence under Josip Tito in 1963, but it was more like a socialist dictatorship than an autonomous province. With the 1974 Yugoslavia constitution, Kosovo finally gained independence and self-rule. In the 1980s, tensions between Albanian and Serbian communities escalated. The Albanians preferred more autonomy for Kosovo, while the Serbians favored closer ties with Serbia to the North. When efforts to unify Kosovo with Albania failed, living conditions worsened.
In March 1981, Albanian students at Pristina University organized a protest at the library against the appalling food served in the university cafeteria. The protests quickly escalated as students and citizens alike began to protest. The dispute about the poor food in the commissary turned into concern about the lingering unemployment among the educated students, poor living conditions, and ultimately a call for an independent Kosovo. Protests further escalated into violent riots across six cities in Kosovo. The Yugoslavian government, much to the consternation of the Albanian Kosovars, quickly contained the protests. Demands for a separate and independent Albanian republic within Yugoslavia would not surface again until 1990.
The Kosovar Liberation Army (KLA) launched a war against the Yugoslavian government, security forces, and civilians. The KLA was an Albanian paramilitary organization supported by Albanian and foreign volunteers that fought for the separation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia and Serbia. In 1998, the Yugoslavian army joined Serbian police to fight the KLA. As fighting intensified, thousands of Albanian civilians died and more than 400,000 fled their homes. Despite peace negotiations between representatives from Serbia, Albania, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) the fighting intensified. NATO tried to intervene again in 1999, but a full-scale war broke out as NATO and the KLA attacked Serbian and Yugoslav forces. Kosovo Albanians were subject to ethnic cleansing committed by the Yugoslav government led by President Slobodan Milošević. The International Criminal Court in The Hague, later indicted Milošević, government representatives, and military officers. Milošević later died in detention before a verdict was rendered, but more importantly, the war was over.
The war ended in June 1999, with the Serbian and Yugoslav governments signing the Kumanovo agreement that transferred governance of the province to the United Nations. A NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) entered the province following the Kumanovo peace accord tasked with providing security to the UN Mission in Kosovo. In 2008, Kosovo’s Parliament declared independence to a mixed international response. Russia, as a permanent voting member of the UN Security Council, was concerned that a resolution for independence would undermine state sovereignty, i.e. Serbian concerns. Although Russia later agreed to the resolution, Serbia continues to dispute regional sovereign territory.
Relations between Serbia and Kosovo have moved toward normalization in recent years. Kosovo received formal recognition as an independent state from most of the member states of the United Nations. Since 2008, there have been sporadic instances of unrest against international and governmental institutions, predominantly in Northern Kosovo. There has been a general peaceful existence in Kosovo since the end of the war, largely through the efforts of the Kosovo Border Police (KBP), Serbian Armed Forces (SAF), and the NATO’s KFOR.
Upon arrival at Camp Bondsteel, Lt. Lawson took me to meet with Colonel Joel Hagy, a six-foot-two, broad-shouldered, smart, greying product of West Point, on his last tour of duty before retirement. He is second in command as the Cavalry Chief of the Joint Implementation Commission at NMBG-East. He is anxious to be relieved from his nine-month tour of duty and return to his family in Ohio. He is matter of fact and to-the-point about the underlying danger that continues to plague the country.
“The ABL was a fairly contentious area, [with] lots of tension between the KFOR and SAF. Where there is tension and heavily armed soldiers, there can be danger and mistakes,” Hagy said. “So, in order to de-escalate these tensions, KFOR started doing synchronized patrols with SAF around 2007.” The combined patrols has permitted each side to know and see what the other is up to. “Its purpose,” Hagy added, “is to get to know each other better and alleviate potential hostile acts.”
There is also a shared concern regarding issues that could affect a safe and secure environment while military patrols are focused on areas of mutual concern, such as stopping illegal activity along the ABL. “Although KFOR does not have a law enforcement mandate, they support the KBP in conducting their law enforcement mission with capabilities they do not yet have such as aircraft and heavy haul trucks,” Hagy explained.
The KBP does not report to KFOR. They work together to ensure a safe and secure environment along the ABL. Hagy said he is not concerned about security between the two adversaries. “We work well with both the SAF and the KBP. Of course, we have very different interests, [while] the SAF and KBP have mutual interests and objectives; both are professional military or law enforcement organizations and [KFOR] works well with both.”
While on a tour of the base, I ask Lieutenant Lawson about the primary KFOR objective. Is the objective a diplomatic mission to have a military presence in the region to keep the peace, or are U.S. (and KFOR) soldiers actually working with local governments, hospitals, and politicians to build and sustain internal harmony in the area? “We don’t have a political agenda,” admitted Lawson. “We help to monitor the security situation and if they want our help we will engage in any way we can. Our goal is to maintain the security environment established in 1999, so Kosovo politicians are able to take risks while implementing their policies to help further the growth of Kosovo without the risk of being shot.”
The long-term U.S. objective is to leave Kosovo. That will not happen until the Kosovars and their military are able to maintain their own security without outside assistance. There are no current plans for a reduction of U.S. or international troops. There have been centuries of tension in the Balkans for a variety of political, social, religious, and ethnic reasons. When U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) visited the Balkans in April 2017, he made a speech from the same spot on the Sarajevo Latin Bridge where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, sparking the start of WWI. McCain observed that the succession of regional Balkan violence and war through the first half of the 20th century may be in the past, but tensions and risk remain and could fuel the next world conflict. Although there is relative stability in the region now, there remains an underlying tension between the Serbians and Albanians. It is a reminder that each side must remain vigilant in maintaining peace.
When KFOR troops are not patrolling the ABL, they are on public relations duty in the region. I traveled with the troops to attend a cook-off in Pristina between two of KFOR’s Colonel’s on the RTV21 (www.rtv21.tv) popular cooking show Dicka po zihet with amiable host Xheraldina Vula. RTV21 once held the communist television studio and propaganda engine under Tito. The event is a rock-infused mix of party and contest. A band supplied by U.S. troops plays music ranging from Elvis to Tom Petty. While the two culinary teams prepare their food, Vula playfully flirts with the soldiers in perfect English. As soon as the show goes to live, she easily switches
to her native Albanian. The mood is lively – if a touch sweaty. When the RTV21 studio was built under Tito they failed to consider installing air conditioning. The producer had to turn off the noisy mobile air conditioning units in the studio so they could hear the audio from the host and guests. Under the hot studio lights and ovens, the room quickly warmed, prompting Vula to repeatedly wipe perspiration from her brow. Still, a good time was had by all and the PR effort goes a long way in reminding Kosovars that KFOR and American soldiers remain in the country on their behalf to keep the peace while the citizens respond with appreciation and public gratitude.
“KFOR is considered NATO’s most widely successful mission because of the stability it created in the region and because of the cooperation of more than 30 nations. The American flag is well respected and appreciated by Kosovars for what it represents.” Lawson said.
They also understand the importance of other countries that have dedicated and sacrificed for them to maintain détente as long as necessary.
The locals love the American troops, and that is not hyperbole. In honor of American military aid and protection during the war, the citizens placed a statue of Bill Clinton in a Pristina square and named a street after George H.W. Bush for their efforts in sustaining peace.
On my last day in Kosovo, I was invited to go on a KFOR patrol to Prizren. Driving southwest from Camp Bondsteel, the picturesque countryside is scattered with warning signs of old minefields from the war. It is also where some of the heaviest fighting took place. Prizren, the second largest city in Kosovo, is located on the Bistrica River at the foot of the Šar Mountains. It is a unique place with a remarkable history. It is one of the most multi-ethnic cities in Kosovo with Albanians, Turkish, Bosnians, Serbians, and Roma people all co-existing peacefully. I am told Muslims will invite Christians to their homes during the evenings of Ramadan to break fast with them while enjoying their customs, food, and company.
During a dinner with Myftiu, who is tall with a humble, welcoming smile and always willing to dispense information, we talk about history, art, and photography. He is well versed in all of the subjects. I mention that although I am grateful for the KFOR interpreter, I did not need one as everyone speaks English very well. I tell him that I am curious and impressed with his country and its people, especially the citizens of Prizren. “The citizens of Prizren have been living together and coexisting for many centuries and because of that they are used to living in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society,” Myftiu explained.
While walking with the KFOR troops up a steep hill to visit the medieval Prizren fortress Kaljaja, several young girls on a school field trip stop us and asked to have their picture taken with the soldiers. One of them yells to us, “We love America!” (see photo). We acknowledge the shout-out with a wave and a smile. All of the students are equally excited and embarrassed to meet the soldiers as they pose for a photograph. The bravest one offers, “I speak five languages!” Then asks Sargent Hoobler for a photograph. I oblige with my camera and take their photograph. She probes further, “Hey, want to be Facebook friends? You can send the photo to me.” Hoobler and I glance at each other and smile. He politely replies, “No, but thank you.”
Kosovo has a predominantly mainstream Muslim population. Islam was imposed by the Ottomans 500 years ago. Prior to that, the entire country was Christian. Suspicion of religious doctrine runs through the country. After WWII, religion was forbidden in Kosovo (then Yugoslavia), resulting in a Kosovar population that is mostly secular. In fact, only a small percentage of citizens practice any religion at all. In Kosovo, there is a center for Islamic studies, where students prepare for the Imam. Other students study abroad, mainly in Arab countries. When they complete their studies, some of the students bring Wahhabism or Salafism back to Kosovo. According to Myftiu, “[Wahhabism] has nothing to do with the country’s traditions.” The majority of religious Kosovars are against foreign influence in their religious traditional practices. However, the sluggish economic situation and low-income levels make it possible for these religious influences to deprive them of opportunities and a formal university education.
These religious camps are funded and supported by Non-Government Organizations (NGO) from Arab countries. They have funded the construction of new mosques in their own style. The Saudi government has been building mosques as fast as it can under the noses of the Kosovo government and its allies in the name of religious toleration. The New York Times reported that the Saudis have constructed over 200 mosques across Kosovo since the end of the war in hopes of indoctrinating new converts to its conservative Wahhabism dogma.
The threat of intolerant, jihadist extremism is a real threat to the peace in Kosovo. Over the years, police have arrested several radicals for terrorist activities and have identified others who have conducted terrorist attacks in other countries. The Saudis saw an opportunity to provide financial support while the Americans and their allies saw an opportunity to create a democracy and an ally. The Kosovars and Serbians have lived in relative peace as the predominately-Albanian Kosovar government strives to keep radical Islam outside of its borders while remaining tolerant of other religions.
In spite of the struggles of creating a new democratic nation, on the surface, the Kosovars are happy but are wary of being under control by another nation. The government is functioning, but with many difficulties. “Citizens are not pleased with the government,” admitted Myftiu. “The politicians are corrupt and dishonest. They are seen as plutocrats and opportunists.” The current Kosovo government is mostly made up of former KLA war veterans. They are viewed as incompetent and inadequate. Myftiu added, “Because the country is small (less than 2 million citizens) everything is understood very fast. The population is feeling deceived and disappointed. They are feeling unsafe about the future.”
KFOR is there to ensure that Kosovo’s security interests are equipped for success in the present and future. Kosovo, having just emerged from a decades-old war, is the newest (unofficial) state in European Union and utilizing the Euro. “It may be facing many problems, such as the economy, unemployment, education, corruption, and security, but sooner or later it will be part of the European Union,” predicted Myftiu. “It has a young and dynamic population. Governments never remain the same – they change.”
Russia’s interest is to have a sustained influence in the Balkans. It has maintained a close relationship with Serbia over many centuries. Their association affects Kosovo only in that Russia will never officially recognize their independence. As for the future, both Serbia and Kosovo continue to pursue European Union membership. This will help each of their governments to resolve issues of privatization, property claims, among other lingering matters.
According to Colonel Hagy, “the ethnic tensions that sparked the war seem to be well under control. Partly because not many Serbs remain in Kosovo, partly because it’s been almost twenty years, and most of the citizens are resigned to Kosovo independence.”
“Everyone in Kosovo knows that America has liberated [our] country. The presence of the American Army [KFOR] in Kosovo is more than welcome,” Myftiu added. “People are grateful for this. I often hear from people saying that it would be nice if we had been a new star on the American flag.”
The citizens of Kosovo may be struggling now, but their resolve is great and focused on how to make life better rather than fighting for something that is likely never going to happen again – Kosovo becoming part of Serbia again. Myftiu clarified, “Bright days for Kosovo are coming.”