I’m Going to Miss this Place

As KFOR 9 [that’s the next NATO rotation, for those just tuning in] prepares to take over, we’ve been showing them around Kosovo and introducing them to the Serbian Soldiers with whom we work. It’s been a week of saying “goodbye” to friends I’ve made here — both Serbian and Albanian. I’m going to miss them all.

I have so much respect for the Serbian Soldiers with whom I have been working this past year. They are true professionals, and we’ve developed friendships that I hope will last well beyond my rotation here. We’ve learned a lot about one another. We’ve done a lot together — patrols, joint recons, meetings and investigations. I think we’ve taken a gigantic step forward in not only making the region more secure, but also developing a partnership between our two militaries.

From what I can see, politicians may do their thing. Their decisions are many times stupid and self-serving. And we in the military are obligated to implement these decisions.

Recall what a difficult concept this was for Nicki to grasp just a short two months ago. It seems like just yesterday she considered this notion to be equal to “slamming the troops”, “misrepresenting the Soldiers”, “attacking” the troops, saying the soldiers “aren’t doing their jobs”, that they “don’t love America”, “insulting” the troops, “doing a great disservice to every Soldier who is serving here”, “shedding a negative light on the Soldiers”.

But we are Soldiers, and we have a bond that goes beyond politics and beyond the stupid decisions of self-serving politicians by virtue of being military professionals.

No, Kosovo is not completely violence-free yet, but I think we’ve left this a better place for KFOR 9, and I’m pretty proud of that.

She should be. Leaving places better than they were is the American way and, in contrast to some earlier rotations, KFOR 8 represented that. Nicki herself leaves Kosovo a better and more informed American.

I’ve met Serbian Soldiers who deliver potable water and provide aid and medical care to villagers along the Administrative Boundary Line, regardless of the fact that they happen to be Albanians. And these villagers are thankful and have a good relationship with the Serbian Armed Forces. I have met two Serbian Orthodox Priests, whom I am proud to call friends, Father Zvonko of Vitina and Father Dragan of Partes, who are both dedicated to God and peace for everyone, regardless of what they are ethnically.

That is the Serbian way. And the Serbian way is rooted in Christianity. Unlike those whom we favor over the Serbs. As Father Sava Janjic, whose Decani Monastery and two nearby churches repeatedly came under mortar attack in 2002 — said: “In this monastery we sheltered 200 Albanians during the [NATO] bombing period and organised humanitarian aid, which is something which even Albanians now recognise, though they are not ready to do anything for us now, when they are in a position to help.”

I’m likewise proud of the teachers at the Liria school in Lovce, who believe in teaching Albanian children how to be decent human beings and how to respect their fellow man no matter if he is Serbian or Albanian.

Indeed. Specifically Albanian children need to be taught “how to be decent human beings” and tolerance for those who are not of their blood. Though this is a lesson that all children need, most tend to internalize the fairly basic concept early on, and for life. Unfortunately, because of cultural and family influences, and as Nicki confirms here by correctly singling out Albanian children, Albanian children require some remedial training in this department.

These guys actually want to work with KFOR on developing a curriculum of civics for their kids, teaching them about human rights and unity among citizens of Kosovo! I think if people such as these are allowed to continue working for peace and cooperation, and KFOR continues to work toward apprehending criminals and ethnic armed extremists, things will eventualy be OK here.

Correct. Rule of law does not yet prevail in Kosovo. Ethnic armed extremists (a.k.a. jihadist/nationalist terrorists) still have free run in and near Kosovo — and local authorities still need KFOR to do most of the catching.

I can see the confusion and a bit of apprehension in the faces of our KFOR 9 counterparts. But the more we travel the region, the more comfortable they get with the area.

What could they be apprehensive and confused about? In Kosovo? Maybe, just maybe they’re confused about the U.S. position there, which makes the mission uncertain. As my source soldier put it in his last letter to me: “I talked to more people about all this, and they are legitimately worried. And as far as the next rotation coming, I’m worried that those guys will get hit hard and be caught in a mess.” Back to Nicki:

I hope they continue the good work we’ve done here. I remember how scared I was when I first hit the ground here, and how my heart pounded every time I left the wire. I remember how nervous I was the first time I met the Serbian Soldiers with whom I was to work. But the nervousness gave way to knowledge, understanding and relief. And I know KFOR 9 will adjust much like I did.

Indeed. Serbs are not the enemy. Though the U.S. has done everything in its power to make them so, kicking and shoving them into Russia’s arms which they didn’t seek while they did desperately try to be America’s pet over the past eight years, not Russia’s. This now unavoidable Serbian-Russian alliance will determine whether the Serbs stay friendly to the West.

I wish KFOR 9 luck here.

She can say that again. So let’s review our lessons:

* Serbian soldiers are not genocidal. (Recall partner Brad’s words from August that Albanians are “still a bit miffed about a plan of extermination carried out against them in 1999.”)

* Policies and our soldiers who implement them are two separate creatures. To impugn a mission, particularly out of concern for American soldiers, is not to impugn the soldiers themselves.

* Albanians often cleave toward supremacy and therefore may require specialized, extra training in tolerance.

* Criminals and terrorists are running around Kosovo where, additionally, rule of law as a concept still has a long way to go.

* American soldiers, particularly this next rotation, are imperiled.

* It’s not because of Serbs.

That pretty much sums up the crux of my American Legion article that caused Nicki Fellenzer and Brad Staggs to make an enemy of me.

As a sidebar, and to illustrate that indeed the Kosovo that Nicki and her fellow KFOR 8 soldiers, including my source, leave behind is superior to the Kosovo that we saw as recently as 2004, is this snapshot from May, 2003. Via Oslo, Norway’s Forum 18 News Service:

KOSOVO: No protection in capital for attacked Orthodox Church and Priest

Despite repeated requests for protection, including requests made personally two weeks ago to the KFOR commander, adaquate [sic] protection for a Serbian Orthodox Church and its priest in Kosovo’s capital Pristina has not been provided since the removal of KFOR guards at the end of 2002. Attacks have become frequent and on 10 May many church windows were broken. Parish priest Fr Miroslav Popadic told Forum 18 News Service that “I open the church gates only on Sunday mornings and on major holidays for the faithful to come to liturgy, otherwise, if someone comes to church without a call in advance I do not open the gates. When I visit local villages, I make the sign of the cross, sit in my car and drive fast at my own risk”. KFOR’s commander told Fr Popadic he “cannot give any more troops for the protection of churches”. No arrests have been made since for the attacks on Orthodox churches since 1999 and KFOR has not replied to Forum 18 News Service’s questions on this latest attack, or to questions about the security of Orthodox churches and monasteries.

“There have been various attacks on this church before,” reported Fr Popadic, the only remaining priest serving the once thriving parish. “On 27 December 2000 a hand grenade was thrown into the churchyard, causing minor damage. But people keep stoning my apartment regularly, since I live in the parish house in the yard.”

He said the grenade attack had occurred while KFOR troops were still protecting the church. During January, he reported, two police officers kept guard, one from the UNMIK police and the other from the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), a local police force mainly made up of ethnic Albanians. He said that during February the church was guarded only by a single KPC officer, while for the last month and a half the church has had no protection at all. “No wonder the extremists are encouraged.”

“Bishop Artemije personally sent a written warning to international representatives in Pristina that KFOR should resecure the church and the parish hall,” the diocesan statement declared. “Regrettably, this appeal did not result in a favourable response.”…

Two weeks ago, in the wake of Bishop Artemije’s letter, KFOR commander Lt-Gen. Fabio Mini visited Fr Popadic, accompanied by police officers. “I complained that I am unable to walk freely even in the churchyard, let alone in the streets of Pristina, that often in the night from 9pm to midnight my apartment is stoned, and that there are fewer than 200 Serbs now living in the whole of Pristina,” Fr Popadic told Forum 18. “The police promised more frequent patrols, while General Mini told me we have to move forward and that he cannot give any more troops for the protection of churches.”…More than a hundred Orthodox churches have been destroyed or badly damaged in Kosovo since the international community took control of the province in 1999.

Thankfully, NATO, UN and other international organizatons today are devoting greater attention and resources to the safety of what’s left of Kosovo’s churches. At the same time, we shouldn’t kid ourselves; one must maintain a dose of cynicism as concerns all things Kosovo. It is not an accident that as status determination drew nearer, promising to shine a spotlight on the region for a little while, more began to be done to fulfill the international community’s obligations there and create some semblance of standards. Again, this in no way impugns soldiers, who behave in earnest regardless of policy — always ready, willing and able to help but not always able to, depending on the policy of the day.

Hopefully we stay true to our word and do not abandon these people should our policymakers achieve their obsessively-sought goal of independence for Kosovo.