Reflections on Kosovo

Before I deployed to Kosovo I read two books, Robert D. Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts and Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Anyone traveling to the Balkans should seriously consider absorbing these two gems to gain historical understanding of the region, its people and culture. I was particularly amazed to see how little Kosovo had changed since West published her book in the 1930's. I kept both books with me as reference guides during my time in Kosovo and still have them on the shelf at home.

I never chose sides in the eighteen months I served in Kosovo. To say one side is right and the other wrong in a conflict that has been ongoing for 600 years is foolhardy. Any Serb will tell you that it all started on 15 June, 1389, when a Christian Serb army led by Prince Lazar battled the invading Muslims of the Ottoman Empire on the plains of Kosovo. Prince Lazar was betrayed by his son-in-law Vuk Brankovič, who switched sides and fought with the Turks to help them defeat Lazar and introduce Islam to the region. There is no historical evidence to support the claim that Vuk backstabbed his father-in-law in support of the invading Muslims, but try telling that to a Serb. That myth is as ingrained in them as the American belief that the first Europeans to set foot on the North American continent came over on the Mayflower.

Because of the actions of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990's, the media portrayed Serbs as bloodthirsty demons hell bent on committing horrific atrocities against all Muslims. Few journalists are historians, and no mention was made of the atrocities committed during WWII by the Skanderbeg Albanian SS division against Serbs in Kosovo. During that same time period, Serb villagers living in the mountain regions rescued and hid downed American airmen, saving hundreds of American lives at the expense of their own. Tortured and shot, with entire villages sometimes massacred by the Skanderbeg SS, the Serbs refused to give information on where they were hiding the Americans (there is an excellent book on this subject, The Forgotten 500 by Gregory Freeman). That was why so many surviving veterans from that war who owed their lives to the courage of Serbian people traveled to Washington, D.C., to protest Clinton's ordered bombing of Belgrade.

My first few months in Kosovo I lived in a farmhouse in the Serb village of Čaglaviča, which is about 4 miles outside Priština. My landlord, Zoran, had a wife and three children and they were hosts of incomparable generosity and kindness. The first snow in the winter of 2002-03 came on September 29, and that day and every day after when I arrived home from work Zoran had a fire burning in the wood stove in the kitchen. I would have stayed in that house for the duration of my tour but a shortage of vehicles and the time it took to travel to and from work made it impractical.

A short distance from Čaglaviča is the larger village of Gračaniča, where a 14th century monastery still stands (built on the remains of a 6th century basilica). The architecture is traditional for the time period in which it was constructed and the frescoes adorning the interior are stunning. The monks made wine, some for drinking and other bottles that had wooden souvenir Orthodox Christian crosses on the inside. My father was a deeply religious Catholic and I brought one home for him. The monks also produced rakija (ROCK-e-uh), a plum-based fiery liqueur, which was commonly referred to as "rocket fuel." Also in Gračaniča was The Blue, a restaurant that served the best pork steaks you'll ever eat.

I knew an American who served in Kosovo that married an Albanian woman and started a KFC franchise of sorts. It stood for Kosovo Fried Chicken and was quite tasty!

I knew, in fact, several American men in their forties and fifties who divorced their wives and married Albanian women who were half their age. For some it worked out, while others discovered that they were used only for a green card after their wives left them upon acquiring legal residency in the USA.

I remember going through State Department orientation for Kosovo in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and being assigned to a room with a bible thumper. He happened to be from New Mexico. He tried preaching to me about the evils of staying out late, drinking alcohol, and having sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage. He was headed back to Kosovo on his second tour. I told him to fuck off and mind his own business. Years later I discovered that he had returned to Kosovo for a third tour and left his wife and children for a much younger Albanian woman. After returning home with his new bride he helped her obtain her green card. Once she had acquired it, she promptly cleaned out his bank account and divorced him for a younger guy.

I remember the warm summer night at the Kukri Bar in downtown Priština, sitting outside at one of several picnic tables, when an obnoxious silver-haired American cop told a young Albanian man he couldn't sit at the table because it was only for internationals. The tables were big enough to hold ten or twelve people, and the American was trying to hog it on the premise that he had friends coming later and they would need a place to sit. The kid said in perfect English that he had a right to sit where he wanted and the American, more than twice his age, jumped up and got in his face. The kid punched him, the guy's eyeglasses went flying, and he yelled at the bouncers to call the police because he wanted the kid arrested. The rest of us at the table were embarrassed by his behavior and told him to shut up and sit down. He was being unreasonable and we told him so. He stormed off, complaining about Americans refusing to back each other up.

I recall the intense emotions of Serbian villagers at the scene of the murders of the Stolič family, an elderly couple and their mentally impaired son axed to death and their house set on fire in the village of Obilič. I arrived on scene with other investigators and was immediately surrounded by angry Serbian men led by the brother of the deceased father. They had noticed the American flag on the sleeve of my uniform. The translator told me that they wanted to know why I was there. They hated Americans ever since Clinton had bombed Belgrade and killed Serbian people, and my presence was an insult to them. They figured I was present to orchestrate a coverup. I replied calmly that I was there to help solve the murders of three people and asked if I could depend on their cooperation. That took the wind out of their sails and I saw shoulders droop and fists unclench. They were spoiled for a fight and would have gladly taken the toll out of my hide if I had been arrogant or confrontational. Some weeks after, Mr. Stolič invited me to his house, apologized for his behavior that day, and I replied that his reaction was perfectly understandable and I held no grudge against him. We drank rakija on the back patio and he told me stories about his family. An arrest was eventually made and the Albanian Muslim culprit brought to justice.

There was the case of the African police officer, I forget from which country, who shacked up with an Albanian girl. After some weeks the girl told him that Albanian men in the village found her conduct unacceptable and advised her to break off the romance. The African told her not to worry about it because he was UN Police, and the tryst continued. He got in his UN vehicle one morning for work, turned the key in the ignition, and KA-BOOM. Blew one of his legs off and he died at the scene.

There were the two Albanian brothers, both adults and perhaps not the sharpest pencils in the drawer, who found the remains of a cluster bomb in an area that was taped off because of explosive ordnance that had been dropped by NATO forces during the liberation of the province. A cluster munition is made up of hundreds of smaller bombs that contain various types of explosives and how they are constructed depends on what they are designed for: anti-personnel, anti-tank, etc. In this particular case, the cluster bomb was anti-personnel and the brothers took it to a park and banged on it with a hammer in order to crack it open and see what was inside. Witnesses said on the third hammer strike a huge blast occurred and pieces of the brothers were found in various park locations, including trees. They were both decapitated. The incident occurred just before sunset and a decision was made to tape off the crime scene and come back at dawn. Big mistake. In the morning the heads were missing. Priština had huge packs of dogs running about at night, and they made off with the heads and anything else they could find that was edible. The only remains we could process hung from tree branches.

Speaking of those dog packs, I awakened one morning to automatic weapons fire. Members of the Swedish army were chasing a pack of dogs in a jeep that had an automatic rifle mounted behind the front seats. I had heard of the practice of killing the dogs because of attacks on people, and watched with interest from my balcony as the pack split up and the Swedes focused their attention on a rather large hound. They blasted away as they bounced along, the terrified animal running for its life as I'm sure many of its victims had in the past. I rooted for the dog, anyway, but all for naught. They caught him with a burst as he zigzagged his way across the grass and down for the count he went.

I remember how pretty the countryside of Kosovo was, but the city of Priština, with its traditional red block Communist-era buildings, ugly and unimaginative. Homes were surrounded by high walls with glass embedded into the top, à la Mexico, and people threw garbage over their fences and into the street as if ridding it from their yards had no impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

I remember the six-story banner of Bill Clinton hanging on the side of an apartment building on the road to the airport. The Albanians loved Clinton since he had bombed Belgrade to stop the actions of the madman MIlosevič. I faithfully saluted that banner with my middle finger each time I passed it and not because of any political beliefs regarding Kosovo, but only because of my opinion that the office of the President should stand for more than monetary favoritism and sexual gratification.

I remember the Brits in charge of the regional crime squad opting for a good breakfast before responding to a homicide. We had received a call of a murder, but instead of responding immediately we drove 20 minutes to KFOR Hill (KFOR was the acronym for Kosovo Forces, the international military presence in Kosovo), where there was a restaurant on a British base that served an English breakfast almost as good as the Kukri's. While the local cops waited at the scene of the murder, we enjoyed a fry up complete with tomatoes and mushrooms but minus the blood pudding. "Never know when you might get your next meal," my British team leader said, adding, "that dead body isn't going anywhere." My buddy, a police officer from Chicago, and I both laughed, imagining what discipline would be handed out to a cop in the states who opted for breakfast over response to the scene of a murder.

I remember hopping a British Airways flight with that same Chicago cop, both of us concluding that the idea of leaving the province for a Friday happy hour and long weekend in London just for the hell of it was a wonderful idea. The flight was only 3.5 hours, so why not? We transported ourselves from third-world to first-world in the span of 215 minutes, and went pub hopping in Covent Garden and the West End.

The camaraderie among international cops serving in Kosovo was wonderful, although backstabbing among Americans was prominent. I, and others from the USA were asked more than once by cops from other nations why Americans were like that, and it simply came down to accountability. Other nations sent their national police to Kosovo and those officers were held accountable for their actions. If those cops acted outside the bounds of acceptable behavior they would be sent home and have a black mark on their records that would follow them throughout their careers. But Americans were either retired or had quit their jobs to serve in Kosovo. There was no national police force in the USA. There were individual Americans who screwed over others for the sake of personal gain and, quite frankly, we had some real worms within our ranks. But for the most part we had good cops that took care of each other and recognized the sycophants for what they were and treated them accordingly.

I remember the trips to Camp Bondsteel, the US Army military base that had a Burger King and a PX. What a treat to be served an American hamburger and fries and then do some shopping! And speaking of stores, the UN PX in downtown Priština was nice. Where else could one buy a pure cashmere neck scarf for 10 Euro dollars? And spirits like vodka, gin, American whiskey and bourbon for under $10 US? The Norwegians and Swedish had PX's, too, and a lot of guys bought expensive watches from them at good discounts.

I left Kosovo with wonderful memories and good friendships. But, I wasn't headed home. I went directly to Rome, Italy, to live for six months. I loved that city and still do (Paris and London are tied for second). But the desire to serve was still in me and a few months after returning to the states from Rome found myself on an aircraft bound for Afghanistan.


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