Email from Bill in Kosovo

August 2, 1999

Comment: #304


[1] Andrew Gilligan, "Jackson: Albanians are as bad as Serbs," Telegraph (UK), ISSUE 1528, 1 August 1999

[2] Kosovo's dwindling Serb population loses faith in peacekeepers, Agence France Presse, August 1, 1999

References 1 & 2 below describe the civil unrest in Kosovo -- which is being covered far more thoroughly in the European press than in the American press. The two email messages below are from Bill, a member of the Army National Guard working with KFOR in the American sector. It provides a first hand, live account from someone on pointy end of spear. Note how it seems generally consistent with the descriptions in References 1 & 2.

Email from Bill in Kosovo
(Member of Army National Guard)

23 July 1999
Hello everybody, I finally got an email pipe. It comes and goes.

I've now been here for a month. Things have certainly been exciting.

Our first day of taking over the sector, July the 10th, the Albanians and Serbs tried us out in the city of Gnjilane. Four Albanian gunmen opened fire on a Serb house in the city. Our snipers saw the incident and we moved troops into the sector. As the Albanians threatened the Serbs in the house, our snipers opened fire, killing one and wounding another. The Serbs, not knowing that our snipers were in the area, began to fire back. A gunfight ensued. At the end of it, two Albanians were dead, two wounded, 17 people were arrested and numerous weapons were confiscated. None of our soldiers were harmed.

Gnjilane is a city of about 75,000. It is 3/4 Albanian and 1/4Serbian. Additionally, we control three Obstinas (like counties) and are spread over a 30 by 50 mile area of operations. I currently plan all operations for a reinforced battalion that now numbers about 1500 soldiers and will grow to 1800 in the next couple of weeks. This country is in sad shape.

I've never in my life seen such deep-rooted hatred, deceit and lawlessness.

If there is an 'Old West' in the world today, it surely exists in Kosovo. Take the 20th of July for example. We began the morning with gunfire on the outskirts of the city. By mid-day we found a half a dozen dead civilians throughout the area. That night we worked the repatriation of 4 MUP (Serbian) soldiers we captured on the border the day before and a few minutes later we had mortar fire near one of our platoons. The funny thing is, the day was relatively quiet.

My days are filled with planning missions. We have conducted aerial insertions, sniper surveillance, occupation of checkpoints, active and passive patrols throughout the city and towns and multiple negotiations with all kinds of people. In the last few days I have negotiated with mob-like crowds, the Russians in our sector (complete with international press), the Orthodox Church council (with a no-kidding priest who looks like Rasputin), KLA thugs (whom the nation supported before coming here), and local citizens from vegetable merchants to goat farmers.

This place is a mixture of Europe, the middle east, the middle ages and Wally World. It is not atypical to see an oxcart pass a satellite dish.

My latest project is bringing together Serb and Albanian farmers into 'Farmers' CO-OPs.' They want our security and emergency fuel. I told them they would get it only if they worked together on a joint farm labor force that shared equipment and harvested each others fields. So far, they are going along. We have met twice and today, 16 towns formally agreed to join the CO-OP. The press caught the story two days ago and today the LA Times, UPI and Stars and Stripes interviewed me on the story.

I am truly having a good time. I've not really been concerned about the danger here. I still have peace about it all. It is interesting to hear gunfire and know it is real but it is also surreal in a way. I still hold to the belief that I am immortal until God is finished with me.

This is not to say that we haven't had close calls or losses. An 82d Airborne soldier was shot in the hand and head but his Kevlar helmet actually stopped the round and saved his life. It knocked him out but he came to just fine. He was awarded the Purple Heart by the Chairman of the Joints Chief, General Shelton. Several days ago, one of our armored personal carriers was leading a patrol on a narrow road. The right track came off the vehicle, causing it to lose control and turn sideways. It lost its footing and went into a ditch, flipping upside down. Two of our men were killed and the others, while seriously shaken, were returned to duty. It was very sad to see.

I've tried to make it a goal to not see a dead body in a 24 hour period. so far, I've been able to do so only a few days.

This is not to say that I am becoming depressed about all of this here. It is just the way things are. These people speak a lot of German. Many of the men work in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I never thought I would use my German from exchange student days in such a God-forsaken (by their own choosing) place.

We will make this a better place. We already have. Even though the violence still continues, it is becoming more desperate. We have made many arrests, captured hundreds of weapons and are starting to see the place come back to life. The city of Gnjilane (this country needs to import some vowels for their words), has started to thrive with their markets and local businesses. Especially after our successful fight on the 10th of July.

Both sides are learning to trust us. The Serbs see that we actually can be fair and the Albanians see that we will actually kill them if they are lawless and stupid.

To date, most of the violence has been against the Serbs by the Albanians since we took over. A lot of 'payback.' We are starting to get it under control. What motivates me the most is the belief that God is using me here to make progress among these people.

And then there are the children. Even when I think of all the hatred, I also see that maybe the kids will grow up a little better that the current generation. Even if it is not true, most of us believe it to keep us going. You can't help but like all the kids. They have not yet learned how to hate.

As the email situation improves, I will try to write more. I stay very busy, sleeping about 4 to 5 hours a day, but I'm starting to develop somewhat of a routine. God bless you all and look forward to hearing from you. (Phil 3:13)

30 July 1999
Hello everyone,

Another week has passed in Kosovo. In the last week we have continued operations in the Gnjilane, Kamenica and Novo Brdo districts. We have also transferred one of the districts our battalion task force owns to the Russians.

While the reporters seem interested in creating conflict between our forces and theirs, these soldiers are pretty disciplined. They are an airborne recon battalion. They look sharp, their equipment is good and they conduct themselves as any other professional force here.

We are glad to have them. With their arrival we are now able to cover even more villages.

This is tough work.

Right now, the UCK (KLA in media speak) has been a major pain in the neck. They are unable to control anything but the creation of violence.

This is not to say that the Serbs are being angels either but the acts of violence continue disproportionately against the Serbs. In our own battalion area of responsibility, we have gained pretty good control of the city and major towns, but now the criminal element hits the villages and farm hamlets.

It doesn't take much of a man to shoot a 65 year-old man in the head while he is feeding a cucumber to his cow. But by senseless killing of this type, coupled with the blowing up of Orthodox churches and destruction of monuments, the Albananian criminal element is desperate to make the Serbs leave (seems like this was the same injustice they complained about earlier).

Last week the some local thugs planned a staged event in the main artery square of Gnjilane. They formed a crowd of about 1200 people and moved toward a monument erected by the Serbs to commemorate Czar Lazar(sp?). Depending on if you are a Serb or Albanian, you think he is a crusader that saved his people or a terrorist that slaughtered Muslims.

[Spinney comment: Bill is referring to Prince Lazar headed a joint army of Serbs and Albanians against the Ottomans (who also had Serbs and Albanian allies) at Kosovo Polje in 1389. The myths around this battle and Lazar's preference for death over vassalage, are considered by many Serbs to be the defining event in their culture. Lazar wasn't a crusader, nor did he slaughter Muslims -- he and his Albanian allies fought the Ottomans and their allies to an indecisive conclusion -- the Ottomans secured Kosovo in a 2nd battle 60 years later.]

We call him Santa Claus because it is a big fat statue of a guy with a beard with a sword at his side.

A truck contracted by Brown & Root was moving gravel. It had a KFOR sign in its window and before anyone knew it, a cable was hooked up and this guy pulls down all 20 feet of Santa Claus off his perch. Our soldiers tried to stop it but did not feel a statue was worth a loss of life for the vandals. Then the crowd went ecstatic. Claims that KFOR pulled down the statue riled the Serbs and the Albanians passed by and laughed and jeered at the defamation of the monument. We decided to recover Santa that night during curfew. Our supporting Sea Bee unit recovered him and placed him on a truck. As he lied instate on a cargo truck, he reminded me of Gulliver from Gulliver's Travels with the tie-down straps all over him. The Sea Bees repaired him in 3 days and then we covertly put him back up.

That really struck the hornet's nest. The Albananians were shocked. After a couple of days of grumbling, they turned out in strength today to protest the statue and the United Nations Chief here named Heaslip (a pretty good guy that's a general in the Irish Army). The crowd was large but fairly controllable. We will take him down tonight to safeguard him and give him to the Serbs.

We have made our point.

The Serbs were angry that he was vandalized but were glad we set him back up. We have tried to convince the Serbs to stay. Even before the shootings of the Serb farmers, we had developed a farmers' co-op idea. We brought them together and convinced them to work in the fields for fuel and our protection. The Albanians have been receptive but the Serbs now are trying to use their participation as some kind of bargaining power. We have refused to comply.

A few nights ago in Pasjane we had a crowd of about 300 people surround one of our security points. Our soldiers called for assistance and we got to the scene. We were able to get tanks, bradleys, MPs with dogs, loud speaker teams, and Apache helicopters for support. Most of the time we can 'split' the crowd. On the ground we try to find the knuckle-heads in charge and tell them we will talk to two of them. Then we enter the crowd and get to the other side. This reorients the crowd in a 180 degree direction. Then we walk into the town or an area to opposite of where we want them to go. Some people begin to follow then we 'split' them. Before long the whole crowd dissolves and we get them to talk. Within an hour we may be drinking coffee with their leaders and working out problems.

-------[end email from Bill]--------

Ain't e-mail wonderful—thanks Bill, take care, our prayers are with you.

Chuck Spinney

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