Sunday, April 4, 2010

Kosovo Kamenica

The cow I had my M2 .50 caliber machinegun pointed at continued to chew its cud as if nothing had happened. Satisfying myself that I was safe from any bovine hostility I swung the muzzle of the weapon back towards the two story white plastered building that served as the farmhouse. There had been reports of sniper fire in this area and my team had pulled our two up armored Humvees in a loose perimeter surrounding the farmhouse and the adjacent barn. The farm was something right out of every fairytale you ever read. The house was shuttered with bright red shutters and had an actual thatched roof. Surrounding it and the barn were free range chickens and cows that wandered the property with out the benefit of any barbed wire or enclosure that is so common in the United States. A little farther from the house you could see people cutting hay with scythes and actually constructing some honest to goodness haystacks.
After talking to the Ethnic Albanian family that lived on this property we discovered a 12 year old boy hiding in the barn with a small caliber rifle. Apparently he had decided that it would be fun to take pot shots at the Serbian farmers driving their horse and wagons down the two lane highway that ran adjacent to his family’s property. The farm was located outside an ethnically mixed Albanian and Serbian community in the northeastern corner of Kosovo. The name of the village was Kosovo Kamenica and my Special Forces team had been living in town for the last week attempting to defuse situations just like this. We took down the family’s name and location and through our Albanian interpreter “Sammi” we gave the young man a good chewing out. Not much else we could do as no one had actually seen him shooting at anyone and he had not hit anybody.
My company had deployed out of Stuttgart, Germany to Brindisi, Italy and a mothballed Air Force air station called San Vito. We had spent the time prior to our arrival in Kosovo training and standing by for on call Combat Search and Rescue(CSAR) operations in support of the NATO bombing campaign of the former Yugoslavia. While one team was on “up cell” for CSAR the rest of us trained on weapons, tactics, building entry, military freefall parachuting, communications and medical training. Basically everything the well dressed special operator needs to invade a foreign country.
The rumor mill was rampart with theories about when we would put troops on the ground to engage the Serbian boogie man that our President had decided needed to be taught a lesson. The international community felt that the Serbian ethnic cleansing policy in regards to the Albanian majority in Kosovo was not conducive to good order and stability in the region and had commenced a bombing campaign lead by the United States to encourage them to cease and desist. Some other special operators had linked up with the Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army to conduct some CAS (Close Air Support) missions while my unit was doing CSAR. For the most part it was hurry up and wait, something I was used to after 15 years in the military. So this cycle of “up cell” and training went on for weeks and months until suddenly we were told to pack our bags and get ready to move by MC130 to Skopje, Macedonia.
The civilian airport in Skopje had enjoyed the benefit of millions of dollars of upgrades courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer since the NATO air campaign had started. We stayed in a tent city for a few days waiting on some vehicles and equipment to arrive. Once our company received its compliment of vehicles we headed north up the crappy two lane highway on our way to Kosovo. At the border was a massive line of cars and transport trucks. Those heading south were trying to escape the destruction caused by the Serbian forces and those heading north were trying to use the cover of U.S forces to go back to their homes. We bypassed the border crossing on a dirt road that went around the traffic jam and continued up through mountain passes. I was in the turret of the Humvee manning the .50 cal and I kept looking up at the steep mountain slopes to our left and right wondering if all the Serbs got the word that they were supposed to retreat. This road sure looked like a good place for an ambush to me.
Eventually the terrain flattened out and we continued up the highway, occasionally we saw children on the side of the road waving to us and we waved back. After a few hours drive we pulled off on a dirt road and headed up a hill guarded by an M1 Abrams tank that was flying a large American flag. I didn’t know it at the time but I would be back to this plot of land many times over the next 3 years. Eventually I spent 3 deployments and almost 9 months in Kosovo. This particular area would become the main U.S. base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel. But right now it was just a large grassy field with rolling hills. Many units were gathered in a hodgepodge with each one setting up concertina wire and GP Large tents to claim their own Tactical Operations Center (TOC) locations. My Team Sergeant located our company Sergeant Major and found out we would be moving farther north in the am. For the time being we crashed out around our vehicles in the grass. No need for anything more than local security, nobody was going to mess with the tanks we had surrounding us.
The next morning we headed north up the main supply route as it passed through the large city of Gnjilane and snaked its way through the mountains towards our objective the village of Kosovo Kamenica or Kamenica for short. Traveling through a small village we saw many people gathered at a concrete wading pool all trying to beat the heat. They had even brought their goats to cool off. We joked about that and nicknamed the area “the gene pool.” All the people we met were ecstatic to see us and all the kids would chase our vehicles and if we stopped everyone would throw flowers on us and try to shake our hands. All the people that is but the Serbs, they weren’t quite sure what to do seeing as they had just lost out on their status as the preferred minority in this province courtesy of NATO. We could tell the ethnicity of each village almost immediately. Minarets, happy children, flowers, shouts of Naaatoo! Naatoo! equaled ethnic Albanian. Orthodox Church, and sullen downturned faces equaled ethnic Serbian.
Finally we arrived in Kamenica and we scouted out places to set up our patrol base. We decided on an abandoned cement factory that still had glass windows and carpet in the administration building. The entire factory had been looted so we cleared out several offices and took them over as our base of operations. Shortly after setting up shop an entire company of US Marines showed up and asked if they could join us and occupy some of the other buildings. Be my guest Devil Dogs, the more the merrier and we could sure use the extra security. Over the next few days we made the area secure by sandbagging the perimeter, installing concertina wire and basically making it all homey in a military way. Our Senior Medic even devised a kind of shower using buckets and some PVC pipe he tied together. It sure was a big hit with us and the Marines. We gave the Marine private on gate guard duty the additional duty of keeping water boiling in a large vat so we could all take hot showers when required, ahhh the little things make life good!
Daily my team would drive out on mobile patrols in our area of operations and make first contact with villagers in the mountains and along the Serbian border assuring them that NATO was here to help both Serb and Albanian and that we were not there to take sides only to keep the peace and stop the bloodshed. As mentioned before more often than note we were greeted with flowers and offers of hot chai (tea). Eventually even the Serbs in the area warmed up to us and started offering us a little Pivo (beer) for our trouble. I will tell you that down the street from our factory was a Serbian pizza place that made an outstanding pizza pie and the Albanian cafés made a pretty tasty macchiato.
It wasn’t all pizza and cafés however, at night you could practically drive without headlights because of all the burning houses. The Albanians were using this time to take revenge on the Serbs by setting houses on fire and randomly shooting at Serb families. Their defense was that it was merely eye for an eye, I myself came to the conclusion that we had bombed the wrong people. This conclusion was vindicated in my mind many years later when it was reported ethnic Albanians from Kosovo had joined the Jihad against U.S. forces in Iraq and were actively trying to kill U.S. Soldiers. We were investigating the reports of a grenade attack inside the home of an eighty year old Serbian woman one day when the local Kosovo Liberation Army commander informed us she had killed herself playing with the grenade in her living room, I wanted to shot to him right in his slimy face, what a liar.
So the days went by, one patrol after another but I didn’t feel we were making any headway on either side. How were we expected to influence a conflict that had been going on for over 500 years? These people were still pissed at each other over a battle that had happened during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Eventually more US forces arrived in the area and they had us withdraw piecemeal with some of my team leaving and other staying behind. I was one of the first to head back down the highway to Skopje to board that freedom bird back to Germany. Little did I know that I would be back again and staying a lot longer the next time.

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