By Steve Birch*/
In the summer of 1998, as a U.S. Army officer stationed in Germany, I was assigned to participate as a Diplomatic Observer as part of the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (KDOM). This mission would impart on me some of the greatest lessons of my life and life experiences that are simply unforgettable. When I was assigned to the KDOM mission, I did not know much about the Balkans and even less about Kosovo. Over the period from 1998 until 2000, Kosovo became a major part of my life, first as a Diplomatic Observer and later as a uniformed member of the U.S. Army stationed at Camp Bondsteel, located near the city of Ferizaj.
KDOM was formed in June of 1998 and lasted only until December of 1998 when it was transitioned to the Kosovo Verification Mission which was under the auspices of the Organization for the Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The primary mission of the KDOM mission was to report on the security situation in Kosovo: monitoring the actions of the Serbian Army and police forces, the Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves (USCK)) and the freedom of movement of the population of Kosovo.
The U.S. and Canadian part of the KDOM mission was initially based out of a hotel in Fushe Kosove and composed of roughly 30 personnel. The group performed observer duties by conducting patrols throughout the central and western parts of Kosovo. It was in this area, for the six months that I was assigned as a Diplomatic Observer that I came to know and enjoy the people of Kosovo.
The mission of a Diplomatic Observer was unlike anything I had ever done in my life and nothing since then has replicated this experience, not even over two years in Iraq. The ability to move with relative freedom throughout Kosovo allowed me and my fellow observers to interact with both sides of the war. The U.S. members of the KDOM mission are probably best remembered for driving around Kosovo in bright orange vehicles as a very obvious sign of our presence. Our measure of success to our own governments was in providing accurate reports of the situation so that senior governmental leaders could conduct negotiations or make decisions with the best information possible. While some of the reports from our mission are still available today on the internet (http://reliefweb.int/report/serbia/kosovo-diplomatic-observer-mission-report-7-8-dec), they lack any of the intimacy of our daily interactions with the people and combatants of the war in Kosovo.
The landscape of Kosovo provides a lasting memory of the beauty of the geography. The mountain located to the west and southwest of the country provided a scenic backdrop to the events while there. As an observer and later as member of the NATO mission, I used to like to stand outside and enjoy the beauty of the views, be that of the mountains or of the harvested crops across the country. There was also great beauty in cities such as Prizren as well as all across the countryside in small villages. While the landscape was enjoyable, it was the people that I met and encountered that provided the best experience I could have imagined.
I do not wish to make light of the horrors suffered by people during the conflict in Kosovo. War is an awful thing to observe and I have compassion for those that had to live through it as either a combatant or as an innocent civilian only trying to live life in safety. The thought that most often crossed my mind and that still remains with me is that women and children suffer when men are not able to work out differences peacefully. At the same time, I acknowledge that armed conflict sometimes culminates from failed efforts to peacefully work out differences or end oppression and that the results of conflict can bring about change. The United States is itself an example of this.
The most valuable members of the KDOM mission were the group of interpreters that supported our team. In writing this article, I went through pictures of the outstanding group of the young men and mostly women that supported our team. Our interpreters, capable of speaking Albanian, Serbian and English were our connection to that population. They often lived in difficult circumstances themselves due to the number of personnel that had fled into their home city of Pristine. I recall one interpreter speaking of the difficulty of housing seventeen people in their small family apartment. They were the heroes of our mission and enabled us to perform our mission.
During the conduct of our mission I was able to live in two other cities in Kosovo besides Fushe Kosove. I spent long periods of time in both Peje in the west of Kosovo and later in Therande located just to the northeast of Prizren. It was in those locations, as well as near the village of LLadrovc (east of Malisheve) that the three most lasting encounters with the people of Kosovo occurred. The common experience in each encounter was that it involved the beautiful and innocent children of Kosovo.
In the village of Decan (south of Peje) we encountered on many occasions a young boy that would come out on the street to greet us. Like most children in Kosovo, he had a pleasant smile and nice attitude towards us. What made him different was that he was recovering from a wound suffered from mortar shrapnel in his lower back. Every time I saw him I was reminded of the price that children pay during a war.
In the village of Bllace, near Therande I remember the great efforts by the local school principal at Blace Shkolla Fillore (Bllace Elementary School) to provide heat in classrooms for the students. We were fortunate after significant effort with the Catholic Relief Services to be able to provide stoves for his classrooms and proud of our ability to help in a very small way. It was through efforts and leadership by people such as that school principal that we could see someone who cared deeply for the future of Kosovo. We happened by luck to be able to be joined on the day the stoves arrived by a camera crew from CNN that later broadcast the story back in the United States so that the American people could better understand the situation in Kosovo. The children in the classroom back then are now adults in their mid-20s that are hopefully productive citizens of Kosovo who should remember the leadership and sacrifices of their principal and teachers in order to provide them with stability and education during a time of crisis.
Near the village of LLadrovc (east of Malisheve) I enjoyed an encounter with a group of children that speaks to the spirit of children world-wide and to their ability to remain children despite all that goes on around them. On that particular day, we passed a group of children playing football with a ball made out of rags. Fortunately, we had received footballs from an American school and carried them with us to pass out if the opportunity presented itself. We did no more than get out of our vehicle and kick the ball to the kids on our way another location. The joy came later in the day as we passed the boys happily playing football with their new ball as we returned to our hotel.
Finally, I remember being able to attend a Catholic Mass at a village east of Prizren (Grejkoc perhaps?) that reminded me that people still had the freedom and opportunity to worship, be it Islam, Catholicism or Orthodox Christian in Kosovo while I was there. The same Mass celebrated while I was there is the same Mass celebrated anywhere in the world on any given Sunday. For me, although it was Kosovo, it was just like being home.
I departed Kosovo in December 1998 when our mission transitioned to the Kosovo Verification Mission under the OSCE. I returned later in 1999 as part of the NATO force after the bombing campaign against the government of Slobodan Milovsevic. The experience was very different and I lived in a different part of the country. As a U.S. soldier, my duties kept me for the most part in the eastern part of Kosovo. While the job was important, I missed the daily interaction with the people.
Kosovo remains a significant memory for me today. In the beauty of the land, but mostly in the beauty and dignity of the people I celebrate an opportunity to have been a very small part of an effort to provide freedom to people living under oppression. My hope is that the people of Kosovo can continue to celebrate their independence and that they can relish the freedom that they have obtained and that they fought for.
*Steve Birch was a U.S. Army officer assigned to the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission in the fall of 1998. He currently resides near Washington, D.C. and desires strongly to return to Kosovo as a tourist in the future.
Caption: Steve Birch with Kosova child