Six flags fly at Kosovo’s Camp Viele – Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia and Ireland – but the camp commander comes from Rosses Point, Co. Sligo. Significantly, it’s the first time an Irish senior officer leads the multinational peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
Lunch will be a brief affair. It’s Tuesday so the troops from Finland are in charge of the kitchen at Camp Viele. Word has already gone around the camp that pea soup and pancakes are on the menu. The Finns are enthusiastic. Their colleagues are not so sure. With the clock ticking down to midday it’s already evident there will be no stampede of Irish troops to the canteen.
For an outsider it’s like walking into a scene from M*A*S*H. This is army town, clothed in khaki. Wrapped in a perimeter fence of razor wire, the base has been erected on the grounds of a disused paper factory in Lipljan, eight miles outside Kosovo’s capital, Prishtina.
Operating under a UN/NATO umbrella, Camp Viele is home to 1,510 personnel, including 58 Irish troops. They, as well as 214 Irish troops at nearby Camp Clarke, are part of the multinational Kosovo Force (KFOR) peacekeeping force stationed around the newest political addition to the European map.
Under Brigadier General Gerry Hegarty’s command, the operational status at Camp Viele has switched from moderate risk to extreme high alert. “We have been preparing for this day since I came out here,” says Sligo-born General Hegarty, acutely aware of how delicate a line his peacekeeping troops will walk. “Independence was going to be declared so we have to be prepared for anything that might happen afterwards.”
Kosovo’s self-proclaimed autonomy brought a predictably angry response from the region’s Serb minority. Rioting in the divided city of Mitrovica has raised tensions across the region, and the Balkans, regarded as an international tinderbox for centuries, remains as fragile as ever.
For over two million people February’s declaration of Kosovar independence arrived like a slow train finally entering the station. For decades ethnic Albanians had awaited it more in hope than confidence, but more recently they could feel independence was finally on track, unseen in the distance but assuredly coming their way. They knew this because the Americans and Europeans told them so.
Kosovo’s Serb minority – numbering almost 130,000 – felt that inevitability too, dreading the day they would be traded off like Balkan orphans. Regardless of concessions offered under the UN’s Attashari Plan, Kosovo’s declaration means that without moving an inch their homes effectively have moved country: one day Serbia, next day Kosovo.
Stuck in the middle of all this are 17,000 NATO peacekeeping troops. For nine years NATO has refereed a precarious peace in Kosovo. February’s declaration raised the stakes once more. In Belgrade the Serbian government does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. However, the breakup of Yugoslavia and public fatigue with conflict have taken their toll. It won’t be said officially, but there is a sense that Kosovo’s freedom might be a pawn played by Brussels in return for Serbia’s membership in the EU.
It’s a highly complex issue and nobody is quite sure what will happen next. Universal recognition for Kosovo is no done deal. The United States and major EU powers support independence; Serbia and Russia are firmly opposed and they have support from China. Over the coming months the UN Assembly will hear from multi-ethnic states wary of granting independence to ethnic minorities. Far from joining jubilant celebrations on the streets of Prishtina, Kosovo’s path ahead is fraught with obstacles. February was momentous but the celebration will be cut short by numerous practical challenges: to get electricity working 24 hours a day, fix the water supply, build proper roads, address a serious problem with organized crime and international drug traffickers, repair relations with their Serb neighbors.
Gerry Hegarty assumed command August 1 last year and leads the camp for a 12-month term. KFOR soldiers serve six-month tours of duty. Quarters are basic but comfortable, a temporary self-contained home complete with a canteen, shop, bar, TV room and living quarters. KFOR troops live on base 24/7 and are not allowed to socialize in the many bars and clubs of Prishtina. Staying within the confines of the army base makes the tour more demanding, but soldiers who serve here know this is a region where even a single event can trigger an international crisis.
At the end of each tour of duty, transport buses come to collect troops and deliver the next complement. Given a hearty send-off by colleagues in the main courtyard, departing troops return home with an international dimension to their careers, any memory of soldierly tedium offset by a unity of purpose and sense of achievement. The buses roll out past their cheering colleagues, past Irish sentries at the entrance barrier. For those who remain, Alert A1 is never far away.
Since serving as a UN observer during the siege of Sarajevo, General Hegarty has become a keen student of Balkan intricacies. In the early 90’s he saw how Bosnian Serb forces were allowed to slowly asphyxiate Sarajevo and openly commit genocide. NATO stood by for three years. For him, the impotence of witnessing such an obscenity left its own mark.
“I can’t say seeing dead children didn’t make an impression.” He pauses, as though sorely aware how little his brief could achieve. “I was an observer. I wasn’t in charge to do anything about it.”
Politically hamstrung by the UN Security Council – Russia blocked any move against Bosnian Serb forces – NATO was further humiliated in July 1995 in the supposedly UN “safe haven” of Srebrenica. A Dutch battalion stationed there was overpowered by Bosnian Serbs and watched mutely as over 7,000 Muslim men and boys were marched off to their deaths. The massacre, the largest single atrocity since World War Two, made ‘standing by’ no longer politically, militarily or morally acceptable. NATO finally intervened and forced the conflict to a military conclusion.
As a result Yugoslavia split into six different states – Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Internal tensions within Serbia then erupted in the southern province of Kosovo. Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic mobilized his army in a 1999 crackdown on Kosovar separatists. Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled across the border into Macedonia. This time there was no standing by. Despite Moscow’s objections, NATO bombed Serbian cities, including the capital Belgrade, setting in train a process that nine years later led to Kosovo declaring independence.
“A whole lot of lessons were learned at Srebrenica,” acknowledges Hegarty. “And I think that’s the very reason KFOR is here in Kosovo. The mandate in Bosnia wasn’t sufficient to do the job. With KFOR it’s a completely different story. We came here in 1999 to stop another Bosnia. It just couldn’t be allowed to happen again.”
One million people – half of Kosovo’s population – live in the 22,000-square-kilometer area patrolled by Camp Viele troops. Initially KFOR was called in to protect Kosovar Albanians; now that the break with Serbia has been declared, Hegarty’s multinational force must spread its protective wing to a highly vulnerable minority of 30,000 Kosovar Serbs. It’s a tall order in such a volatile region.
There are only a handful of Serbs still living in Prishtina. Most have gone, leaving behind a city culturally inclined towards Albania, not Serbia. Kosovars are hugely mindful of the American role in nationhood. One of Prishtina’s main streets was renamed Bulevar Bill Clinton in recognition of his involvement in what they feel is their emancipation. A huge portrait of the former president beams down on the city’s choked traffic. Not far away, on the roof of the Victory Hotel, a replica Statue of Liberty offers a symbolic reminder of where Kosovar Albanians feel most connected.
But the Kosovar Serbs who remain feel detached from all of this. Increasingly it is they who are most at risk. They resented NATO’s multinational force arriving in their homeland, but, ironically, like Catholics initially welcoming British troops onto the streets of Belfast in 1969, Serbs in the region will have to look to that same force for protection.
“To try to create a safe, secure environment – that is our mission,” Hegarty says, emphasizing that KFOR’s credibility depends on total impartiality. “We want freedom of movement for all ethnic groups. And we hope political groups can arrive at a political solution. It’s not a perfect world and we have to be realistic.”
There is no time frame on the mission. Declaring independence raised tensions in the Serb enclaves around Kosovo, but the Brigadier General feels his peacekeeping soldiers just need to get on with the job.
“It’s a forgotten conflict and a forgotten mission really,” he suggests, nine years into NATO’s Kosovo operation. “We’re in the middle of Europe and there’s no ideal solution. Some proposals are better than others, but as the UN Secretary-General says, the status quo can’t continue. From a soldier’s point of view I’m happy that KFOR can deal with whatever crops up. Plan well and deal with it.”