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Unapproachable Light


ISSUE:  Spring 2010

 

As recently as 2005, Camp Bondsteel was purported to be a secret interrogation site for the American military. So why does predominantly Muslim Kosovo love it so much?

A large, olive-green helicopter whirs through the air. It's flying over a large, green plain. In the distance, craggy, snow-capped mountains rise into the sky.

 

When the power goes out, which it does several times a day, life in Ferizaj turns livelier. In the streets, by every house and storefront, portable power generators, red and white and blue, rumble their bellyful, spewing fumes everywhere. Together with the roar of the endless traffic jam, the horns and the curses, the bellows of hawkers and the wails of beggars, the turmoil is deafening. The patrons of outdoor cafés and restaurants have to shout to be heard. The only people obviously pleased with this arrangement are the generator salesmen, advertising their wares on the spot.

Situated in the southeastern part of Kosovo—the last breakaway region of former Yugoslavia and since February 17, 2008, the youngest country in Europe—the town of Ferizaj, or Urosevač, as the Serbs still insist on calling it, has the frenzied atmosphere of a frontier settlement. Brand new houses with extravagant balustrades and office buildings sheathed in sky-reflecting glass have sprouted up between rickety hovels, making any attempt at central planning or common architectural design look like bureaucratic madness. In this jungle of laissez-faire construction the only way to survive is to build higher than your neighbor. Down in the garbage-strewn main streets and unpaved cul-de-sacs, the same kind of primordial battle goes on: shoe stores, clothing stores, barbershops, cell-phone outlets—hundreds of them—jockey for the best position on the market. Money changers stand at street corners nervously leafing through thick wads of banknotes. Little kids peddle cigarettes out of cartons. The salty smell of roasted corn and pumpkin seed rises from antique, soot-covered grills.

Like most frontier towns, this one was conceived around a train station. In 1873, when the area was still part of the Ottoman Empire, the newly completed railway from Belgrade, Serbia, to Thessaloniki, Greece, provided the small local community with a link to the outside world. Soon after, the first arrivals turned up and trade began to flourish. An inn proprietor, Feriz Shashivari, eventually became the town’s god-father—though many continued to refer to Ferizaj simply as Tasjan, a Turkish version of the French word for “station.” Even today the railroad remains—together with the mosque and church in the central square—the most prominent landmark, a spinal cord running smack through the middle of town, keeping the body functioning. There is no overpass and residents have to walk across the tracks, back and forth, several times a day, to take care of their business. Women in high heels teeter on the oil-stained gravel, as if ropewalking. Young mothers anxiously push strollers, lifting the front wheels over the polished rails, then quickly the back ones. When a train finally approaches, cutting through Ferizaj like a nerve impulse, all commerce comes to a standstill for a few minutes. Then, as soon as the last car trundles by, the town reunites and commotion resumes. If there is anything regular around here, it is only the whistle of the passing trains and the call of the muezzin.

A uniformed American soldier stands at attention in front of a low building.
A soldier stands guard at Camp Bondsteel. (Armend Nimani / AFP / Getty Images)

It is not the train station, however, that makes Ferizaj a frontier town today. What keeps people flocking to this part of the country, stepping off trains in the hopes of a better life, is Camp Bondsteel, the largest US military installation in the Balkans and one of the largest in the world. Every outpost needs its fort. “In Kosovo we are known as a city of America,” Bashkim Fazliu (Migjeni), a member of Ferizaj’s city council, tells me. “Ferizaj is more stable, we have a better economy than other cities, and everyone knows this is thanks to America. People say, ‘You’re doing well because you have Bondsteel.’ It’s like a reference to our prosperity.” In his mid-thirties, Migjeni is an ex-member of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and now one of his town’s most prominent local citizens. Impeccably dressed in suit and tie, there is little left of the soldier in him. His manner is calm and considerate, almost phlegmatic. Like a seasoned politician, he carefully weighs every word. His English is simple but correct. “We have very good cooperation with the American Army and we are very lucky having American presence here in Ferizaj, but also in the whole of Kosovo. Bondsteel is a symbol of security and stability in the whole region, the whole Balkans.” On the wall above his desk, next to a large KLA calendar and photos of his two children, there is a sheet of paper with a quote from John F. Kennedy: “We need men who can dream of things that never were.”

To walk around Ferizaj is to move through a weird fantasy that never came true in the Middle East. Old Glory, along with the Kosovan and Albanian flags, proudly flies in front of every major institution and hangs from the balconies of private homes and shop windows. While nearly every other country in the world was protesting the war in Iraq, Kosovans resolutely expressed their support for it. Commenting on the recent discovery of an al Qaeda fighter from Kosovo, the mayor of Ferizaj, Bajrush Xhemajli, told me: “The whole Kosovo community is ashamed of him. We shit on him.”

Kosovans boisterously celebrate the fourth of July, hold memorial services every September 11, and Thanksgiving has a whole new meaning here: Thanksgiving Days for U.S.A. reads an old street poster and, in smaller font underneath, Every Citizen May Join the Initiative. Some of the most popular leather belts in Ferizaj feature a bald eagle on the buckle, and the most frequented restaurant, Route 66, is decorated inside with black-and-white photographs of Elvis and Marilyn, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building, along with Let’s Roll and Soccer Mom vanity plates. My hotel stood on Washington Street.

Though other towns in Kosovo are just as garish in displaying their allegiance (in the capital, Pristina, for example, one of the main boulevards is named Bill Clinton and a small-scale kitschy replica of the Statue of Liberty juts out of the roof of Hotel Victory), the very name of Bondsteel—or Boston, as many Kosovans pronounce it—excites fervor in the residents of Ferizaj. With local unemployment at close to sixty percent, Bondsteel and its service provider, KBR, Inc. (formerly Kellogg Brown & Root), remain the single biggest employers in the area with more than a thousand workers, though that number was several times higher during the 1999–2001 construction phase of the base. Nearly three thousand more Kosovans are under contract with KBR at locations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yaha, a general worker at Bondsteel from 2000 to 2004 and a coordinator of food services with KBR in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2007, is eager to tell me his story while we are sitting at Bar Academy, a trendy chill-out spot on Wesley Clark Street. Donning a baseball cap and affecting a Californian accent peppered with “man” and “you know,” he fondly reminisces about the time an American commander in Afghanistan invited him and three other Kosovans over for coffee at his office because “he wanted to thank us that the American army never lost a single soldier at Camp Bondsteel.” When Yaha began to suffer from back problems he was forced to quit his job and go back to Ferizaj. He opened a clothing store, but business proved poor. Though his health did not allow him to continue working for US military camps at home or abroad, he was adamant about the overall importance of the American presence in Kosovo. “If Bondsteel leaves, Kosovans will start leaving too.”

Dervish Gashi, the owner of Bar Academy, soon joins us at the table. After ten years as an interpreter at Bondsteel, he recently quit to become a bar proprietor, his life dream. He had worked for seven years at high-end London clubs—he even served Lady Diana once—before coming back home in 1999 to volunteer with the KLA in its fight against the Serbs. After the war, he decided to stay in Kosovo. About his work at Camp Bondsteel he says, “That’s when I felt I’m really doing something, helping people build up Kosovo. It was good for me, being a part of it. Working with the American soldiers was very important for me, the experience stayed in my heart. It was a mission of God.” Lank and smartly dressed, Dervish has a mild voice with something of a British reserve in it. Sitting on low leather couches, with glittery bottles at the far end of the bar and unobtrusive drum-and-bass music pulsing out of the speakers, we might as well be in Soho. But Dervish seems oblivious to the surroundings. He fondly remembers how, after the war, the US Army helped with medical services. “What they did here, what they’re doing here now and every day, it’s amazing. I think the American mothers and American wives and whoever has their son and daughter here should be proud. Once we get on our feet and become a strong country we’ll sure help them and help other people that need help.” Then, after a few moments, he goes deeper into the past. “When I was a kid in fourth grade I heard my father, my uncles, my cousins say that only Americans could save us from this . . . how do you call it . . . the eagle’s . . . cage. Yes, only America will free us.” Dervish refers to the two-headed Albanian eagle, the symbol most Kosovans still closely identify with, but, as luck would have it, there is a framed poster over his couch: It represents a fantasy vision of a giant American bald eagle clutching in his talons the top hemisphere of the Earth like some hunk of dead brain.


 

“Now that Operation Allied Force is over, there is a new struggle under way, and Camp Bondsteel is on the frontlines,” President Clinton told American troops at the newly completed Camp Bondsteel on November 23, 1999, just a few months after the end of NATO’s bombing of Serbia. “The story of Bondsteel reads like something out of the settling of the Old West. Not long ago this was a hayfield. Soon after NATO came into Kosovo, it became a beehive of activity.”

Clinton was not simply juggling metaphors. In less than ninety days, 1,700 military engineers together with 7,000 Kosovo Albanian workers and about 1,000 expatriates hired by KBR managed to complete the gargantuan construction of Camp Bondsteel (and also Camp Montieth, a few spruced up Yugoslav barracks next to the nearby town of Gjilan). “[Bondsteel] is the largest base-camp construction effort since Vietnam,” Colonel Robert McClure, Commander of the First Infantry Division, Engineer Brigade, said in September 1999. “It represents a partnership between the US military, private industry, and the locals.” A few months later, in an extensive article for the Professional Bulletin for Army Engineers documenting the construction efforts in Kosovo, McClure wrote: “For me personally, Kosovo after June 1999 was an engineer’s dream.”

Even if larger bases have since been built in Iraq, the construction of Camp Bondsteel (named after Army Staff Sergeant James L. Bondsteel, a Vietnam War hero) rings almost mythological. The primary earth-moving mission dubbed Operation Wolverine Mountain “lowered” two adjacent hills and filled up the ravine between them with 150,000 cubic meters of earth. In subsequent stages, construction was completed on 250 semipermanent wooden SEA (Southeast Asia) huts (each with a housing capacity for thirty soldiers), a 2,800-square-meter headquarters, a large ammunition-holding area, multiple motor pools, more than fifty helipads, clamshell hangars, two chapels, a two-story PX, a Burger King, a Taco Bell, Anthony’s Pizza, a cappuccino bar, three gyms, volleyball and basketball courts, an education center, recreation facilities, a jail, the best-equipped hospital in Kosovo, and two dining facilities that could service about five thousand people. An independent power plant and wastewater-treatment facility guarantee that the base is completely sealed off from the vagaries of the outside world. By the time it was finished, Camp Bondsteel—the “grande dame” of Kosovo—had spread over an area of 955 acres and ran an extended perimeter of nearly 11 kilometers. It was the size of a small island.

The rationale behind building Camp Bondsteel—the official version—was to house American troops in a secure and comfortable environment until the end of their KFOR (Kosovo Force) mission; the huge investment, the military argued, would be repaid by protecting American lives. Yet none of the other countries with peacekeeping troops in Kosovo had deemed it necessary to construct such elaborate defense facilities for a mission that was supposed to be only temporary. Talking to a Washington Post reporter in October 1999, a senior British officer voiced his concerns about the Bondsteel project. “It is an obvious sign that the Americans are making a major commitment to the Balkan region and plan to stay,” he said. “But their desire to drive the risk of casualties to an absolute zero can be a major distraction.” Much of the criticism of Bondsteel centered on such arguments: you can’t expect to have an effective peacekeeping mission by building a concrete wall with razor wire on top and imprisoning your troops behind it. Moreover, it is obvious even to the greatest pessimist that Kosovo does not present a hostile environment, as far as US nationals are concerned. Simple caution can’t really explain the presence of Bondsteel—a base that would be considered well fortified even in theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan.


 

If played right, Kosovo could become the strongest card in the ideological campaign for hearts and minds among Muslim nations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The tiny European country, as inconsequential as it appears on the map, may be a key feature in the political landscape.

In 2002, during hearings of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the Committee’s Chairman, then Senator Joseph Biden, expressed his bafflement. “We have this place called Bondsteel. It’s a fort. It is a base. It is significant. And it sits there. And we invested—I imagine it’s a couple of billion dollars for the whole process. And the [George W. Bush] administration, and the last one, has no intention of staying there permanently, doesn’t want to stay there permanently, has no vital interest to stay there permanently, and yet we still did that.” Biden overestimated the cost of Bondsteel—some analysts put the figure for primary construction at $350 million and about $50 million for annual operation—while he underestimated, wittingly or not, the strategic importance of Kosovo for US foreign policy. But the fact that he felt obligated to deliver an address at Bondsteel soon after he assumed office as vice president—following the examples of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and even Sarah Palin—points to the region’s significance. In 2005, at another hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Biden acknowledged as much: “If we get Kosovo right, Muslims around the world will be reminded how the United States came to the aid of Kosovo’s Muslim population, helped them build a strong, independent, multiethnic—emphasis, multiethnic—democracy. That would be a great story, and it is a story that needs to be told.” Perhaps his reasoning was that, if the United States had failed to show the world it can protect the Muslims of Bosnia, Kosovo may provide a second chance. If played right, Kosovo could become the strongest card in the ideological campaign for hearts and minds in the Middle East and Southeast Asia and seriously boost America’s reputation and credibility among all Muslim nations. Thus, the tiny European country, as inconsequential as it appears on the map, in fact may be a key feature in the political landscape.

In a recent interview for the online news site World Investment News, the first US ambassador to Kosovo, Tina Kaidanow, confronted the issue of Kosovo’s relevance most forcefully. “Many times I have been asked if the US has a continuous interest in Kosovo. My answer unreservedly is yes. We are going to be here for the long run, we have not only technical-assistance interest but also political interest,” Kaidanow told the interviewer and then, as if to temper the implications of her statement, she added a diplomatic red herring, “such as stability in the region and its movement toward the European Union.”

A man in a camouflaged uniform carries a food-laden tray down a hallway laden with Thanksgiving decorations.
A soldier, reflected in a mirror, attends a Thanksgiving lunch in the chow hall. (Ermal Meta / AFP / Getty Images)

If we imagine Kosovo as the engine of US strategic interests in Southeast Europe, then Camp Bondsteel is the portable power generator supplying the electricity. Without Bondsteel, no real work could be done. Indeed, far from being an impromptu site for housing KFOR troops, the Pentagon was making arrangements to build Bondsteel even before the concerned parties—Serbs and the Kosovo Albanians—sat at the negotiating table. In his Bulletin article, Robert McClure remembers: “Engineer planning for operations in Kosovo began months before the first bomb was dropped. At the onset, planners wanted to use the lessons learned in Bosnia and convinced decision makers to reach base-camp ‘end state’ as quickly as possible.” Such “engineer planning” could have been little more than standard operational procedure ensuring that the Department of Defense could react adequately and in a timely manner to different military scenarios. Yet, more skeptically minded observers saw that as just another sign that NATO’s “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo was a smoke screen for US military and economic interests.

In a November 2003 Harper’s article, Chalmers Johnson, a political analyst and author of numerous books on US foreign policy, cited Bondsteel as one of the “super-luxurious” Pentagon projects catering specifically to the interests of military contractors like KBR. (In 2006 KBR paid $8 million to the US Army “to settle allegations of overcharging and other procurement irregularities regarding … billings to the Army under a contract for logistical support of military operations in the Balkans during 1999 and 2000” including double billing the government and ordering unusable products while helping build Camp Bondsteel.) In addition, Johnson speculated that the base might serve the purpose of securing the future route of the proposed AMBO (Albanian-Macedonian-Bulgarian Oil) trans-Balkan pipeline, which “will pump Caspian Basin oil brought by tanker from a pipeline terminus in Georgia across the Black Sea to the Bulgarian oil port at Burgas, where it would be piped through Macedonia to the Albanian Adriatic port of Vlore . . . thus bypassing the congested Bosporus Straits.” Although some of Johnson’s assertions seem far-fetched and excessively byzantine, it is true that Camp Bondsteel perches near Energy Corridor 8, a strategic European east-west route for global trade. As if to confirm the suspicions, Robert McClure, the engineer commander, rather innocently described in his Bulletin article how, during the initial construction of the base, “a thirty-six-inch natural-gas pipeline was discovered under the camp.”

Three simple crosses, perhaps ten feet tall, are planted in the grass. Remnants of snow are near their base. In the background, a soldier walks by, obscured by fog.
Crosses erected outside the chapel. (Ermal Meta / AFP / Getty Images)

Unsubstantiated rumors and official press releases aside, Camp Bondsteel is of course part of a broader Pentagon strategy to move US military forces from installations in Western Europe farther east—in Kosovo, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Poland—and closer to conflict zones in southwest and central Asia. What makes Bondsteel stand out in this context is its status as a forward-operating base (FOB), which could service the smaller forward-operating sites (FOS) in the Balkan area. General James L. Jones, the former commander of US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe and currently national security adviser to President Obama, explained concisely the classifications before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations in 2003: “Camp Bondsteel would be a good example of what I would term a forward-operating base. I also would envision a family of forward-operating locations which would be much more modest than the forward-operating base. And the units that would visit those bases and operate from those bases would be generally rotational, whether they come from the theater or from the United States, and they would be there for temporary periods of time to do a specific mission, and then they would leave.” In Bulgaria alone there are already four such “forward-operating locations.”

In spite of its imposing size, Camp Bondsteel has largely managed to avoid the media limelight—but not always. In January 2000, a US soldier, Staff Sergeant Frank J. Ronghi, was charged with the rape and murder of an eleven-year-old Kosovan Albanian girl. An American military tribunal reacted quickly and sentenced Ronghi to life in prison. Another issue, however, was a bit more difficult to weather: In 2002 Alvaro Gil Robles, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, visited Bondsteel’s detention center and was “shocked” by the conditions he witnessed there. In an interview for Le Monde, he called the base “a smaller version of Guantánamo.” But what Robles found at Bondsteel was hardly secret at the time—the detention facilities at the base, officially under KFOR command, were used for housing dangerous criminals and rebels who otherwise would have been set free by Kosovo’s corrupt judicial system. The practice was widely known as “COMKFOR hold” and newspapers, including the New York Times and the Army’s own Stars and Stripes, reported on it in 2000 and 2001. Colonel Thomas M. Gross, chief of staff for the Army peacekeeping forces, told the Times reporter back then: “The quandary is that we are holding [the prisoners] based on some intelligence and perhaps not based on judicial evidence that would go forward in a court of law. That flat-out is the truth.” That form of extralegal detention did not raise any eyebrows at the time, and Robles’s report went largely unnoticed.

It was only in 2005, after the toxic Abu Ghraib disclosures and the rumors of secret CIA prisons in Europe, when attention refocused on Bondsteel’s detention center. (Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal, was also a commander at Bondsteel in 2000.) Numerous investigations were carried out by journalists and EU officials, but access to the base proved difficult. As late as 2007 the investigator for the EU Parliament’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Giovanni Claudio Fava, wrote in his report that he “regrets the refusal of NATO to provide evidence on the allegations of illegal detention of terrorist suspects in the prison run by the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) at Camp Bondsteel, the only detention facility in Europe where CPT inspectors were not allowed unlimited access until very recently [July 2006].” By the time inspectors received permission to visit, KFOR had purportedly closed down the detention facilities.

Despite all this, Kosovo continues to be the generous host of Camp Bondsteel. The American KFOR contingent has scaled down its size from four thousand to about fifteen hundred troops, Camp Montieth has been handed over to the Kosovo Security Force (KSF), and the new NATO chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has proposed a tentative schedule for full KFOR withdrawal by 2013, depending on security conditions. It seems unlikely, though, that Bondsteel is going anywhere. As Robert Gates, the current secretary of defense, informed Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and President Fatmir Sejdiu during a visit to the country in 2008, the US will “continue to provide Kosovo with military equipment and training.” Even more to the point: President Obama’s recent announcement of his intention to redraw the plans for a missile defense shield and possibly abandon the proposed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic for new ones in the Balkans and Turkey, makes Kosovo—and Bondsteel, in particular—a keystone to the region. If the United States has a real colony in today’s world, it is called Kosovo.


 

“I really like it over here. It’s a very different environment from Iraq,” says Captain Jonathan Shiroma, the deputy public affairs officer for Multi-National Task Force East (MNTF-E). We are driving around Camp Bondsteel in his army Land Cruiser. “There you wake up every day knowing this could be the last day of your life. Here the greatest danger is the traffic. Kosovo drivers are really reckless.” It is an early August morning and the air is still cool and pleasant on the skin, a fresh touch of evaporating dew coming through the open windows. The light is immaculately crisp, throwing the landscape around us into sharp relief: open grasslands, turning brown in the late season but still dotted with chicory and wild carrot. Out in the distance, beyond the bounds of the base, scarlet-tiled houses squat among cornfields and wheat stubble while, to the south, the bluish colossus of Mount Ljuboten (or Mount Duke, as many soldiers here call it) dwarfs everything around it. “I like jogging here in the mornings. It’s a different world from the one I know. Here you see peasants tilling the ground, herding flocks of sheep. It’s a very peaceful, simple life, and I mean that in a positive way.”

In his mid-forties, balding and bespectacled, Captain Shiroma exhibits a genial, almost gentle disposition. His conversation is relaxed and unpretentious, and, except for the camouflage uniform, there is little of the regular military guy in him. He insists that I call him Jonathan because, he says, “it makes me feel human again.” Originally from Hawaii, he moved to California; for many years he held a civilian job as a local TV reporter in Sacramento, freelancing occasionally for CNN and Bay-Area news stations, before joining the National Guard. When the war in Iraq began, he was deployed with his brigade to various Iraqi bases, including Camp Liberty in Baghdad. His time at Bondsteel, however, has proved a different experience. “The affection, affiliation with the US here is amazing. People are exceptionally friendly. They wave at us, they invite us to their houses. In Iraq people are very scared. They don’t really know what to expect.” Saying this, he slows down at one of the intersections, but observance of traffic rules seems superfluous. Except for a distant Humvee, the road is perfectly empty.

We pass by idle engineering vehicles, water cisterns, supply trucks, then a line of Bradleys hibernating under camouflage tarps. A Black Hawk appears as a speck on the horizon and gradually grows bigger and louder as it approaches the helipads. When it lands and the pilot kills the engine, everything turns tranquil once again. It is a military Tuesday, but it might as well be a civilian Sunday. Compared to the wild sensory overload in the streets of Ferizaj, just eight kilometers away, the ambience at Camp Bondsteel is almost anesthetic. Nothing stirs. No roaring power generators here. Down by the perfectly arranged rows of clapboard SEA huts, the soldiers’ barracks, there isn’t much movement either. The greatest hazard here seems not the traffic, but simple boredom. Were it not for the high fences topped with razor wire and the menacing watchtowers, the place could be mistaken for a rural college campus on summer break.

A large American flag hangs above a large room. It's full of exercise bikes, treadmills, and the usual execise equipment.
One of three cavernous gyms at Camp Bondsteel. (Armend Nimani / AFP / Getty Images)

Jonathan points out the former location of the detention center. “They closed it down in 2005, but for almost a year prior to that it hadn’t been in use,” he tells me. I rubberneck to see the spot he is referring to. No prisoners in orange jumpsuits or armed guards anywhere, no enclosures, at least from my vantage point. Bondsteel appears to be no Guantánamo—not anymore—but the relative calm and humdrum of the base belie its actual military potential. The sheer size of the area makes everything in it appear small, invisible, nonexistent. Yet the power is certainly there, ready at any moment, and the bland wooden surfaces of the compounds conceal a lot of brute steel, like a wisp of smoke rising over a dormant volcano. “You know, many people are happy to come here because it’s safe,” Jonathan tells me when we get out of the car and head toward the Public Affairs Office. “I can understand them because a lot of them have spouses or children, maybe parents. But, if you ask me, I’d go back to Iraq at the blink of an eye. My buddies,” he says pointing at his left-arm patch, the Forty-ninth Military Police Brigade, “are there, and I’d rather be with them, as risky as that may be.”

Later that day I am given a tour of the life-support area at the heart of the base. Inside the compound housing Burger King and Taco Bell, KFOR troops—mostly Americans from the California National Guard Fortieth Infantry Division, but also several Poles and Ukrainians and Croats—lazily chat over Whoppers and French fries, watching ESPN on a large TV screen. Local Kosovan girls, with exaggerated smiles and affected gestures, take quick orders behind the counter. Stepping out of the door, I am nagged by the feeling that I could be in Fresno or Santa Monica. Several soldiers are playing beach volleyball on the sand court in front of the camp’s concert stage. Huddled to the side, a tiny guitar shop is crowded with customers checking out the instruments. The shop manager, Ilir Geci, a squat and chubby Kosovan Albanian with a cheerful face, enthusiastically explains the qualities of each guitar and amp and guitar case. Upon hearing I am from Bulgaria, he takes down one of the guitars and starts strumming a Bulgarian pop ballad from the 1980s. Ilir used to be a member of a Yugoslav rock band, but now he jams every day with the soldiers.

“Things are pretty lax around here,” Specialist Duran, a Bradley driver, tells me while we are sitting at one of the outdoor tables across from the guitar shop. “I didn’t know anything about Kosovo before I came here; I hadn’t even heard of the place. I thought I’m coming to an area with bombs and guns.” Then, rummaging his memory for other impressions from the few times he has been out of the base, he says, “Being here in Kosovo reminds me of Mexico. The family culture, the bad roads, the way people live. Also, a lot of Kosovan girls speak Spanish because of the telenovelas.” Private First Class Nevada Smith, blond and humorless, haughtily questions Duran’s Mexico comparison, insisting that, despite appearances, the work schedule at the base is pretty busy. “We maintain our professionalism at all times,” he says, perhaps quoting an Army brochure.

During one of the coffee breaks I sneak a conversation with Specialist Rich Stowell, a native of Oakland, California. In his early thirties, he holds a master’s degree in math education and teaches high school in his civilian life. Being in Kosovo is not something he relishes, though he tells me he feels proud to serve. On his office door hangs a large handmade sign marking down the time left to the end of the rotation: 88 Days to Go. “When I joined the California National Guard I wanted to do something adventurous,” he remembers. “I didn’t know I’d get deployed. I didn’t even know we had troops in the Balkans.” Unlike many others, Stowell is not afraid to voice his criticism of life at the base and has even started a blog, “My Public Affairs,” where he vents his frustration at what he sees as the inefficiency of the US Army, its bloated bureaucracy and rigorous hierarchies. “I keep this blog because there’s nowhere else to express opinions. That’s how I exercise my right to free speech.” I ask him if soldiers are interested in discussing foreign-policy issues with each other and how much they know about Kosovo. He simply smiles. “I don’t think we’re encouraged to know as much as we need to. The Army is very myopic. We’re here to do the mission, to preserve stability, and everything beyond that is off limits.”

He goes on to tell me a story about a visit to a Serbian monastery in Kosovo, where he struck up a conversation with one of the Serbs. “I wanted to hear the Serbian side of the story. But the interpreter clammed up. Maybe he thought I was pro-Albanian, but I’m not. I’m just an American who wants to hear the other side of the story. My superior warned me I shouldn’t be asking such questions.” On the issue of the Albanians’ strong pro-American stance, Specialist Stowell is equally candid. He agrees that people are very welcoming, but he can’t quite stomach certain political habits. During a recent basketball game between Camp Bondsteel and a semi-professional team from Kosovo, the local organizers displayed a gigantic poster of Bill Clinton. “You don’t see that in the US,” Stowell says. “It looks as if they’re putting up a poster of their dictator.” Just as we are done talking, two Kosovan women with IDs hanging from red KBR neck straps come in and start mopping the floor. They say “Hi,” smile politely, and go back to their tasks. Whoever their dictator is, they work hard for him.

Later in the day I get to meet the commander of MNTF-E and Camp Bondsteel, Brigadier General Keith Jones, who kindly receives me in his office. With cookies and tea on the table, the mood is friendly, nearly casual. Even in the Army, Californians are easily recognizable. Courteous and soft-spoken, with grizzled hair and glasses, General Jones has something of a paternal air about him. His manner is relaxed, yet he chooses each and every locution with great deliberation, cautious to avoid anything that might appear controversial. The NATO and American forces at Camp Bondsteel, he is careful to emphasize, are there only to observe and monitor the situation and take action only in extreme circumstances. “When we sense in the larger context of what we call the tactical situation that there’s a potential for violence . . . should the situation become violent and something more than a first response is necessary, we would be prepared to act as status required.” Such a “situation” of course could only arise from a resumption of interethnic violence between Serbs and Kosovan Albanians, like the massive riots that occurred in March of 2004. Jones, however, believes that the security situation is now under control. The greatest challenges remain the weak economy, judicial reform, and the transition to “the commercialization of the power,” that is, the privatization and improvement of the inadequate power infrastructure. It is KFOR’s objective to “set the stage for a better environment for international investment.” But again, like all other international officials, Jones tries to downplay the role of his own organization and emphasize the independence of Kosovan institutions. Bondsteel is just there to advise, to watch—a fly on the wall.


 

At night, when nearby towns and villages disappear under a blanket of blackouts, Camp Bondsteel, with its powerful floodlights, illuminates the surrounding sky like a pillar of fire, like the halo of a young god.

While I am listening to the general’s reticent claims about the base, I take a sip of my tea. I remember someone in Ferizaj telling me that Camp Bondsteel is so advanced technologically, with its own independent power supply and wastewater treatment facilities, that it looks like a UFO that has landed in the middle of the country. Every day thousands of local workers enter its giant belly to clean it and fix it and feed it, before leaving late in the evening. At night, when nearby towns and villages disappear under a blanket of blackouts, Camp Bondsteel, with its powerful floodlights, illuminates the surrounding sky like a pillar of fire, like the halo of a young god. It is both awesome and terrifying to behold, this unapproachable light.


 

The name of this town is not Ferizaj but Urosevač, she insists. “Why do you say Ferizaj?”

Behind a high concrete wall, behind a solid steel door in the wall, stands a large gray-stuccoed house. Between the house and the wall is a bright stretch of garden with tomato plants and peppers, unruly strands of onion and patches of parsley. Inside the house, behind iron-barred windows, live Radoslav and Kovilka Velkovic, one of the last Serbian families in Ferizaj—or Urosevač.

Radoslav is sitting on a plastic folding chair, his arms resting on a plastic folding table in front of him—the only table in the kitchen. His wife, Kovilka, prefers the rickety couch across from the TV set. Except for a few framed family photos on top of the TV and a small Christian Orthodox icon of St. Sava, the beloved Serbian saint, on the wall over the couch, there is no other sign of decoration. Everything is bare bones. The old fridge and oven at the far end of the vastly spacious kitchen only emphasize the utter and devastating emptiness. Once a rich man’s house, this is now a giant tomb, echoing with the unsteady steps of its two elderly inhabitants.

Seventy-seven years old, gaunt and sinewy, dressed in a checkered short-sleeved shirt and loose cotton trousers, Radoslav has a drained-but-dignified look. His blue eyes, slightly dimmed by advancing cataracts, are still probing under gray bushy eyebrows, and his gray bushy moustache has been trimmed with care. A classic Q&Q wristwatch with a worn leather strap graces his bony hand. In this place of wild desolation, Radoslav stands out like a well-preserved lighthouse. But time has been less kind to Kovilka, who, though a bit younger, moves her ailing legs with difficulty. Staring at the blank screen of the TV, she rarely says anything during my visit, except now and again to add a detail to her husband’s story.

A native of Ferizaj/Urosevač, Radoslav spent most of his life in town, working and raising his family. For many years he was a machine engineer at the local furniture factory, then worked at the factory for steel-welded pipes and shapes. He remembers with fondness the old socialist Yugoslavia, when “we had such a mighty industry, and we were all living in peace.” There were tensions but he claims he personally never ran into any serious problems with his neighbors. “I’ve never been a nationalist,” he says. “For me there are only two kinds of people: good and bad. I don’t think it matters if you are Serbian or Albanian, Christian or Muslim.” However, after the war ended, Radoslav decided it would be wiser to get away for a while to escape potential KLA retribution. “When the Americans rolled in and the Albanians began to return, I decided to pack up my things and go to Serbia proper. My family and I left on the seventeenth of June, 1999.” Because they did not have any relatives with whom they could stay, for nearly five years his family relied on the hospitality of strangers, and once, for several months, squatted in an empty garage. His younger son descended into depression and alcoholism, and eventually passed away. At the mention of this, Radoslav’s eyes tear up and he turns his head away from me in embarrassment. The loss of control is only momentary and, swallowing back, he proceeds with his story.

Shipping boxes are lined up in a gravel yard, where several soldiers look through the contents.
Soldiers open boxes of Christmas gifts from home. (Armend Nimani / AFP / Getty Images)

In 2004, he and his wife felt it was safe enough to come back, though his older son chose to remain in Serbia. “The Albanians in town knew I hadn’t committed any crimes against them, so I didn’t have much to fear. Plus, you see I’m an old man. Nobody minds old Serbs. It’s the young who are still unwelcome here.” Upon his return he found his house completely gutted. All the furniture was gone; the flooring, pipes and electrical systems were ripped out. The UN Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) helped him and his wife reestablish themselves, though the assistance was nominal: quick repair works, two iron-frame beds, a fridge, and an oven. Now they bring him food from time to time. “Life is hard, but we carry on,” he tells me. “I used to weigh seventy-four kilos before the war. Now I’m only sixty-two.”

“How many Serbs live in Urosevač now?” I ask him.

Radoslav starts counting on the fingers of his hand, pronouncing each name out loud, like an Orthodox priest reading out the names of the dead during church service. His count stops at six. Kovilka reminds him of two more people. After a few seconds he gives up trying to come up with more. “Eight,” he finally says. “Eight Serbs, including us. There are about seventy living in the whole municipality, but only eight live in Urosevač now. We used to be more than eight thousand before the war.”

“Why did so few return?”

“Some were killed. Others are afraid or they just don’t see any future here. So they come back, sell their houses, and go to Serbia proper.”

“And how do you get along with the Albanians these days?”

“It’s fine. I go to the store, I walk down the streets. Nobody touches me or taunts me. I wouldn’t say I’m friends with my neighbors, but we tolerate each other.”

“What about the Americans? What do you think about Camp Bondsteel?”

Radoslav gives me a searching look, for the first time with a bit of distrust.

“Bondsteel,” he finally says, his voice a note sterner. “I think it was because of Bondsteel the Americans started the war. Milosevic wouldn’t allow them to build their bases here, so they began to look for an excuse to start a war. And they found it.”

“Don’t you think that’s a bit naïve?”

Radoslav shakes his head. “Not really. Just look how many kinds of mineral resources Kosovo has—coal, silver, gold. Some people say there’s even uranium around. I think the Americans wanted to put a hand on all that. The Albanians could never have taken over Kosovo without American help.”

American soldiers from Bondsteel, Radoslav continues, used to visit him for a while every month after he returned to Urosevač. “They’d come here to check up on us, talk to me and my wife, show they’re friendly. I used to talk to them about history. ‘Look,’ I’d say, ‘we Serbs were on your side during the First World War, we were allies during the Second World War.’ Once I also told them how one of my uncles lived in Chicago, he was a US citizen, and how he fought in the American army. When he died, they draped his coffin with the American flag. ‘So,’ I asked them, ‘why did you have to bomb us?’ After that conversation, the soldiers from Bondsteel never stopped by again.”

Yet, even though Radoslav would not openly admit it, US soldiers and UN workers were probably some of the only individuals to pay him regular visits after his return to Urosevač. His son and old neighbors never came back, and he rarely goes out of town. Cut off from Serbia, cut off from the rest of the world in their fortified house, the Velkovic family endures. Sometimes, the worst thing about war is not death, but solitude.


 

I meet Dani, the poster boy of Kosovo, at Bar Academy.

In November 1999, a few months after the end of the war in Kosovo, Dani—or Ramadan Ilazi, his full name—was the lucky thirteen-year-old scrawny Kosovan Albanian kid chosen to introduce President Bill Clinton to a jubilant audience at the sports pavilion in Ferizaj. In his famous victory address to the Kosovo Albanians, Clinton said: “I want to begin by thanking you for your wonderful welcome. I thank Ramadan for his introduction—I think maybe someday he will be an elected official if he speaks so well from now on.” Dani is not an elected official yet, but Clinton’s words proved to be no mere courtesy.

Dani’s road to that podium was not an easy one. After NATO’s bombings of Serbia commenced, he and his mother and three sisters decided to flee Serbian retribution and go to a refugee camp in Macedonia. His father remained behind to take care of his own ailing father. The story had a happy ending, unlike many others at the time, and the family was eventually reunited and returned to their Ferizaj home. That was a tough period for everyone, but Dani was fortunate to begin work as an unofficial interpreter for the US soldiers at Camp Bondsteel, then still under construction. He had learned only some English from watching movies, but that proved enough to land him the job. “I was very happy to see the Americans were in town and I started hanging out with them. Not every kid had that privilege. They were like rock stars to us, so naturally I was very excited. I was spending twelve, fourteen hours a day with them. They gave me a uniform and everything.” Did they have uniforms for fourteen-year-olds? Dani laughs. “No, they didn’t. You can see a picture of me. The trousers were up to here,” he says and raises his palm to the level of his chest.

When Dani turned eighteen, he was officially hired by KFOR at Bondsteel as an interpreter for 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion. He was the only family member with a job at the time, which helped him to provide for his parents and his sisters. Working alongside the troops, he managed to get involved in numerous community projects: giving medical help to impoverished residents, helping displaced persons return, organizing concerts and theater performances with local artists at the military base. He has only unconditional praise for the role of US troops in those missions. “They all brought a culture of open-mindedness and were really dedicated to their task of helping people here.” When I ask him about the presence of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, Dani says: “Bondsteel was an important part of the economic, social, and cultural development of Ferizaj.” Then, suddenly realizing he has uttered a platitude, he starts to chuckle with embarrassment. “I mean, seriously, you have to understand,” he continues, “We got out of the war in 1999 and we needed Bondsteel. And we still do. Having Bondsteel here gives an enormous feeling of safety and security.” Dani is quick to point out though that after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, a few of the soldiers who came to Kosovo brought along their prejudices against Muslims. It took them some time to realize that they were in fact in “a friendly zone.”

In 2007 Dani decided to quit his job as a translator and dedicate all of his time to NGO work. In just a few years he has become one of the most politically active citizens in Ferizaj, fighting for greater government transparency and accountability, exposing cases of nepotism and widespread corruption—even in the face of death threats. As Dani says, “All of us, Albanians and Serbs, have the same problems in Kosovo. We don’t have electricity, drinking water; we don’t have good roads or schools. When you fix the social problems people have, integration will be very easy.” Despite the challenges, he has not lost his sense of humor and regularly organizes impromptu street performances as part of his civic agenda. At the end of 2008, he and his friends from the NGO Speak Up! freed 120 chickens in front of the Kosovan Parliament to protest the members’ “lack of courage and initiative.” Looking at Dani, a twenty-four-year-old who can pass for half that age with his small build and broad, lighthearted smile, I cannot but marvel at his, shall I call it, audacity of hope.

A few days later Dani invites me to his house in Ferizaj to introduce me to his family, show me a few of his keepsakes and photographs. It is evening and, sitting in the living room with Turkish coffee and photo albums on the table, I feel very much at home. His parents, affable but quite shy, watch their son with obvious pride as he flips through ten years of achievements. His youngest sister, Adelina, a high-school student who dreams of becoming a doctor, has cuddled on the nearby couch with the family lapdog, admiring her brother. A framed photo of Dani shaking Clinton’s hand hangs on the wall behind us.

Dani has just opened a box with his awards and decorations when the power goes out. There is no alarm, no annoyance—just the all-too-familiar disappointment. Candles are already on the table and his mother, Naile Ilazi, silently wakes up their flames. Dani takes the lighter from her—which also doubles as a flashlight—and continues with his story undisturbed. By the weak glow of the flashlight, his past comes out on the stage. He lets me take a look at a medal he received from General Wesley Clark, then at the Army Medal of Excellence. “They told me they don’t usually give that one to civilians, so I’m especially grateful to have it,” he tells me with hardly a note of vanity in his voice. A large heap of honorary medals and pins spills out of the box, too many to count. If Dani put them all on, he would look like a decorated war veteran.


 

Young Kosovans believe that America will help them overcome the isolation of their country. But, most of all, they believe in Bondsteel.

Next, he pulls out an issue of Time magazine (with Barack Obama on the cover), which features a long profile piece about him by the American journalist Jeff Israely, whom he first had the chance to meet at the refugee camp in Macedonia. A cursory read shows me that the author’s initial impressions were not that different from mine. “As a reporter covering the Albanian exodus,” Israely wrote, “I would talk to scores of refugees. But Dani . . . would prove to be a one-in-a-million encounter.” Dani shows me a couple of pictures from that difficult time. Scores of children, dressed in identical too-large Nike T-shirts, pose for the camera next to white UNHCR tents. “The family of this boy standing next to me,” Dani says, illuminating with the glow of his lighter a lean, haggard-looking face, “were all killed in the war. He was the only survivor.”

There is something uncanny about looking at photographs of a refugee camp in a blacked-out house. Time folds back onto itself to create a loop, short-circuiting the minus of the past with the plus of the present. Only the portable power generators outside, humming in the hot August evening, are working properly. Ten years have passed since the devastating war in Kosovo, yet it seems that little has changed on the ground, in spite of the high-flown rhetoric. Corruption, unemployment, poverty, decrepit infrastructure, power cuts: this small beautiful piece of land in the middle of Europe feels like an island full of sad shipwrecked sailors. Young people like Dani collect the flotsam, look for fresh timber and new sails, and work tirelessly in the hopes of one day rebuilding the ship of state. They believe that America will help them overcome the isolation of their country. But, most of all, they believe in Bondsteel, the island in the middle of Kosovo. It is, of course, the nature of steel to bond, and to separate.

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Rob's picture
Rob · 3 months ago

sir, I worked in Kosovo for most of '99. I just now came across your article and wanted to thank you. What an excellent piece of writing. Thank you again. God bless, Rob

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