A Troubled Peace

Perspectives: Operation Joint Guardian

In the Line of Fire, by Matthew Meredith, A97 and Building Bridges, by Jeffrey Dulgarian, E97

In the Line of Fire/Matthew Meredith, A97

Matthew Meredith: "Our adapted schoolhas little except 800 wide-eyed children. Here some of them ham it up for the photographer.

Shots force us to ignore a beautiful afternoon in Kosovo. Squelch breaks on the radio, "Contact, audio, more automatic weapons fire, same direction, and it is getting closer. Sir, it sounds like a firefight out there."

My men and I are perched on hilltops in covert observation posts overlooking the border between Kosovo and Serbia. One of the teams just reported that the weapons fire, which they tracked during the past hour, has become a full-on firefight and is approaching their position.

We are attempting to determine what militant activity remains along the border a year after Serbian troops retreated from the province of Kosovo. I radio back to my CP requesting two Apache attack aviation helicopters. They will bring heavy combat power to the fight if my team makes direct weapons fire contact with the belligerents. I radio back to my team, "Two birds inbound, ten mikes." Despite the occasional close call, neither my men nor I have fired a shot during our six- month tour to Kosovo.

Animosity exists between the Serbs and the Albanians. Buildings are bombed, people are shot and hatreds simmer below calm facades. Thankfully, this angst is rarely directed against American soldiers. The situation is not entirely grim. In the past six months, there has been a significant decline in the frequency of ethnically motivated violence. Civilian authorities are assuming a greater role in policing crime. For the first time, free and democratic elections were held without incident.

I am a platoon leader in an elite Brigade Reconnaissance Troop, where I am responsible for 18 soldiers and six high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles (four-wheeled trucks commonly referred to as Hummers). We are assigned to Operation Joint Guardian, the multinational mission created to reestablish peace in Kosovo. Our mission is straightforward, but immensely complex: create a safe and secure environment for the people of Kosovo. We have done everything from presence patrols in contentious areas separating Albanians and Serbians to covert observation of targets. Routinely, we work with United States Military Special Forces and conduct joint operations with foreign armies.

My platoon worked with a Polish platoon to secure the largest illegal weapons cache in the U.S. Sector. We have worked with the Ukranians and the Russians, our former enemies. The highlight of our tour here has been our adoption of a local school. We have coordinated for hundreds of pounds of donations from American elementary schools and delivered these goods ourselves. The situation in Kosovo is far from the daily combat that many may envision. My men become policemen, referees, judges and parents depending on the day and mission. We have detained people involved with black-marketing and prostitution, and have arrested curfew violators.

Our most interesting mission is to keep the peace in a small village of about 250 people. The village is divided into an Albanian side and a Serbian side by a small stream. We act as intermediaries between the groups. During the war, the Albanian side of town was obliterated while the Serbian side remained untouched. Many of the Albanians fled to Macedonia to refugee camps only to return when KFOR entered Kosovo.

The Albanians claim that some of the people who destroyed their houses still live in the Serbian side. Hatreds run very deep here. The Serbians complain about the Albanians and vice versa. While they are not required to like each other, we ensure that they get along. Each week a KFOR representative mediates talks between the two groups. This is how the bridge between the two groups will be built, but it will take a lot of time.This job is never boring.

While an undergraduate at Tufts I developed my leadership skills as the president of the Delta Tau Delta Fraternity and as the battalion commander of the Army ROTC program. My major was international relations. This is particularly relevant for me here. I am familiar with the many geopolitical issues that drive our presence in the Balkans much more than most of my peers. Some courses, such as "International Cooperation" with Professor Barbara Connolly, taught me innovative ways of dealing with some seemingly intractable problems between the Albanians and the Serbs. It is difficult to understand the enormous human impact of the American peacekeeping effort here until you are on the ground. Local Albanians routinely express their gratitude to U.S. KFOR soldiers for being here. Even the Serbian minority admits that they depend on the U.S. Small children still run out of their houses to wave. In the more rural areas, the locals bring walnuts, apples and an invitation to sit down for coffee.

Even though this is a multinational mission, America gets the credit for bringing peace to Kosovo. Over a cup of Turkish coffee one town leader told me, "If it were not for America, I would still be in a refugee camp in Macedonia." His house and possessions were destroyed during the war. We drank the coffee on a plastic picnic table in his unfinished house. Light from a plumber's work light was harsh until the intermittent power gave out. A candle stuck into a two-liter Coke bottle replaced the bulb.

Rebuilding Kosovo is going to be a long and lengthy process. Our division commander Major General Casey told us, "It will be two steps forward and one step back, but we will be making progress." He was right. Three days after the local municipal elections went off without a hitch, a Serb was gunned down in broad daylight in an Albanian town.

The future rests with the youth. Our adopted school has little except 800 wide-eyed children. They are incredibly grateful for our small effort to provide them with some of the things that they desperately need. The faculty and parents here realize that the path to peace will be long and rocky, but right now they are worried about whether they will have enough wood to stay warm for the winter.

All of us have made incredible sacrifices to be here. By the time we return, my soldiers will have spent almost an entire year away from their families. Several have missed their baby's first steps, their child's first day of school and have been unable to support their spouse during times of crises. Despite this, they are always professional soldiers, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. There are no weekends here. I write this essay with only three weeks remaining in Kosovo, and I cannot wait to return to my friends and family.

We are doing an important international mission enforcing peace in a war-torn country. It is my honor to serve my country with these incredible soldiers and to bring peace one step at a time to this corner of the world called Kosovo.

Matthew Meredith is a platoon leader with the United States Army Reserves based at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo.

Building Bridges/Jeffrey Dulgarian, E97

Jeffrey Dulgarian, E97: I worked with Sergeant Thomas Annersen (on right), an engineer int eh Danish army, on the design and placement of the guard towers in Pristina.

"Convoy #11-040, Leaving Camp Bondsteel, Time Now."

My Jeep takes a right onto Route Stag heading 20 kilometers southeast of Camp Bondsteel to the remote town of Binac in eastern Kosovo. In a couple of days, we're going to install two guard shacks along the perimeter of a Serbian church.

United States soldiers are currently posting guard in what amounts to three-sided plywood boxes. It's November and the weather is starting to turn for the worse, temperatures are dropping and soon snow will be on the ground.

"Heads up, Fig, you got one passing on the left," I shout to my driver. We barely get out of the way before a hatchback with an Albanian flag hanging out the window screams past our HWMMV (HUMVEE).

We spend the next ten kilometers swerving in and out of potholes and through clouds of smoke from burning trash along the side of the road, the locals' means of trash disposal. Close to Binac, we see that a high school has let out students for lunch. We ease the Jeep by teenagers slowly parading up the street, some holding hands, others grouping together engrossed in conversation. We get the occasional wave or shout of "NATO!" as we slowly make our way through the crowd.

It's scenes like these that make it hard to believe that conflict still exists in this eastern part of the province of Kosovo. As an American peacekeeper under KFOR (Kosovo Force), and here to support Operation Joint Guardian, I've had my eyes opened to the devastation inflicted on this province and its people during the Milosevic regime and the subsequent air strikes by UN forces. But I have also seen how much progress the international community, both military and humanitarian organizations, and the local people have made to restore order to a broken society.

My passage here came via my Tufts degree in engineering. I graduated from Tufts in 1997 with a degree in civil engineering and have since returned for my master's, concentrating in structural engineering. As an undergraduate, I enrolled in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) and received my commission upon graduation. I was selected for the Corps of Engineers and joined my engineer reserve unit based in Attleboro, Massachusetts.

As a civil engineering major, I've been able to apply my technical knowledge to construction projects over the past three and a half years, especially here in Kosovo. In January 2000, there were hints that we might be called to Europe. The news was confirmed in May. I was both anxious and excited; anxious because of what we'd heard in the news about the intense fighting and the ongoing struggle between the Albanians and the Serbians, but excited because it was such a remarkable opportunity, so different from what I had ever experienced before.

We arrived in Kosovo in July and hit the ground running. As a vertical construction platoon leader (vertical refers to buildings and bridges), I was put in charge of a 39-member platoon that is part of a combat heavy engineer unit. Simply put, we're a construction unit: we build roads, excavate, clear and grub areas, build structures, and install and upgrade electrical and plumbing work.

Some of our missions have been on post. Here at Camp Bondsteel, we've built guard towers, wooden pavilions and 30-foot antenna towers. On a larger scale, we've built 100 x 30-foot wooden buildings called SEAhuts (South East Asia Hut). One of these will serve as an education center where deployed soldiers can take college-level classes to earn their associate's/bachelor's degrees. Another will be a strip mall containing a laundry point, phone center, barbershop, shoppette and pizza parlor.

Off post, in conjunction with British and Danish engineers, we built guard towers along the perimeter of KFOR headquarters in Pristina. We've worked with the Russians in their sector of Multi National Brigade East to upgrade their checkpoints and we've helped American forces fortify their outposts along the Serbian border and other points across the sector. We've had a number of joint events with other countries to strengthen our ties with other armies around the world including Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland, Austria, Britain, France, Hungary and Italy. Not all of our missions have been military-related.

Throughout the deployment, my unit has had the privilege of sponsoring a local elementary and high school. We've monitored the installation of a much-needed bathroom, replacing concrete outhouses. We've monitored the installation of a new heating system, just in time as the winter months approach and the sub-zero temperatures start to creep in.

We've also donated new schoolbooks and supplies through the help of our families and schools back home. It's quite a feeling to be able to help these children in whatever way we can.

I've been struck by a region and culture that is so different from ours. I've driven through remote towns where narrow dirt streets are roaming grounds for pigs, chickens, geese and sheep. I've seen buildings demolished into piles of rubble. I've seen working men go to jail for cutting down trees in order to have the wood to help rebuild their homes.

Oftentimes local children will surround us eagerly looking for a handout of candy or field rations. This is a province where guards must stand outside churches to protect the freedom of faiths. This is a province where there are weekly reminders in the form of murders, bombings and gunfights that total peace is far away, that danger and violence have not left, and not everyone can just forgive and forget.

Yet I am impressed by the resilience of these people as a whole. The lifeless province of 18 months ago is being replaced with a budding new society filled with people eager to start a new chapter in the long and eventful saga of their history. There is promise in the air. Houses are being rebuilt, businesses are starting back up and people are beginning to reintegrate themselves in the society.

I've been fortunate to be part of this transformation. Not once have I regretted or doubted the importance of my presence here, to use my Tufts training where peace must be restored so that communities can stabilize and begin to thrive once again. At the same time, it is a fragile balance, and the work we do now is just the start of a long, slow process of healing.

First Lt. Jeffrey Dulgarian is a platoon leader with the United States Army Reserves based at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo.







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