World

A Dangerous Peace

Amid rising lawlessness, Canadian troops in Kosovo are striving to keep order

Barry Came July 5 1999
World

A Dangerous Peace

Amid rising lawlessness, Canadian troops in Kosovo are striving to keep order

Barry Came July 5 1999

A Dangerous Peace

Amid rising lawlessness, Canadian troops in Kosovo are striving to keep order

World

Barry Came

in Pnstina

Even in the dead of night, Lieut. Derek Chenette can see for miles, clear across the rolling hills of central Kosovo. It is one of the reasons why he—and the Canadians under his command—are so valued by the other soldiers perched atop the hill above the riverside town of Stimlje. They are a mixed contingent, a platoon of Irish Guards, reinforced by a troop of Lord Strathconas Horse Regiment. The Guards provide the muscle but it is the Strathconas, 10 troopers, who are the units eyes. Eyes so powerful they can spot, as they did last week, a distant band of marauding looters at 3 in the morning, watch them break into a house in the valley below, then arrive in time to nab them in the act. “What those guys did not know,” says the young lieutenant from North Bay, Ont., with just a touch of glee, “is that the Strathconas can see in the dark.”

Chenette, 23, delivers the remark with a proud thump upon the armoured hull of the vehicle that makes it all possible. It is the Coyote, a tough and mobile package of technological wizardry that is fast transforming Canadas Strathconas into the busiest of units among NATO’s military peacemakers in Kosovo. On active duty for the first time anywhere, the Canadian-made Coyote has become “a much sought-after piece of kit,” says Capt. Mark Connolly, second-in-command of the Edmonton-based reconnaissance squadron. “If the commander wants to put eyes somewhere, he sends us.” Like

any other weapon in the arsenal of modern warfare, the eight-wheeled Coyote can spit fire via grenade launchers, twin machine-guns and a 25-mm cannon. But the real secret of its burgeoning success amid the rubble-strewn devastation of Kosovo lies elsewhere, in what Connolly describes as its “awesome surveillance capabilities.”

“It’s all right up there,” says Chenette, pointing to the telescoping tower that rises 10 m above the tail end of one of the three Coyotes under his command on the hill overlooking Stimlje. The top of this mast bristles with electronic gadgetry—a “surveillance suite” in military jargon. What it consists of is a 360-degree radar that can track targets 24 km away and two cameras, each with a 20-km range. One of the cameras is for daytime use, the other a thermal-imaging device for the night. It was the thermal camera that caught the thieves, Albanians, who were looting homes deserted by fleeing Serbs. “It’s an invaluable tool,” says Chenette, “especially in an environment like this.” He casts a look at the town below and the red-roofed villages scattered across the valley’s floor, a network of explosively intermingled Albanian and Serb communities lying roughly halfway between the Kosovar capital of Pristina and the city of Prizren in the province’s southwest. “There’s no law and order at all down there,” he continues. “What we’re really doing here is police work as much as it is soldiery.”

Few of the other national contingents in NATO’s Kosovo Implementation Force, better known as KFOR, would dispute that observation. There are 22,000 KFOR troops currently in the province, a figure that will more than double over the coming weeks. And as those forces spread out across Kosovo’s ravaged landscape, they are increasingly finding themselves confronted by a novel twist in the relatively modern art of military peacekeeping. “The challenge here is new and difficult,” says Col. Mike Ward, overall commander of Canada’s 800-member KFOR contingent. There’s no green line to patrol. We’re not separating warring combatants the way we have been in past peacekeeping missions— Bosnia, Cyprus, places like that. In Kosovo, we’re right in the middle of two warring communities. What we have to do is get down into those communities, put soldiers on the street corners, get to

know the local people. It really is a policeman’s job.”

A perilous one at that: as KFOR’s soldiers and airmen take up positions in Kosovo, masses of ethnic Albanian refugees are coming home, flooding back in what Paula Ghedini of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ office describes as “the largest spontaneous return we have seen in the last 25 years.” On a single day last week, 48,000 Kosovar Albanians crossed the borders into the province from Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. As the returning refugees stumble upon the full extent of the havoc that has been wreaked upon their homes and relatives by the Yugoslav military, police and militias, some have vented their anger in vengeance. Killings are on the upswing—there were 14 in Pristina alone last Thursday and Friday—with almost all of the victims local Serbs.

It is precisely the kind of atmosphere that demands surveillance, especially when night falls. With their electronic monitoring capability unmatched in the British zone, the Strathconas’ 17 Coyotes have rarely been given a rest since first rolling into Kosovo on June 12 in KFOR’s vanguard. “The preferred routine is to keep one troop—five Coyotes—in reserve,” says Capt. Connolly. “But there have been plenty of occasions over the last couple of weeks when we’ve had all three troops out at the same time.” Things are much the same for the squadron’s other main asset, its 15 Bison assault vehicles, the troop-carrying version of the Coyote. The Strathconas in their Coyotes and Bisons were the first KFOR units to take over the central Kosovan town of Glogovac, soon to be the forward headquarters of the Canadian air force’s 408 Tactical

Helicopter Squadron. They were first to push north to the Serbian border, beyond the frontier town of Podujevo in the northeast of the province. When KFOR’s British commander, Lt.-Gen. Sir Michael Jackson, wanted a unit last week at Pristina University, where three Serbs were hammered and shot to death, it was the Strathconas’ reconnaissance squadron that he called upon. And last Friday, it was the Strathconas again who were selected to help escort 166 emaciated ethnic Albanian prisoners back to Pristina after they had been freed, malnourished and complaining of beatings, from jails inside Serbia. The Canadians also patrolled the capital and arrested looters. “It’s been pretty hectic,” admits Connolly. “We certainly can’t complain about the lack of things to do.”

In their distinctive black berets, the Strathconas may be Canada’s most visible presence on the streets of central Kosovo’s cities, towns and villages. There are currendy 185 of them in the reconnaissance squadron that is attached to Britain’s 4th Armoured Brigade, assigned to making—and managing—the peace in the province’s central zone around the capital city. Like the rest of the Canadians in KFOR, they fall under Col. Ward’s command. Unlike the other Canadians,

however, they are under the operational control of the British general in charge of the 4th Armoured. “Were an asset that is at the disposal of the brigadier,” explains Maj. Paul Fleury, the squadrons commanding officer, as he stands amid a scene of utter devastation.

It is the base camp the Strathconas share with the British, situated west of Pristina in what used to be a sprawling Yugoslav army barracks, a prime target during NATO’s bombing cam-

paign. There are dozens of buildings on the site, every one a twisted wreck of blasted steel and concrete. Minefields and gaping bomb craters litter the place, each carefully marked by white tape. There are potential booby traps everywhere— an overturned Serb helmet full of water, a rocket launcher hanging on a wall, an officer’s gold-braided cap lying within tantalizing reach of a pathway. “Tempting, isn’t it?” remarks Warrant Officer Mark Legge, catching a visitor contemplating the cap. “But it’s worth your life to touch it.”

If the Strathconas are Canada’s spearhead in Kosovo, they are not the country’s only troops in the region. There are, as well, 171 airmen from the air force’s 408 helicopter squadron, about 100 engineers from the army’s 1st Combat Engineering Regiment and another 250 headquarters, logistical and support troops. Within a month or so, the numbers will swell to 1,300 with the scheduled arrival of a 500-member batde group drawn from an Edmonton-based unit of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, complete with four Leopard heavy tanks. Unlike the Strathconas, the PPCLI troops will operate under Col. Ward’s direct command, most probably in a Canadian zone carved out of the British area of operations in central Kosovo. “That’s what we’d like to see,” says Ward. “If we are going to be called upon to perform a quasi-police role, then we have to get on intimate terms with the territory and the people in it.”

Precisely where that proposed Canadian zone will be remains to be decided. But the most likely area lies west of Pristina, around the town of Glogovac. The air force’s 408 squadron is already in the process of establishing a forward base on an abandoned airstrip just south of the town. Once the mine-clearers from the combat engineers have swept the airfield, the 408’s eight Griffon helicopters will move from their current location at Skopje’s civilian airport in Macedonia into Kosovo itself. “The place is ideal for us,” says Col. Bruce McQuade, the helicopter squadron’s commander. “It’s seven minutes flying time from Pristina, almost smack in the middle of the British zone.”

The 408’s Griffons, like the Strathconas’ Coyotes, are another piece of Canadian-manufactured high-tech gear much

The real problem is the simmering hatred the war has spawned, and the thirst for revenge

in demand in Kosovo, and for many of the same reasons. “It’s partly psychological,” explains McQuade, standing in viscous mud on the edge of Skopje’s airport, watching a pair of Griffons lift off for yet another mission into Kosovo. “A helicopter hovering overhead can be pretty intimidating.” As important, the Griffons are equipped for night duty. Each carries a forwardlooking infrared radar pod—a FLIR in military jargon—as well as flares to divert heat-seeking

It is Capt. Neil Thomsen, co-pilot and navigator of the Griffon code-named Freedom 002, who first notices the truck, suspiciously bumping across the field a few minutes flying time south of Pristina. The headset crackles with his voice. “Looks like UCK,” he says, using the Albanian abbreviation for the Kosovo Liberation Army. “Better take her down to have a closer look.”

“Roger,” replies the pilot, Capt. Charles Stiven, as he suddenly rotates Freedom 002 into a steep bank. Master Cpl. Wayne Gillman, the helicopter’s engineer, quickly slides open a side door, loads a round into the firing chamber of the 7.62mm machine-gun in the bay, and swivels the weapon to train

missiles and gadgets to suppress the heat signature of the helicopter’s twin engines. “The British paras [the 1st Parachute Regiment] want us to fly night surveillance missions over Pristina to help keep the lid on things,” says McQuade. “We haven’t flown any yet but we’ll probably be doing that pretty soon.” Police work, in short—the kind of tasks the Griffons are already doing in daylight.

it on the pickup truck below. “Hope they don’t take a shot at us,” he chuckles into the headset.

Freedom 002 circles and sweeps down, almost to ground level, passing so low beside the truck that the startled expression on the driver’s face is clearly visible. As is the bright red patch with the black eagle on the shoulder of his camouflage fatigues. “Yep,” says pilot Stiven. “UCK all right.” Beside him, co-pilot Thomsen scribbles the co-ordinates of the location on a map resting on his knees. Stiven circles the truck twice more to make the KFOR presence felt. The driver and his passenger below follow the helicopter with upturned, concerned faces. Then Freedom 002 lifts skyward, bound once again on a heading due south for Macedonia, beyond the steep, heavily forested mountains that lie direcdy ahead.

Occasionally, Freedom 002 diverts, sliding into one of those stomach-churning banks, to explore what from a distance

appears to be heavy weaponry abandoned by the departing Yugloslav forces. Not far from where Stiven buzzed the KLA truck, there is a tank. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a fake, constructed of plywood, one of the many dozens of ruses fabricated by the Yugoslavs to draw NATO bombs and missiles away from the real thing.

Farther along, there is a field dotted with artillery pieces.

The Griffon sweeps down.

“Fake,” mutters Stiven, while Thomsen notes the co-ordinates of what are nothing more than wooden poles upon wooden tripods, painted gray. Still, in this case, the ruse seems to have worked. The field with the fake guns is pockmarked with bomb and missile craters.

The issue of damaged and abandoned Yugoslav weapons is clearly one that preoccupies the Canadian airmen, as it does many of KFOR’s other national contingents. Back in

tWO warring

‘We’re right in the middle of

communities

Skopje, 408 commander McQuade reveals that NATO headquarters is continually pestering his pilots for data on the type, location and damage inflicted on abandoned Yugoslav armour and artillery. “G2 [intelligence] wants

any scrap of information we can turn up,” he says. “So far, we haven’t found much.”

While KFOR officers will not comment publicly, the concern at headquarters may well have something to do with allegations that NATO has exaggerated the extent of the damage inflicted by the air campaign. As the bombing drew to a close, senior NATO officials repeatedly asserted that the alliance had destroyed hundreds of pieces of heavy weaponry. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told the House of Commons at one point that 160 Yugoslav tanks had been knocked out of action.

There is scant evidence on the ground in Kosovo of that kind of damage. During a three-day tour of much of central Kosovo last week, Macleans came across a single disabled Yugoslav T-55 tank, lying beside a road north of the town of Malisevo in the Drenica valley, a hotbed of KLA activity during the war. And up in the air, onboard Freedom 002, the only visible trace left in the wake of the Yugoslavs were the wooden fakes.

The Yugoslav presence once was massive, as Capt. Dale Cheeseman of the Strathconas can testify. The 25-year-old officer, originally from Rushoon, Nfld., remembers leading the first KFOR contingent into the town of Glogovac on June 15. “We ran right into a departing VJ [Yugoslav Army] column,” he recalls during a break from his duties in one of the Strathconas’ roadside command posts. “I don’t know how

many troops there were, but I counted 127 vehicles in the column, with maybe as many as 75 T-55 tanks. It was really phenomenal. I kept wondering to myself ‘Where have all these guys been hiding?’ ”

A good question, one that has yet to be fully answered. But if the Yugoslavs left few signs of their military assets behind, there is plenty of evidence of the destruction wrought by Serbia’s forces. From the air, almost anywhere in Kosovo, it is starkly simple

to distinguish between a Serbian and Albanian town or village, even aside from the characteristic presence of Serb onion domes and Albanian minarets. The Serb villages, with their red-tiled roofs and white-walled cottages, are all in nearpristine condition. The Albanian communities have the same red roofs and white walls, but there are gaping holes in the broken tiles and the walls are blackened with smoke.

There is, as well, another legacy, one that is likely to prove a far more intractable problem. It is the simmering hatred the past few months have spawned, and the thirst for revenge. Djavet Haydari is a case in point. The 56-year-old primary school principal returned home last week to his modest apartment in Pristina. He, his wife and their three teenage daughters had spent the past two months in a refugee camp in Macedonia. They turned up in the Kosovar capital to find their home in shambles. The door had been kicked in, a slogan scrawled in misspelled English across it. “Wellcome to hell,” it said. Inside, the walls were completely covered in foul Serbian-language epithets, crude cartoons of skeletons with dangling breasts and mutilated genitalia and NATO symbols. The curtains and furniture had been slashed with knives, the carpets smeared with what seemed to be excrement. All of the clothes inside the closets had been shredded. “What kind of people would do something like this?” moaned Haydari’s 18-year-old daughter, Leonora, close to tears. Then her face clouded with anger as she spat: “Serbs!”

It is something that KFOR’s troops are grappling with—on both sides of the intercommunal divide, as it is now the Serbs who are on the receiving end of the abuse. All of KFOR’s many national contingents were confronting the problem last week. French paratroopers were barely keeping the lid on tensions in the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica in the north. U.S. Marines shot and killed two civilians in the southeastern city of Gnjilane. German troops in Prizren were also involved in fatal clashes, as were British paratroopers in Pristina. No Kosovar, either Albanian or Serb, had yet died at the hands of Canadas soldiers. But it may well happen. For the Canadians, like all the other soldiers in KFOR, are certain to be patrolling Kosovo’s uneasy peace for years to come. E3