Memories of Kosovo
A helicopter pilot recalls his peacekeeping tour of duty over one of the world's most strife-torn regions.
- By Jonathan Knaul
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 2 of 5)
To the west of the monument, at Obilic, lies a coal-burning electrical plant, and when the winds are from the north, we can see the brown swath in the snow extending for miles beneath the acrid plume that emanates from the plant’s smokestacks. Just south of Obilic lies the town of Kosovo Polje (polje is Serbian for “field”), which is a suburb of Pristina. For me, Kosovo Polje is a microcosm of Kosovo the province. It is one of the few remaining settlements in which Serbs, Albanians, and Gypsies still live together. But “living together” is not really accurate: In the months that I have been here, scarcely a day has passed that a house has not been set on fire.
Last year, in the spring of 1999, I volunteered to join a Canadian Forces contingent that would help keep the peace in Kosovo. I was just one of about 48,000 troops from more than 30 nations involved in the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, the United Nations-mandated, NATO-led peacekeeping mission that began on June 12, 1999, after the bombing campaign against Serb paramilitary forces ended. In March 1999 I told my mother that I would be sent on military duties in the Balkans. It was the kind of thing no mother wants to hear, especially not my mother, who had spent her teen years in London during the German bombing.
On December 18, 1999, I arrived in the Canadian camp at Donja Koretica, or DK, just a 30-minute drive west of Pristina, along with my squadron, 430 Escadron Tactique d’Hélicoptère, from Quebec City, Quebec. Our unit here carries the name KRWAU, for Kosovo Rotary Wing Aviation Unit. But the acronym KRWAU is pronounced “crow,” a coincidental reminder of the ever-present blackbirds that infest our hangar. We are crows among the blackbirds.
The Griffon I will fly can carry up to 15 people and has a maximum gross weight of 11,900 pounds. It has armor in both the floor and the crew seats, a 7.62-mm automatic rifle mounted on the cargo door, and missile warning systems. It can handle instrument flight in non-icing conditions, and the avionics package includes all the traditional navigation aids, supplemented by GPS satellite navigation for position data and Doppler radar systems that measure velocity over the ground. With all of the extra equipment we carry, the empty weight of the helicopter is relatively high—often in the neighborhood of 9,000 pounds. Fuel for 90 minutes of flight plus a reserve adds 1,400 pounds. That leaves room for a payload of 1,500 pounds, which means that we can typically carry a maximum of five passengers.
Shutting down the helicopter at camp DK at noon, I can feel the cramps in my legs as I clamber out of the cockpit. Armored seats are made for protection, not for comfort. The crew and I have been strapped in for more than four hours, and we are eager to stretch and eat some lunch. There is not much time as we still have two more missions to fly before our day is over.
Shortly before 1:30 p.m. we land on the Kosovo side of Gate 3, one of the main border crossings into Serbia, guarded by both British and Canadian soldiers. Here we pick up a British lieutenant, two soldiers, and an Albanian interpreter. For the next hour we patrol along the border with Serbia looking for any signs of the Serbian special police. NATO established a buffer zone about three miles wide on the Serbian side of the border within which only Serbian border police are allowed. Any other Serbian armed forces are prohibited from entering.
The terrain here is deceiving: very mountainous and serene. To the untrained eye it appears tranquil, with barren, high, windswept hilltops, few inhabitants, and not much activity. But we are not the only ones patrolling here; we can hear Czech ground reconnaissance teams on the radio. Day or night, no matter what the weather, the Czechs are on watch, though they are so well concealed you will never see them. I must remind myself that to the Serbs, KFOR is an invading and occupying force in a province that legally belongs to Yugoslavia. Most Albanians welcome NATO, but for those people who still constitutionally own Kosovo, Canadians and NATO are anything but welcome here.
Our patrol takes 45 minutes and proceeds without incident. We are to drop off our passengers at an Albanian house located on a mountaintop. Small isolated dwellings like these can be seen all along the border. This particular house is situated in a bleak location several miles from civilization. The British lieutenant tells us that a couple, both in their 70s, live here. They have no automobile or tractor, no means of resupplying themselves. The British officer visits frequently with medicine and food.