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 3 of 5)
With the winds gusting, we land near the house. The elderly couple approaches, hunched over and walking with long canes. They are both dressed in light clothing, and their only guardian is an emaciated German shepherd. We leave the British troops and interpreter there. They tell us they will make their own way back—on foot, we suppose. As our helicopter lifts off, a large cloud of snow envelops the people on the ground, and they wrap their arms about their heads and turn their backs toward us. It is hard to imagine how these two old people have survived up here for this long.
At 2:45 p.m. the crew and I arrive back at the Canadian camp for another hot refuel. By 3:30 p.m. we are orbiting over a Serbian funeral that will last an hour and a half. Our job is to discourage any violence from erupting during the ceremony. Two days earlier, an Albanian youth gunned down a Kosovar Serbian father of four walking home in the late afternoon. The murder was allegedly carried out as one of many acts of reprisal. Hate comes from all sides.
The rotor blades make a loud slapping noise as I bank the helicopter sharply into the wind and my thoughts veer with it. I focus on the grief that the family below must feel. Added to their pain, they must endure the intrusion of a noisy helicopter as the life of a father and husband is honored and they bid him farewell.
Our flying day finishes shortly after 5 p.m. Canadian Forces flying rules state that aircrews are allowed a maximum eight hours of flying in one day—exactly what we have flown. We must have had at least two false missile-warning alarms every hour. As I lumber out of the cockpit, I feel five pounds lighter than I did when I started my day. Stéphane and Alain also emerge slowly and with much effort, the fatigue visible as they stretch their backs. Many of my muscles are tight, and I am thinking only of a hot meal and bed. Luckily, we are changing to night flying the following day, and can sleep in the next morning. We don’t know it now, but we will need the extra sleep for tomorrow night’s mission.
It is snowing again, but at least the generator keeps working and there is ample heat in my shelter. After a good seven hours of rest, I am up and busying myself with plans for the upcoming weekly meeting of the First Kosovar Scouts. Several of us Canadian servicemen and -women act as scout leaders for a group of 21 Kosovar Albanian boys and girls, who range in age from 10 to 17. Once a week for two hours, the group meets in the Canadian camp, where we teach the kids everything from orienteering and building a camp fire to dental hygiene and landmine awareness.
Working with the scouts is the easiest part of my job in Kosovo. The kids are always happy, upbeat, full of vigor, and ready to tackle any challenge—not what you would expect from a group of kids who have just been through war and organized persecution. Many of their fathers or brothers are either dead or unaccounted for.
Most of the children have badly decayed teeth. The dentists in Kosovo usually leave rotting teeth in rather than pull them. They reason that it is better to have a rotten tooth than no tooth at all. I take Sheremet, a boy of 14, to see our Canadian Forces dentist one day. There is no choice but to pull one molar that has been causing him a lot of pain. Afterward, I drive Sheremet home in one of our military vehicles. It’s a 30-minute drive down a road full of very large potholes—scars of war.
On the way we pass a mass grave just outside Poklek, Sheremet’s village. It is the first time that I have seen a mass grave up close. I have seen many from the air, but it is very different when you can reach out and touch the graves. This particular grave is located on a back road behind Poklek in a remote location where no one would ever hear the shots. There are dozens of bodies at the site, all exhumed and examined by UN war crimes investigators. After the investigation was complete, the bodies were laid to rest in separate burial plots. This was the 11th mass grave that I’d seen in four months.