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Norwegian troops (in rearmost rank) took over sponsorship of the First Kosovar Scouts, local school-age kids, when the Canadians returned home. (Jonathan Knaul)

Memories of Kosovo

A helicopter pilot recalls his peacekeeping tour of duty over one of the world's most strife-torn regions.

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.

When I arrive at Sheremet’s home, his family immediately invites me and my driver, Corporal Carlo Senegal, into their home. A single 30-foot-square room, which Sheremet and seven members of his family must share, serves all of them as bedroom, guest room, and kitchen.

While we sit and speak to his father in French, Sheremet’s older sister quietly pours coffee from a golden metal decanter into small cups that hold no more than a couple of ounces. But then, with this coffee, two ounces is more than enough. It is closer in texture to maple syrup than to what we know as coffee in North America. The coffee is very sweet, the taste is pleasant, and it warms me.

The room is cool and damp, and Sheremet’s father offers to light the woodstove. I decline, having noticed that there was no wood stored outside the house. After half an hour, Carlo and I prepare to leave. Sheremet’s father invites us to stay for supper, but they have little food, and we politely decline the offer. I also have a night mission that takes off in less than three hours.

Shortly after 7:30 p.m., Stéphane, Alain, and I are flying toward a map grid reference—the only information we have—where we are to pick up four members of a Swedish reconnaissance section. From the map, we can see that the landing zone lies in a narrow valley close to the border with Serbia. To add to the difficulty of the mission, it is a cloudy, snowy night with limited visibility in a region that is very mountainous. In these conditions, the performance of our night-vision goggles, which amplify ambient light, is significantly diminished. Canadian Forces rules allow us to fly when the visibility is as low as one nautical mile (a bit more than a statute mile) if we can remain 200 feet above the highest obstacle. Flying at the edge of our weather limits with a fuzzy picture through the goggles is very uncomfortable, like driving down the highway in a downpour. To get to the pickup zone, we have to wind through valleys to avoid the overcast, which is pierced only by mountaintops. It is important that we complete this mission. It is another sub-zero night, and the Swedish patrol will have to spend it outdoors in a high-threat area if we don’t pick them up.

Arriving in the vicinity of the grid reference, we see two flashes through the murk from a handheld light, indicating the exact location for pickup. There are no other lights available to wave us in; we are close to the border and the helicopter must remain blacked out, as must the people below. We circle once to get a good look at the landing zone. I can see that the LZ is in a tight spot. In the narrow valley, and with the strong winds prevailing from the north, there is only one option for the approach—from the south. We will have to fly over some electrical lines, and there are also lines on the left of the LZ and trees on the right. There will be no room for error, as there is just enough space in the LZ to fit one helicopter. I confirm the location with Stéphane and Alain and give an abbreviated briefing on how I will fly the approach. Stéphane gives me some tips; he has much more experience than I do.

Stéphane keeps his hands close to the controls as I make the approach. If I lose battery power to my goggles, I will be blind and he’ll have to take over. A hundred feet high and 300 feet away from the landing zone, the approach looks good, but I start to feel the embrace of the valley around me. Alain has the back door on my side open and his head is outside the aircraft. I can hear his voice shiver as he reports our proximity to obstacles. A soldier in a clearing is signaling to us with his hands, but I am barely able to make him out. Stéphane continues to coach me through the approach. Thirty feet high and 30 feet away from the LZ, the downwash from the rotors engulfs us in a thick, blinding snow cloud. Alain is still able to see the ground, but I lose all outside visual references. I immediately inform Stéphane, who still has the ground in sight on his side of the helicopter. Stéphane takes over and plants us firmly in the near-knee-high snow.

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