Memories of Kosovo

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

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

As I awaken to my alarm clock, I can see my breath in the dark, stale air. Our generator must have died during the night. It is 5:30 a.m. in the middle of January in the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo, and according to my thermometer it is eight degrees Centigrade (46 Fahrenheit) inside our six-man shelter. I have to get moving; I have three missions today, and the first briefing commences at 7:00 a.m.

Walking outside at 6:30 to load my survival gear into the aircraft, I find the flight engineer, Master Corporal Alain Bilodeau, brushing the snow off our aircraft, one of eight Canadian Forces CH-146 Griffon helicopters supporting the NATO peacekeeping mission here. A 1990s version of the Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey, the Bell Helicopter Textron Canada model 412CF Griffon is a tactical utility helicopter, with twin engines driving a four-blade main rotor.

Outside it is below freezing, and over a foot of snow has fallen overnight. By 7:00 a.m., the aircraft commander, Captain Stéphane Roux, and I have checked the weather, had our intelligence briefing, and planned the mission. We all look tired—no one slept well last night with the heat off. At 7:30 a.m. we start the engines, and it will take almost 20 minutes to warm up all the systems. As aircraft commander, Stéphane is the decision-maker who has primary responsibility for both the aircraft and the mission. We’ll usually share stick time, but as first pilot, I will be the one doing most of the flying, and I had better be on the ball today: We’ll be operating in a known threat zone, and there is no room for complacency.

At 8:15 a.m. we land at the Finnish battalion camp near Lipjan, some 10 miles south of Pristina, and pick up four special reconnaissance soldiers. Our first mission is to provide an eye in the sky and top cover for a series of house raids being conducted by Finnish troops with dogs and armored vehicles. The soldiers in the back of our aircraft, equipped with radios in addition to their personal weapons (nobody goes anywhere in Kosovo without a weapon), will monitor the scene from above and coordinate the effort.

The Finns have intelligence reports that several houses in a particular Albanian village are harboring arms and drugs. An hour into the raids, there has been some resistance and several arrests have been made. By 10 a.m. we are back at the Canadian camp, refueling our aircraft “hot”—with the engines running and the crew strapped in and ready to go. Within 30 minutes we are airborne again and back over the scene of the raids.

After another hour and a half the raids are completed. Several assault rifles and some illegal drugs are seized, and a few people are taken into custody. In the backyard of one Albanian house, the Finns find several graves. We can only speculate about the bodies; the conclusions will be left to the United Nations investigators, who will arrive later. There are many graves in Kosovo.

Less than three miles northwest of the town of Pristina, on a ridge overlooking the town and a broad plain that sweeps beyond it, stands a simple brown monument about 100 feet tall. It dominates the landscape, and although it offers a natural visual checkpoint, we avoid flying near it because of what it symbolizes. The monolith commemorates an epic battle fought on June 28, 1389, when a Turkish army under Sultan Murad I delivered a crushing defeat to Serbian forces led by Prince Lazar, then left the bodies to be picked at by carrion birds. Historical records suggest that as many as 70,000 people died during this daylong battle. Serbs call this place the Field of Blackbirds, and it is said that the soul of the Serbian nation resides here.

In the spring of 1987, Slobodan Milosevic, then the Serbian Communist party leader, came to Kosovo and, before an attentive crowd made up mostly of Serbs resentful over treatment by local Albanians, stated, “Nobody, either now or in the future, has the right to beat you.” With those words, Milosevic aroused Serbian nationalism and hatred for the other ethnic groups in the crumbling nation states of Yugoslavia, thereby consolidating his hold on power. By the early 1990s, widespread ethnic warfare had devastated this Balkan region.

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.

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