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)
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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.

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.

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