Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kosovo: Film City, Pristina

Kosovo is a rather new country that was carved out of Serbia in the last year or so, following NATO military action against Serbia when it was evident that the Kosovar Albanians were suffering a degree of persecution that some called genocide. Sometimes the decision for the United States and NATO to use force against Serbia in 1999 has been questioned since it was apparent that both the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians were committing atrocities against each other, but I think it is reasonable to recognize that trying to keep the former Yugoslavia together as one country is probably not tenable, with Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro all having already broken away. At any rate, almost a decade after the hostilities started in March 1999 KFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force, is still in Kosovo. The new country is divided into several military zones controlled by major NATO powers like Turkey, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States, with a KFOR headquarters at Film City in Pristina being the nerve of the entire operation. I spent a few days at the dry and dusty KFOR Headquarters on top of a ridge overlooking the new capital city of Pristina. Because they had so many restrictions on military personnel leaving base, I spent my entire period on the base except for a brief foray just outside the gate to check out the stores filled with pirated CDs and DVDs, all selling for one or two euros a piece. I also looked out at the city from the ridge, and could see a vibrant bustling European city, even if it appeared more crude and not so refined as a Western European City. One of the buildings featured a giant bottle of Peja, a local beer, while another building had a giant image of their hero Bill Clinton on it.

Most of the Americans stationed at Film City were largely confined to base, so their entire life for six months to a year rotated around Film City, the headquarters. Other people at the base came from outlying bases in different regions of Kosovo, since the country has been divided into zones of control for different NATO countries. Many of the people from the American, French, Italian, German, or Turkish bases in other parts of Kosovo wore fatigues and carried some sort of a weapon with them at all times. Basically the people stationed at the Headquarters were not required to carry weapons, but visitors from outlying bases did, and as a result could not drink in the bars. The American combatant soldiers were not even allowed on the street with the bars and exchanges after eight o’clock at night.

The base was rather small, with a large headquarters building, several national compounds, Corimec barracks (modular block buildings resembling ocean containers), a high quality mess hall, and several more R&R oriented facilities, including exchanges, restaurants, bars, and gyms. Each major power had a scaled down representative of their Post Exchange present, which carried CDs, DVDs, electronic goods, bottles of wine, beer, Ipods, and other necessary tools of trade, including more than one shop that sold a large number of KFOR souvenirs. One that I couldn’t help laughing at was a three foot high soldier in fatigues with KFOR insignia and an M-16 who danced to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” when switched on. I wondered about the high number of cheap toys and souvenirs, until I realized just how mind numbingly bored people probably got when serving out a tour at KFOR. The Turkish Exchange was probably the most unique, with its outfits for sultans and the like, complete with pointed shoes, flowing robes, and turban style headdress. The variety of uniforms (which were required during all hours of the day) also gave the base an international flavor. The most distinct were the French soldiers in their bright green camouflaged fatigues and huge black berets. I expected them to be carrying sticks of bread instead of assault rifles. Aside from the French, the other nationalities present included Germans, Italians, Americans, Turks, Ukrainians, Swedes, Finns, Belgians (in their purple and green fatigues), and Irish, but not so many British.

Although the American MWR facilities featured TV rooms, computer labs equipped with Skype, well outfitted gyms, and even a sizable reading library, people generally were bored enough that they gravitated to the bar scene. The base had a Main Street type of area that was lined with the various exchanges and bars for each nationality. Each bar had its own flavor and served appropriate beverages from the homeland. The French bar sold 1664 Beer, a staple at most any French Bar, along with a couple of darker ales that were quite potent. The German bar served hefeweizen in fluted glasses along with pils or lagers in their appropriate glasses, just like a stube back in Germany, except the price was much lower, one euro as opposed to three back in Germany. In fact, while we were there, they broke the bank by raising the price to one euro fifty. The American Bar was called Sam’s Club and it sold Budweiser, Michelob, along with German hefewiezen, and tended to be the busiest place on the street until all the bars closed by midnight. Just listening to the people stationed there revealed how the base mentality took over them, because after a few weeks of living in a Corimecs box, eating at the same mess hall (or maybe at the two or three restaurants along the Main Street), hanging out in the same office, and seeing the same people at the same half dozen small bars can probably warp even a strong and independent mind. Much of the kitchen and lounge space in the American cell was filled with booze, cases of warm Peja beer, and hundreds of most likely pirated DVDs and video games. Most of them discussed long sessions of drinking and periodic parties when the various natinoal compounds opened their doors to the other NATO personnel stationed there for a night. Some of them admitted that drinking with foreign soldiers often required more stamina than the typical American possessed. One other event that they also recalled the terrible weekend when the American commander decided to prohibit all drinking because someone had gotten into trouble in Pristina. That ban lasted for only a weekend, but I suspect that it probably seemed as long as an entire tour there.

A few people took advantage of excursions to nearby sights, monasteries, flights to other parts of Europe, or Albanian lessons, but that would only partially offset the mind numbing boredom that would undoubtedly settle in if someone was stranded in that small postage stamp of a community. The military folks seemed to rotate out fairly quickly, especially the Air Force, who seemed to be the majority of the Americans at the headquarters, but some of the civilian contractors stayed indefinitely, although most of them lived in Pristina instead of on the base. Although Pristina may have been a less than stable place, it was probably reasonably livable and a degree of cultural stimulation that far exceeded what the base had to offer, so living there as a contractor might have been a different matter altogether.

Probably the one thing that Kosovo had going for it was the fact that, even though it technically was classified as a combat zone, there were virtually no violent occurrences against NATO forces, and the only hint of any sort of violence beyond occasional muggings or bar fights was the reports of “happy shots” from an excited Kosovar firing an AK-47 into the sky after a wedding or other such festive occurrence. Despite the lack of actual violence (unlike Afghanistan or Iraq), Kosovo is considered a combat zone, and military personnel stationed there do get hazardous duty pay and receive tax exemptions. Although combat activity seems quite minimal nine years after the war, the security of the new nation of Kosovo will probably continue to justify that the NATO presence remain in the region for the next few years.


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