Michael J. Whelan – Kosovo 2001
LANDSCAPES OF CONFLICT – CONFLICTED LANDSCAPES
Once you were off base (outside camp) and no matter where in the province the convoy, or for that matter the vehicle you might be in, was heading the landscapes were truly amazing and told a multitude of stories and histories if you were willing to open your eyes, read the features and listen. The country was/ is beautiful and in that beauty there were echoes of the centuries of violence passed and of the most recent scars of wars to encapsulate Kosovo and the greater Balkans region not least in the amount of International peacekeeping soldiers guarding hundreds of churches, mosques, cemeteries and schools. Many, many of these had been damage or destroyed in ethnic violence since the war ended. But absorbing all that magnificent landscape and history against the sufferings of the local Kosovar people in the height of a cold, wet and for the most part grey winter could leave a dark and lasting impression on you.
Being very interested in history I was able to pick out man-made features around the border areas with Macedonia such as pillboxes and bunkers, which were constructed during the World War Two and later periods of the Partisan wars. There were very deep ravines and high mountain ridges in these areas with unused railway bridges linking the country through those historic landscapes, which would have been ideal for ambushes and guerrilla warfare against occupying forces. These same mountains were the routes for the refugees fleeing the war in the year before I arrived in Kosovo. They were the same hills also that were shelled by Serbian forces, while those refugees trekked through the winter forests to find safety. Many people were lost in those mountains to artillery bursting above and amongst them and often times I could see the yellow tape trailing off up into the high ground were un-exploded ordnance or mines had been discovered or were suspected to be.
K.FOR troops would be busy, all year round and still are to this day, trying to clear these areas and make them safe again, a very strenuous and dangerous task in the deep forests and foliage which blanketed the peaks and valleys. The remains of human victims of the Kosovo war were sometimes discovered and from a wise experience the peacekeepers would approach carefully in case bodies or graves were booby trapped. I remember a few years after I came home from Kosovo, watching a TV documentary on the problems with mines in the province and how they were being detected with the use of ground penetrating radar being fired or scanning the landscape from a flying balloon, rather like the famous Zeppelins of WWI although much smaller in scale.
Driving along the roads in rural areas and in the hills it was easy to spot deserted or destroyed villages, many burnt and without roofs. Some of these had been cordoned off and had signs posted warning the former owners of mines and booby-traps left by Serbian military forces. During the war Serbian troops had positioned themselves on the strategic heights of Mount Golez, a missive feature in the hills rising up over the landscape near Pristina and the airport. These positions had been bombed by NATO aircraft and the trenches that remained on the upper slopes as we approached were still littered with un-exploded cluster-bombs, (large capsules containing hundreds of small bomb-lets designed to be dropped on infantry over a wide area), making this a dangerous environment to be operating in. At the top of the mountain there was a massive K.FOR signals-communications compound, within which the Irish units had a re-broadcasting station and radio masts. The compound had to be maintained regularly and this meant negotiating the climb up by vehicle was hazardous, you didn’t dare drive off the road even if you had to manoeuvre or turn a truck on the narrow roads.
In Kosovo, in the early days of the K.FOR peacekeeping/peace enforcement mission, it was common to see clusters of graves in farmland and these were sometimes visible where crops had not been harvested by the owners. I never discovered if any of these were the result of ethnic cleansing, murder, reprisal killings or from un-exploded ordnance going off, while farmers worked the land. There was also a number of graves, some unmarked, on the center island of the main road artery of one of the main cities. Un-exploded mines or booby-traps whether left in the ground from the war or recently deposited by armed factions in acts of revenge or reprisal were an almost daily occurrence and very dangerous. In the center of Lipjan, the large town near to where the Irish Company Headquarters was located there was a major K.FOR presence of mostly Finnish peacekeeping troops. Members of this battalion were regularly tasked with escorting children to school to avoid them being attacked. It was common to see dozens of children under the protection of armed peacekeepers as they walked along safe zones marked out on the streets with tape and protected by a tank or a couple of armoured personnel carriers. The armed escorts were essential protection because of hand grenades and improvised explosive devices being thrown at the children and into the school playing yards. I have a memory of hearing about shots being fired at school children too.
I remember one day the vehicle I was travelling in was driving through Pristina city; we had just turned left into what seemed like a raging river of cars travelling in both directions. I spotted a suspicious looking rusted orange coloured car pulling up beside us on our side of the road near the center island. The car looked like it hadn’t been on the road in many years and was violently starting and stopping as if the driver was having trouble. As the vehicle I was sitting in the back off slowly drove past the orange car I looked in and saw that the driver and front passenger were under severe pressure and were shouting at each other. I then looked into the rear and saw a man laid out on the back seat. He seemed to be in a lot of pain, I could see his face and he could see mine. The man sat up for a moment and I saw then that he was clutching his upper right leg and what seemed to be a white shirt drenched in blood wrapped around his knee. He was moaning in agony, I couldn’t hear him but I could see his eyes. The shirt came away and I could see that his leg was gone from the knee joint, which was hanging loose like a ball onto his thigh. Our eyes caught each others for a split second and I knew he was at the mercy of the driver. I presumed afterwards that the man had stood on a mine or booby-trap and his friends had bundled him into an un-roadworthy car and were frantically trying to get him to a hospital. He might have been a farmer working his land and tripped the mine laid the night before my an enemy was may once have been a neighbour, such things were reported regularly in the newspapers. I have wondered many times since if he survived or was I looking onto the eyes of a dead man.
Mass Grave Kosovo 2001: Michael J. Whelan
Part of the humanitarian work the Irish troops carried out entailed providing aid to remote or isolated villages way up in the hills along the borders and I have distinct memories of our vehicles driving for many hours to reach them as some of the more direct routes had not been cleared of munitions and mines or were just too dangerous. I remember we drove into villages over very rough terrain, the vehicles bouncing all over the place, only to discover that we had driven over an ancient cemetery or some other hurting ground belonging to the story of that particular place. I remember the very steep mountain climbs in heavily laden trucks in severe snow blizzards on narrow tracks and some of the materials shifting and falling off the trucks and tumbling down the side. When we pulled into the center of a village the building materials and other humanitarian aid would be unloaded onto the ground and the locals would come out from their homes and take what they needed. Many times we unloaded material onto the ground beside a recently made mass grave, landscaped and covered in KLA flags (Kosovo Liberation Army) and floral wreaths. The graves would be filled with the victims of ethnic cleansing from the recent war, mostly the parents of the young children who gathered around our work parties. There would be the older generation, parents and grandparents of those buried in the graves, and the orphans. Imagine driving into a village that seemed to have been forgotten by the advance of time except for the 21st century to come visiting violence on its inhabitants; and you seeing, feeling and absorbing the emotion of the place. The children walking around half dressed and barefoot in the winter weather, the older people just staring at you, afraid to speak, most likely afraid of our weapons. I imagined and still do that the last uniform they say saw in their village was probably the one that brought death and destruction so who was I to think they would appreciate another uniform coming into their midst like some kind of liberators and saviours, not that we were doing such and I Have never felt that way since either.
The children who were brave enough to come down from the high ground in the village would gather round us as we worked and as the others followed them down it became quite dangerous for them so some of us would chat and play with them, dance and generally act the maggot. We gave them chocolate and drinks from our own rations to keep them occupied and safely away from the vehicles but I think that in many ways this was our attempt, although we didn’t realise it back then, of atoning for what had occurred to them and their families.
Sometimes we had an interpreter or member of one of the Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) like CONCERN or GOAL (Irish charities operating in the province) with us who would help the locals and the peacekeepers to communicate and we would be able then to listen to the stories of the people who had been killed or were still missing and what had happened in that particular village. This really brought home to us what war was like for the civilian populations and in a way, for a while, we felt good about the job we were doing but if you had small kids at home like I did then absorbing these scenes was quite upsetting and for the most part they have stayed with me ever since. I have written and published a number of poems that were inspired by these moments on the hurting landscapes of Kosovo fifteen years ago that still resonate in my memories and my consciousness as if it were only yesterday that I witnessed them. Those children, who would be in their twenties and thirties if they are still alive most likely wouldn’t remember me or the Irish troops but it is always place and what happens in a place that keeps the stories that stay with you. Kosovo, to me, is not just a place; it is an event, a time, a thing, a tangible world in my mind, in me, who I am. Those children’s memories too are landscapes of conflict on a conflicted landscape – a landscape of those violent times before we arrived and I hope that our brief encounters with them planted seeds of a peaceful, friendly future in their minds.
Michael J Whelan