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The Battle of Jadotville: Irish Soldiers in Combat in the Congo, 1961 by Michael J. Whelan(c)2006

The Battle of Jadotville: Irish Soldiers in Combat in the Congo, 1961 by Michael J. Whelan(c)2006

 Big THANK YOU to Dave Lordan for publishing this extract from my book ‘The Battle of Jadotville: Irish Soldiers in Combat in the Congo, 1961′ over on the Bogman’s Cannon.

It was very timely and I’m very happy that Dave Lordan requested and published the piece on his blog, as my good friend Kieran Swords of South Dublin Libraries, who was the main person behind the editing and initial publishing of the book itself in 2006, sadly passed away last week!

Please check out the Bogman’s Cannon and the extract here http://bogmanscannon.com/category/front-line/

Michael J. Whelan  - Kosovo 2001

Michael J. Whelan – Kosovo 2001

THE ALBANIAN GIRL AND MY PART IN THE FIRST FREE ELECTIONS IN KOSOVO

She was in her mid to late teens or maybe her early 20s, she was young. A small boy of about six or seven held onto the loose belt of her jacket and her arms held a baby tightly as she struggled up the mountain road. It was about 11:am and we had already been driving for four or five hours to reach our destination, a high point in the mountains above the city of Mitrovica. It was extremely hot and the road was more of a narrow dirt track, loose and crumbling away in places as we drove higher and higher leaving massive dust clouds behind us.

I was part of a crew of three in a Nissan patrol FFR (fitted for radio), a radio operator (myself) a driver and a shotgun (security). We were all armed with our personal weapons and we were following a list of pre-arranged grid references and a map to be at a number staging points at certain times so as to receive radio messages and relay them between Irish convoys and the Irish operations cell hundreds of miles away in Camp Clarke. We had seen her from a good distance away as we drove up the winding track as we got closer we could see that she and the young boy were struggling. I asked the driver to pull over so I could confirm our location and ask if we were going in the right direction to a village, I can’t remember its name, but it was an Albanian town.

I rolled down my window and when the dust cloud settled I held the map out and pointed to the village trying to pronounce its name as best I could. She seemed very fearful so I smiled and told her not to be afraid, that we wouldn’t harm her or the children. She smiled back then, she was pretty and I could see she understood somehow. Her eyes seemed hurt and I could tell that she had seen much in her short life. Her face, neck and matted hair were glistening with sweat. She didn’t have any English but she pointed to the map and then to herself and said the name of the village out loud as she pointed up the mountain road and then back to herself. I gathered that she was making her way to the same place we were going. I thanked her and we drove off again leaving her and the children in another cloud of dust. It wasn’t the ‘done thing’ to take civilians in a K.FOR military vehicle, we didn’t know who they were or what would happen if we were stopped with them in the car, what people would think. Besides, the province was still volatile and liable to flare up at any time for any reason.

But as we drove away I looked back and saw that they were really struggling up the mountain and from the map I could tell that they still had a few hours ahead of them so I asked the driver if we could go back and pick them up. It was a very remote area and nobody would need to know and we were doing something good. The driver reversed the vehicle very carefully back down the mountain dirt track and we picked the girl and children up. This was to lead to one of the most surreal experiences of my time in Kosovo and one that I still try to understand.

The 3rd Irish Transport Coy had only been in country a few weeks and hardly had to time to catch its breath after the initial enthusiasm of mission takeover and responsibility when we learned that we were to be a very important logistical and security element in the first free Parliamentary elections in Kosovo.

In the immediate aftermath of the war in Kosovo and during the build up of the K.FOR peacekeeping forces it had become evident that there was serious security and violence issues throughout the province and that a crisis of legitimacy in the makeshift local administrative institutions was looming.

It was decided upon that the first municipal elections in Kosovo, organised by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) under United Nations Resolution 1244 and the United Nations Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) would be held as soon as possible. After much preparations the first free Parliamentary elections (first elections in over fifty years) to elect representatives to the Assembly of Kosovo were held on 28th October 2000. The Assembly would be an institution within the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government (PISG) established by UNMIK to provide ‘provisional, democratic self-government’ in advance of a decision on the final status of Kosovo. As a result parliamentary elections have taken place every three years since with the first two being organised by the OSCE.

The 3rd Irish Transport Coy of 110 personnel, of which I was a member, being a theater asset of the K.FOR force commander and consisting of soldiers from a non-aligned neutral country, was tasked with the logistical end of the collection, transport and delivery of ballot boxes and other related material for those of the 1.762 million people eligible to vote. The same would have to be done in reverse after the elections were complete. This tasking was a key part of the plan and consisted of a major workload beginning weeks in advance of the elections.

The ballot boxes, under the supervision of OSCE, were to be flown in on UN aircraft to Pristina Airport, where the Irish transport ‘drops vehicles’ would collect the off-loaded 40 foot containers and bring them to a secure location in the city. When all the containers were secure they would then be driven in convoys manned only by armed Irish peacekeepers to cities, isolated villages, towns and other locations. There was always a security threat against K.FOR and this would be heightened especially around the elections. K.FOR troops would lock down the whole province and would eventually bring in extra battalions of peacekeepers from troop contributing countries for the duration of the elections.

As this was a major security and safety issue and the fact that we knew the Kosovo landscape was virtually flat in the middle and mountainous around the edges, the five man signals section and the Coy HQ realised straight away that on top of manning the Comcen 24 hours a day it also had to come up with a plan to check out the best ways of providing radio communications between all Irish transport movements well in advance of the elections kicking off. This meant a round the clock mission of driving almost the length and breadth of the 10,908km2 province, sometimes departing the Irish camp at 3:am and returning at 11:pm, to check out the best locations to relay radio communications by VHF, HF and Motorola between vehicles as there was no possibility of direct communication with Camp Clarke in many parts of those distant mountains. This was important as we would be providing the radio communications as part of the convoys delivering the ballot boxes and materials to very remote areas and we would be solely responsible for our own security. We knew that that we would have to negotiate quite a bit of off-road terrain and there was a very real possibility there could be mines, booby-traps, un-exploded munitions from the recent airstrikes like cluster bombs or even simple things such as roadblocks to contend with in the mountains and other regions we weren’t too familiar with. There was the possibility of ambushes too and we also had a time constraint in which to deliver the ballot boxes by certain dates etc. Losing communications at all was never going to be permissible especially if there was an accident or casualties incurred for whatever reason.

The roads were incredibly bad in those days and there were a lot of bombings, shootings and murders in the lead up to the elections by rival factions. K.FOR needed to be neutral in the whole operation but some of its peacekeepers had found themselves on the brunt end of this violence, never mind the amount of road traffic accidents and casualties, due to other reasons such as mine clearance were already mounting up since the NATO forces first deployed in the previous summer. I certainly did not want to do die in Kosovo or become a casualty of any kind and neither did anyone else in the Irish Transport Coy so we took our time in the preparations and execution of the operations during the elections. This, in retrospect, was a great learning curve for everybody especially for the drivers as the harsh winter would soon be upon us and the conditions would became very hazardous in the months ahead.

During the days just prior and also during the elections up to six convoys per day consisting of a command car, a drops truck to lift and carry the 40ft container and the security car would travel to completely different areas. For security reasons almost nobody in K.FOR or Kosovo for that matter was privy to the exact convoy destinations or routes, not even the convoy commanders, until just prior to departing the camp. The signals elements in the radio cars (FFRs – fitted for radio) would travel to the mountains and high ground features in advance and would keep radio contact with allotted convoys at intervals and allotted times. Each convoy and FFR had a security element and everybody was armed with their personal weapon and extra ammunition, body armour and food rations for the duration of the day. Conditions weren’t always ideal and there were some setbacks but all the preparations paid off, especially the prior reconnaissance of suitable high ground locations in the mountains for radio transmissions. Back in Camp Clarke the Comcen (communications center) was temporarily set up as an operations room headed by a Turkish Officer and manned by the Irish HQ and duty radio operator. All radio traffic and updates, situation reports etc would eventually be received here through the relaying of messages from the convoys through the FFRs and back. In the end the elections went ahead without any serious problems on our behalf and we in the transport company although exhausted and dirty at the end of a very busy few weeks were safe and had incurred no serious injuries to personnel or equipment. We had witnessed and taken part in a historical event, which very few people in Ireland were ever aware of.

It was while working on those elections one very hot day in October 2000 that I asked the driver of the FFR I was operating from to stop so I could confirm with a young girl our route to a village in the mountains high above Mitrovica. We picked her and the two children up and drove on up the long winding dirt tracks of the mountains. We still had an hour or so to drive and I thought to myself that she would have had hours to walk, with hungry and tired children and one of them in her arms, how she was going to do it I don’t know. The girl and the two children had fallen asleep in the back of the car at this stage. I could see that she and the children were filthy dirty, they were covered in dried mud and it seemed to be caked around her neck, face and ears. It might have been the sweaty dust drying on her skin but anyway she slept and I thought she obviously felt secure enough in the car with us that she could do so, either that or she was just totally exhausted.

She was on my left, with the young boy between her and the door, the baby lay between them. Between us was an armrest on which I lay my left arm with the flex and hand-piece from the radio just beside my shoulder and within easy reach if I had to respond to a message, my rifle stood between my knees. After a while the car hit a bump and the girl woke up startled and a little afraid. I told her she was OK and whether she understood what I was saying or not I’ll never know but she recognised where she was after a few seconds and smiled. I told her it wouldn’t be too long now. A few minutes later the girl put her hand on top of mine and started to twist my wedding ring around my finger. I said nothing, nor did I look as I thought she might be nervous and didn’t want to scare her. She gripped my hand then and when I looked over at her I saw that she had unbuttoned her blouse almost all the way down exposing her breasts. At this stage I was shouting at her, ‘What the f#ck are you doing?’ The driver got a fright and almost lost control of the car, the girl and the baby started crying and I covered her up telling her that nothing was going to happen!

I shouted to the driver that we had to get her out of the car and inquired if we were nearly at the location. The girl and the baby settled then but I kept saying to her ‘no, no, no!’ She then took out some kind of document and handed it to me. It was written in Albanian with some smaller English text and from what I could make out and remember now it was a Red Cross card of some type and she had to go down the mountain regularly to get assistance. She tried telling me in gestures that the baby was hers and that the father was a Serb. She kept pointing to the baby and her tummy and saying ‘Serbish, Serbish.’ I might be very wrong but the impression I got was that she had been raped by a Serb soldier or at least the father was Serbian and the Red Cross or some other agency was taking care of her at some level. She had stopped crying as we reached a plateau above her village and we watched her through our rifle sights as she and the children trekked down a long narrow road that opened out into a small valley and she went into an old very dilapidated looking farmhouse. She was calling to us to follow, and a man came out to greet her and also called on us to come down but we didn’t, we had work to do and besides who knows what would have happened afterwards. It was a very strange experience and none of the three of us in that car spoke much about it afterwards. I suppose we were too busy in the months that followed. But I still think about it sometimes, what it all meant, what had actually happened to the girl and if she was ok afterwards. I wonder how many times she had to trek up and down those mountains and how hard her life must have been. What were her lasting impressions of us and what had occurred? What did she think was happening and why did she feel she had to act as she did, did she have to sell herself to other soldiers to survive? I have often wondered too if she is still alive, and if she is I hope those elections, that I had a very small part, in was a positive thing for her life. But really this was just one of a number of surreal and strange things that occurred in Kosovo that have stayed with me.

Later on during the six month mission we would be tasked, as mentioned in an earlier piece, with transporting the remains of the victims of ethnic cleansing, and other important operations, so the period we worked during the Kosovo elections became blurred in the long haul of the mission and the short winter days to follow. But I managed to see all the major cities and almost all the major towns of the province. I saw the beautiful landscapes of Kosovo change from summer to autumn and winter and back and we adapted and improvised through the harsh climate and the conditions this imposed on us and the population. I also witnessed many great feats of endeavour and courage, stupidity, despair and sadness.

But at the time I did not realise all this and how it would affect me. Although I had two periods of leave during the six months, when I returned to Ireland for a few days, I still missed home and I missed my wife and son and family greatly. I became depressed and I could see that others were feeling the same way, though I didn’t know it then. When I came home at the end of the tour I was unwell. I had served in South Lebanon some years previous and didn’t feel the same way afterwards.  There were a number of reasons for this, I realise that now, and I may write about them at a later time.

 

 

Michael J. Whelan

Feb 2015

Michael J. Whelan  - Kosovo 2001

Michael J. Whelan – Kosovo 2001

CAMP CLARKE – Irish Transport Coy Headquarters, Lipjan, Kosovo – K.FOR

The Chicken Farm

Long before the war Ajim Salihu was a school teacher – before his job was taken from him. When the war came in 1999 and his home on the outskirts of Lipjan was burned he took his wife and children and fled Kosovo. Like many thousands of others Ajim found relative safety for his family in a refugee camp just inside the border of neighbouring Macedonia. Serbian troops had positioned themselves on the premises of a disused chicken processing factory very near to his home and used it as a base for a reign of terror on the local population. This was the very site, which would months later become the home of the Irish Transport Company deployed as part of the K.FOR multinational peace enforcement mission. When Irish soldiers serving as peacekeepers replaced the Serbians in the factory it once again began a semi production of sorts and with it came the inevitable side effects of smells, rodents and pests. From then on the Irish base, although officially named Camp Clarke, after the Irish patriot Thomas Clarke executed in 1916, was unofficially referred to as the ‘Chicken Farm’ to all in the mission area and at home in Ireland becoming a permanent fixture by the time I arrived there.

Because of its location the camp had many problems to overcome and I was to have first-hand experience of them as would many others who lived there over the years. The chicken farm smelled awful, especially during the warm weather and dry spells, the chickens and their droppings attracted flies as big as your fist at times, ok maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration but they were huge and everywhere all the time. I remember that when we ate in the dining hall (a large cookhouse tent capable of catering for up to a hundred soldiers) or anywhere for that matter within the boundaries of the camp the flies would be all over you.  At times you literally had to lean over the plate with your arms to stop them from landing on your food, it was a constant battle. I remember one occasion when the chap sitting facing me during dinner had covered his food with his arms and upper body, covered the fork full of food as he raised it as best he could and just as he placed it in his mouth a massive dirty big bluebottle landed on it as it went in. We watched in amazement as he began to chew with a victorious smile on his face, nobody piped up or said a word, we all liked the guy very much. We said nothing until he had swallowed the prize and then we fell around the place laughing. I couldn’t finish my meal; you just couldn’t tell were the flies had been, it was a constant battle. I remember in Lebanon the flies were a constant irritation but the chicken farm was almost biblical.

Then there were the mice, millions of them. If there’s one thing that I cannot stand it’s mice, and rats for that matter. But mice, at times the camp was overrun with them, they ate everything. They ate the back off the fridges in the kitchen so the cooks found it difficult to keep food fresh. While waiting for new appliances to arrive, which took some weeks, the cooks did their best to disguise the dull taste of the food (this was our theory anyway). I remember thinking that they must have been lacing the food with garlic, which was fine but after a while I began to smell garlic coming through my skin and hair and my stomach would be upset, other people were feeling the same way too.

It could be very comical at times too only it was very real and serious.   There was a family of feral cats living in the camp and they managed for a while to keep the numbers down but all of a sudden the problem with the mice became more severe and we realised the cats had disappeared. For some weeks there was no sign of the cats until one morning after a heavy snowfall I was climbing onto the roof of the operations building to reposition the microwave dish to try get a better signal, a tricky business at the best of times without slippery surfaces when I came face to face with a couple of the cats. It was a little bit alarming to say the least, they had frozen to death in the heavy snows and low temperatures of the winter and the body of one large cat, a white one, was sitting up looking straight at my face as I reached over the gutter to gain a grip on the roof. Its mouth was wide open showing its teeth and the front paws were raised as it was about to scratch my arm.

In the mornings, while queuing for breakfast along the inside of the large cookhouse tent you could see groups of mice running up and down between the double layers of the tent wall. Some of the guys would kick or slap the tents inner lining with their mugs and the mice would fall. The mice were also getting into the accommodation tents and into our equipment. One of the drivers was adamant one morning, while getting himself prepared for a detail, that someone had been playing tricks with him and switched one of his combat boots with someone else’s as he couldn’t fit his foot into it. Eventually he reached in and pulled out a large dead mouse, which he had just crushed with his toes. On another cold day the engineers were digging a cesspit trench in the hard ground just outside the camp’s wire fence. As soon as the digger began to break the surface the ground seemed to raise itself up like it was moving of its own accord. The guys in the camp began jumping up onto vehicles; anything to get off the ground, others ran to shut the doors on the accommodation tents. It was hilarious to see, some guys were terrified, he he, I know I was. After being disturbed by the mechanical digger thousands upon thousands of mice had begun to run towards the camp and through the wire. It reminded me of a documentary I watched many years earlier about swarms of locusts destroying crops in America, that’s what the mice looked like running and hopping in such a great number, swarms of locusts. Anyway I still get the jitters when I think about it. I don’t think I would have survived mentally intact if the mice had found their way into the tent where I lived in any great numbers, as it was the nine of us that called that place home kept them at bay though there were moments when I thought we were up against it.

The other thing that I found difficult sometimes as did everyone else was the severe cold temperatures. The weather-haven tents were ideal in the very hot summer temperatures, which we had for a couple of weeks at each end of the six months we were in Kosovo, as they had air conditioning fitted but the winter was a different story. The air conditioning in our tent was faulty and we could never get it working efficiently. When the cold weather came the tent was absolutely freezing. With all nine of us in the room there was some heat but the temperatures plummeted during the night and in the morning you could see an actual cloud formed in the room. I slept in my bunk wearing a tracksuit, I lay my uniform under the sheet so my body lay upon it to keep it warm. In the mornings when all of us hopped out of our bunks resembling a bunch of crazy people frantically trying to dress in a hurried frenzy of movement I had something relatively warm to get into, it was very funny to watch nine grown men crying with the cold. The room would be warm enough at night because most of us would be in there, chatting, writing or reading letters, listening to music or doing some personal administration on our gear but during the night the condensation would constantly drip off the metal formers that shaped the domed tent and saturated the bed clothes and even dripped onto the faces of the guys. One chap in particular would curse all night at the constant dripping of water onto his head, he would move his bed but it still got him and no-one wanted to switch places with him. Another chap in my room had a shaven head and I remember at night the beads of sweat on his head would freeze and in the morning he would have to peel the pillowcase from his skin. With all the craziness of the pests, when morale was low in the short winter days and the troubles that went with the mission we were carrying out I remember the creature comforts too and the fact that when you become a soldier you learn to make do and improvise.

But it is important to remember too that from this same site Serbian troops had organised a reign of terror on the outlying villages and parts of Lipjan itself using houses and other features on the flat central landscape for target practice. Ajim’s house was among those regularly mortared and eventually destroyed. When I met him in September 2000 he was working as an interpreter for the Irish in Camp Clarke and was earning enough money to start his life over, he was forty years old, I had just turned thirty in June. I had left my wife and three year old son safely at home in Ireland, Ajim was in the midst of trying to protect his family and begin again. He and ten other local Albanian men had assisted the thirty six Irish military engineers, who had been urgently despatched from Ireland, in the construction of the camp. This was a task fraught with obstacles and dangers, a very short time schedule of less than two weeks and mine clearance issues among them. The camp, on handover to the 1st Irish Transport Coy, consisted of thirteen weather-haven tents, shower and toilet facilities, laundry, cookhouse, recreation room etc built around an existing brick building used for the HQ, operations-communications centre, detail office and canteen and all to accommodate and protect approximately 110 personnel (number accurate when I was in the camp), their weapons and equipment and thirty six vehicles of all shapes and sizes. Some of the original outer buildings of the factory were used by the fitters as a transport workshops and repair area.

When the camp was eventually taken over by the Irish the British forces, including Ghurkha’s and Royal Irish Guards, who been stationed locally since the invasion, were replaced by a Finnish Battalion and relocated within the MNB area of responsibility. There was always great co-operation and friendliness between Irish and British, Finnish and American troops and personnel from all the other countries that we came into contact with during the operations in Kosovo. The local population who had feared the camp and what had emanated from it into their lives previously, where now relatively free and happy to return to their homes now that Irish soldiers were in possession of the factory but as the mission evolved the stories and evidence of the atrocities that occurred in the area prior to the arrival of K.FOR and the Irish emerged and we heard them and many times saw the results.

The people of Kosovo, whether they liked it or not, were to live in an administrative vacuum for a very long period after the war ended. Kosovo was described by some in the international media as ‘The Phantom State’ – there was no functional government except for the interim administration, the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and a peace maintained by thousands of NATO and Non-NATO troops in the K.FOR multinational brigades.  The ethnic cleansing had ceased after the NATO airstrikes and when K.FOR came into Kosovo the reprisals by ethnic groups against each other was also largely put to an end. Though the peacekeeping troops were on the ground they couldn’t be everywhere at once and these incidents still occurred regularly. Even though atrocities occurred months prior to our arrival they still seemed very recent and resonated in the communities, where there were always emotive signs; and stories that we learned.

 

MASSACRE AT SLOVINJE AND THE DELL OF DEME

In the wider Irish Coy area there where many hamlets, towns and villages, even cities as we were a mission asset of the force commander, which in reality meant the whole country. Not very far from Camp Clarke was the village of Slovinje , where on the 15th of April 1999 a massacre had taken place, the largest atrocity to happen in the Lipjan municipal area. On that day approximately 150 Serbian police, militia and paramilitary forces entered the village, which prior to the war had seen a mixed Kosovo-Serb and Kosovo-Albanian population with good relations between both. The Serb forces began painting symbols and slogans on buildings throughout the village later breaking into homes and demanding the residents leave. This forced evacuation quickly turned into violence with many random beatings of people, with rifle-butts, in the streets. Many of those beaten were elderly and infirm and this occurred in view of women and children. Some of the elderly Albanian refused to leave their homes and were systematically shot. In one particular case a grandfather, his two sons and two grandchildren were executed. Eighteen people were murdered on that day and their bodies hidden in a mass grave by their killers.

Later about 800 people from the same village and other outlying Albanian villages congregated at a place called The Dell of Deme – an area consisting of two attached fields of different sizes surrounded by woodland. They spent the night outdoors and at approximately 2pm the next day April 16th Serb forces converged on The Dell of Deme from all sides and began herding the people back towards Slovinje , during which they separated women and children from fathers, brothers and husbands. One of the men didn’t want to leave his sick wife and was shot dead. Incidents of stripping people naked and beatings were common. The people were then told to run towards the woods, while the Serbs opened fire with automatic weapons killing seventeen of them.

The bodies of the people killed on the first day were later exhumed and placed in an ancient local schoolhouse for families to identify. Those killed on the second day were also placed in a mass grave by their killers. When the Albanians eventually returned to recover the bodies they found the grave empty, the Serbs were suspected of moving them and as far as I can ascertain from researching for this article their bodies have never been found. To this day there is still animosity, anger, revenge and violence on the ground in Kosovo though the country itself is trying to change this and Irish peacekeepers helped here in many ways.

 

GYPSIES

Lipjan, though quite a modern town in Kosovo terms back then, was situated not too far from the mountains and about a 25 minute drive from the Irish camp. In those mountains lived many Roma gypsies and in one town in particular, Gorjne Gadimlje was a community of Askali gypsies living in absolute poverty and disowned by everybody. The Irish and K.FOR in general tried to help all factions, religions, and ethnic groups no matter what the background or charges that might have been issued against their communities during or after the recent war. Children, as far as I was and still am concerned, shouldn’t be held accountable for the sins and actions of their parents, grandparents or community. The conditions and plight of children in Kosovo was always one of the main things that affected me while I was there. The qypsies, as far as I could see, were not wanted and often accused by the  Kosovar-Albanians of working with the Serbs and of mutilating the bodies of Albanians killed during the war. It was for one of these, a Roma Gypsy family living in a hovel of a house without a roof in the depths of winter, which the Irish company bought and built a new wooden home with money from their own pockets and through organising fund raising activities within the unit itself.

 

SOVEREIGNTY

Ireland, the modern Ireland that I live in, was also born through violence and violence at times has tried to break the Irish people but democracy prevailed and though they struggle with modernity they are still free and I am very happy about that. But as a historian I can see we are very lucky to be that way and no matter what people might complain about Ireland is a democracy, maybe not a perfect one but a democracy just the same. As a person interested in stories and people I have a weird ability to see patterns and links between events, dates and peoples etc that others have no interest in when I talk about them (I could bore a plank of wood sometimes). And so over the fifteen years since my time in Kosovo I have often wondered about that small simple portrait of Thomas Clarke, which hung in the reception area in the headquarters of the Irish Transport Coy in the middle of the British Multinational Brigade area of operations. That simple symbol of Irish destinies mounted in a country that I had never heard of until recently before being deployed there, and certainly Tom Clarke hardly knew of either, was relatively unnoticed by most of the Irish soldiers and most visitors to the camp. Whether British, American, German or any other nationality they would have received a basic introduction to who he was and why the camp was named in his honour, if they got one at all.

Irish troops and peacekeepers in a very real way are proof of ‘Ireland taking its place among the nations of the Earth.’ This was a key Irish republican sentiment echoing from the early Irish struggles for independence. Certainly Theobolde Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen of the 1798 Rebellion would appreciate the testament proved my Irish involvement in peacekeeping around the world if they were present today to see it, and also Robert Emmett of the failed insurrection of 1803, when he is said to have so eloquently spoke these words from the dock prior to his execution in Dublin. These words were not lost either on Padraig Pearse and the volunteers of 1916 who subtly tied them into the Proclamation read aloud from the steps of the General Post Office and though I myself abhor violence I have to recognise where my country has come from and her passage.

Camp Clarke, the Irish HQ in Kosovo, was a symbol of making things better if even for the creature comforts of those who lived there for a while and for helping to alleviate the sufferings of people in a war ravaged landscape.  Irish soldiers and those serving as peacekeepers all around the world for the last sixty years are a symbol of Irish sovereignty too and though I struggled many times to see that back then, when morale was low and things were tough, I see it now.

 

Michael J. Whelan

February 2015

 

Michael J. Whelan  - Kosovo 2001

Michael J. Whelan – Kosovo 2001

AN IRISH PEACEKEEPER IN KOSOVO (Part 1)

 

DEPLOYMENT

The year 2000 was the first year after the ending of the most recent conflict to engulf the Balkans region and also the year I was to enter Kosovo as a peacekeeper.  Similar to what happened previously in Bosnia and other states after the long drawn out break-up and bloodletting of the former Yugoslavia thousands of United Nations backed NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) troops invaded Kosovo on the 12th of June 1999 under the K.FOR (Kosovo Force) peace enforcement flag, a flag which I would later find myself serving under. The K.FOR international Peacekeeping force had entered Kosovo two days after the adoption by the UN Security Council of Resolution 1244 and was to be responsible for establishing a secure environment in the country. Kosovo was in a grave situation as a major humanitarian crisis was looming with military forces from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) still battling it out daily for supremacy. I was later to be deployed by the Irish government to this multinational force, which included formations from the USA, UK, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Belgium, France, Spain and many other NATO and non-NATO countries. Like many others in the Irish contingents I had volunteered and, also like others, Kosovo was to have a very great impact on me.

I don’t think I had ever heard the name Kosovo or knew the place existed prior to 1998 when the Balkan/Yugoslav wars were a regular news coverage item in Ireland, but my first real introduction to the concepts and reality of ethnic cleansing in those conflicts came during that winter of 2000-2001.  In the months prior to my arrival, I was, I remember, shocked that these atrocities were once again occurring in Europe and I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything about it. The long winter of my Kosovo experiences was said to have been the worst seen in the region since World War II and it certainly felt like it. My being interested in history helped me imagine how the snow and freezing temperatures had affected the terrain and the troops in that region almost sixty years earlier and how again this weather had further impacted on the people and victims of the rampaging armed gunmen carrying out the orders of their political masters at the dawn of the 21st Century.  Serbian backed forces had committed ethnic cleansing of Kosovo-Albanians and nearly one million people had fled Kosovo.   I could see the people suffering even after the peacekeepers had forced the belligerents to stop fighting and leave. Even after they had consolidated their positions in the country, stabilised and brought to an end much of the ethnic cleansing and reprisals. Kosovo was still in turmoil and remained a very dangerous place.

I had been selected as a radio operator/rifleman to join the next contingent due to deploy to Kosovo after months of briefs, preparations and training in the Curragh Military Camp, Kildare and other locations. In mid September 2000 I, along with 109 members of the 3rd Irish Transport Company, arrived in our area of operations. On arrival in Pristina Airport we were greeted by elements of the 2nd Transport Coy, who were very glad to see us as they were rotating home to Ireland after a six months tour of duty on the same aircraft we had just vacated.  Soon after we arrived in convoy at Camp Clarke (named after the 1916 Irish patriot) the headquarters of the Irish contingent and began to settle in, find our bearings and our tour had begun.

For operational reasons Kosovo had been divided into sectors under the control of troops from the individual multi-national brigades (MNB). In the year 2000, when I was in the country K.FOR was established this way

Head Quarters K.FOR – Pristina,

MNB North  –   (Frenc) – Kosovska

MNB West   –   (Italy) –  Pec

MNB Center –  (UK) –    Pristina

MNB East –      (USA) –   Urosevac

MNB South –   (Ger) –    Prizren

Airborne Battalions (Reserve)

 

The entire Irish coy was located in a specially built compound on the site of a fully functioning chicken processing farm (something I will write about at a later date) just outside the large town of Lipjan in the municipality of Pristina. Lipjan was approximately twenty kilometers from the city and just off the main supply route (MSR) en-route from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in the British (UK) controlled MNB-Centre sector. Like many other towns and villages before the war Lipjan had been a mixed Kosovar-Albanian and Serbian area but had since become divided along ethnic and religious lines.

The 3rd Tpt Coy comprised of (1) Coy Head Quarters (2) Transport Platoon (3) Repair and Recovery Section (4) Security Section and (5) National Support Element (NSE). The Coy was very experienced and included people from all corners of Ireland, mostly drivers and fitters (HGV, plant, bus, land-rover, Drops vehicle, man-diesel trucks etc) but there was also cooks, engineers and signalers like myself – fitted out with a large fleet of vehicles and equipment to help carry out the wide range of missions and objectives, which we were tasked with. The Coy had 104 male and one female enlisted personnel and a chaplain under the command of a commandant and three captains – all males. Everyone bar the chaplain was a trained soldier first of all and many had previously been on overseas peacekeeping missions including to Africa, Bosnia, South America, Asia  and other places in many different roles and like myself most had served in Lebanon, some many, many times. Mission, force security and defence was always a priority and there was a scheme of defence where everyone knew their roles as well as the Rules of Engagement (conditions on use of lethal force and self-defence etc.) as this was a peace enforcement mission as opposed to peacekeeping. Although Ireland would later deploy infantry companies to K.FOR, in these early days of Irish involvement the transport companies operated from the British sector but we were a theater asset controlled only by the Force Commander, which meant that on a daily basis our personnel found themselves in the jurisdiction of the other multinational brigade formations and in every corner of the country in sometimes very difficult terrain and situations. Other contingents from the MNBs would not have had the same scope to travel the length and breadth of Kosovo or even venture outside their own areas of operations like we did.

The Irish transport company in some ways operated much like a regular haulage company bringing up supplies to other contingents from ships docking in Greece or taking delivery from incoming aircraft at the airport. But very early every morning Irish personnel carried out a wide range of humanitarian aid work on behalf of the Irish people. Sometimes in the worst weather imaginable, multiple Irish convoys consisting of drops vehicles, trucks and peacekeepers would depart Camp Clarke for a builders providers to load up the vehicles with many tonnes of construction materials including, blocks, slates, sand, cement, timber etc and then spend hours driving in different directions to deliver it all to some isolated village high in the mountains, which had recently been the victim of some outrageous act of violence, or a war damaged town. Some of the villages were in a shocking state; many seemed to me like they had never reached the twentieth century and still had a very medieval look and feel to them. The populations of some of these remote hamlets seemed to be still in a state of recovery and when seeing our uniforms acted fearful, as if the last camouflaged uniforms they had seen in their homes were the bringers of destruction. In the early days of doing this I sometimes thought we resembled liberators but that soon changed to feeling s of enfeeblement, when we witnessed their poverty, the mass graves and orphaned children in the villages watching us as we unloaded supplies onto their hurting ground. As we got to know the areas and spoke to locals and interpreters we heard the stories, met the victims, saw the results of ethnic cleansing. We would give the children chocolate from our pack rations and after a while they no longer feared us. Some villages were so divided between Kosovar-Albanians and those Serbs loyal to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that we ourselves would be verbally abused by one group, while delivering aid to the other. The very next day it would be reversed when doing the same for the people who castigated us the day before, the people who received this aid previously weren’t very happy with our efforts to help the other side either and still expected it again next time we came.

Very often during the harsh winter days I witnessed young children barefoot and scantily clothed in freezing cold mud and snow. I witnessed families trying to exist in the ruins of houses with only tarpaulin style sheets provided by one or other of the many charities now operating in the country to cover damaged roofs.  These sights reminded me of the images of the 19th Century evictions in rural Ireland and depictions of the famine in some cases, but then my imagination always bade me to look deep into what I was seeing and make comparisons to gauge the experience. Many hundreds of others existed in refugee style camps on the Macedonian border. We would hand out food and sweets, some clothing if we could. After I returned to Kosovo from a short period of home-leave in Ireland, which I needed, I brought some baby clothing and toys from my family. They had gathered it up in response to what I had been telling them. My three year old son gave some of his toys for the children. I gave it all to a Roma family, the mother of which was desperately trying to care for her very young children who were living in squalor. A lot of the guys did similar and the whole Irish contingent started raising funds eventually purchasing and building a small timber framed house for her.

Another of the humanitarian missions the Irish Transport Company was tasked with late in the tour was the repatriation of human remains. The International Crimes Tribunal Yugoslavia (ICTY) had been working in Kosovo ever since the NATO air strikes had ended almost a year earlier and their work had been cut out for them. Their tasks involved the recovery and identification of human remains from the mass graves and other locations where murder and ethnic cleaning had occurred. We saw them at work many, many times. Usually a blue sheet covered the pits where human remains had been discovered. Investigators including pathologists, photographers and police would painstakingly separate and record the remains, which had been crushed and decomposed together in the ground over time and sometimes booby-trapped by the perpetrators. Sometimes our drops vehicles (a large truck with self-lifting and dropping capability for a forty foot container) and trucks would be tasked with taking containers filled with these remains to a facility set up as a sort of morgue, where evidence and identification could be processed. Later we would be tasked with taking remains from this location to a newly prepared grave site were families of those identified and whose remains had been released could now bury then respectfully in sanctified ground.

My main role was as a radio operator,  part of a small five man section in the head quarter’s element of the coy tasked among other things with providing and maintaining satellite, radio and telephone communications in and out of the Irish operational area, with all Irish vehicles, which meant the whole country, and with Ireland. As such our little team was always very busy with the multitudes of jobs we were responsible for carrying out. A signaler on a 12 hour shift manned the communications center (COMCEN), which operated on a 24 hour round the clock basis for the duration of the six month tour. Rotating through the section one signaler rested off while another was manning the radios etc. The rest of the team were on convoys or maintenance work. A signaler, providing communications (comms) from the FFR (fitted for radio car), always accompanied convoys on the daily runs to the far regions of the country, which often lasted up to sixteen hours. Communications in Kosovo could be rather difficult as the country had a dish shaped landscape –quite flat in the center with high mountains around the edges.  The mountains were not a good environment for VHF radio and HF wasn’t always successful either.  We found this out when tasked with providing communications between the convoys transporting forty foot containers holding ballot boxes, which had been dispatched to the four corners of Kosovo for the first free elections ever held in the country. That was a long difficult job but we managed it through scouting, through relaying information from car to car and transmitting from higher ground and reconnoitering useful locations well beforehand.

At the time of my tour in Kosovo NATO had deployed approximately 45.000 troops to the mission there. K.FOR’s initial mandate was

To deter renewal of hostilities and threats against Kosovo by Yugoslav and Serb forces

To establish and maintain a secure environment in Kosovo including public safety and civil order

To demilitarise the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)

To support the international humanitarian effort

To co-operate with and support the international civil presence

 

In many, many ways these tasks were very difficult for K.FOR to achieve, there were many obstacles to overcome and there still are to this day. The Irish contingents in those early days were an important part of the overall operations, especially in helping the people. I see that now – I had a young family back then, which I had left behind to try and do something good. I came home from Kosovo pretty unhappy and later on pretty unwell. A lot happened during the long days of that six months and I never really felt that my presence there achieved anything. I seem to be a person who absorbs everything around me, unknowingly, bottling it up.

But with all the difficulties we encountered and I too encountered I managed, as a signaler, to see and hear a lot of what was going on in the operational side of the Kosovo Peacekeeping mission. I managed also to see much of that country’s landscapes and learned of its sad recent and ancient histories. And only recently I have returned there, to Kosovo, in my poetry and in my writing to re-examine those landscapes.

My mother, in the years before she passed away, would ask me about Kosovo and Lebanon. She would often say ‘Michael, son, you should write it all down.’

 

Michael J. Whelan

February 2015

Michael J. Whelan Camp Clarke - Irish HQ- Kosovo, 2001

Michael J. Whelan Camp Clarke – Irish HQ- Kosovo, 2001

I’m currently writing down my memories and thoughts about my tours of peacekeeping duty in Lebanon and Kosovo and other things in a purely non fiction style. I know that this is what I have been doing with the poetry but I  feel that maybe the poetry can be enhanced by this new text and vice versa. Another writer has also requested some material on this for his blog, which I have forwarded and hopefully is accepted. So I’ve been thinking (not always a good thing) that I might begin to post some or all of this material on this blog page as I write it or at different stages as I get to grips with it. It won’t be a discourse of any kind – don’t worry, it will just be my memories or things I’m trying to figure out as well as writing the poetry and fiction. Those peacekeeping days had a big affect on me and have shaped who I am and what I do today. The material might be in the form of a rant sometimes but hopefully not too often and it might be posted very intermittently.

Any way, I’m thinking of titling the material AN IRISH PEACEKEEPER IN LEBANON/KOSOVO and itemising each part chronologically with the particular country/mission so anybody reading can keep up with the story.

So I hope this is a good idea, that you might read and share it and also that it’s interesting,

please let me know either way. I will post the first piece in the next couple of days,

 

thank you for following my page and I hope you continue to,

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

Photo: Michael J. Whelan

Photo: Michael J. Whelan

RTA

 (In memory of all road accident victims, their friends and families & dedicated to the emergency services).

 

 

I am broken.

So much rain,

for days it falls

like so many tears in my heart.

Is it the same for you?

 

Coffee is cold,

the hard boiled egg sits in its cup,

toast popped long ago,

the bed – a mess – still unmade,

nobody reads the newspaper.

 

Sometimes I see you – glimmers,

not at that place you were taken

when you journeyed between us,

not dead, or half living behind stilled eyes,

no – you’re smiling that smile,

 

the days rewind,

and we’re back to life,

we give our missed kisses,

the ambulance crews don’t rush to find you –

your pulse in my chest,

 

you come back to me,

we never leave the house again,

no rushing to the emergency room,

the police don’t reach for sad courage,

there’s no funeral faces.

 

Everything is as it was before,

I hear your keys in the front door,

you’re calling my name,

yelling ‘I’m home’

and we’re happy once more.

 

Sometimes,

I disappear quietly

in the dead of night,

travel those same killer roads

just to hold you.

 

Michael J. Whelan

Read at the World Day of Remembrance of Road Traffic Victims in Mullingar, Ireland in November 2014

World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims 2014 

Wishing everyone a happy 2015, hope it’s full of PEACE and JOY for you

and thank you for following the blog,

 

Michael

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