A friendly guerilla organization regardless of location is often the builder of its myth and misfortune. When structured military forces arrive in a new location, it often displaces the friendly guerillas on a proverbial island. Worse, if the military fails to properly interact with the friendly guerillas we run the risk of turning that proverbial island into a real fortress.
I was in a band of these fools in the early 2000s, in Gnjilane, Kosovo and dealing with the guerilla organization, UCK (Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës), or in English the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army).
The UCK was an outlier, the former warriors, past heroes. Part of an often repeating cycle of unfortunate circumstances that is needed as a conflict ends, for the passage of time and stability to return; as such of veterans dating back in recorded history before Athens and Rome. The reintegration of any force, despite success, failure, or duty will need to find its place in the public of any society, is often plagued with personal issues from the warrior stemming from conflict, the publics’ shame and/or perception of self in relation to the roles of whom was the fighter and who was the farmer.
Whether deliberate or passive, the public will bump heads at home once the conflict is past. I was settling into my first assignment to Germany and my unit was preparing for a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) deployment to Kosovo to support international forces in peacekeeping operations such as presence patrols, humanitarian operations, and counter-explosive hazards as a combat engineer. In such, we trained for the latter but instead we found ourselves in the midst the most diverse group of people one could have geographically nested in rolling mountainous terrain that maintained an uneasy peace. At that time, it was the largest collection of NGOs (non-governmental organizations), NATO troops, and displaced cultures in one little pressure cooker. The Balkans, which actively maintain grudges that date back to the Battle of Kosovo Polje, in 1389.
The diversity of the area was as wild as the terrain, rolling upwards and downwards, sharply with no-man lands and hazards at the edges. The American sector was of course, the most challenging and we often ended up picking up the pieces of international forces. Once relieving the French for several months who lost their weapons to unnamed civilians while guarding the volatile bridge separating the cultural segments in the city of Mestrovic.
Time passed, and we implemented policy, making some notice at home in a few national and military media publications. Our highlight was the arrest of an arms dealer, named Shefqet Musliu, who was of course released and later detained. We also assisted in the residential assimilation of the Roma population into the public and provided on-going security for an Orthodox-Christian church supported by the city of Gnjilanes’ minority enclave of ethnic Serbians.
Through all of this and much more, that could very well turn this article into a multi-volume book set, was the UCK. These were our friendly guerrillas, these were the former armed civic defenders, now turned outsiders as we were the ground force, and we mostly ignored them. Even though the UCK were the guerillas who fought against the genocide and in support of American-led NATO forces. The same very same guerillas were always remembered in line with patriotism and national pride with the local people.
Well after our initial deployment, passers-by would often chant, sometimes in a crowd, and often overlaid in local music, “U-C-K, U-S-A, liberate Kosovar!” Yet the UCK were now the men and women who were becoming a tangled vine for the American and NATO coalition. Soon, Task Force commanders began to damn their on-going presence in public settings. This was a new issue in that time period for maneuver commanders, as it was simply expected that the UCK would disband and go away. The issue was soon after determined as a threat to American forces in Gnjliane. At that time, I often thought little of them, until my actions created a situation to believe otherwise.
While leading a six-man team on a dismounted presence patrol to a new sector near the southwest sector of Gnjilane, I came across an abandoned checkpoint and called it up to higher. I received permission to clear and search the checkpoint as it was not tracked by the Task Force, and was deemed illegal. Inside we found logs and military paraphernalia, but nothing leading to any real conclusion, but on the wall I noticed that the calendar was current yet partially covered.
It was only when I uncovered something foolish, that I saw what made my young and naive self first believe the sentiment of my commanders. What it was, is something only a new guy could be shocked by, a calendar for their organization. The calendar was custom made with their own images, and this month was the most interesting. That month featured a baby wearing a UCK beret, uniform, and holding a tiny AK-47 as the little guy was saluting to celebrate the month. Now I thought to myself, that these people may truly be troubled. It was only later, that it became apparent to me that I did not understand cultural differences. I was clueless as I had no idea what forged the concept of the UCK as contrary to our general concepts, nor much of anything else.
Even so, and like a good soldier, I reported all this information up, patrols were increased, and within a few days another patrol located a UCK compound in the area. Task Force immediately deemed the UCK compound as the largest threat to local stability since the 1990s. It was time for a full-on Task Force level meltdown, as we promptly began rehearsals which lasted for days as we prepared to raid the UCK compound and capture or kill those manning it. We obtained an armored 5-Ton Truck to ram the front gates and assault through, as we continuously improved our additional assault points. Task Force received satellite imagery, and the scouts were sent forth to overwatch the UCK compound, steadily transmitting information from their near-hide positions on every activity in or around the UCK compound. Yet, we found ourselves arrogant and ignorant.
Shortly before our raid we received a stand-down order and were returned to our regular duties. My level later discovered that the UCK was authorized to own and operate a compound at that location. Above Task Force level, the UCK was assisting in counter-smuggling operations along the “Chicken-Leg,” a mountainous area named for its geographical look on the map which separates Kosovo and FYROM (Former Yugoslavian Republican of Macedonia). Task Force didn’t get the memo and they were looking for a fight. The UCK was again viewed as a local, legally operating guerilla force in the minds Task Force command.
Meanwhile, the UCK were oscillating outward in the name of their gods and country. They had fought as protectors of the ethnic-Albanian people and had become a living, local, manifesto of a self-organized enclave. From the proverbial island we pushed the UCK onto, they had not built their fortress. Oddly enough, the news of the near-miss raid actually helped matters, as it forced the UCK and Task Force to realize their distance. The UCK then openly shared their communication systems, once specific to themselves, and engaged the public that had lost reference in discourse to account for or justify them. Soon after the near-miss, they became very welcoming, laughed and forgave us through drinking of šljivovica, (indigenous plum brandy) whenever we stopped by their compound.
The UCK had conducted itself as strangers in relation to the Task Force and the local public. Yet Task Force and the local were just as guilty, as we invented our own intentions for the UCK, instead of investigating beyond ourselves. A simple call up the chain would have clarified that the UCK was operating as a militia army under NATO command, authorized by Kosovo governmental and provincial commands. We had created our own demons out of nothing. The UCK was simply contained to its own mission in another region, while we chased our tail.
All the while, the discovery of a baby in a uniform on a calendar led to the hunt for a near catastrophic international incident.