GNJILANE, Yugoslavia – Two US Army Humvees roll down the country road like a pair of large, exotic bugs, their long antennas swaying in the summer sky. Night falls gradually on the surrounding cornfields in this lonely stretch of eastern Kosovo.
The military police squad under Staff Sgt. Vern Schalau is barely halfway through its eight-hour patrol when it is called to the village of Vlastica. As Sergeant Schalau’s squad, code-named “Punisher-2,” pulls into the village, shouts and flashlight beams filter out from the windows of the deserted school building while American soldiers sweep the building. The troops suspect that an AK-47 has been hidden there after gunshots were heard earlier in the area.
“It’s an automatic weapon and can spray a lot of bullets,” says Schalau, a soft-spoken Midwesterner with intense blue eyes. “It’s better to get it off the streets today.” Only the day before, four young ethnic Albanian men were found near a neighboring town, their bodies riddled by bullets.
The search, however, turns up nothing. Yet this is just what the Americans see their peacekeeping mission as all about: keeping a tight rein to avoid a repeat of chaos.
“When we first got here, there were shootings and deaths every day,” says Lt. Jordan Papkov, the commander of the platoon that includes Schalau’s squad. “Our first patrol was in a major shooting between Serbs and Albanians. Since then, things have quieted down.”
Lieutenant Papkov and Schalau are part of the 1st Infantry Division that makes up most of the 7,000-strong US contingent in Kosovo policing the southeastern sector. Since the beginning of July, the 1st Infantry Division has taken over bases and checkpoints established here by the Marines and the 82nd Airborne Division, which entered Kosovo five weeks ago.
Arson is now the biggest problem, says Papkov, and most of the violence is taking place in the villages surrounding Gnjilane, the largest town in the sector and site of US Army Camp Monteith. During the course of a day, the military police – the only law enforcement here – may be called out to arrest crime suspects, confiscate weapons, or secure the site of a double homicide.
Whatever the task, the risks are never far away. On July 18 two American soldiers were killed when their armored personnel carrier overturned.
For the soldiers in Punisher-2, Kosovo is unfamiliar terrain. Sgt. James Powers, the good-natured team leader of one of the three Humvees in Punisher-2, says he first heard about Kosovo only a few months before being deployed. While the Army provided some background, he says, “there wasn’t a big emphasis on why they hate each other. And we really don’t care how or why it started. We just want to stop the killing and murdering.”
The peacekeepers’ patrols evoke feelings of pity, frustration, and incomprehension. Exactly because the local languages and history are so unfamiliar to many American peacekeepers, the soldiers in the squad are able to maintain the impartiality required of them.
“I know this has been going on for about 600 years,” says Spc. Daniel Atchison, an Indianian with a slight drawl. “Sometimes it confuses me.
These people lived next to each other for years, and one night they decide to burn their neighbor’s house down, just because he’s Serb or Albanian.”
Specialist Atchison, who mans the mounted machine gun atop Schalau’s Humvee, pauses. “But in the US we’ve struggled with similar problems [of racism] in the past – and we’re still struggling.”
While some local Albanians claim that as many as 40 people have been murdered since the Americans arrived and the last Serbian forces withdrew, most of the population treat the US soldiers as liberators. When Punisher-2 rolls into the north-central part of Gnjilane late one afternoon, hordes of children descend onto the bustling street from alleys, doors, and windows. “NATO, NATO,” they chant as they run after the Humvees.
“The best part of this mission is these little kids. No matter where you go, kids are innocent. Not only that, they love us,” says Sergeant Powers as he inches his Humvee through the jampacked street. The father of two small children, Powers says the only other place where he can expect such a warm reception is in his own home.
The soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division call the Army base in Würzburg, Germany, home for now. All the men in Punisher-2 are married, and squad commander Schalau and Spc. Mike Stearns both have wives there who are expecting babies this month. The squad’s youngest member and only woman, Pfc. Shemika Berry, has a boyfriend stationed at the combat support hospital at the other US base in Kosovo about 20 miles from Gnjilane.
Writing to loved ones is the main pastime for the soldiers when they are off duty at Camp Monteith, a former Yugoslav Army base. A blue US mailbox already stands outside headquarters, and the post exchange in a trailer sells the toiletries, snacks, and soft drinks found in any American convenience store.
On the second floor of the old Serbian barracks, 19 men from the 1st Infantry Division have set up their cots and a few amenities: a television, refrigerator, and a dartboard. While Schalau polishes his boots, Powers writes a letter to his parents back in Georgia. The only personal belongings he has brought along are a Bible and his CDs, including one of his own recordings.
Like most of the other soldiers in Punisher-2, Powers joined the Army because of a “lack of opportunity.” He now is taking a correspondence class and hopes to become a cameraman. Atchison wants to become a teacher or a novelist. And Berry, a quiet woman who just a year ago graduated from high school, plans to study business administration.
Despite their dreams of a future as civilians, the troops in Punisher-2 are dedicated to their military duties in Kosovo. “The way I see it, God is going to protect me,” says Powers. “I’m not worried about getting shot or hitting a land mine. I have no worries. I’m just here to do my mission.”