Security first, but what comes next?

Posted in Europe | 30-Nov-08 | Author: Carsten Michels

"A grey mixture of fog and dust disturbs our view."
"A grey mixture of fog and dust disturbs our view."
With the German armed forces in the KFOR Multi National Task Force South (MNTF S) Headquarters in Prizren/Kosovo

Slowly but steadily we are gaining altitude. Our clothes are covered with brown dust, as is our most reliable partner: the four-seat off-road vehicle, which is safely leading us over narrow and stony paths. Sometimes there are only a few inches between the tyres and the abyss. After a one-hour ride, we finally reach the plateau. The bright and sunny weather allows an almost perfect view over the countryside, disturbed only by a grey mixture of dust and fog. In the centre of the valley lies Prizren, a 120,000 inhabitant city in the south of Kosovo. I am with the German Bundeswehr on a patrol through some mountain villages. After Kosovo’s declaration of independence on February 17 this year, I wanted to see whether that political milestone has had any impact on the security situation and everyday life in the south.

The area around Prizren is full of stark contrasts. Living conditions in the hilly settlements are harsh as infrastructure is underdeveloped. People work mostly in the agricultural sector, but without the necessary machines and tools, they struggle to satisfy their basic needs. In winter, access to remote areas is extremely difficult – for locals and troops as well. Walking through villages in the valley, however, feels like travelling in a time machine. The houses are new or recently refurbished. Cars, mostly of German origin, fill the parking lots; shops advertise their wares; and everything seems calm and relatively wealthy. The head of our patrol, a young army lieutenant, speaks with the people we pass by in the village of Korisha. “We usually start with small-talk about the weather or how they are doing in order to develop a conversation. Then we ask about their problems,” he explains. Much of the money being spent here has been earned abroad as unemployment rate in Kosovo is extremely high and economic data does not give much reason for optimism.

Although the Bundeswehr is among the largest employers in the region, its primary task – as for all of the KFOR-states – is to guarantee a safe and secure environment. Today there are about 2230 German troops deployed in Kosovo, most of them in Prizren, under the command of Brigadier General Harald Fugger. About 400 of them form one of three so-called manoeuvre battalions, which together with Austria and Turkey, make up the operational component of the Multinational Task Force South (MNTF S). Germany covers the corridor around Prizren; Turkey is responsible for the south including the city of Dragas; while Austria operates in the north around Dulje.1

Brigadier General Wilhelm Gruen
Brigadier General Wilhelm Gruen
Brigadier General Wilhelm Gruen commanded the German troops in Kosovo until October 2008. He says the security situation in the south of Kosovo is stable and safe, as it is for the rest of the country. In general he painted a pretty optimistic picture of the country, praising cooperation with local authorities and people living in the region. And indeed, throughout our trips, locals and especially the youngsters are very friendly, smiling and waving to KFOR-soldiers. “We are regarded as liberators,” I am told, reminding me at the atrocities of the 1990s.

But providing security is only one aspect of the work of KFOR and the Bundeswehr. Lieutenant Colonel Bernd Wilhelm is in charge of civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) at the headquarters in Prizren. “We are pursuing smaller projects that make a quick impact on the ground”, he explains. CIMIC for example can provide machines and technical support to local small businesses, help equip schools, or distribute clothes and food in winter. Besides short-term material help, the long-term idea is to enable local agents to solve most of their problems on their own. This requires a lot of networking, patience, and optimism. Lieutenant Colonel Markus Bernoehle is working right in the middle of Prizren, establishing links between representatives of the political parties, religious institutions, NGOs, international organisations, and local residents. “One first needs to understand how people think before one acts”, he stresses and accompanies me through the city centre. Here you can get anything you want, but there are hardly any customers to be seen in the shops. Bernoehle describes the situation as peaceful and friendly on the surface, but he admits there are underlying tensions within the society. “If KFOR withdrew right know, the situation here would become very problematic again”, he tells me.

Serbs have largely been pushed out of the region, which means they now make up less than five percent of the population living in and around Prizren. Many buildings and houses formerly owned by Serbs have been destroyed or abandoned. But there are still some tiny Serb-dominated communities like Novake, where KFOR has invested in rebuilding houses and infrastructure, hoping to convince young Serbs to return. This has clearly failed. Today, only a few elderly people live there, and they are basically ignored by the majority of the Kosovo-Albanian population. “Albanians simply wait until the problem will be solved by itself”, I am told, which makes me wonder whether a multi-ethnic society could function here in the long run.

A view over the city of Prizren (Copyright: Bundeswehr)
A view over the city of Prizren (Copyright: Bundeswehr)
One of the places where ethnicity does not play any role is the CIMIC office in Prizren. Every Friday, the so-called multi-ethnic consultation-hour sees two doctors from the German Bundeswehr transform the bureau into a small doctor’s practice. Those who cannot afford medical care are treated for free and provided with medicine hardly available in the region. This sends a very positive message to the people, telling them that KFOR is here to improve their lives. For KFOR-staff it is especially challenging as translation makes conversation a long and exhausting process. Sometimes, patients need to be carried to the military hospital at the headquarters – a fully equipped state of the art clinic famous throughout Kosovo. Approximately 6,000 patients were treated in the first 10 months of 2008. Most were suffering minor ailments, but some came with a clinical picture rarely studied by doctors from Germany before.

Now, almost ten months after the declaration of independence, southern Kosovo is a peaceful place, at least on the surface. KFOR has achieved its target of ensuring basic security. But this is only the very first step in the “nation-building” process. The region is still too weak to stand on its own economic feet, and organised crime is a major concern that has yet to be confronted. As the German Minister of Defence Dr Franz-Josef Jung pointed out on his visit to Prizren on October 27, 2008: There can be no progress without the political cooperation of all parties involved. The declaration of independence has provided locals with self-esteem and pride, creating an opportunity for Kosovo to be transformed into one of the very rare examples of a recently established, functioning state. The international community and European Union, as well as regional powers, should not let this chance pass.

1 The NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR), mandated by the UN Security Council on June 10, 1999 is divided into four regional missions: Multinational Task Force North, West, South, and East. For more information on KFOR, go to: http://www.nato.int/kfor

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