On Saturday the 12th of June 1999, in a shoe factory on the outskirts of Skopje, General Sir Mike Jackson received a telegram from the Queen; it read: “I have nothing but admiration for the way in which you have carried out your duties over recent weeks during this difficult time of preparation and improvisation in caring for the refugees. I have no doubt that much greater pressures now lie ahead as you prepare to move into Kosovo as part of KFOR with the eyes of the world on you. I am confident in your ability to rise to these challenges and I am proud of every one of you, as are your families and friends who watch and wait. My thoughts and prayers are with you all.”
And rise to the challenge they did, but you don’t need to take my word for it. It’s exactly ten years since the British had any substantial presence here in Kosovo yet from my window in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the Union Jack can still be seen flying alongside the Stars and Stripes. Today the people on the streets of Prishtina and Prizren enjoy peace, if not yet full prosperity, yet they still stop to thank strangers from the UK for the professionalism our armed forces showed.
In the town of Janjeva, thirty miles south of the capital, I talked with three generations of the same family. They are Kosovo Albanian, but the youngest of them is as English as Earl Grey, having grown up in London. They thank me for coming to talk with them, and their memories turn to the time when British troops turned up to secure their town. How did you feel when they arrived? I ask.”Like newborn,” one replies. The father of the youngest was in exile in the UK at the time: “When I heard (of the British arrival), I had not heard from my family for three months, I cried,” he said.
In Prishtina some of the people who worked with the British as interpreters now have roles in the police and security. Mustafa’s sincerity is touching. He’s a police officer now but back then picked up a job with the British four days after NATO launched airstrikes. “We will never forget,” he says, “The British were very professional, different to the others.” He refers to the period as being the best in his life, a time of liberation and character formation. The same is true for Mimi, now a security guard at the US Embassy. She didn’t leave Kosovo during the war and was spotted when she went out to voluntarily assist with translations between Brits and her Kosovo Albanian compatriots. The British Army offered something she could never have conceived of, a job. She returned home and in the tight-knit nature of tradition here, asked for her Father’s permission. “Are you capable?” he asked. Mimi went on to help the Royal Engineers with mine clearance and awareness, with building bridges and culverts, with driving trucks and diggers. Her father died soon after, a happy and proud man. She repeatedly tells me how well she was treated. These were her salad days, heydays to remember.
In a Prishtina print shop, Alban remembers the deadly silence of war punctuated by Kalashnikov fire. He was 12 at the time of liberation but does not forget: “I was a child, but I do not forget anything because my brain remembers the situation very well.” This is a common theme of Kosovo Albanian collective memories; they are crystal clear. His family home was in sight of a long incline, the southern approach to Prishtina. The first signs of NATO were Apache helicopters scouting ahead. The family tuned into the TV and radio for constant updates: BBC, CNN, Euronews. Children holding flowers flocked to the approach road but were driven back by swirling hail. From their apartment five stories up the view was unimpeded. Then they came, first two jeeps, perhaps Swiss or Red Cross. Later a long convoy of tanks and troop carriers. Alban recalls how the tank turrets swung round scouring for targets. A tank commander eventually caught sight of Alban on his balcony and waved, giving him a thumbs up, the all clear. He went down to the street with his family to embrace the troops; it was “very emotional.” They were finally “free.” The liberating British soldiers were surprised to find Albanians in Prishtina. Alban remembers looking down the sight of a paratrooper’s gun at a red-brick house on fire. To this day he has a British Army uniform, but is short of a beret.
This is the photo he likes to share: