Kosovo, 10 years later

BOSTON — Ten years ago, U.S. warships in the Adriatic began launching cruise missiles into the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

I saw them light up the sky. I saw the smoldering aftermath. They began pounding away at the port town of Bar and then paved a path to Belgrade, where they struck at the heart of Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal regime and sent the clear message that its vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo would not stand.

The U.S. and its European allies were united in the effort to stop Milosevic. And today, a decade later, that military operation is still seen as one of the great strategic successes of modern NATO.

Kosovo was liberated two months later on June 12, 1999. Milosevic and his military thugs were turned back and ultimately brought to trial by the International Criminal Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. And today Kosovo has a better future, even if it struggles.

With the 60th anniversary of NATO just around the corner, it is a success worth remembering — particularly since the U.S. is about to step up its presence in Afghanistan in coordination with the NATO troops there.

The U.S. “surge” of 17,000 troops may soon strain the NATO alliance, which has a different sense of the mission in Afghanistan. For the U.S., it has been a war on terror. For NATO, it is an exercise in nation building.

It seems we are headed for an existential moment for the NATO alliance in Afghanistan.

“The importance of what happened 10 years ago is that it showed that American leadership is indispensible, especially when creates strong alliances with a clearly delineated purpose,” said Veton Surroi, who courageously published an independent newspaper in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and played an important role in Rambouillet, the French village where negotiations took place prior to the military action.

I first met Surroi 10 years ago during the aftermath of the war. Earlier this month he visited us here at GlobalPost in Boston. He looked much the same, a bit older but somehow less severe and less consumed by the worry that had eaten away at him during the darkness of that time.

In 1998 and early 1999, more than a half million Kosovar Albanian Muslims had been forced to flee their homes. There were thousands of casualties and mass graves were once again filling up in the Balkans, since the wars of the early 1990s.

On this day 10 years ago, I was aboard a rusted Russian freighter that was cruising through the Adriatic in defiance of U.S. Navy orders that blocked all ships during the start of the air strikes. We were doing an end run into Yugoslavia after the Western media had been thrown out of Belgrade on the eve of the air strikes.

I was with The Boston Globe then. My colleague Matt McAllester, who was with Newsday at the time, and I talked our way onto the rusted freighter. Matt, who now works with us here at GlobalPost, and I stood on the bridge of the ship and smoked cigarettes with members of the Montenegro government, technically our enemy in this fight, although Montenegro had a strange, twilight role in the conflict.

We could see distant flashes of light, which were presumably the U.S. air strikes launched by President Clinton. The old freighter pulled into port and we began reporting.

We were both Middle East correspondents who had suddenly been thrown into the complexities of the Balkans and we were fully aware that we had a lot to learn.

But after many years of reporting on subsequent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war in Kosovo seems in comparison a clean affair, a shining example of what America and its allies can do together in the world. It was a time when diplomacy worked and now it seems like a model for the Obama administration as it stumbles forward into a deeper commitment in Afghanistan.

It wasn’t perfect. No war is. There were mistakes. Human Rights Watch recorded that NATO airstrikes killed nearly 500 civilians.

Kosovo still struggles to build the institutions of civil society. The army has a long way to go. Pristina’s universities and hospitals are abysmal, Surroi confirms. The town of Mitrovica — divided by a river that separates Kosovar Albanian Muslims and Serbian Orthodox Christians — is still bitterly divided. There is much work to be done.

Surroi said that one of the most important feelings he has 10 years later is “the grasp of history”: an overwhelming sense that the U.S.-led alliance changed the course of history for Kosovo.

“Kosovo is the most pro-American place in Europe. We have enormous gratitude. We supported the war in Iraq all the way because we believed Saddam and Milosevic were made of the same cloth,” he said.

“We are almost medieval in our devotion to America, and I’m not sure that is healthy,” Surroi added.

“But I also think it is not a bad time all these years later to remember what America can do when it is united with its allies and sets out to accomplish something."

Veton Surroi's visit to GlobalPost was facilitatated by The Project on Justice in Times of Transition, an independent program working in collaboration with the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University.

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