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Yugoslavia: U.S. Troops In Kosovo To Be Well Housed By Winter

  • Jolyon Naegele

The U.S. is on track to complete building semi-permanent housing for nearly 5,000 U.S. KFOR soldiers by October at a new military base in Kosovo. At the same time the UN refugee agency UNHCR is preparing to house tens of thousands of homeless Kosovars in tents through the approaching winter. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports from the new base, Camp Bondsteel in southern Kosovo, on the disparity.

Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo; 25 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the hills just east of the southern Kosovo town of Urosevac, a massive construction project is underway at a staggering pace in what may soon be the largest U.S. military base in the Balkans.

What just a few weeks ago were rolling hills of wheat is now Camp Bondsteel -- a construction site enshrouded in clouds of red grit kicked up by countless construction vehicles. Nearly 5,000 U.S. soldiers are currently housed in tents under camouflage netting. The 300-hectare camp already has a field hospital, communications facilities, a heliport, a jail, and numerous motor pools of trucks, armored personnel carriers, and tanks.

A total of 186 so-called "SEA huts" are being built, each measuring 300 square meters. Most will house 160 soldiers each while 26 will house 20-30 officers each. The first soldiers will be sleeping in the wood framed, metal roofed, semi-permanent structures by September 1. All 4,800 are due to be housed in the huts by October 1, less than four months after U.S. KFOR troops began pouring into Kosovo.

In contrast, U.S. troops in Bosnia had to endure three winters in tents before they were all in solid housing. And unlike tens of thousands of displaced Kosovars, the U.S. troops will enjoy heating and air conditioning. The construction of Camp Bondsteel, although raising property questions, has brought jobs to Urosevac and its surroundings. A private contractor from Texas is building the base using local labor wherever possible. Every day local workers show up at the gate where the U.S. contractors pick plumbers, electricians, carpenters, bus and truck drivers out of the crowd to join the construction workforce of well over 1,000.

The camp spokesman, Captain Pat Sweeney, says the base is at least as big as the US/SFOR Eagle Base at Tuzla in Bosnia, which was established on the site of a pre-existing air base.

"I would concur that this is the largest base in the Balkans that the U.S. has built. It's built to house just under 5,000 troops here. And of course, when you have 5,000 troops you have many trucks and various other equipment -- armored personnel carriers and tanks, recovery equipment and all the transportation assets."

Captain Sweeney says KFOR has not yet purchased the land on which Camp Bondsteel is located pending the reestablishment of local government in Kosovo and a determination whether the U.S. presence in the province becomes what he terms "a longer term situation." Sweeney says that when KFOR troops arrived in Kosovo two months ago the focus was to provide peace and security and at the time, he says, "land ownership was not a real issue for anyone."

"The focus from the chain of command's perspective was: 'we know we are going to be here through the winter,' to get the troops in a comfortable environment before the winter hits and if we are only here through the winter and next spring, then that's fine. But I think the intent was to make the commitment up front to take care of the troops and provide them with the best, most comfortable, most safe surroundings that we could."

The move into the SEA Huts at Camp Bondsteel comes at a time when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is making preparations to shelter tens of thousands of displaced Kosovar returnees. About 90 percent of the more than 800,000 who earlier fled or were expelled to neighboring countries have returned. But the UNHCR says the fighting in Kosovo has left what it terms 47,000 "non-reparable homes."

The UNHCR spokesman in Pristina, Ron Redmond, says the UNHCR is bringing 15,000 winterized tents to Kosovo, which if necessary could hold up to 90,000 homeless people. Redmond says the UNHCR, together with USAID and five other aid organizations, are providing Kosovo with nearly 75,000 basic shelter kits to benefit an estimated 550,000 people living in homes that suffered between 20 and 60 percent damage.

The construction of Camp Bondsteel appears to represent a commitment by the U.S. to remain in Kosovo for the medium term at least. But the siting of many KFOR facilities in factories can only be perceived as a temporary solution if only because of the need to enable factory workers to return to their jobs. The German KFOR headquarters in Prizren, the Turkish battalion in Dragash, several British units in and around Pristina, and the Greek KFOR base in Urosevac are all based in factories.

Few if any KFOR-occupied factories have caused such rancor as the Greek KFOR contingent's continued occupation of the IMK pipe factory in Urosevac, just a few minutes drive from Camp Bondsteel. The dispute is further fueled by Kosovar mistrust of Greece over the close Greek-Serb relationship.

The IMK factory was traditionally Urosevac's largest source of jobs with over 1,300 employees. The Serbian authorities fired 950 Kosovar Albanian employees of IMK in 1990, including the factory's non-Serb managers. The factory continued to operate until early this year on a reduced staff of 400 Serbs. It remains unclear how many of IMK's Serbian employees remain in Kosovo.

Former factory Director Adem Metushi says the Greek KFOR presence at the factory is the sole obstacle to former employees getting their old jobs back. He says the facility suffered nothing more than some broken windows during the NATO air strikes.

Metushi says U.S. KFOR officials have promised that the Greek troops will vacate the factory. Yet despite several rounds of talks, the Greeks have not yet moved.

The perception among some Urosevac residents is that while the U.S. KFOR construction of Camp Bondsteel is creating jobs locally, the decision to use IMK as the Greek KFOR contingent's headquarters is denying hundreds of people the ability to earn a wage.