by Keith Nordstrom
BY CRAIG BORGES / SUN CHRONICLE STAFF
a church in the center of the small city of Vitina that
probably once made the local residents quite proud. The
grey stucco walls support a clay-red roof that is topped
with a glittering gold cross. The building sits on a triangular-shaped
spit of land alongside a small river on one of Vitina's
But this little piece of
property that would be considered a landmark in most places,
has instead become a reminder of hate and of an unfinished
conflict that threatens to erupt any day.
The church, a place of worship
for Serbs, now sits surrounded by ugly rolls of razor wire
and banks of green sandbags. The main gate leading to the
quaint churchyard is blocked by a guard tower manned 24-7
by gun-toting members of the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion,
325th Airborne Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.
The soldiers pace around
the church, day and night, acting as guardian angels for
the building, now a much-desired target of ethnic-Albanian
extremists in this mostly ethnic-Albanian town. "If
we weren't guarding this, it would be leveled by now,"
says Master Sgt. Michael Boom of Sacramento, Calif., as
he leads a group of soldiers on a Sunday morning patrol
through town. "It's the only place Serb kids can safely
Churches, like mosques before
them in the Bosnian War and during the Yugoslav Army's horrific
drive into Kosovo in 1999, are prime targets for haters.
Destroy them, the extremists figure, and you help destroy
On this day there are few people on the streets. Clouds
threaten to come apart and with little employment, few people
see the need to rise so early, one soldier says.
Platoon leader Lt. Jeff
DiMarzio of Bridgewater joins Boom and fellow soldiers Pvt.
1st Class Andy Jawkowski, Specialist Alexander Bardin of
Brooklyn, N.Y., Specialist Eric Harris of Pittsburgh and
Specialist Sean Flynn of Newport, R.I.
DiMarzio, whose father David
owns Bristol Liquors in Mansfield, is a 1995 Bridgewater-Raynham
Regional High School grad. He attended Westpoint and was
commissioned an officer upon graduation in 1999. His father
and his mother, Mary, still live in Bridgewater. His wife,
the former Amanda Strojny, is from Taunton. "Where
else can you have this much fun," he says, taking his
hand off the barrel of his M16 only long enough to high-five
a little Serb boy. The boy is with others playing in a turnoff
that is heavily guarded by other members of the 325th.
"A Serb neighborhood,"
says Flynn, whose mother is originally from North Attleboro.
"We're their only protection."
Large cement Jersey barriers
and rolls of razor wire block the end of the street. Any
vehicle entering has to drive past the soldiers at the other
end. "This prevents them from driving through and tossing
a grenade into someone's house," Boom says.
The patrol goes by a modern-day
Kosovo landmark - Planet Kosovo, the province's answer to
Planet Hollywood. The restaurant/disco sits in a complex
that used to be the place to gather. It had trendy shops
selling the latest Euro fashions; fancy restaurants and
cafés and a nightclub where the hippest of the hip
gathered on weekend nights to dance the night away.
That place, like so many
other storefronts, is dead now, another victim of the war.
the end of the patrol, Boom points out a half blown, half-started
house. A Serb family was building the home when someone
blew it up with a grenade.
What the extremists usually
do is this: They make the family a low offer to buy the
house. When the family refuses, they bomb it. More often
than not, the family flees.
"Whenever we're notified
about some ridiculously offer on a home, we set up observation,"
Boom says. "We'll watch the house to see if anyone
is coming near it at night. That's the only way you can
The city of Gjilane in the
eastern section of Kosovo not far from the border with Serbia,
is a bustling, cosmopolitan center. Shoppers fill the streets
on this sunny Friday morning. Beautiful young women walk
arm-in-arm dressed in the trendiest clothing they can afford
or find. Young men pace the streets in crisp tracksuits
or jeans. Businesses display their goods in windows and
on the sidewalks in front of their shops. If this were any
place else, Gjilane would be considered a desirable place
to live. But this is Kosovo and looks are almost always
Each day, several times
a day, soldiers like members of the U.S. Army's 40th Engineer
Battalion out of Baumholder, Germany, and based here at
Camp Monteith in Gjilane, patrol the city in an effort to
make residents, especially Serbs, feel safer.
"It's necessary to
make sure everyone feels safe," says Capt. Clarence
Counts, a South Carolina native who is a public affairs
officer at Camp Monteith.
Counts says he's especially
proud of the program soldiers at Monteith helped organize
with UN police and other agencies. Once a week buses are
brought to one part of town to allow Serbs to get on and
be taken, with a military escort, to the busy shopping district
in the city. The program was begun a few months ago.
"Our first bus has
15 people on it," he says. "People were afraid,
they didn't come." Now, he says, they sometimes have
to get several buses. Ethnic-Albanian merchants were also
a bit reluctant to join the program and allow so many Serbs
in their store at once. But, Counts said, money changed
all that. "Business is business," he says. "They
realized they would be losing some valuable money."
The patrol winds past a
Serb church that is much like the one in Vitina in that
sandbags, razor wire and soldiers also surround it.
Pvt. 1st Class Abdullah
Eans of New Orleans introduces a reporter to a tiny 14-year-old
boy named Marko Zivkovic. Marko, the son of the priest at
the church, quickly scurries past the soldiers and opens
the doors to the church for a tour.
The interior is old and
beautiful. The wall behind the altar consists of dark oak
wood covered in gilded paintings of religious figures and
"I think the factions
are getting along much better," Eans says outside the
church. "I know KFOR soldiers like us are doing all
we can to help make that happen."