Angels
Photos by Keith Nordstrom

OPERATION KOSOVO
BY CRAIG BORGES / SUN CHRONICLE STAFF

There's 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 busiest streets.

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 play soccer."

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 a culture.
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.

Toward 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 stop them."

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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 deceiving.

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 Serbian saints.

"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."