Back to Kosovo - British veterans of first NATO mission return after 20 years
Troops serving with NATO’s original 'KFOR' (Kosovo Force) mission have made an emotional return to the disputed territory for the first time since 1999 – to complete a personal pilgrimage to the precise locations where they served twenty years ago.
The pair of British officers from the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps completed the trip to witness the progress made in the country since 1999, with a visit to the capital Pristina, as well as to the two locations where they had been originally based - Lipljan and Podujevo.
The first KFOR mission in June 1999 was commanded by the UK-led corps, which had been stood up for the task given its recent operational experience from the Bosnia conflict only a couple of years earlier.
By pure coincidence, our two Kosovo veterans, Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Webber of the Royal Artillery and Royal Air Force officer Squadron Leader Owen Newman, find themselves serving with the ARRC once again at the very moment it marks twenty years since it commanded the ground intervention in Kosovo.
Owen Newman looks at the scrubby field on the edge of Lipljan village and attempts to piece together the site’s 1999 layout from memory.
As a member of the RAF’s Tactical Supply Wing, the squadron leader had been part of a team of specialists responsible for providing a 24-hour service refuelling NATO’s mixed helicopter fleet. The airmen had crossed the border during the early days of KFOR’s advance into theatre before setting up in Lipljan.
And it’s just as he’s reminiscing about the Gurkha soldiers who had responsibility for the camp’s outer security – and for operating the catering tent, with its regular servings of Nepalese curry – that he is approached by the farm’s smartly-dressed landowner, Valon Vehapi (pictured above).
Speaking through our interpreter, the men quickly discover that twenty years ago they had shared that very same Gurkha kitchen, where Vehapi had worked as a locally-employed teenager.
On establishing that the RAF officer is the first UK military serviceman to return there in two decades, the men warmly embrace. Vehapi declares it the "best day of his life” when the British first arrived in 1999.
Soon afterwards the pair are sharing Turkish coffee and memories in Vehapi’s family home.
Our party continues its brief return visit with a drive north of Pristina towards the border town of Podujevo – to mirror the journey first taken by Lieutenant Colonel Webber, then a freshly-minted troop commander. We pull up at a shiny factory complex at Lebane.
A glance at Webber’s well-thumbed photos and then back across to the current landscape in front of us, and it’s quickly apparent that the view over the rolling countryside remains relatively unchanged.
The colonel points out to us the original positions of his AS-90 guns and we find the very spot where his snaps had been taken. The war-scarred factory buildings have since been replaced by a thriving window company.
Webber recalls the refugee family at the camp gates and the destruction caused by the armed conflict in Kosovo as he reflects, "It's really interesting going back and seeing it now.
I suppose I'm still quite proud of what we did. It's great to see such a thriving community now.
"It all looks relatively calm and everything is nice and clear. But of course, all of these roads were just covered in debris and bits of metal. We had no idea whether there were mines and any of that kind of stuff.
"This more than anywhere during my time was where we saw some of the atrocities that had happened first hand. And that's not something that disappears very quickly from the memory."
Sitting in a leafy garden in the capital Pristina at the end of our visit, Owen Newman adds: “It’s quite strange to be back – in different circumstances, obviously. I was a bit apprehensive coming this morning, a bit nervous.
“I wanted to come, obviously, but it’s good to be here now because it is very different. We’re not carrying around our weapons, we’re not sleeping with our weapons. We’re not wondering about whatever’s going on in literally the next field.
“And then to meet Valon in a chance meeting, and the fact that he worked in the Gurkha kitchens preparing the food as a seventeen-year-old. He was kicked out of his village, lined up to be shot, and he was spared. And then he escaped to come back.
“You could see his delight. He was emotional, I got quite emotional. He wouldn’t let go of my hand. He just kept shaking my hand.
“And that’s a moment I don’t think I will ever forget.”