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 (ARRC) based in Gloucester
completed the trip last month 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 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.
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
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
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.
"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.
"I suppose I'm still quite proud of what we did. It’s great to see such a thriving community now.”
Story by Allied Rapid Reaction Corps Public Affairs Office