One of our correspondents, recently evacuated to Kosovo under a special programme for Ukrainian journalists displaced by the war, has visited a famous demining centre. It is training young Ukrainian women to return home and make their country safe. Demining Kosovo has taken over 20 years, and Ukraine faces a similar period of dangerous work, which is not the only parallel she found between Kosovo some 23 years ago, and Ukraine today.
A young woman in a military uniform is standing near a playground, which resembles a children's sandbox. In her hands – a minesweeper. Hearing my Ukrainian language, she approached and smiled: “I am Anastasia, I came from central Ukraine. Before the war I worked as a teacher. Now I am here in the sapper business.” (A sapper is a combat engineer that performs various tasks including laying and clearing minefields -ed.)
Anastasia is one of eight Ukrainian students at the MAT Kosovo EOD & ERW School of Explosives Disposal and Demining in Peja. Her instructors are masters of sapper work who were engaged in demining the territory after the Kosovo War (1998 - 1999).
The road runs through the Balkan foothills, surrounded by greenery and meadow flowers. Suddenly, like ghosts from a nightmare, black holes of unglazed windows in roofless buildings emerge.
“This is the village of Yablonitsa. Serbs used to live here, these are their houses. Almost all of them left for the war, while ethnic Albanians remained. Serbs are unlikely to return. After what happened, no one is waiting for them here,” says Adem Suleimani, a Kosovo public figure who also came to visit the Ukrainian trainee sappers.
Adem remembers well the time when, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, military conflicts erupted with furious violence.
“Everyone says that America destroyed Yugoslavia. But Stalin and Tito, not the US, are to blame for the country's collapse. Because when Milosevic was removed, his wife and children did not go to America, but for some reason stayed in the country.”
He points out that many Russian volunteers fought on the side of the Serbs and supplied them with weapons. There was an episode during the Kosovan war, three days before the arrival of NATO peacekeepers, when the Russian military seized Pristina International Airport.
Anastasia at the end of the training will become a team leader, providing technical and non-technical complex inspection of minefields. Anastasia admits that she did not tell her relatives until the last minute, because she knew that they would refuse that she carries out such risky work. But now they have reconciled.
“The Ukrainian State Emergency Service said that no woman will work in the field. But I will come and show them how to work,” Anastasia shared her plans.
She can’t contain her emotions when she talks about the hospitality of the locals.
“We are strangers to them, and they treat us as their own. When I start a conversation, which is scary because rockets are flying, with someone who lost someone close to them, they start telling their stories, just like ours.”
Indeed, the war in Kosovo is well remembered. There were about 1,000 sites left in the country, stuffed with mines, cluster bombs and others. Because of this, Kosovo has been called the "powder keg of Europe".
“Even after 23 consecutive years, about 55 sites still need demining,” said one of the instructors at MAT Kosovo. “I think that in Ukraine, as in Kosovo, for the next 20 years, sappers will be one of the specialists most in demand,” he predicts, and immediately shows what kinds of deadly weapons can lie hidden in the ground for decades. The instructors adapt to Ukrainian realities and share more information about Russian munitions. The munitions deployed or dumped near Kharkiv and Kyiv are explained: some of it ranging in size from a bottle of mineral water to a sweet. An untrained person may not even realise that it is a weapon. The girls distinguish them with their eyes closed.
“One evening I had a meltdown: why do I have to become an expert in these bloody things in my 30s?”, says another young Ukrainian trainee Ulyana.
As it happens, Ulyana's father served in the UN mission in the country where she is now.
“All my family knows about Kosovo is KFOR, ( the NATO-led international force responsible for stability in Kosovo since 1999 - ed.). That’s why I couldn't tell my family that I would go to Kosovo, but they found out about it from the news.”
Marina, another Ukrainian trainee, is a senior engineering officer now serving in the National Guard of Ukraine, with the rank of Captain. “This is our family business. Dad served for many years and went on a well-deserved retirement. When the war broke out, he went to the enlistment office and joined the army.”
Another young woman Kateryna is from Sloviansk in the Donetsk region. In 2014, she became a mine risk education trainer at the Swiss Mine Action Fund FSD Ukraine. She currently leads the non-technical inspection team. She admits that she loves children and dreams of her own, but for now her mission is to make sure all children are safe.
“For eight years we have been detecting mined areas in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Deadly ammunition was found by children on several occasions. However, there was no such concentration of explosives as seen during the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine”.
Kateryna saw with her own eyes on the streets of Borodyanka, Bucha and Gostomel heavy munitions including cluster bombs.
Yulia provides translation for the training. She worked in the US Government-funded IT Capabilities Development Programme. Prior to that, she worked on Orbital, the British military training programme. In the town near Kyiv where she lived before the war there are now many fenced areas with warnings that read: “Mine”.
Finally, there is Sonny, a labrador that came from the UK as a seven-month-old puppy, trained to work with sappers.
After visiting and talking to cadets, we met school legend – instructor Hekuran Doula. Like his colleague Idris Kuçi, he has been teaching demining for 23 years. He has worked not only in Kosovo, but also in Cambodia, Mozambique, Iraq, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Latin America, and Libya. He has saved countless lives.
“I found this job in 1999, as soon as the Serbs left Kosovo. We were as divided as Ukraine is now. Peja, Mitrovica and Djakov suffered particularly severe damage. I became a sapper because there was nothing else to do. I thought: it's for a year or two, we will demine the territory and that’s it…Unfortunately, wars in the world continue, and our profession turned out to be not temporary, but permanent.”
He spoke with restraint about the Russians during the war: “I know that they have traditionally been against the European bloc. In addition, they were good friends of the Serbs, and many Russians fought on their side.”
Idris Kuçi also adds to the conversation that Russians in Ukraine today are doing the same thing that Serbs were doing in Kosovo.
“There were robberies, violence, murders, shelling and burning of houses.” Addressing Ukrainians, he said: “We care about you, but we don’t have the strength to help you with anything greater. But we are doing what we can, and the Sapper School is one of the types of help. I think that Europe will help Ukraine win, and you will quickly return to a peaceful life.”