Paratroopers from Bielsko-Biała left for their first NATO mission only three months after Poland had joined the North Atlantic alliance. They set off to Kosovo as part of the international peacekeeping force KFOR.
We were hyped that we were going on a mission with nearly the whole battalion. It was a well-coordinated and reliable team. Besides, we were young, we had no commitments yet, no family. Everyone wanted to leave, see something new, gain experience,” recalls Sergeant Rafał Grot from the 18th Bielsko-Biała Airborne Battalion [Polish: 18 Bielski Batalion Powietrznodesantowy], and adds: “We were proud that the paratroopers were the ones going on a mission”. The assault troops were the first of the land forces to leave under the aegis of NATO. How did they feel about the mission as the youngest members of the alliance? “We were delighted because it meant going up to a higher level for us. It was a step towards the West. We hoped that membership in the alliance would provide us with interesting tasks, international training and development of our army,” says Sergeant Grot. He also tells us that in connection with the NATO mission, the Bielsko-Biała unit was one of the first in the army to be fitted with new equipment. “Oh, yes! New products were popping up. When other soldiers were walking in the so-called bechatkas [colloquially a military winter jacket], we already had gore tex jackets; others had steel helmets, and we already had kevlar helmets,” says the non-commissioned officer.
Bringing peace and order
The first rotation of the Polish KFOR Military Contingent began in June 1999 and lasted 13 months. The paratroopers left under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Roman Polko. Later he was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Tomasz Bąk. The Poles in Kosovo were supported by Ukrainian and Lithuanian troops.
It should be mentioned, however, that before the paratroopers from Bielsko-Biała set off for the Balkans, there had been going on a NATO military operation under the code name “Allied Force” in Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999 (from March to June). The aim was to carry out raids on strategic points in order to force Slobodan Milošević’s regime to stop its military-police operation in Kosovo. According to the Yugoslavian party, it consisted in the fight against the Albanian underground Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës – UÇK) and, according to the international community, ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians.
As a result of NATO’s intervention, the Yugoslavian army left Kosovo. It was then that the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) was established and the international NATO peacekeeping force KFOR began to be stationed in the province. Their task was to ensure order and security, disarm and disband the Kosovo Liberation Army and to implement the agreements concluded between the conflicting parties. Soldiers of several NATO countries, including Poland, participated in the KFOR mission.
The decision about the soldiers’ set-off was made in June 1999. The 18th Bielsko-Biała Assault and Landing Battalion (now airborne battalion) of 800 people was sent to Kosovo. It was a unit of the strategic reserve of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. This status was given to them one year before the mission. “We passed the training test in 1998. Our combat skills were evaluated by the NATO commission at that time. After obtaining the certificate we became the first unit in the North Atlantic structures,” says Captain Jarosław Turkowski.
The journey to the Balkans was very long. The soldiers arrived in Macedonia by railway, the equipment was also transported in this way; then, they drove by car from Skopje to Kosovo. “It was an unforgettable, because truly tiring, journey. It probably lasted five days,” says Sergeant Jacek Wojtaś. The non-commissioned officer went to Kosovo as a privy in mandatory military service. “When we arrived at the place, it turned out that we were standing in the middle of an empty field, where grass sometimes reached the waist. We had to clear everything up to make room for the base,” says Sergeant Wojtaś. A few years ago, Roman Polko recalled for the “Polska Zbrojna” magazine: “We built a base later named the White Eagle on an open field near Kačanik.”
The Poles in Kosovo, apart from command, logistics and support elements in the main White Eagle base, had three assault companies that operated in other regions of the Polish zone of responsibility. The second base was located in Kačanik, from where soldiers set up border posts, e.g. at the Đeneral Janković crossing point. The paratroopers from the third combat subunit in Brezovice, in turn, set up an outpost in Sušice.
“The start of the mission was not easy as we had to build a base with our own hands. For half a year we slept in tents, which leaked very strongly. But, in fact, everyone did encounter some organisational or logistic problems,” says Captain Turkowski. When he was going to Kosovo, he had seven years of service, then he was still in the non-commissioned officer corps and on the mission he found himself in the sapper platoon in the command company.
All combat units had practically the same tasks, yet their service differed due to the area in which they had to operate. Some were stationed where the majority were Serbs, while others were in places dominated by Muslims. Soldiers patrolled the borders, bridges, the most important roads, issued control posts, supervised demilitarisation in the region, ensured the safety of civilians. They helped to distribute humanitarian aid and prevented arms smuggling.
“Although these were the beginnings of our presence in the alliance and we were just learning the NATO alphabet, and some of our staff were still using the signs of the Warsaw Pact, we did a good job in Kosovo,” General Polko said a few years ago. “When the French couldn’t cope in Kosovska Mitrovica, they asked the Polish contingent for help. I did not have to motivate my people to do their job. When I once went to Kačanik at night to see how they perform their tasks, it turned out that there is no whole company. Everyone was in the field, they wanted to catch the smugglers,” he added.
Do not step on a mine
The soldiers in Kosovo felt safe and admit that the conditions there were incomparable to what they found after years in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It is clear that there is always a threat. We went out in full equipment when leaving the base according to the regulations, equipped with helmets, vests and weapons. Sometimes there were some shots in the distance, but it was never aimed at the soldiers. Mines posed the greatest threat. I can’t remember even a day some animal wouldn’t have blown up. People were injured in this type of accidents, too. Many of those who wanted to cross the so-called green border were killed in this way,” recalls Rafał Wolański. Sergeant Wojtaś admits, in turn, that before leaving the country, the soldiers were still instructed to use only hardened roads in Kosovo as the mine threat was very real.
“For the duration of the mission, we set up non-permanent demining patrols. Sapper patrols worked every day. We cleaned up the roads to school, land for some investments, and we received calls from local people. The threat of mines increased in spring, especially in agricultural areas. We really had a lot of work,” recollects Captain Turkowski. The sapper explains that the ground hid both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. The latter were fitted with pressure fuses, often damaged ones, so it happened that they wound explode even under low weight. In turn, farm animals most often stepped on anti-personnel mines. Residents supposedly knew the places of higher risk but there were still accidents in which they got injured or lost their lives. “Heavy rains rinsed out these mines. It was hard to believe that there was so much of it in the ground,” Sergeant Grot adds.
The paratroopers unanimously agree that the mission in Kosovo is extremely important to them, and they recall the memories of the Balkans with great sentiment. After all, as they say, Kosovo has opened their mission path. “We could see how the allies worked, learn about the differences in procedures and equipment. It was a very enjoyable experience,” admits Master Corporal Wolański. As Captain Turkowski points out, the Americans were surprised that soldiers still took part in our army’s mission in mandatory and extended military service. However, this had no influence. “We had a good reputation; the allies knew that we were well trained. Nobody was ashamed. We saw a difference in equipment between us and the US, but we hoped that one day we would also get what the Americans used to enjoy,” says the officer.
autor zdjęć: arch. Jarosława Turkowskiego