Kosovo dis­plays love, grat­i­tude for Amer­ica

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY VA­LERIE PLESCH

KERPIMEH, KOSOVO | Hasim Hal­iti be­gins ev­ery morn­ing with a salute to Bill Clin­ton.

A glass-framed, 8-year-old poster wish­ing the for­mer pres­i­dent a happy 63rd birth­day “from the Peo­ple of Kosovo” in Al­ba­nian and English hangs over his bed.

It may be dated, but Mr. Hal­iti has no plans to take it down or cull the other pic­tures of Amer­i­can politi­cians and mil­i­tary gen­er­als from the late 1990s that hang in his lit­tle cafe-bar near the vil­lage mosque here in north­east­ern Kosovo.

Few Amer­i­cans ever pass through Kerpimeh, a re­mote vil­lage of around 800 near the Ser­bian bor­der. But a deep af­fec­tion for the United States, one undimmed through the Bush, Obama and now Trump ad­min­is­tra­tions, still runs deep in the

coun­try in grat­i­tude for the crit­i­cal U.S. role in lib­er­at­ing it from Ser­bia 18 years ago.

Global sur­veys say this tiny Balkan coun­try has the world’s high­est ap­proval of U.S. lead­er­ship. This un­con­di­tional love ap­pears to be stay­ing even as Amer­ica’s im­age abroad takes a hit among other al­lies un­com­fort­able with Mr. Trump’s “Amer­ica first” agenda.

“How can we not love Amer­ica when it was be­cause of them that we could re­turn to our homes?” asked Mr. Hal­iti, 38, who fled to the moun­tains dur­ing the 1998-99 war with Ser­bia and found when he re­turned that Serbs had burned down his cafe. “We were more than happy to re­turn to our burned homes and live un­der plas­tic sheets be­cause fi­nally there was peace. There were no more shots and no more mas­sacres.”

Mr. Hal­iti’s posters are among many ex­am­ples of at­ti­tudes to­ward the U.S. by the mi­nor­ity eth­nic Al­ba­nian Koso­vars. (It’s a dif­fer­ent story for the small na­tion’s restive eth­nic Ser­bian mi­nor­ity.) The Stars and Stripes is per­haps more ubiq­ui­tous than the blue-and-gold na­tional flag. Amer­i­can flags fly in front of gas sta­tions, gov­ern­ment build­ings, restau­rants and homes. Pro­test­ers even carry Old Glory at anti-gov­ern­ment protests.

The his­tory of Kosovo’s ad­mi­ra­tion for Amer­ica be­gan even be­fore Mr. Clin­ton or­dered NATO to bomb Ser­bian mil­i­tary bases and other strate­gic tar­gets in Kosovo. Ser­bian forces left the re­gion in 1999 af­ter 78 days of the airstrikes, clear­ing the path for the break­away prov­ince to de­clare its in­de­pen­dence.

Kosovo’s first pres­i­dent, Ibrahim Ru­gova, de­liv­ered news con­fer­ences ev­ery Fri­day through­out the 1990s. He ended each one with “God bless Amer­ica, NATO and the United Na­tions.” The phrase stuck with the pub­lic.

“Peo­ple kept re­peat­ing it,” said Agron Demi, a pol­icy an­a­lyst at the GAP In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Stud­ies in Pristina, the Koso­var cap­i­tal. “Maybe in the be­gin­ning it sounded a bit ridicu­lous, but af­ter time, peo­ple got used to it.”

Lady Lib­erty in the cir­cle

A replica of the Statue of Lib­erty stands at one of Pristina’s busiest traf­fic cir­cles, perched on the rooftop of a new po­lice sta­tion. But per­haps the most fa­mous land­mark is an 11-foot bronze statue of a wav­ing Mr. Clin­ton on Bill Clin­ton Boule­vard in down­town Pristina. The for­mer pres­i­dent at­tended the un­veil­ing of the statue in 2009.

Ze­qir Rama, 75, was one of the thou­sands of lo­cals who swarmed the statue for a glimpse of the man him­self. He said he even got to shake Mr. Clin­ton’s hand. “It was be­cause of Amer­ica that we’re safe now,” he said. “Es­pe­cially this guy be­hind me [point­ing at the statue] and his fam­ily, may he live as long as pos­si­ble.”

A few feet away from the statue is a women’s cloth­ing bou­tique called “Hil­lary,” which spe­cial­izes in dresses and pantsuits. One of the bou­tique own­ers, Elda Mo­rina, proudly dis­plays pho­tos of Mrs. Clin­ton when the for­mer first lady vis­ited Kosovo and the shop as sec­re­tary of state.

Streets named af­ter Repub­li­cans and Democrats and the 50 U.S. states crisscross cities and towns through­out Kosovo, hon­or­ing fig­ures such as Madeleine K. Al­bright, Woodrow Wil­son, Bob Dole, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ge­orge W. Bush. Mr. Bush will al­ways be re­mem­bered here as the first U.S. pres­i­dent to sup­port an in­de­pen­dent Kosovo. There is even a driv­ing school named af­ter Wes­ley Clark, the NATO com­man­der who di­rected the Kosovo air war.

Younger Koso­vars might not re­mem­ber the war, but they un­der­stand Amer­ica’s re­spon­si­bil­ity in lib­er­at­ing Kosovo.

“The Amer­i­cans had the main role to in­ter­vene in Kosovo, and we see them as our he­roes,” said Kushtrim Kras­niqi, 31, a net­work en­gi­neer from the east­ern city of Gji­lan.

Mr. Kras­niqi, his brother and two tech friends cre­ated a web­site called “Kosovo If Trump Wins” as a joke right be­fore the elec­tion. Their main goal was to en­tice vis­i­tors — es­pe­cially Amer­i­cans — to come to Kosovo if the Repub­li­can took of­fice.

“We are friendly to all for­eign­ers, but es­pe­cially with Amer­i­cans,” he said.

They didn’t think Mr. Trump would win. The day af­ter the elec­tion, their web­site crashed when more than 10,000 vis­i­tors tried to ac­cess it.

Th­ese days, Mr. Kras­niqi is nos­tal­gic for his child­hood when he sees Amer­i­can troops in Kosovo. “I would greet any sol­dier I would see. It’s an old habit, re­ally,” he said.

The sol­diers have been here for the past 18 years as part of a NATO peace­keep­ing force called the Kosovo Force, or KFOR, to main­tain peace and sta­bil­ity in the coun­try. Around 700 U.S. troops re­main, sta­tioned at the large U.S. Army base in south­ern Kosovo called Camp Bond­steel, off the new Joseph R. “Beau” Bi­den III Na­tional Road.

Most Kosovo Al­ba­ni­ans do not want the Amer­i­cans to leave.

“We’re a tiny coun­try. If Amer­ica would leave, the Serbs would oc­cupy this place in two or three hours. Who would stop them?” said Mr. Hal­iti, the cafe owner.

Mr. Demi agrees that there is a sense of com­fort in hav­ing the Amer­i­cans re­main in Kosovo. “I think the love for Amer­ica is just the se­cu­rity and the things they have done for us un­til now,” he said. “For the first time, there is a su­per­power that is help­ing you with­out ask­ing some­thing in re­turn, and I think that has to do with why peo­ple love Amer­ica.”

Back in Kerpimeh, Mr. Hal­iti hoped Amer­i­cans wouldn’t for­get Kosovo ei­ther.

“I wish that we could be an­other star on the Amer­i­can flag,” he said, the pos­ter­ized Mr. Clin­ton grin­ning down on him as he spoke. “I would love it if Kosovo would have been a part of Amer­ica.”

VA­LERIE PLESCH / SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

PRIDE IN OLD GLORY: Muhamed Kuka, a for­mer Kosovo Lib­er­a­tion Army fighter, is of­ten seen at protests and war com­mem­o­ra­tions dressed in army fa­tigues and car­ry­ing the Amer­i­can flag in Pristina.

VA­LERIE PLESCH / SPE­CIAL TO THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Even as anti-U.S. fer­vor has caught on in Europe, many Koso­vars re­main grate­ful to the U.S. for for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s or­der­ing NATO airstrikes to re­move Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic’s troops from Kosovo, lead­ing to Koso­vars’ lib­er­a­tion from Ser­bian rule.

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