KOSOVO - She shakes his hand vigorously. Thank you, thank you the white-haired lady says, her eyes twinkling. She wants to tell a story about her daughters. The men in the room have heard her story before, but are always happy to listen again. As they enter the small one-room schoolhouse, the six children who are present that day all stand up, their smiles widen. They remember the last time the Soldiers visited, and what gifts they brought.
Liaison Monitoring Teams are groups of Soldiers that link the military command with the community. They determine the perception of local forces in the area and they measure the temperament of the local population on a wide range of topics and issues.
These Soldiers don’t drive in up-armored humvees. They roll down the windows of their SUV’s to talk to the local people on the side of roads in villages. Instead of wearing full body armor, helmets and carrying M-16s, these Soldiers are dressed simply, only wearing a fleece jacket over their ACUs to hold off the cold weather. The uniform says they are Soldiers, but they seem different, approachable. They make themselves approachable, less intimidating. Rather than being just visitors in the towns they frequently stop in, they make themselves more like fixtures, familiar faces.
The LMTs work with local aid groups, such as U-S-AID and the Red Cross to help people. They bring warm clothes, jackets, books, pencils and notebooks to classrooms. Some teams deliver medical supplies to local hospitals and communities. Sometimes, problems are not fixed overnight, said Sgt. Leszek Mazurkiewiwicz, a Polish Soldier who works alongside the American LMTs.
“The biggest challenge we face on a day-to-day basis is trying to deal with the sensitive, local issues,” he said. “We have challenges that have been here for months that we are trying to work through. We meet with them, they meet with our command. We go back and forth. But we are trying to do the right thing, in the best way.”
1st Lt. Bruce F. Lester, who works with Mazurkieiwicz, said “as a LMT we go out and we talk to individual people, key leaders, groups. We just talk to them. In this way, we are able to let the command know what is happening on the ground. We are able to be their eyes and ears. Because NATO headquarters is in Prishtine/Pristina the commanders don’t necessarily know what is going on in Gjilan/Gnjilane or Shterpce/ Strpce. In this way, we are able to help them see what the people around here are thinking, what their concerns are, what their needs are.”
Lester is the officer in charge of LMT-6, which is comprised of two Soldiers from the 1st of the 118th Combined Arms Battalion, South Carolina National Guard, and two Soldiers from the Polish Army currently deployed to Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo in support of the peacekeeping mission here. His team goes out almost daily to visit key leaders and friends and acquaintances they have made in the area. Mazurkieiwicz is Lester’s Polish Contingent Counterpart.
“We come out to the local towns with our American contingents, and we meet with local officials, local people,” said Mazurkieiwicz. “We speak to them, we find out how things are going with them, and we get real information on how things are going. Then we can take that feedback to our superiors.”
Mazurkieiwicz, who is from Czerkiiensk, Poland said, establishing that trust was important to the mission.
“We try to be more familiar with them, we try to build good relationships,” said Mazurkieiwicz. “That makes it work. They start to see us as friends, and it helps us to familiarize with their situation, and it helps us better the situation. Which is why we are here.”
Lester, a native of Charleston , S.C., said that each team is responsible for a specified area. The areas they cover are small enough so that the team is able to go in and really get to know the people. That helps them build relationships and trust.
He said that he thought one of the biggest challenges for a peacekeeping mission is being able to know the true sentiment of the local population. With the deep rooted ethnic challenges that the population faces, it is easy to have actions misinterpreted, rumors spread, and adversaries paint a different picture of the people trying to help. That’s why he and his team are here, to get to know the people and find out the true feelings.
“Because KFOR has been here for so long, the people are used to us somewhat, but we are still the ‘new’ Americans,” said Lester.
“Now that they are starting to get to know us better, they trust us more, and we are building a better relationship.”
The LMT’s relationship with people helps to accomplish many things. It helps to monitor the mood of the communities, helps maintain the peace, and it helps resolve issues before they start. Lester said that oftentimes it was easier for the LMTs to get this information, opposed to other units, because they are there every day.
“They get to know me,” said Lester. “Who I am, what I do. I get to know them, who they are. They know that they will see me again. They used to shy away when we would pull up, but now they know who we are, and they run out to see us. I am expressing a genuine concern about what is going on with them, and I want to learn about them. They see that. They understand that.”
Lester said he finds the biggest challenge here to be the very dynamics of the situation.
“The war is more recent here,” he said.” some people still have really strong feelings about it, and some people are still mad at us. We have been trying to help fix it, NATO has been helping trying to fix it, but sometimes it is just a bad situation, but we are here, trying to work to find solutions.”
Sometimes their day consists of visiting multiple schools and visiting the children. Some days it may be more official visits with the mayors or board directors, and still there are days they may sip coffee with their new friends in a local coffee shop. At the end of the day, after the last coffee has been poured, the last goodbye said, the Soldiers go back and analyze their observations. Reports are drawn up, concerns and recommendations over events are reported back to higher command.
When he thinks about it, Lester said, he has the best job. “I get the opportunity to get out, to take advantage of being in this country, and see Europe. Most importantly, I am making a difference.”
This work, Soldiers help build community relations in Kosovo, by SSG Angela Parady, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.