Czech soldiers bid Kosovo farewell after 12 years

Photo: CTK

The Czech Army is coming home from Kosovo, having ended its mission there this week after twelve years. In that time, more than 8,000 Czech soldiers have come and gone through the on-site KFOR peacekeeping force. Christian Falvey reports on the Czechs’ largest mission in the Balkans as it winds down.

Šajkovac military base, photo: CTK
Šajkovac military base, or "Camp Šajk" as its inhabitants call it, is the only entirely Czech base in the fledgling Balkan state of Kosovo. In recent years it was home to some 500 soldiers; today, the nearly 200 soldiers stationed there have the sole task of cleaning house. The site, near the north-eastern border with Serbia, must be returned to its original state in order to be handed over to its owners. Military equipment is being returned to the Czech Republic and the structures will be dismantled by the end of October. All that will remain of the dozen years the Czechs spent here will be a water plant that supplies the nearby town with drinking water.

Jiří Šedivý
Former Army chief of staff General Jiří Šedivý was the commander of the Czech IFOR contingents in Bosnia in the 1990s, and is well acquainted with the situation in the Balkans:

"I think that the Czech army has helped pacify the situation in the Balkans in recent years. Thanks to that, problems can now be solved locally – if not democratically, then at least by normal human means. Czech soldiers have done a lot for the safety of national minorities. This is especially true for the Serb minority in northern Kosovo."

General Šedivý noted that the Slavic bond – namely the Czech language and mentality – played no small role in their work in a Balkan context.

Photo: CTK
"Our soldiers were able to communicate with their counterparts without an interpreter. This was an advantage. On the other hand, both of the two peoples who we were working among initially hoped that we would be more generous to their particular side. Our soldiers kept very strictly to the standards, however, and thus gained respect very quickly. "

General Šedivý’s successor, Army Chief of Staff Vlastimil Picek, also took account of the last twelve years, speaking after a solemn ceremony marking the end of the mission at Šajkovac:

Vlastimil Picek (right), photo: CTK
"It was a tremendous experience here for our soldiers. Now, it’s up to not only the locals but also to the EULEX mission to make sure that the self-governing institutions in Kosovo do their work appropriately. I had the opportunity to speak with the commander of the KFOR peacekeeping force, General Erhard Buhler. He has praised the Czech soldiers very much. I think that the Czech Republic has left a good impression here. While we finish the work of the Czech KFOR contingent in Šajkovac, 15 Czech officers will remain active in KFOR headquarters in Pristina. "

The Czech army has taken part in all international missions in the Balkans ever since 1992. Over the past 19 years, 13 Czech soldiers lost their lives in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Still, many of the troops say that they leave with a feeling of accomplishment and pride in what they have built.