Teaching hate is an ugly thing, but it’s a memory Jack Eden Jr. of Hamilton brings home from a 10-month stay in an otherwise beautiful country.
Eden, 29, just spent 10 months in Kosovo as a photojournalist with the 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment of the Washington State National Guard. He was one of a four-member staff who wrote the weekly news magazine called the Falcon Flier for Operation Falcon, the American peacekeeping force in the tiny, divided nation.
“The children are taught hate in the schools,” Eden says. “We escorted Serbians through Albanian cities to the border so they could shop safely. The teachers would lead the Albanian children out of the schools to shout and throw rocks and make obscene gestures.”
One-on-one and in family groups, the Serbian and Albanian citizens were enjoyable and friendly, extending themselves to talk to Eden and the other soldiers. The only thing they would not—could not—get past was the hatred each ethnic group had for the other.
One of the first stories Eden covered was that of Baby April, a newborn infant found wrapped in a plastic bag and thrown in a ditch in early spring. The baby survived and was adopted by an Albanian couple. She was probably the result of an ethnic rape, and the mother—whether Serb or Albanian—could not face the ostracism she would have received from her community.
“It happens more often than we’d like to know, and often the babies don’t survive,” Eden says. “Baby April was found at Eastertime and it’s pretty much a miracle she made it. I visited her several times before she went to her new family. It was one of the saddest but also one of the neatest things I saw while I was there.”
Photojournalists in Kosovo traveled as part of combat-ready units and had to be in full battle gear and ready to either fight or write, particularly when they were escorting high-ranking military brass or reporters from newspapers around the world. Every trip was treated like an expedition into possibly hostile territory.
On one such trip—to haul explosives that were to be used to reopen a rock quarry—Eden stopped on the border and stood with a foot in each country, Serbia and Kosovo, for a photograph. “As I stood at our destination it occurred to me, we were standing at what used to be the border between two Soviet Eastern Bloc countries. It was chilling to think this was something an American soldier would never have dreamed of doing 10 years ago.”
Eden and his fellow journalists wrote morale-building stories about the men and women serving in Kosovo for the Falcon Flier, everything from stories about an archbishop who came in with a military escort to lead Catholic Mass on Christmas Day to surgeons and nurses who spent most of their time repairing injuries to children from the conflict and its left-over trappings of violence.
“It wasn’t a war. It wasn’t a military conflict. What was it?” Eden asks. “The soldiers just call it ‘the atrocity’ and I guess that’s the most accurate name we can give it. Everyone has a story you can’t believe would be true, and then you find out it is and there’s another one that’s worse.”
Occasional sniper fire was common. Bombings and arson occurred both in large cities and small towns. Fortunately, the closest Eden came to being under attack was volleys of rocks thrown at him by angry young men in the town of Jazince. “The MPs tried to arrest a man with a weapon and basically the entire community resisted,” he remembers. “The sound of rocks on a Humvee sounds like an old fashioned Midwest hail storm.”
In the town of Silovo, Eden was sent to cover the inspection of the country’s largest meatpacking plant by an American veterinarian. At the height of the violence, electric power was cut off and thousands of carcasses—40 tons of meat—rotted in the building. “I never smelled anything like it in my life,” Eden says. “And we were there after the mess had been cleaned up and the rotten meat all burned. The smell of ammonia was so strong we were all crying. Thirty of us went in to conduct the inspection and only four of us lasted through the entire building. I don’t know how they’ll ever use it again.”
Despite the difficulties, Eden says the servicemen and -women he interviewed are generally proud to be a part of the peacekeeping force there.
“They were very aware they were doing humanitarian work, but they also held the common opinion it would not do any good,” Eden says. “The hatred is veiled around servicemen, but it exists everywhere. It will take decades—generations—to change the attitudes. It has to begin with the children, and right now they are still being taught to hate.”
Eden expresses few regrets but realizes that he may be activated to return to a similar situation in the near future. There aren’t many servicemen with his qualifications as a photojournalist. The few are in high demand. “I’m glad I went,” he says. “I just wish I felt my going accomplished something. I’m not sure it did.”