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The Kosovo rescue instructors, all war veterans, include, from left, Samir Ismailj, Sabri Sada and Valdrim Kelmendi.
Photo credit: Photos by Ruel Douvillier
One of the Kosovo instructors-in-training demonstrates the use of a prussik as a safety/lock-off device during a rappel.
Photo credit: Photos by Ruel Douvillier
In May 2013, I was approached by an
old friend who wanted
to know if I would be interested in joining a three person team that would be assisting the military of the new nation of Kosovo in building an urban search and rescue (USAR) team. I jumped at the chance.
My 20-year military career gave me the opportunity for wide travel. I have been to Southeast Asia, the Far East, the South Pacific and Europe. I have enjoyed all of those journeys, but I have never experienced a place like this. I am completely taken with Kosovo and its people, and I cannot put my finger on the reason. Perhaps it is the heterogeneous nature of the place.
The Albanians of Kosovo are descendants of the Illyrians, a very ancient culture. Alexander the Great’s capital city was just outside the present borders. After Alexander came the Romans, Byzantines and Ottoman Turks. The people who live here have absorbed the best of all of these cultures and their outlook is truly cosmopolitan. You feel as if you are in Germany, Italy and the Middle East, all at once.
Presently, Kosovo has two nationally operated forces, the Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO-led peacekeeping unit, and the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF), a unit designed to respond to emergency events. The KSF was established in 2008 and since then its members have been trained by search and rescue (SAR) teams from all over Europe and have responded to flood, earthquake and avalanche incidents. The KSF is building a USAR team and we were asked to provide assistance.
The mechanism that brought us to Kosovo is the Security Assistance Program, a program administered by the U.S. State Department and executed by the military through the Office of Defense Cooperation and the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command (USASAC). The USASAC mission is to provide international stability and build international relationships through training and equipment-funding programs. Our mission was executed through a private contractor, Govsource Inc. There are several dozen active USASAC missions and we are one of the few civilian-run missions and the only SAR mission at this time.
Should you ever be a part of a mission like this, here are a few tips for getting started. First, make contact early with the members of the team being trained. It is impossible for anyone but the members of the unit being trained to tell you what they want. A reconnaissance by lead elements of your team should be done several weeks prior to your arrival. You can make general plans based on that, but until the entire team has met with the leader of the unit you will be training, looked him or her in the eye and established in person what they will want accomplished before you leave, make no specific plans.
Next, lose any preconceived notions. Prior to arrival in Kosovo, I put it into my head, based on no factual data that I could think of, that we would be creating a USAR team from scratch, with no equipment, no prior training and no experience. I would have saved myself a lot of mental heartache had I kept an open mind until I made contact with the unit leader. The team is fairly well equipped and has a small core of well-trained and experienced personnel. The 20 or so well-trained members, as it turns out, are discipline specific (some are rope trained, some trench, etc.) and the first objective was to get them all trained to the same level. The next objective was train the 120 inexperienced members of the team in USAR disciplines and finally to put it all together in a series of scenario-based exercises. This was a far easier series of tasks than what I imagined in the months leading up to the mission. It may be difficult to avoid trying to plan the mission before you go, but it will pay great dividends in the end.
Beware of pitfalls
Also understand that you are not the be-all and end-all of SAR, and don’t try to be. The instructor who tries to approach host-country team members with his or her nose in the air is most certainly doomed to failure. The six team members who are well versed in rope rescue have been trained in the mountain-rescue style, which is natural in an avalanche-prone country, and they have done a remarkable job of adapting this style to the urban environment. It’s not the way I was trained nor is it the way I operate, but it is safe and it works. I built a strong bridge with our rope-trained personnel when I told them that I come from flat, hot, wet Louisiana, where there are no avalanches and that I expected to take home as much as I leave here in the way of knowledge.
Incorporate the team members into the operation. Our rope-trained personnel were delighted to learn that they would be doing most of the instruction. Once we had established that there was indeed a core of trained and experienced rope rescuers, we met with them and planned our training sessions. We demonstrated our various basic rope techniques to one another. We decided that the KSF members would teach their culturally ingrained techniques as the primary ones, as these would be the techniques that would be the most likely to be safely and efficiently executed on the cold, dark, rainy night when they have just been awakened to conduct an “intervention.” We would then practice the techniques I have brought from the United States as another tool in the tool kit that may come in handy some day.
Adjusting to a new culture
Immerse yourself into the culture. The pace in Kosovo is much slower than I am used to, but that pace has worked for more than 1,000 years and I did not expect the Kosovars to change it for me. We worked out a training program that fits “Kosovar time” and we believe that the KSF will be happy with what they are learning and we are satisfying our professional responsibilities.
I have tried to learn some of the basics of the Kosovar language. It took me three days to learn how to say “Good morning,” but once I did, no matter who I said it to, our waiter, the colonel in charge of the KSF Base or the team members with whom we are trying to bond, their eyes lit up, making it well worth the effort. On the other hand, when the KSF mess hall was serving grilled chicken lungs for lunch, I felt that cultural immersion had gone far enough and opted for the soup of the day. n
Next: The mission progresses and our experiences grow