How U.S. 'Peacekeeping' Became a Reign of Terror

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Even before the U.S. Army released its report into the abuse of civilians by G.I.s in Kosovo, the word was out: A tiny knot of American soldiers had harassed and assaulted Kosovar civilians because the troops had prepared for war and had not been adequately schooled in peacekeeping. "As a result, the [U.S. troops] experienced difficulties tempering their combat mentality for adapting and transitioning to the Kosovo [mission]," Col. John Morgan III concluded in a report released Monday at the Pentagon. "In [this] environment, the unit's overly aggressive tendencies were manifested in practices such as the unit slogan, 'Shoot 'em in the face,' and their standard operating procedure of pointing the M-4 carbine weapon system with the attached maglight in the face of local nationals in order to illuminate their faces."

The report is certain to fuel arguments by Republicans that sending in elite fighting units like the 82nd to perform rent-a-cop missions like those in Kosovo dulls their fighting edge, saps morale and can lead to embarrassments like those detailed in the report. But the soldiers' protestations of ignorance of the regs don't hold up under scrutiny. NATO rules required each to carry a blue pocket card detailing how civilians were to be treated. "Use the minimum force necessary to accomplish your mission," it began. "Treat everyone, including civilians and detained hostile forces/belligerents, humanely." Even combatants aren't allowed to torture and taunt their opponents, or grope their buttocks and breasts.

True, the guilty were only a dozen or so members of the storied 82nd Airborne Division, but the blame for the tawdry details seeps far higher up their chain of command. Their woes didn't come after a year of boring peacekeeping duties in southeastern Kosovo, but rather began shortly after the 3rd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Regiment arrived in the Balkans last September. Once deployed to the town of Vitina, the soldiers morphed, figuratively if not literally, into cops, poised delicately between the minority Serb population and Kosovar Albanians eager for revenge against the horrors wrought upon the Albanians by the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic. The report concluded that the top U.S. officers in the town favored Serbs, who accounted for about a third of the populace, over Albanians, who made up the rest.

"There is a general feeling among KFOR [the arm of NATO patrolling Kosovo] forces that the attitude of the 3/504th is that they are out for a fight," an unidentified Army major told the investigators.

The investigation was ordered by Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, after Staff Sgt. Frank Ronghi was charged with raping and murdering a Kosovar Albanian girl in January. The Army began to learn of the rot in the unit at Merita Shahibu's funeral. "If they can beat us," senior officers were told about the 3/504th, "they can also kill us." Information contained in the report regarding the "negative command climate" in the unit led defense counsel to seek leniency for Ronghi, who was found guilty of rape and murder and sentenced to life in prison in August. The Army said nine soldiers — five enlisted and four officers — were punished, largely with reductions in rank, fines and administrative penalties. None was court-martialed.

Nearly all the trouble occurred in Ronghi's unit. During one demonstration in January, the soldiers "verbally antagonized" the people they were charged with protecting. "Get the f--- out of here!" some of the G.I.'s yelled at the Albanian Kosovars. "Shut the f--- up!" In many cases, those being sworn at didn't understand English, the report said.

"What the f--- are you doing?" a G.I. bellowed at an Albanian man who had slipped into him on an icy Vitina street. The soldier then "head-butted" the man with his Kevlar helmet, bloodying his nose, before Ronghi walloped him "with great force" in the head, leaving him dazed. The man, the Army report said, was later discovered to be deaf-mute. In another case, a U.S. soldier used his machine gun to pin a man against a wall who seemed unwilling to answer questions; he was later found to be deaf.

"Many soldiers let the perceived power go to their heads, and that power was abused" one unidentified soldier told investigators. "Soldiers would spit on locals, push them on the streets, poke the women with sticks, and generally act like barbarians." On one occasion, after a boy had obtained permission to take some soldiers' photograph, one of the troops grabbed his camera and smashed it on the ground, the report said. This happened after they had agreed to let them take their picture," a U.S. Army civilian interpreter told investigators. "This," the report concluded, "was an unprovoked attack on a child."

One day when Vitina's streets were crowded with shoppers, a group of four U.S. soldiers, including Ronghi, "assaulted several females when they touched some of the female's hair, grabbed their buttocks and their body parts and spoke to them in a seductive manner. 'Hey baby, what's your name?'" one soldier later confided to investigators that he groped the women "just to get a cheap thrill."

An Albanian male couldn't understand what was happening. "You're KFOR — you should be protecting us," he shouted at the soldiers. "An older Albanian male came up to me and asked me why were we doing this," a sergeant told investigators. "I couldn't answer him."

A civilian translator said he watched the soldiers stop women between the age of 15 and 25 on the sidewalks, and then handcuff their "husbands or fathers, boyfriends or brothers" who came to the women's aid. Then they would slap the cuffed men and punch them in their groins. "Some of the men were flexi-cuffed [plastic handcuffs] while they were being hit multiple times by various members of the squad, and they were not able to fight back or defend themselves," the interpreter said. "They would also grab people who were watching what was going on, handcuff them, and hit them also."

The troops also were trigger-happy. "It was not uncommon for the 3-504 to use warning shots," an officer from another unit told investigators. "They are very quick shots." Once they fired on a vehicle, blowing out its back window, when it refused their order to halt. Inside were two Red Cross workers "who were fortunately not injured," the report said.

"We were supposed to bump into people to show them we weren't weak," a private told investigators. "Everyone in the squad has done things like put their arms around females when they are walking by us and talk to them in a flirting manner," Private First Class Joshua Robertson told investigators. Plainly, the Army provided inept intelligence to these troops before sending them to Kosovo. "I really thought we were coming over here to do some type of damage," one unidentified soldier said, "but when we got over here, the people were really nice to us."

It was routine, according to a civilian interpreter who accompanied the 3/ 504th on its rounds, that locals, including women and children, would be ordered to lay on the ground for up a half-hour in sub-freezing weather. Guns were trained on them by G.I.s, and any questions would be met with a firm combat boot on the back, applying steady pressure.

"The 3/504 was very heavy-handed with the people in Vitina," said an unidentified lieutenant colonel — also a military policeman — who witnessed the unit in action. "I tend to think that human dignity and respect are values, and not just rules of engagement," he said. "We, as Americans, have an innate feeling for what is right and wrong."

The Army was not pleased. "The incidents detailed in this report of investigation are not in keeping with the Army's core values and should never have occurred," the Army said in a statement accompanying the report. "Even though this behavior appears to have been limited to a small number of soldiers, Army leaders at all levels must remain vigilant to ensure this behavior or the conditions that might foster this type of behavior do not reoccur."

This is not to suggest peacekeeping — where a mistake can kill — is easy. The Army designed its rules of engagement to ensure civilian casualties are kept to a minimum. Soldiers are instructed to call back to headquarters and ask permission to "go red" — prepare to fire their weapons — unless their life is in imminent danger. Locals had been told never to approach soldiers with their hands hidden. Invariably, not everyone gets the message, which led a soldier to throw him to the ground, cuff him and have him taken away to jail. "I later found out," the unidentified private said ruefully, "that the man was asking me for a lighter."

The report criticized the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Michael Ellerbe, for ignoring claims that his men were mistreating the civilians they were supposed to be protecting. "Unit members violated the limits and terms of their military assignments by intimidating, interrogating, abusing and beating Albanians and by traveling outside of their physically assigned sector to conduct some of these activities," the report said. "The facts reveal several incidents of soldier misconduct towards females, including inappropriate touching, grabbing of breasts and buttocks and the perception of Kosovar females of improper searches conducted by soldiers." Ellerbe didn't see it that way. "My goal was to eliminate the [para-military Kosovar Albanians] and to maintain a safe and secure environment, which is what my unit was attempting to do," he told investigators.

But they crossed the line. U.S. troops took an Albanian man suspected of wrongdoing to a field outside of town, where they measured his height. The G.I.'s "proceeded to dig a grave in front of the Albanian," and then declared "that if he did not tell him what he wanted to know that they were going to shoot him, and bury him, and that no one would ever know," an unidentified soldier said.

In a second case, 1st Lt. John S. Serafini, an A Company platoon leader, and Sgt. Adam B. Gitlin, mistreated an ethnic Albanian suspected of a grenade attack on a Serbian bar. The suspect claimed Gitlin beat him during a hostile interrogation. "1st Lt. Serafini attempted to stick his sheath knife with a six- inch long blade into the wall," the report said. "... When 1st Lt. Serafini was unsuccessful in sticking the knife in the wall, he repeatedly stuck the knife into a table." In a second incident, Serafini unloaded his revolver, walked back into a room and held it to the back of the head of a suspect. "Do you want to die?" he asked. Serafini told investigators he emptied his weapon before he "walked up to the individual and put my weapon to the base of his skull and asked him, `Tell me what you know.' As soon as I said that I realized that I had made a mistake."

Many of the confessions transcribed in the report have that "suddenly-I- realized-I-was-wrong" tone. But sometimes, actions speak louder than words. In some cases, the U.S. troops — contrary to their chocolate-tossing image — were little more than the infamous "Blue Meanies" that terrorized Pepperland in the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" movie. Soldiers would knock down the carefully constructed stacks of cigarette packs that vendors had built.

And Serafini himself had this thing about snowballs, common in the Balkans in the winter. "If he saw anyone with snowballs, he would take them from them and step on the snowballs," said an unidentified civilian interpreter. "He said he did this because he hated snowballs."