Tanja Jankovic recalls her experiences as a Serb translator working at the largest US military base in the Balkans.
By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 15/08/11
A promotional poster for Tanja Jankovic's memoir, "The Girl from Bondsteel" [Ivana Jovanovic/SETimes]
Tanja Jankovic, 32, graduated from the Belgrade Faculty of Political Sciences. As a student she worked at the Bujanovac International Press Centre, and then as a translator at the international missions in Kosovo, including the Kosovo US military base Bondsteel.
She left Kosovo in 2004. While working as a full-time journalist, Jankovic wrote her first book, The Girl from Bondsteel, an account of the time she spent at the Kosovo Bondsteel military camp.
SETimes: About three years ago, for the first time, you started to speak publicly about the military camp Bondsteel and your life in the camp, when you worked as a journalist for the daily press. Is there a particular reason that led you to write about Bondsteel?
Tanja Jankovic: I wanted to demystify Bondsteel because I could not stand hearing so many conspiracy theories from people who do not know where Bondsteel and Kosovo are, even on the map! I would become upset when hearing silly talk that there is a prison for terrorists, a lab that produces weapons of mass destruction, the CIA's training centre for spies, or that Bondsteel has brothels with girls for soldiers' entertainment. Such nonsense!
To my colleagues from the press I proposed writing a reportage about Bondsteel as a daily addition. I suggested it would be a hit since the press would offer something that other newspapers do not. It was then that I started planning to write a book about Bondsteel. Shortly after that I gave up working on the reportage for the magazine, as I decided to keep the material for the book.
SETimes: Would you describe Bondsteel for our SETimes?
Jankovic: Bondsteel is the biggest US military base in the Balkans. It is located 5 km away from Urosevac, on the road to Pristina. The base looks like a small town. At any given time there were about 10,000 people on the base, about seven to eight thousand soldiers and two thousand civilians who worked for the military. When the US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan started, their numbers decreased in Kosovo, hence the reduction in civilian personnel and translators.
SETimes: When you arrived to the base in 2001 to work as a translator you were young. Did somebody recommend you for the job? What were the skills that recommended you for the job?
Jankovic: I had worked for a Kosovo civilian OSCE mission, replacing a friend who left for maternity leave. There I encountered recruiters looking for civilians to work for the US military. They offered me a job. I thought long whether to take the job or not, but the curiosity to see and learn about the base, the job of the translators and soldiers, the kind of a life they lead behind the camp walls, was stronger than my prejudices.
In two weeks I was done with the tests -- the English test, interviews with the military safety personnel and medical tests. Coincidently, at the time, the waiting list for the job was so long that many had been waiting a year just for an interview. It was one of the best paid jobs in the region and required no schooling, just English language proficiency.
Jankovic poses with Bondsteel colleagues. [Tanja Jankovic]
SETimes: Was your Serbian nationality an obstacle or advantage? Were there any other Serbs around?
Jankovic: Early on, there was not a single Serb who worked for the military. Macedonians were hired as translators for the Serbian language, and even the logistics center was in Skopje. When I arrived in 2001, I was the only Serb.
SETimes: What were the conditions on the military base where the women lived?
Jankovic: They were great. We had it all. A five star boot camp! Four women shared a room. The rooms were large, each with its own corner, a bed and closet, we had a large living room, table and chairs, TV, DVD, air-conditioner, refrigerator, coffee maker, even a toaster. Each barracks had four rooms. We shared a huge bathroom with women from our barracks. Bathroom had a shower and was fully equipped: huge mirrors, dressing area, hair dryers, make-up room – really, it was really great.
SETimes: Do you remember your roommates? Do you keep in touch with any of them?
Jankovic: Of course! One of them is Armida, with whom I mostly hung out. She is an Albanian from Tirana and after Bondsteel she left for New York. I visited her this winter in New York. Most other women from Bondsteel are also in America; when they heard I was visiting they quickly came to see me. We had great time together again. Those that I lost contact with, I got back in touch with through Facebook.
SETimes: Are such friendships evidence that harmony and co-existence are possible in Kosovo? What are your impressions?
Jankovic: Unfortunately, I think it's just a single case. For years, people in Kosovo have not lived together; Serbs and Albanians do not live with each other, but next to each other. If the Kosovo economy can somehow be strengthened and better address common interests, they might forget their differences and somehow make it work amongst themselves.
Personally, I got along and hung out with everyone, even better with the Albanians, but now, when I think about it carefully, they were mostly Albanians from Albania and Macedonia. Albanians from Kosovo were difficult to get along with, or did not accept me at all. It is understandable, both Serbs and Albanians incurred human losses as a result of the 1998 armed conflict.
SETimes: What kind of a relationship did you have with the soldiers on the base?
Jankovic: I was not fascinated with that huge military base as much as were the male translators when they arrived at Bondsteel. Uniforms, weapons, cars, jeeps, Hummers, helicopters -- I really did not get overly excited about these things.
I was thrilled when I discovered that the soldiers could make online purchases, and that I could also do so with their help. With their credit cards, and as a privileged category of US citizens, exempt from taxes, they paid no shipping and handling costs from the United States. They had all sorts of discounts. I used to bore them a lot with my requests to order something for me: Victoria's Secret items, Mac makeup, and apparel from Guess. There were those who grumbled, but in the end, all helped me to shop.
Jankovic (front left) promotes her book. [Tanja Jankovic]
SETimes: Did they have to defend you sometimes?
Jankovic: Unfortunately, yes! They defended me from my own nationals! It was also one of my most difficult moments in Kosovo. The Serbs in Strpce [a Kosovo Serb enclave] protested against the UNMIK decision to terminate their escort. The situation was out of control and Serbs burned the police station in Strpce, attacked the soldiers, stones were flying in all directions. I tried to protect myself so I told them not to throw stones at me because I was "theirs".
They became more evil after hearing my words, shouting that I had sold myself to the United States and should be ashamed that I work for the occupiers. They were so enraged against me that the soldiers had to lock me in one of the armored vehicles until it was all done. It was horrible.
SETimes: What kind of a relationship did you have with Kosovo Albanians?
Jankovic: On one occasion, my friend Armida took me to the Albanian internet cafe in Urosevac, and there were only Albanians who, at first, cheerfully greeted me thinking that I am an American. When Armida told them I am a Serb, they asked her not to bring me along anymore.
SETimes: When local media talk about your book, they focus on the main protagonist's love for an Albanian. Did the couple stay together?
Jankovic: Unfortunately, that love did not have a happy ending. But this was not an exception either, as Serb-Albanian marriages were almost nonexistent.
SETimes: Your book has attracted a great deal of interest. Those attending the promotional event included Serbian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, Secretary for the Ministry for Kosovo and Metohija Oliver Ivanovic, and the former commander of the Serbian gendarmerie, Goran Radosavljevic Guri. Was it the book's theme, or simply a personal interest in you as the author, that brought so many people to the event?
Jankovic: Probably both! That's why I wrote the book. I wanted to stir the interest of readers mainly from Serbia, the region, Europe, and further; to start engaging interpersonal relations in a deeper way, because Kosovo is not just statistics. We are talking about human rights -- Serbs, Albanians and foreigners -- but no one is dealing with people who live there.