UAE military officer tells of the chaos of war in Kosovo

Lt Col Dr Aysha Sultan Al Dhaheri was part of the UAE mission White Hands that established a refugee camp in Caucus, Albania, during the conflict in 1999.

ABU DHABI // A military officer has described the emotional moment when she was a reunited with a 12-year-old girl she had delivered as a baby amid the chaos of war in Kosovo.

Lt Col Dr Aysha Sultan Al Dhaheri was part of the UAE mission White Hands that established a refugee camp in Caucus, Albania, during the conflict in 1999.

“Life was shattered there and everybody was scared,” said the doctor. “Most of the people in camps were children and women. The winter weather also hampered us in carrying out humanitarian aid, but the team fought with the harsh weather and transported people to secure camps about 20 kilometres from the Kosovo border.”

Although the situation was dire, she said, there were some moments of happiness.

“During such a horrific time, there was also excitement at delivery of children in the camp, and there was a kind of competition among pregnant women there to see who was going to deliver first.”

When the camp welcomed its first baby, a girl, in 1999, “everybody rushed to the place to see her”, and Col Al Dhaheri delivered the baby and named her Fatema.

“I met the girl after 12 years when I revisited Kosovo. I was afraid they would not recognise me, but they did and I was warmly welcomed.

“I hugged that girl, who seemed taller than me now, and was overwhelmed. It filled me with great joy to see the family again,” she said, and it was great to see them happy and “moving ahead” with life.

Col Al Dhaheri was speaking at an event for readers of The National which featured a screening on Monday night of Inside: Mission Kosovo, a documentary co-produced by National Geographic Abu Dhabi and the UAE Armed Forces. The film tells the story of the Armed Forces’ humanitarian efforts in the region, and its peacekeeping mission in Kosovo when the conflict finally ended. The screening was followed by a conversation with personnel who participated in the missions.

Lt Col Staff Sultan Mohammed Al Katebi said working in a war-ravaged country was “not an easy task, seeing everything dismantled and ruined”.

“I thought, ‘Who is going to build it again?’ The entire city was ravaged and collapsed.”

On his return visit, Col Al Katebi was overjoyed to see the changes that had taken place.

“I found life was going on as usual and people were happy, leading a good life. It filled me with great joy to see them developing. I would say Kosovar people are very brave and they fought back to lead a good life again and remained optimistic.”

He said part of the healing process required him and his Armed Forces colleagues to teach Kosovars that the best way to deal with the atrocities was to remove any need for vengeance and focus on peaceful ways to rebuild the nation.

“I found two things very important – to care for children and their education, which gives parents a hope to rise again.

“When we arrived in Serbia people stared at us, but we promised peace for all. We worked there without differentiating in caste, colour and creed. We promised them protection.

“When I returned I saw big changes there in facilities, services and security. Now, Kosovo is like any other cities of Europe. If you are determined, nothing can stop you finding peace and prosperity.”

The Albanian ambassador to the UAE, Behar Bejko, one of the guests at the screening at the Armed Forces Officers Club, said: “I am very thankful to the leadership of the Emirates for all their humanitarian support for the Albanian and Kosovars in their hard times and sending continuous relief to us.

“The UAE set up camps there for over 20,000 people from Kosovo. The kind of camps they set up there almost had the facilities of a five-star hotel.”

In 2003, the UAE also invested US$50 million to build an airport in Kukes, Zayed bin Sultan International Airport.

And the aid has not stopped, said Mr Bejko. The UAE built schools and hospitals and invested in infrastructure.

After the screening Aldo Toci, an Albanian expatriate who works with the Ministry of Interior, was thankful for the assistance. “I don’t have words to thank the UAE for what they have done for our nationals in 1999. Just, I would say, big thanks to the UAE for helping us and providing all kind of medical supplies, food, clothing and whatever we needed at that time,” he said.