Stories to tell – A visit to Serbia

I have a story to tell of my visits to several U.S. European Command humanitarian assistance projects in the Republic of Serbia.

Rebuilding in Serbia

The projects I visited involved the renovation and rehabilitation of Serbian elementary schools in the municipalities of Lapovo, Trubarevac, Pirot, Blendija, and Prokuplje. These municipalities are all in Southern Serbia near Nis, the third largest city in Serbia, and the largest city in Southern Serbia. Planned and coordinated by the staff of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, the Republic of Serbia’s State Partnership Partner, Ohio, provided construction staff from the Air National Guard’s 200th Red Horse (Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers) Squadron from Port Clinton, Ohio, and the Army National Guard’s 1194th Engineering Company from Chillicothe, Ohio, to help execute three of the projects. A detachment of U.S Navy Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion THREE, Port Hueneme, CA, provided construction staff for the school rehabilitation in Blendija.

Nis, an ancient and storied city, is the largest in Southern Serbia and for centuries has been considered one of Europe’s gates to the East and a cultural crossroad between East and West. Nis, situated on the Nisava River, was originally a Celtic settlement that was later colonized by Greek settlers. It was used as a base of operations by the Roman Army during its Balkans campaigns and is not far from where the Romans turned back a Gothic invasion of the Balkans at the Battle of Naissus in 268 AD. In 272 AD, the future Constantine the Great was born in Nis, and in 443 AD, Attila the Hun sacked Nis and massacred all its inhabitants. Skipping several centuries of intriguing history to the modern, the municipal government of Nis was the first to stand against the government of Slobodan Milosevic when Zoran Zivkovic, the head of a coalition of opposition parties was democratically elected as mayor of Nis in 1996. And in May 1999, NATO aircraft attacked Nis airfield with cluster bomb munitions with one of the bombs failing to operate properly and landing in several populated sections of the city killing several civilians.

U.S.-Serbian relations in the 1990s, and earlier this decade, have been difficult but are an important backdrop for understanding the significance of current U.S.-Serbian military cooperation, including humanitarian assistance. The results of humanitarian assistance projects are important, i.e., renovated or refurbished schools; improved health facilities; school supplies for children; and enhanced local emergency response capabilities. However, what may be as important, if not more, is that we are cooperating with the military and government of Serbia at many levels; a clear and positive achievement supporting the continuing improvement of relations between the U.S. and Serbia.

There were four projects in progress when I visited. Yet, these projects had been the subject of over 40 positive local, regional and national written news articles. In Blendija and Prokuplje, on the day I attended a U.S. Embassy organized press event, there were many Serbian newspaper, radio, and TV reporters and camera teams on hand for the event. I found it curious that the uncompleted projects were of this much interest?

It occurred to me on the long drive home that the reporters were there to tell stories of the positive relationships forming between American and Serbian people. The cameras were taking pictures and videos of Americans and Serbians sharing experiences, breaking bread together in the traditional Serbian manner, playing basketball and soccer together, shaking hands, laughing and working together, trying to communicate in each other’s language, swapping unit patches, showing pictures of each other’s families and loved ones. These were the activities shared by people wanting to build positive relationships with one another.

I now have a new set of experiences and images of Serbia and Serbian friendship that are transforming my understanding of Serbia and its people, and which gives me hope for the continued improvement of the U.S.-Serbian relationship.

MAJ G. Lee Sepulvado, U.S. Army Reserve
Assistant Operations Officer, Civil Military Operations
U.S. European Command

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Comments: 2

by Danica Radisic on September 12, 2009 :

I'm glad to see the press is covering the "human factor" in this story. Too long have both Serbs and Americans had too many preconceived notions about each other. As nations, we have each had our successes and failures but it is by building and creating together that we can begin to turn our respective flaws into virtues. Hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in Serbia. Btw, love that you're really getting to know the history and the people! Keep up the great work!

by MAJ G. Lee Sepulvado on September 15, 2009 :

Ms. Radisic, Thank you for your comment. You picked up on the core point that I was attempting to convey in my blog; that a person's perspective of another can be positively changed. In 2005, I first visited Serbia and had the opportunity to meet with officials formally and informally, and while always greeted cordially, there existed a perceptible tension in all our interactions, some topics not discussed at all, others ignored with awkward silences. Admittedly, I was a contributor to the tension. As I mentioned in the blog, my recent experiences in Serbia has started to transform my perceptions of Serbia and its people; and no one is more surprised and pleased with the change than me. Good luck to the White Eagles in their FIFA match next month against Romania!

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