The NYT this morning gave a description of how municipal workers in an Afghan town hid in their homes after a recent Taliban takeover of their city. A man told of how, when faced with threatening signs calling everyone back to work to keep city services working, he found the work stations were intact. The only noticeable difference was that the president’s portrait had been removed from the wall.
I could not help recalling my time in Kosovo 1999-2000 after that NATO invasion. Following assignments as United Nations international-staff interpreter in Rwanda and Angola, I had settled into my apartment in Paris when Luis da Costa, chief of UN peacekeeping human resources, called to ask me to accept a job in Kosovo.
For my first three months there, I worked as interpreter for Dominique Vian, who’d been called from his position as prefect of French Guyana to be head of the civil administration “pillar” of the new UN mission, UNMIK. I interpreted in whispering and consecutive modes for him in high-level meetings until he was replaced by a German, likely due to French top-heaviness with the arrival of the new head-of-mission, Bernard Kouchner.
Chaos reined in translation and interpretation. Any Kosovar with notions of English was being recruited as interpreter/translator (what’s the difference?) haphazardly by the UNMIK, the media, NATO (KFOR), the offices of coalition countries that had fought and replaced the Serbs, and others. Poor translations of press releases, statements by local officials and other important references were hastily produced and distributed by myriad offices. No one knew which version to work from. Having run the language services of my former UN missions, I sounded an alert, writing a memo to mission leaders describing the need to professionalize and coordinate such services within UNMIK.
With Mr. Vian’s departure, I had a contract but no position. As my UN classification was P4 (managerial/professional) and staff was short, Enrique, director of Pristina Region civil administration, asked me to accept a position as civil administrator for two Kosovo municipalities, Glogovac and Podujevo.
I signed up for a UN vehicle, found an interpreter, Besa, and with Judy, a Kenyan UN volunteer assigned to me, drove to each of these places to introduce myself first to the local KFOR commanders, Brian, a Canadian, in Glogovac, and Major Parry, a Brit, in Podujevo. This is where the Afghan situation looks so familiar.
Major Parry, after introducing me to the contingent colonel, took me to meet Mr. Gashi, who had been installed as "mayor" by the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, which, with NATO as an ally, had fought the Serbs and now considered themselves the legitimate government of Kosovo.
The glitch was that the UN Security Council had created UNMIK precisely to set up that government, and I was the new UN administration’s first representative to arrive in town. I was, moreover, the municipal administrator, the new mayor, as far as the UN was concerned.
Mr. Gashi and I, nevertheless, over the ubiquitous cups of jasmine tea, got along very well, largely thanks to the excellent work of the British military. Once illegal logging threatened the forests, so Major Parry got his guys to stop them, and together we worked out a licensing system. When the KLA authorities started issuing Kosovo license plates, there was a mini power struggle; the UN was supposed to do these things. It was dealt with at central level by Kouchner for the UN and Thaci for the KLA, under the watchful eyes of the NATO countries.
We municipal administrators for Pristina Region met regularly and compared notes. The KLA initiatives could be observed on the ground everywhere, and we endeavored to coordinate our response. The matter of the legitimate authority to issue marriage certificates arose first in one of my municipalities, Podujevo. Sandra, the Kenyan regional legal officer, drew up the vows. Check out the photo. Mr. Gashi (white shirt) and I (in suit and tie holding document) presided at the wedding, a huge event as the first marriage in Kosovo since the war. Besa (behind Gashi) interpreted the vows. Major Parry (in camouflage uniform next to the young couple) and the British contingent colonel (back to camera bottom left in camouflage) represented KFOR.
Besa was, and is, a musician. Like so many other interpreters, she had just filled a need by accepting requests to interpret, mainly for the press during the war. We worked together for several months. It was fascinating, as an interpreter myself, to be on the other side of interpretation. In dozens upon dozens of meetings, I relied entirely on her to communicate with Gashi and all other local officials. Together, often with Judy and Major Parry, we visited and comforted the victims of horrendous crimes, tried to settle squatting incidents, and attempt to address complaints of every sort. She was of precious assistance and I thank her so much for that! Just think: If it had been Afghanistan today instead of Kosovo 2000, she would be one of those facing today’s horrors.
Jock Covey, Kouchner’s main deputy, found my memo about coordinating language services and asked me to leave civil administration to set up an UNMIK HQ language office. Posting job announcements, having no functioning phone, combing through resumés, testing and retesting, cross-checking evaluations given by one linguist with the opinions of others to avoid friends just getting friends hired, all that with power outages in the frozen winter (after years in nice and warm Africa!), initially with no office, no furniture, computers or printers, it was trying but extraordinarily enriching. One of my colleague interpreters, Mr. Kabashi, asked me to teach at Pristina’s main university, where the students were tremendously unmotivated in the freezing classroom. I think Kabashi probably made them come.
I was a pampered international civil servant, of course, compared to those who had endured the war and were then surviving best they could through the peace. Before leaving Kosovo in April 2000, I conducted training of UNMIK police interpreters in all Kosovo regions. They shared their stories of how, when the UN police questioned someone, they as interpreters were accused by their fellow Kosovars of being traitors. They would ask me what to do when the person spoke directly to them, as countrymen, not as interpreters. I would remind them they wear two hats, that of someone receiving a United Nations salary, but more importantly also that of a local citizen who needs to look out for their own safety and that of their families.
I am writing as David, not as an officer of AIIC USA. I will nevertheless mention that AIIC USA did join a petition to U.S. Secretary of State Blinken in defense of interpreters in Afghanistan. Now, I shutter to think of those caught up in the hell of war unfolding before our eyes.