KACANIK Kosovo (Reuters) - Born in Germany, Blerim Heta moved to his parents’ native Kosovo as a 10-year-old boy in the wake of a NATO air war in 1999 to save the territory’s ethnic Albanians from Serbian repression.
They settled in Urosevac, where U.S. soldiers – greeted as heroes for leading the intervention – were building a military base, a guarantor of protection for the aspiring statelet and a source of jobs for Albanians trying to rebuild their lives.
After finishing school, Heta spent 18 months at Camp Bondsteel, tending to the sports fields where American soldiers would let off steam.
“He never had a bad word for the Americans,” said his mother, Minire.
“And who would have a bad word for them? They saved our lives,” she said, trying to make sense of how her son killed himself in Iraq, detonating a bomb in March on behalf of Islamist insurgents sworn to fight the West. Dozens of Iraqis were killed.
Heta’s act shocked ordinary Kosovars, who are mainly Muslim but overwhelmingly secular and fiercely pro-American. Yet he was not alone.
Six years after independence, Kosovo is scrambling to stem the flow of Muslims to Syria and Iraq, where around 200 Kosovars are believed to have joined thousands of foreign fighters in swelling the ranks of Islamic State. Some 20 are reported to have been killed in the past year.
Families at home are struggling to reconcile the deep sense of indebtedness most of Kosovo’s 1.8 million people feel towards the United States for supporting their fight to break free from Serbia, with an undercurrent of anti-Western, Islamist fundamentalism that is tapping frustrations over poverty and corruption.
In the past two months, police in Kosovo have launched two major operations targeting fighters and those accused of inspiring or recruiting them. Forty-three were arrested in August, followed by 14 imams in September on charges including “terrorism” and incitement.
Muslims in parts of mainly Orthodox Christian Serbia, and in Bosnia, have also joined Islamic State. Several thousand more have made the journey from Western Europe, including the masked Briton believed to have beheaded two American freelance journalists and a Briton in Syria over the past two months.
The flow has stirred fears of young Muslim men, drawn to war by a sense of purpose and belonging, returning radicalized, possibly determined to attack targets in their home countries.
But the phenomenon is particularly sensitive in Kosovo, where memories of the U.S. role in ending a wave of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces in the late 1990s are still fresh.
Washington and other Western powers poured billions of dollars into rebuilding Kosovo and fostering democracy, and were among the first to recognize its 2008 declaration of independence over the fierce objections of Serbia and Russia.
The Stars and Stripes flies from hotels and petrol stations and is a regular feature on public holidays; the capital, Pristina, hosts a statue of Bill Clinton, who was president during the war, at an intersection on Bill Clinton Boulevard.
“We owe our lives to them,” said 53-year-old Elmi Buqa, a resident of Sojeva village close to Bondsteel. “They liberated us, helped us. There is nothing nobler than someone saving your life.”
Queuing in the morning fog at the entrance to Bondsteel, a Kosovar contractor said: “When I see a U.S. soldier, knowing what they did for me and my family, I feel ashamed at what my compatriots are doing in Iraq and Syria.”
The man, who declined to give his name, said he had worked at the base for 14 years, and that his son was employed with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Thousands of Kosovars have moved on from Bondsteel to work with U.S. contractors on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, earning the kind of money they can only dream of in Kosovo and fuelling a building boom in villages and towns around Urosevac, known to Albanians as Ferizaj.
They included Lavdrim Muhaxheri from the town of Kacanik, 20 km (12 miles) from the Heta family home. Having spent two years working on a U.S. base in Iraq, Muhaxheri became notorious in Kosovo in July, when a video posted on the Internet showed him beheading a young man in Iraq accused by Islamic State of spying for the Iraqi government.
Selling vegetables on a sidewalk in Kacanik, his uncle, Shaban, was at a loss to explain how the man, now designated a foreign ‘terrorist’ fighter by the U.S. State Department, had come to join Islamic State.
Naim Rashiti, of the Balkans Policy Research Group, said many were motivated by money, or had become radicalized by their experiences as contractors in American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The image of occupation has made those young people seek revenge,” he said, and cited the war in Syria to oust President Bashar al-Assad as the turning point. “Many went there to support the war and earn some money, but they were absorbed by events,” he said.
Sociologist Bardhyl Plakolli cited Kosovo’s official unemployment rate of 45 percent, domestic violence and poor education. The average wage is 370 euros ($468) per month. “They now see religion as the ultimate umbrella,” he said.
The government in Kosovo has its own suspicions. Authorities have recently suspended or shut down 14 Islamic non-governmental organizations and are looking into whether any of them have links with radical Islamists, Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi told Reuters. “They are brainwashed,” he said.
The NGOs include AKEA, which has received funding from the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA), a Turkish state aid organization.
AKEA was cited by opposition Turkish lawmakers who have asked the government in Ankara to respond to allegations that TIKA is funding charities with links to Islamic State and the radical, al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra rebel group in Syria.
The AKEA office in Pristina was closed, but a manager, who declined to be named, said the accusations were “nonsense”.
Politicians and the media have taken aim at Islamic clerics, accusing them of preaching hatred in mosques. The arrest of the imams raises the prospect of a crackdown on devout Muslims, seen by some in the political elite as a threat to the secular order.
The Islamic Office in Kosovo, an independent umbrella organization running 800 mosques in Kosovo, says it is firmly against Kosovars fighting for Islamic State, but its reputation has been hurt by the arrest of some of the imams on its books.
On Tuesday, a 17-year-old Kosovar, an infant when NATO went to war over Kosovo, was reported killed in Syria. His father said the teenager, who grew up not far from Bondsteel, had been studying in Turkey.
“Every Kosovar, every Albanian owes the Americans a great deal,” said Resul Rexhepi, general secretary of the Islamic Office. “We owe so much to the Clinton family, to (former Secretary of State Madeleine) Albright, to the American people, the Apache helicopters, the U.S. army, to all those soldiers who entered Kosovo.”
“By God’s will, this country is in Europe, and I feel very comfortable to be European.”
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Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul; Editing by Matt Robinson and Giles Elgood