By Capt. Jason SweeneyMay 17, 2018
LEPOSAVIC, Kosovo -- Kosovo Force (KFOR) Soldiers got the unique opportunity to participate in the St. Vasilije Ostroski Festival on May 12 in the scenic mountain town of Leposavic in northern Kosovo.
The festival celebrates St. Vasilije, known as St. Basil in English, and the completion of Leposavic's Orthodox Christian church.
Ninety U.S. Army Soldiers from KFOR's Multi-National Battle Group -- East (MNBG-E) and about a dozen Swiss and Slovenian soldiers arrived in Leposavic the morning of the festival. They ran in 5k and 600-meter races, watched a youth soccer tournament, visited the Church of St. Vasilije Ostroski and patronized the town's restaurants, shops and street vendor stalls.
"It was a great day," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Knox, a California National Guard Soldier serving with MNBG-E. "The city was absolutely beautiful--the steep mountains covered with trees and a river running through the town. The race was a lot of fun with a big crowd and everybody cheering. The whole day was positive. Everybody was friendly."
Kosovo Albanians are the majority in Kosovo while Kosovo Serbians are in the minority. NATO established KFOR in 1999 to end ethnic conflict and war between the two populations.
The purpose of KFOR participation in the festival in Leposavic, a majority Kosovo Serbian town, was to establish relationships and build trust in the municipality, enhance civil-military relations, engage with civil authorities and have a social and economic impact.
KFOR's participation came after MNBG-E commander Col. Nick Ducich, who is a second-generation Serbian American, met Leposavic Mayor Zoran Todic at St. Vasilije Ostroski Church.
"Three weeks ago I had the pleasure to meet Col. Ducich at the liturgy on Sunday morning," Todic said through an interpreter. "It was an unofficial visit and I didn't know the colonel was going to be here. I met him and we made plans for KFOR to participate in the festival.
"First of all, today is both Saint Vasilije Ostroski Day for the municipality and for the church," the mayor explained, adding that the town has been celebrating the holiday for the past 15 years after completion of construction of the church that carries Saint Vasilije's name. "Not only is this a religious holiday that has been taking place for 15 years, we also have the internationally recognized race that is taking place for the 15th time in a row. Today, U.S., Swiss and Slovenian forces had a chance to take part in the race, which adds to the importance."
Following the meeting at the church between Ducich and Todic three weeks prior, MNBG-E Civil-Military Cooperation Officer Maj. Amir Bahadori got in touch with the race organizer.
Bahadori said 35 U.S. Soldiers ran in the races through the center of town. "We participated in the entire event and met our goal to enhance local relationships. It was a good step to get KFOR exposed to the community of Leposavic, and vice versa. The people of Leposavic were open, welcoming, and many understand English."
"I could not be more pleased with the turnout and results of the day," Col. Ducich said. "Across the crowd were smiling faces and the removal of barriers through sport and fun. Amazing how a simple conversation and an invitation from the mayor leads to new opportunities to forge bridges of trust."
"The people and shopkeepers were very friendly and the food was delicious," said 1st Lt. Pamela Flores, a Cal Guard Soldier serving with MNBG-E. "It was very impressive to see the town come together to celebrate their patron saint."
"Today's holiday is what brings the Orthodox Christian people together," Mayor Todic said. "It's our duty and responsibility that we've accepted from our ancestors. It's important to keep this long tradition in the culture, and, most importantly, all the values to carry on for generations to come."