Indebted to America, Kosovo struggles to curb Islamist recruits

Wed Oct 1, 2014 6:08am EDT
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By Fatos Bytyci

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.   Continued...

Kosovar Albanians perform Friday prayers at the entrance of a mosque in Pristina September 26, 2014. Picture taken September 26, 2014.  REUTERS/Hazir Reka