Friday, August 1, 2008

Our Final Full Day in Kosovo

Monday (July 28) was our final full day in Kosovo and so we are spending the day celebrating with our Kosovar friends and their families.

This afternoon we gathered at a restaurant-hotel complex about 30 minutes outside Gjakove for a final “goodbye” celebration. All of our youth and many of the Kosovar choir youth are also spending the night at Liz’s house.

It was a wonderful afternoon. A brief downpour just as we arrived at the restaurant threatened to put a damper on the planned celebration. But within minutes the sun came out and the temperature was almost perfect…not too hot…not too cold.

After a feast of fish, salad, fries, pizza, and several plates of local favorites, many of our youth and adults spent the afternoon playing baseball, volleyball, soccer, and Frisbee. Others walked the grounds, shared ice cream sundaes, and took as many photos of their friends as possible. It was all fabulous…and very filling. I had hopes of losing weight on this trip but given all of the food we’ve been presented I doubt anyone lost weight (and a few probably gained!).

It was a perfect way to end a truly spectacular trip.

The Long Trip Home
As I packed the final items into my suitcase I found it hard to zip close; partially because it is full of souvenirs and gifts I’ve received and partially because I didn’t want to believe our trip was coming to an end.

In our short time here, our group has managed to accomplish more than I think any of us thought was possible. Dr. Peter Korpi examined hundreds of sets of eyes with help from Rayellen Phillips; Mike Hartman, Jo Drahos, and Carolyn Hines provided health checks to just as many, and the various art, English and craft classes led by Jon Fasanelli-Calwalti, Aimee Wedeking, Karen Hartman, Tamara Morgan, Karen Morgan, Anne Olson, Dan Gray, and Margie Gray brought joy to young and old alike. Keith Porter kept us all in line and Paul Kakert video nearly every minute of our experiences on tape.

Our youth also deserve a great deal of credit for assisting, and sometimes leading, classes. Michaela and Marina Calzaretta; Hanna, Tom, and Joe Porter; Halie and Abbie Gray; Kelli Hinrichs; Taylor Wettech; Sam and Diana Baker; Madeline, Allison, Gabrielle, and Isabelle Hartman; Nick Korpi; Leigha Phillps; Rachel Potter; and Jake Drahos.

More importantly, our youth were able to reunite with old friends and meet new ones. And under the leadership of Ric Smith, Lori Carroll and Liz Shropshire our youth and the Kosovar choir sang and performed more beautifully than ever.

On behalf of the entire Muscatine Kosovo Project, I’d like to thank the Muscatine Journal, KWPC, and every individual and business that helped make our 2008 trip to Kosovo one that we will never forget

----Kristin McHugh-Johnston

Goodbye Picnic Photos - July 28

----Kristin McHugh-Johnston

Mission: Camp Bondsteel

Nestled among the rolling hills one hour south of Pristina is Camp Bondsteel. This sprawling base is home to the Multinational Brigade (East) of Operation Joint Guardian; the NATO peacekeeping operation in Kosovo. It is also the base for the thousands of American troops contributing to keeping the peace in this troubled region.

On Sunday we packed 33 Americans (including Liz Shropshire, head of the Shropshire Music Foundation, our partner group in Kosovo) and a dozen of Liz’s advanced Gjakove volunteers into one van and a large bus and headed to Camp Bondsteel. Our mission was to extend our thanks for their efforts. The trip was made possible only after a series of e-mail exchanges initiated by Keith Porter.

We were told to arrive by 11:00 a.m. We arrived 30 minutes early (the first advance or on-time arrival in our 14 days here!). Unbeknownst to us, Bondsteel had pushed the schedule back for our arrival to 11:45 a.m. In the end, the early arrival gave our combined choirs a chance to determine a set list and which instruments were going to be used in the concert.

When we finally lined up for security at 11:45 a.m., it took more than 30 minutes for the entire group to clear security. This is partially due to the size of our group and the fact that Bondsteel doesn’t have X-ray machines and every bag had to be hand inspected. We were only allowed to bring three cameras for the entire group; two still cameras and our videographer’s camera.

Once we cleared security we were given visitors badges and introduced to our chaplain host, Major Darren King, and his assistant, Sergeant First Class Michael Busby. We were further divided into small groups of four or five and introduced to soldiers who were assigned to escort us at all times. Every one of the soldiers was armed, and each had volunteered on their day off to escort our participants.

Our tour of Camp Bondsteel began with a full buffet meal in one of the base’s two dining halls. It felt like home for our American participants. Baseball highlights were being broadcast on a large screen in one end of the dining hall. The huge spread of food was a true treat for our Kosovar youth.

After a delicious lunch we boarded air conditioned busses (complete with a number of armed escorts), taken to a monument near Bondsteel’s chapel, given a tour of the base, and then taken to Audie Murphy Medal of Honor Hall where the combined choirs performed.

Song and Praise
Soon, soldiers, still in full fatigues carrying their assigned weapons, started to fill the seats. Commanding General Larry Kay of the Missouri National Guard even slipped into the row behind me.

The choirs sounded truly angelic. They performed better than I’ve ever seen them perform. The final song of the performance was “Ani Mori Nuse”, a traditional Albanian folk song with a modern twist. In the middle of the song, our Kosovar performers jumped from the stage and started a traditional chain dance. Before I could react with my camera nearly everyone in the hall, including General Kay, were on their feet and had joined the dance line as it snaked through the rows of seats.

Visibly moved, Commanding General Kay presented Ric Smith and Liz Shropshire a plaque of appreciation. He also presented special medals to what he called, “the four standout performers.” They were Perparim Lloqanaj and Michaela Calzaretta for their solo performances and Zana Vejsa and Vigan Shehu for their guitar performances.

In a conversation with Keith Porter after the performance Commanding General Kay said the performance was wonderful. “It lets us know that we are not forgotten but it also lets us know there is a lot going on out there that is very, very positive.” He added, “To see something that originates from Muscatine, Iowa, just up the street from us (in Missouri), it just astounding.”

Another mission accomplished.

Until next time....Kristin McHugh-Johnston

Camp Bondsteel Photos - July 27

Here are photos taken during the visit to Camp Bondsteel. Only three cameras were allowed for our entire group (mine, Anne's, and Paul's video camera). Our ability to take photos in multiple locations was also restricted due to security reasons.

These photos are from my camera (and in no particular order). Lighting was also not the best, so apologies for any red-eye I may have missed in my quick edits.

Group Photos at the Chapel Peacekeepers Monument

Base Tour

Rehearsal and Concert

The "Corn Cobbs"

----Kristin McHugh-Johnston