Camp Casablanca - home for Swisscoy soldiers
To the 160 Swiss soldiers serving in Kosovo, Camp Casablanca is a far cry from the steamy Moroccan city of movie fame.
Instead of a warm Sahara breeze, a bitter Siberian wind blasts the old rubber factory they call home, sending the mercury to minus fifteen degrees Celsius.
Icicles hang from the roofs of the containers where the soldiers sleep. The prefabricated buildings are stacked ingeniously like giant Lego bricks. A thick blanket of snow gives the camp a festive, picture-postcard look and muffles voices and footsteps, making the place unnaturally still.
When a miniature snow clearing machine chugs to life, it fills the air with a throaty roar as it hacks into piles of snow and puffs out a fine shower of discarded ice through a chimney.
This could not be described as a hardship mission. Every modern amenity is at hand.
The Casablanca camp lies near the southern Kosovar town of Suva Reka. It accommodates the volunteer soldiers and military police officers, and 12 drafted fortification guards. All are taking part in Operation Joint Guardian. The camp is shared with Austrian and Slovak KFOR soldiers.
Swisscoy is part of the German-led multi-national brigade south, with its headquarters 30 minutes away by road in the ancient town of Prizren.
Swisscoy's role is to provide logistical support to the 600 strong Austrian company, AUCON. The Swiss only occupy a small section of the camp, which is about 1.7 km in circumference.
Nevertheless, they have managed to stamp their distinctive personality on the place, in a further confirmation of Swiss organisational skills.
Breakfast is served at 0630 in a large canteen. The inspection and morning briefing takes place an hour later, as the soldiers stand to attention with other members of their units, and the company commander does the rounds.
The afternoon shift is from 1300 to 1700, after which dinner is served in the canteen and soldiers are left to pursue their own interests. The Swiss chalet restaurant, providing beer and table football, is open until 11pm, when soldiers are expected to return to their quarters. Lights go out at midnight.
Swisscoy soldiers have their own radio programme, hosted by the public information officer, a well-equipped gym, a swimming pool, a football pitch, a post office, a shop selling everything from toiletries to luxury watches, a library, two separate television rooms for French and German speakers (there are no Italian speakers in the camp), and a wooden chalet style restaurant serving traditional Swiss dishes such as raclette and fondue.
The air-conditioned aluminum containers each sleep two soldiers, and have satellite TV connections for those who want to bring their own televisions. Officers get a container to themselves. A generator provides electricity for the camp around the clock. There's even an Internet cafe to help the troops stay in touch with the outside world.
Three springs within the camp perimeter supply enough water for all the soldiers' needs. The water is subjected to a complicated filtering process before it gushes forth from taps and showerheads.
Stuck in camp
Conditions are better at the camp than in the local hotels, which suffer from constant power cuts and a consequent lack of heating. The drawback is that many of the soldiers never leave the camp or have any contact with local people.
The exceptions, up until now, have been the 30 - 40 Pioneer building and engineering platoon, the transport platoon, the engineers involved in water deliveries to communities and other south brigade camps, and the fortification troops sent out as Swisscoy bodyguards.
Sunday is the only day off at Casablanca, and trips are often organized to other army camps around the province. There is room for about 30 soldiers. National Contingent Commander Lieutenant Colonel Walter Schweizer also tries to ensure that camp based staff get a crack at an occasional expedition to break the monotony. They have to sign up for a trip out with the water delivery staff, or the Pioneers.
Sex is taboo¶
Out of 150 soldiers, only nine are women. Sexual relations are not encouraged. Although there are a few couples at Casablanca, they are not allowed to sleep in the same containers. The male and female quarters are strictly segregated and spot checks are carried out to ensure that there is no hanky panky.
Unsurprisingly in a province filled with foreign soldiers, brothels abound in the local towns, usually disguised as pizza restaurants. However, it would be very difficult for Swiss soldiers to exit the camp to take advantage of the "pizzas", even if they wanted to.
Pros and cons¶
Soldiers sign up for six-month tours and are granted leave after three months. The military police and fortification guards serve three months at a time. There are few opportunities to spend their wages while at the camp - even in the Swiss Chalet, beer and coffee only costs about SFr1. The daily allowance is SFr15 ($9).
Mechanical engineer Matthias Eggenberger from Bern signed up for Swisscoy because he saw it as a chance to travel abroad. He now works for the water-delivering platoon, and welcomes the opportunity to meet Albanians and learn about their history and culture.
A doctor with his own general practice in Switzerland welcomed the fact that at the Casablanca clinic, he had to work many hours fewer while receiving the same income. But some of those who have been confined to the camp are less sanguine, and complain of boredom.
National Contingent Commander Lieutenant Colonel Walter Schweizer says it is important that staff are well suited to the tasks they are sent to perform, and that they are made aware at their pre-mission training that mobility is restricted and there can be slack work periods.
Whether the volunteers enjoy the mission or not, it is certainly an opportunity for self-reflection and broadening one's horizons.
It doesn't take long to discover that although everything works like clockwork inside Camp Casablanca, beyond the fences and look-out towers, in the rutted icy streets of southern Kosovo, there isn't a clock in sight.
by Julie Hunt
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