PRIZREN, Kosovo -- In recent years, most media reports from Kosovo have focused on the intense human suffering endured by survivors of the region's recent war. The majority of Kosovo's residents, whether Albanian or Serb, have been directly impacted by organized fighting and inter-ethnic strife since hostilities in the province began in 1998.
But a recent social gathering in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, brought to light a different experience. It offered those in attendance a chance to both reflect on a more stable past and look forward to a brighter future for Kosovo. The gathering was at once a rite of passage ritual and a reunion between old friends who had not seen each other in almost 20 years.
Maj. Joe Paschall, of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), explained the chance meeting.
"I was in Kosovo for Dynamic Response '02, an operational rehearsal" he said. "During my stay in the capital, I had the chance to attend a family celebration with an old friend, Valbon ("Val") Gashi, whom I'd attended high school with in 1984."
The event was a coming of age celebration for Gashi's nephew and was attended by well over 100 family members and friends.
"It's good to see that local customs and family life have survived in spite of the war," said Paschall.
"Val and I were seniors together at Charles E. Jordan Senior High School in Durham, NC. His dad is a doctor and had been selected for a year-long exchange program between his hospital in Kosovo and Duke Medical Center. We hung out a lot that year, playing soccer on the school team and spending time together on weekends."
After graduation, Paschall began his undergraduate studies at Duke University, participating in the Naval ROTC program and accepting a commission in the Marine Corps upon graduating.
Meanwhile, Gashi returned to what was then Yugoslavia to complete a year of compulsory service in the VJ (the Yugoslavian Army). It turned out to be a trying experience for Gashi, who was suspected of being a spy because of the year he'd spent in America.
"I was interrogated on several occasions and spent a lot of time in the brig," he said. "Finally, when it became clear that I had no ulterior motives, I was returned to regular duty as a medic."
Upon completion of his service in the VJ, Gashi attended medical school and became a vascular surgeon is Pristina.
This is where the story takes a turn for the worse.
"The war broke out and Val had to begin living a double life," said Paschall. "During the week, he would work in a Serb-run hospital in the capital. On weekends, however, his commitment to his family and community led him to begin treating members of the Albanian resistance movement injured in combat against the VJ.
"It was a very difficult time for us," said Gashi. "My father and I were both treating these wounded resistance fighters. Many of them were my cousins."
Gashi believes he would have been killed if his superiors became aware of his weekend activities.
Ironically, Paschall was also serving in Kosovo at this time, as a member of the U.S. Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (US KDOM).
"I often thought about Val during my time in country in 1998," said Paschall. During high school, I'd only known him as 'Val the Yugoslavian.' Little did I know that he was living and working only miles from my main base of operations while I was an observer here," he said.
"As a matter of fact, many of the local leaders I was interacting with were being supported by Val in his role as a surgeon. Still, I never ran into him, in spite of asking many people if they'd ever heard of him. Many of the people I asked also had the last name 'Gashi' but it's a fairly common name in Kosovo," said Paschall.
When hostilities died down after the NATO bombing campaign, Gashi found Paschall's e-mail address on the Jordan High School Website and contacted him. The two immediately reestablished contact and their friendship resumed, years after they had lost touch and after unknowingly sharing the harsh realities of the war in Kosovo.
"He's told me some of the things that his family endured," said Paschall. "I'm thankful that he and his loved ones survived those experiences."
The two began catching up via e-mail, exchanging stories and photos of their wives and children.
In September 2002, Paschall returned to Kosovo to support the 24th MEU's participation in Dynamic Response. That was when the two old friends finally had a chance to reconnect.
"It was a great experience to see Val again," said Paschall, "and to see the progress that the people of Kosovo have made during the ongoing peace operations."
Paschall and Gashi enjoyed their evening together, reminiscing both about their time in high school and the darker days that came later.
"This is not something I would have expected while on a six-month float. It's given me a lot of food for thought."
Many photos were taken during their evening together and Paschall had the opportunity to meet Gashi's wife and extended family.
Gashi's nephew, whose entrance into adulthood was being celebrated that evening, met Paschall as well. Pachall's connection to the family was explained to him as they shook hands.
All the while, attendees of the party participated in traditional Kosovar dances as a famous local folk singer and band lent a festive air to the party.
"They have a unique way of dancing," said Paschall. "They all hold hands and move in a circle facing each other around the center of the room. I think that's symbolic of how Gashi and his family maintained their sense of identity through the war."
At the end of the evening, Paschall and Gashi said their goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. Paschall will leave Kosovo in late October to continue his deployment with the 24th MEU.
"I'll return to Kosovo some day," he said. "I have friends here."