As fascinating as being in a “real war-torn country” was to a small-town girl like me, what was most memorable about my time in Kosovo was the people. During my time there, I got to spend a lot of time with the locals, as they provided a large number of services on the base. The people I spent the most time with were My Ladies; the women on the cleaning crew. These women ranged from probably late teens into maybe their 40s or 50s. They earned – let’s just leave it at – “far less than minimum wage,” worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, and had absolute no benefits, including sick days. To say it was bitterly cold there would be an understatement, and few of them had more than sweatshirts, sweaters, or fairly thin jackets. I noticed these things immediately but had been told they would be stand-offish, since KBR had them afraid of their own shadows. All an American had to do was accuse them of doing something wrong and they were immediately fired. Unfortunately, some Americans took advantage of this latitude.
I presented a particular problem for them as I was one of the very few female “chefs” (chiefs – I ran the Training Support Center), and the men were actually the heads of the cleaning crew. I remember the women coming in meekly to ask me if I could step out of the office so the men could mop, since they did not want to be in the office with me and risk offending me. I would step outside and pass the time with a smoke break, as they were extremely quick, again, not to risk annoying me.
It was finally one of the women who broke the ice. They would come in and mumble a few pleasantries, but nothing more. One particularly cold day, one of the ladies summoned the courage to ask if she could have the last bit of coffee left in the pot. I told her “Sure!” (and nodded vigorously so she would not think I was yelling at her). This happened a few more times; I soon noticed that the women would take turns asking for the coffee. They didn’t get to my office until after lunch, and since I only drank coffee in the morning, it was a little old. Eventually, I convinced them that it really was best if they just made a fresh pot. This eventually turned into what I came to refer to as My Ladies’ Afternoon Tea Time: I went to the Exchange and laid in a supply of tea bags, cream, sugar, cups, and the like. I had the guys who worked for me move in a “conference table” and some chairs. Gradually, it became a daily ritual that – after they finished cleaning up the hut our facility was housed in – they would come, sit around the table and sip tea. Sometimes they would include me in their conversation, sometimes I’d just sit back and enjoy watching them. They would sit there and talk and giggle like a bunch of school girls. Many of them had lost everything to the Serbs, including family members, but they were resilient. They would tell me who left treats for them and who did not: there was one office that would always leave ice cream sandwiches in their freezer and that was even a bigger treat than hot tea on a cold day. If one of them seemed to have a cold they just couldn’t shake, I would sneak them some cough medicine or cold tablets (they were ordered to take nothing from us; also grounds for firing). One woman had a cut that became terribly infected, so I brought her some antibiotic cream and band-aids. I managed to “find” some nondescript jackets lying around that I asked they “take away.” When I was packing up my office to leave, I seemed to run out of boxes, and was “forced” to leave several things: window curtains that had been admired, a vacuum that I had bought so they could clean the rug I had put in my office of which “Mama” had grown particularly fond. The fact of the matter is, during those months, I became genuinely fond of these people. When I found that I was being rotated out, I laid in a supply of tea things and arranged for the one guy I could trust to continue the tradition. My husband ended up getting a job there a few months later, and for the time he was there, I would remind him to make sure my ladies had their things.
They were simple people. They were people who had been stomped on by life and had every reason to be bitter, dejected, mean, and vindictive. We had come in to be their saviors and instead, we had allowed KBR to come in and suck them into slavery with obscenely low wages and poor working conditions. I still think about them from time to time, and wonder how they have gotten on. I wonder if our being there was – in the end – a net gain or loss for them.
I don’t want to see the same thing happen in Syria. If we feel the need to take action, that action needs to be limited in both scope and duration. While we still view ourselves as Saviors of the World, the fact is that most others do not. We need to be mindful of that and govern ourselves accordingly.
Because, after all … they are people, too.