PRISTINA, Nov. 1, 2009 (Reuters) — Kosovo’s Albanian majority unveiled a statue of former U.S. president Bill Clinton on Sunday to thank him for saving them by stopping a wave of ethnic cleansing by Serbia.
As the U.S. President in 1999, Clinton launched NATO air strikes to halt the killing of ethnic Albanians by Serbian troops.
Clinton’s speech was interrupted several times by Kosovo Albanians wildly cheering his name and U.S.A., and waving U.S., Albanian and Kosovo flags.
“I am profoundly grateful that I had a chance to be a part of ending the horrible things that were happening to you 10 years ago giving you a chance to build a better future for yourself,” Clinton told the crowd.
The crowd chanted Clinton’s name when the former president started shaking hands with people along a boulevard named after him.
“I never expected … anywhere someone will make such a big statue of me,” Clinton said after his 3-meter (10 foot) statue was unveiled.
He urged Kosovars to build a multi-ethnic country with the minority Serbs and other minorities and said the United States would always help Kosovo’s people.
“You have to build something good and we should help,” he added.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia last year and was recognized by the United States and major European Union powers — a total of 62 countries worldwide but not by its former ruler Serbia, Russia and China.
Grateful Kosovo Albanians also named a central street in central Pristina after former U.S. president George W. Bush.
Kosovo Albanians regard Clinton, former British prime minister Tony Blair and Clinton’s state secretary Madeleine Albright as their saviors and have named their babies after them.
Ismail Neziri had travelled 60 km (37 miles) to see the president again after they met in a refugee camp in Macedonia where Neziri’s family had fled to escape the forces of late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Around 10,000 Albanians were killed as Serb forces moved to wipe out an ethnic Albanian guerrilla force and 800,000 were expelled to neighboring Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro.
“I was only eight years in a refugee camp in Macedonia when Clinton took me in his hands and today he is the same big and young man,” said Neziri, 18, holding a U.S. flag.
“In 1996 everybody was speaking that Clinton is a good man and he will help us, and then my father named me after him,” said 13-year-old Klinton Krasniqi.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians have braved the cold in Kosovo’s capital Pristina to welcome former president Bill Clinton at the unveiling of a statue of himself on a key boulevard that also bears his name.
Clinton is celebrated as a hero by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority for launching NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 that stopped the brutal Serb forces’ crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.
This is his first visit to Kosovo since it declared independence from Serbia last year.
Many waved American, Albanian and Kosovo flags and chanted “USA!” as the former president climbed on top of a podium with his poster in the background reading “Kosovo honours a hero.”
Some peeked out of balconies and leaned on window sills to get a better view of Clinton from their apartment blocks.
To thunderous applause Clinton waved to the crowd as the red cover was pulled off from the 3.5 metre statue.
The statue is placed on top of a white-tiled base, in the middle of a tiny square, surrounded by communist-era buildings.
“I never expected that anywhere, someone would make such a big statue of me,” Clinton said of the gold-sprayed statue weighing nearly a ton.
He also addressed Kosovo’s 120-seat assembly, encouraging them to forgive and move on from the violence of the past.
The statue portrays Clinton with his left arm raised and holding a portfolio bearing his name and the date when NATO started bombing Yugoslavia, on March 24, 1999.
An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed during the Kosovo crackdown and about 800,000 were forced out of their homes. They returned home after NATO-led peacekeepers moved in following 78 days of bombing.
Leta Krasniqi, an ethnic Albanian, said the statue was the best way to express the ethnic Albanians’ gratitude for Clinton’s role in making Kosovo a state.
“This is a big day,” Krasniqi, 25 said. “I live nearby and I’m really excited that I will be able to see the statue of such a big friend of ours every day.”
Clinton last visited Kosovo in 2003 when he received an honorary university degree. His first visit was in 1999 – months after some 6,000 US troops were deployed in the NATO-led peacekeeping mission here.
Some 1,000 American soldiers are still based in Kosovo as part of NATO’s 14,000-strong peacekeeping force.
Amazing! Such a truly great honor bestowed on our former president by a country showing their gratitude for the help President Clinton delivered ending the massacre of their people by a rouge dictator…. and the only photo I could find in the major news outlets commemorating Clinton’s legacy, besides the one above, is this one…. (Thanks to whoever converted the video feed to youtube.)
PIC UPdate: pictures courtesy of U-turning Hummingbirds during their migration to Argentina.