Bears bring out lighter side of Kosovo peacekeepers

Monday, January 5, 2004

LIPOVICA, Serbia-Montenegro -- NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo have found a welcome distraction from their difficult daily routine -- Bubble and Trouble.

Every Sunday, dozens of peacekeepers come to frolic and tumble with the two baby bears who were rescued by an American after hunters killed their mother last March.

Offering fruit, honey and other delicacies, they vie for the favors of the two brown fur-balls, taking turns feeding and rolling in the snow with them.

It's a refreshing change of pace.

Fighting between Serbs and ethnic Albanians ended in 1999, and Kosovo now is run by the United Nations and NATO. But scattered violence persists and sometimes turns against the foreigners.

On Dec. 6, a Serb mob threw stones and concrete blocks at a restaurant in the tense town of Kosovska Mitrovica where Kosovo's prime minister, an ethnic Albanian, was having lunch with a foreign delegation. One visiting official was injured.

Used to attention

So a visit to the bears the next day was just what about 30 peacekeepers from the United States, Britain, Italy, Germany and elsewhere needed, even if temperatures were below zero.

Bubble and Trouble are used to the attention.

Clay Yoxtheimer of Palatka, Fla., who runs an international police program in eastern Kosovo for DynCorp., a U.S. military contractor, took charge of the orphaned cubs and named them.

Trouble got his name "because he was constantly getting into trouble. He was constantly trying to figure out ways to get loose. He had a mind of his own."

As for his sister, "She loved to play in the water all the time. And so we named her Bubble because that's all she wanted to do -- just play with the water."

Yoxtheimer passed on his bear-keeping duties to a Norwegian peacekeeper. Now the job has fallen to Sgt. Frederik Sieben of Germany.

On Sundays, Sieben opens the doors of the small cage and lets Trouble and Bubble loose in a park.

"It's something I look forward to all week," he said.

Bubble and Trouble lapped up the attention; they tucked their noses in the snow, rolled in a field and wrestled.

'Special, fantastic thing'

"You see bears on TV and they are aggressive animals, and here you get the chance to play with and caress them," said Capt. Salvatore Lo Nigro, an Italian peacekeeper, brushing snow from his uniform after being pinned by one of the bears. "This was a special, fantastic thing."

Sieben feeds the bears with leftovers from the peacekeepers' headquarters in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

"They are crazy about the fruit," he said. "They eat vegetables and fish, too. And whenever we have problems putting them in a cage, we use honey."

But brown bears grow quickly from cute to menacing -- already 130 pounds each, they'll soon outgrow their cage and outweigh their human playmates. And Sieben is ending his Kosovo tour in February.

He and his friends hope a safari park in Austria will take the animals.

Because we took care of these bears from the beginning, we have a kind of special relationship," he said. "It will be very hard to say goodbye."

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