PRISTINA, Kosovo -- The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped the holiday celebrations of NATO's peacekeeping mission in Kosovo but left its role of more than two decades untouched.
The Kosovo Force mission was launched in 1999 at the end of a war between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces. More than 3,300 troops from 27 countries are still stationed in Kosovo with the goal of keeping the population safe and promoting stability in the Western Balkans.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move that Belgrade doesn't recognize. Leaders from both sides have been accused of war crimes. Kosovo's president resigned last month to face charges at an international court in The Hague.
On Thursday, acting President Vjosa Osmani and U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Philip Kosnett had lunch "and helped Santa deliver Christmas cards to soldiers," according to the Kosovo Force Facebook page.
Because of the pandemic, the peacekeeping mission's headquarters in Kosovo's capital, Pristina, has limited access and required masks. Journalists were not permitted to observe any Christmas celebrations, including when the Kosovo Force commander, Italian army Maj. Gen. Franco Federici, turned on the lights of a Christmas tree provided by an Austrian town.
A church service with a limited number of military personnel and a lunch were held instead of the usual big Christmas party.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Parker Mooney of Portland, Ore., said he had no holiday plans this year.
"I do miss my family," Mooney, 25, said while on patrol in Pristina. "I look forward to talking over Christmas with video."
The unusual circumstances created by the pandemic were more difficult for Staff Sgt. Luigi Rizzo, 45, who left a young family behind in Rome when he deployed to Kosovo.
"I have a little child who is waiting for me with my wife at home," Rizzo said. "I wish Merry Christmas to them, to my family that supports me here, and I take this occasion to wish you and Kosovo, too, Merry Christmas and the new year that will come with the vaccination, the solution of this problem."
Kosovo has instituted an 8 p.m. curfew to control infections. While out on patrol, Kosovo Force personnel have encouraged people on the capital's main boulevard to respect virus-prevention measures, not an easy task with crowds out looking at holiday decorations and costumed Santas offering the soldiers fist bumps.
Staff Sgt. Borut Zupevc of Maribor, Slovenia, is spending his third Christmas away from family. But he said he doesn't remember the holiday season ever requiring so many adjustments or so much solitude. Many meetings among the NATO peacekeepers and with the residents they are in Kosovo to protect were held online or postponed.
"But anyway, it doesn't affect our mission," Zupevc said.
Kosovo, a country of about 1.8 million people, has reported just under 50,000 confirmed virus cases and about 1,300 deaths.