A team of Yugoslav journalists from Narodni Telegraf recently visited Camp Bondsteel, invited as guests to what used to be their country.

Bondsteel is the largest U.S. military base in the Balkans, and in what seems a bad omen, the biggest that the U.S. military’ has constructed since Vietnam. It is being erected in the heart of Kosovo, on the crossroads with Metohija, which allows American forces to control the borders of both Serbia and Macedonia. The location was selected by a special Pentagon team of military strategists and planners. The construction of the base began within weeks of NATO’s takeover of Kosovo in June 1999. Given the logistics and the size of the effort, the plans must have been in place well before NATO launched its air war. (But that’s another story.)

The base is named after infantry Sgt. James Leroy Bondsteel, who was killed in Vietnam in 1969—another bad omen. “All you can see here is built to last five years,” explains Captain Russell Berg, the media liaison officer at the main headquarters. However, the scale of the construction of Camp Bondsteel raises doubts; Would such massive amounts of money and effort be invested in a base that’s only going to be used for five years? The camp is being built on 700 acres of land that, only a year ago, was known as Sojevo, a Serbian agricultural farm. It is surrounded by 14 kilometers of barbed wire. Every inch inside the encampment is separately fenced and illuminated at night with dozens of reflectors: The base shines from afar in the Kosovo night. The few remaining Serbs who used to farm the land call it “Las Vegas in the mud.”

Camp Bondsteel is intended to hold 5,000 military personnel, with 3,300 already in place. It is being constructed in three phases and is now 80 percent completed. There are 160 barracks housing 24 U.S. military units and seven KFOR formations. The barracks are fenced with a tall double line of sandbags strengthened with steel wire. “Security-effort,” Capt. Berg explains. “Our experience from Lebanon, where terrorists attacked us, taught us something, and everything in base is done by our rides to provide maximum security and defense from possible terrorists.” I can’t help but wonder which terrorists die Americans are thinking of Although the Americans blame the tension in Mitroviea on Slobodan Milosevic, they generally avoid the subject of what is to be expected from Albanians in the future. Heads turn away; questions go unanswered. The air is thick with tension. As a Serb, I understand.

At Camp Bondsteel, the GIs can exit the base only on “official business”—in other words, when they are patrolling in squads outside to “keep the peace.” We witnessed the exercise of a special military police unit that conducted the infamous weapons search in Kosovska Mitrovica in late February. They practiced the tactics of holding and attacking protesters. Who will the next protesters be? Who will be the next enemy? Capt. Art Horton from North Carolina, the commander of the exercise, is ready with the answer: “We are ready to intercede everywhere, at any time, and against anyone.” Capt. Mark Chitwood, the head of military police, is quick to add: “Our standpoint is that no American soldiers should go to Mitrovica again since the situation in that city is way too difficult and if we go there, we’ll only make it worse.”

In the meantime, Bondsteel grows by the hour. It is so enormous that there is a “city transport” organized for its inhabitants. Three white buses with about 30 passengers each depart from the main square of the camp every 15 minutes. The true costs of maintaining Bondsteel are not available—to all our inquiries about the price tag. Captain Berg’s response was “a few million dollars.” According to various estimates in the U.S. media, $300 million has been spent on the camp so far. Before departing, we had a snack at an enormous restaurant serving 25 kinds of meals and 10,000 portions a day. It was opened by Bill Clinton on November 23, 1999. There is already a supermarket and a Burger King. All of this for five years? What is becoming the biggest American town in Europe was certainly designed to last far longer.

The ghost of Sgt. James Leroy Bondsteel haunts the campgrounds, and his fate should serve as a warning to those who think that America’s mission in Kosovo has been accomplished: By Balkan standards, the war has not even begun.