For GIs in Bosnia, a frustrating mission Amid deep hatreds, Americans hope work will not be wasted

June 14, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BRCKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The jostling hordes of camera crews from American TV are long gone, bound for busier, bloodier venues.

"Nobody's dyin' here," a colonel harrumphs.

At Camp McGovern, tucked between the trenches and minefields of an old battlefront in northeast Bosnia, Army life seems little different now, in the heat and dust of June, than it was at the beginning, in the snow and smoke of December.

What's new? Mosquitoes mostly, along with small amenities like a snack bar with rubbery pizza, video rentals for a buck a day, a PX with Oreos and a small gym. There's still no booze, no fraternizing with the locals and no stepping outside, even for just a cigarette, without wearing your "battle rattle" -- flak vest, helmet, automatic weapon.

Perhaps most discouraging of all, however, is the sense that all those people the soldiers came to protect still seem to hate each other as much as they did during nearly four years of war.

"I've never had to deal with anything quite like this before," said Spec. Matthew Reed, 24, of Chestertown, Md. "I've never seen so much hatred."

"I hope the American people don't think this is just going to be a yearlong mission. It's got to be a hell of a lot longer than a year if they want this to work."

Other soldiers seem to agree. While groaning at the prospect of a longer stay, they seem to think their work will otherwise be wasted. And such beliefs grow stronger with every close encounter with the raw emotions left by the war, especially in areas where one side's territory rubs against another's.

When Lt. Lance Cutsworth, 27, of Prescott, Ariz., talks to some of the Serbs in the town of Brcko, a mile or so from Camp McGovern, he is amazed by the way they portray local Muslims. Most of Bosnia's Muslims are a fairly secular bunch who speak the same language, drink the same plum brandy and often wear the same style of clothes as Bosnian Serbs.

Yet, Cutsworth said, "You talk to them about the Muslims and you get this image of Turks in flaring robes who are going to come and take them."

Ethnic tension

Such tensions occasionally lead to incidents that involve the soldiers, especially when a local citizen winds up someplace where he's not welcome.

Last month, a Bosnian Croat drove into Brcko, a town held by the Serbs. He parked his car with its Bosnian Croat license tags in front of city hall, where a crowd of drunken refugee Serbs from Sarajevo began rocking his car and shouting, "Burn him, kill him."

Two local police officers arrived, also Serbs. One tried to calm the crowd. The second took the Croat to an abandoned building, where he began his own harassment, pulling a knife and threatening to kill him on the spot before stuffing him in his squad car.

About that time, a convoy of American Bradley Fighting Vehicles rolled by, stopping to check out the commotion. The Croat saw them and wriggled out the window of the police car. He climbed on one of the Bradleys, leaping over a turret and grabbing a sergeant while shouting, "Save me!" By then the man's car had been stolen.

Once the Americans got involved, the Serbian police went to work. Within hours, the man's car was returned. The offending policeman, local authorities said, was fired.

But as the Americans have sometimes found, their actions are fairly limited by their mandate, which in turn limits their impact.

"We've had it drilled into our heads so much that we're neutral here," said Spec. Chris Beard, 21, of Roosevelt, Ill. "That's why, when a civilian asks us for a favor, we have to say, 'I'm sorry.'

"We've got all these refugees coming, wanting to go back to their homes. You get all these little requests: 'Can IFOR [NATO's Implementation Forces] help me get through this area safely?' You have to tell them, 'There's freedom of movement, so you do it at your own risk.' "

This doesn't mean that some local hotheads don't try to test the soldiers' limits.

"They push us every now and then to see how far we'll go, what we'll take," Beard said.

When an American sergeant stopped a truck full of Serbian policemen for a routine check a week ago, one decided to test the limits of his broken English to insult the sergeant. It turned out he'd mastered one unprintable term, and that was enough.

The sergeant ordered them out of the truck, Beard said, "and they changed their attitude really quick." It turned out they were carrying illegal weapons, which were confiscated.

For the children

To help make the oppressive climate of intolerance more bearable, Lieutenant Cutsworth said, "a lot of us focus on the kids. We're all here for the kids."

But they, too, have been infected by the hatred.

"You'll talk to an 8- or 9-year-old boy, and you'll ask one on the [Croat-Muslim] Federation side, 'What do you want to do when )) you grow up?' 'I want to kill the Chetniks,' " a derogatory term for Serbs.

Reed is sometimes astonished to see small children flashing nationalist hand signs from the roadside, such as the three-finger salute favored by ultranationalist Serbs.

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