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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Soldiers' Capture Puts a Face on a Faraway Place

April 02, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

Now it's personal.

Now you can put a face to it.

Now it's the face of Andy Ramirez--with dirt on it, and marks that look very much like cuts and bruises.

Now it's the faces of his East L.A. neighbors, all along Eastmont Avenue, observing a trail of people coming like mourners to and from Andy's father's front door.

Now it's the face of a U.S. congresswoman, streaked with teardrops as she emerges from the Ramirez home.

Now it's the mayor and the chief of police, calling on Andy's older brother, Steven Ramirez, a detective, who sends word through a fellow LAPD officer that: "He loves his little brother very much and is very worried."

Now it's the president of the United States, standing firm at a Navy base in Virginia, issuing a not very veiled threat to certain parties who are holding Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez and two comrades in arms captive: "The United States takes care of its own."

Now it's NATO's ranking military officer, Gen. Wesley Clark, warning: "We don't like the way they're being treated . . . and we have a long memory about these kinds of things."

No more is this a "faceless" place on the other side of the world called Kosovo that so many Americans knew so little about that their president had to go on TV and point to a map.

*

Six hundred and 10 years ago, a century before America was even "discovered," a bloody battle was fought on the high plains of Kosovo that proved to be a major turning point in Balkan history. In it, the Serbs and their allies were vanquished by the Turks, resulting in the conquest of the entire Serbian empire.

Today, a province of 4,200 square miles is again under siege. The weapons are different, the enemies different. Yet the stakes are as high as ever, and escalating day by day.

A bridge over the blue Danube has been destroyed.

A couple of trains, carrying 10,000 Albanian refugees or more, were so crammed beyond normal capacity that they reportedly arrived at a Macedonia border with newly dead and newly born--some people killed by the crush, some pregnant women so panicked that they were said to have given premature birth.

Meantime, the bombings by air continue, as they have since NATO's forces began them March 24.

To any Americans whose sympathies hadn't yet been touched, whose natural or knee-jerk instinct was to oppose any U.S. military involvement that was "none of our business," there is a touchstone now, a genuine need to know what's been done and what's to be done about it.

Ramirez, Gonzales and Stone.

We have their faces before us now. We have three soldiers, a young one from Los Angeles, another from Texas and one from Michigan, none older than 25, dressed in camouflage garb, held prisoner while the Pentagon itself weighs whether or not they can factually be known as "prisoners of war," awaiting some kind of kangaroo court-martial that could turn a conflict into a war.

The jingoism will sound out loud and clear now. Don't mess with us. You take some of ours, we're going to take more of yours. Give us back Ramirez, Gonzales and Stone or bear the consequences.

If you don't believe this, just read Bill Clinton's lips.

"There was no basis for them to be taken, no basis for them to be held, and there is certainly no basis for them to be tried," the president has declared.

The three soldiers may have been in Macedonia, or may have strayed into Yugoslavia, when they came under fire and lost radio contact.

Their captors have threatened to mete out punishment, perhaps even by today.

To stage "a phony trial and call it a court-martial is ridiculous," says a U.S. State Department spokesman, James Rubin.

You can hear it now in more American voices, see it in more faces.

The Kosovo crisis just hit home.

*

A woman in Los Angeles, a wife of a Vietnam veteran, has begun going around tying little American flags to fences, tying yellow ribbons around the sticks of the flags.

A neighbor of Andrew Ramirez is on the sidewalk, vowing how "we'll all greet him with open arms" on the day he comes marching home.

It is very personal now.

Kosovo just became something more than a violent dispute about ethnic cleansing and human rights. It is now about saving Sgt. Ramirez, saving Gonzales, saving Stone.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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