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COLUMN ONE

Where 'No One Is the Enemy'

The Bush administration questions their mission, but many GIs in Kosovo are content to keep the peace.

February 28, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VITINA, Yugoslavia — The enemy is rarely easy to see if you're a peacekeeper in Kosovo, especially when it is yourself.

The U.S. Army's "rules of engagement" tell troops when they can shoot. But the soldiers are on their own when it comes to a more difficult choice: whether to care about the people they are assigned to protect.

And compassion comes with many risks in Kosovo, where a tangled web of politics, ethnic hatred and deceit can trap those who get too close.

By ordering a "top-to-bottom" review of the U.S. military this month, President Bush revived the debate about whether troops trained to fight wars should spend years keeping the peace in open-ended missions such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

There is no political solution in sight to the ethnic Albanian majority's demand for independence for Kosovo--which is technically still a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic--so peacekeeping troops must walk a fine line as they patrol where the Serbian minority is just as determined to remain part of Yugoslavia.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Ward constantly reminds the military police under his command that no matter where their sympathies lie, they can't give anyone good reason to accuse them of taking sides.

"You've got to guard against giving [ethnic] Albanians the impression you favor Serbs or Serbs the impression you favor Albanians, or we're going to start losing this," Ward tells his MPs.

It is hard to be coldly detached in Kosovo, where everyone is a victim and any soldier who stops to listen will hear endless reasons why the other side is to blame.

The U.S. soldiers "are just people. They've got hearts," said Ward, 41, of Montezuma, Ga. "They relate a lot back to their own lives, and they feel the pain. It would be easier if we came and everybody was the enemy, but here, no one is the enemy. The enemy can be complacency. The enemy can be you."

At their most harmless, the risks are reprimand or disillusionment for the good-hearted who go too far.

But the coming of spring heralds new violence, and the real dangers increase. The peacekeepers, with no clear political objective and exit strategy, are caught in the middle of an unfinished civil war waged by killers on both sides.

On Feb. 16, a bomb killed 10 Serbs and injured 40 others. They were traveling in a bus convoy guarded by Swedish troops, and Kosovo's Serbs faulted NATO-led forces for failing to stop ethnic Albanian extremists.

No Combat Casualties

Although U.S. peacekeepers have suffered no combat casualties, they have come under sniper fire, been stoned by angry mobs and almost gotten killed in a double blast in the village of Kolkot that leveled a Serbian house.

Ward's MPs play a central role in efforts to get U.N. and civilian police forces in Kosovo to shoulder more responsibility for maintaining law and order and to gradually open the exit door for the peacekeeping force. It is tough slogging.

The 5,300 U.S. soldiers of Task Force Falcon make up 13% of the peacekeepers in Kosovo. The Pentagon has mapped out rotation schedules for at least five more years.

During last year's U.S. presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice--then an aide to candidate George W. Bush and now national security advisor--used the deployment here as an example of how prolonged peacekeeping missions with ill-defined goals undermine the military's main purpose: fighting wars.

"This comes down to function," Rice said. "Carrying out civil administration and police functions is simply going to degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do. We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

Yet that it precisely what soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division have been doing since Feb. 8, when they took over responsibility from the 101st Airborne here in Vitina, a hot spot in eastern Kosovo.

In an interview before he rotated out, Sgt. Douglass Turner, 22, of the 101st Airborne agreed with Rice's assessment--in part. But like many U.S. soldiers in Kosovo, he saw nothing wrong with working like neighborhood cops.

The 101st trains its soldiers to leap into combat from hovering choppers and look for a quick kill, to work and think as parts of a lethal machine. War-making skills aren't in high demand in Kosovo, so Turner and his fellow soldiers in Company A carried out a much different mission in this town of about 3,800 people, about 15% of whom are Serbs.

Some of the soldiers were assigned to escort a small busload of Serbian children to school in Vitina each day and stand guard outside the classrooms so that ethnic Albanian extremists wouldn't attack. Others camped out next to Serbian Orthodox churches, providing 24-hour protection against bombers and arsonists.

A few U.S. soldiers admitted to bending the rules by bringing milk and bread from the Army mess to feed Serbs who fear being shot if they leave their houses.

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