EAGLE BASE, TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina U.S. soldiers stationed here are quick to point out that the large pine tree decorated with lights and holiday ornaments near the center of the base is not a Christmas tree.
“It’s a liberty tree,” said Maj. Shawn R. Mell, explaining that an important part of living on this NATO base, which is headquarters to the American component of the international peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, is learning to appreciate the country’s mix of religions, with Muslims the plurality.
“We don’t have a Christmas tree here, because we’re honoring all of those faiths,” he said. “You’ve got so many different holidays happening around this time from Christmas to Ramadan to the Russian Orthodox New Year to our New Year so we’re honoring that.”
At the end of Ramadan in early December, Brig. Gen. John T. von Trott, the top officer at Eagle Base, invited Mohammed Lugavic, an imam from the Tuzla City Mosque, to address the troops and give them a “better understanding of Ramadan and other holidays.” Gen. von Trott said he was impressed by the imam, who has organized a multifaith organization in Tuzla called “the bridge” to improve communication among the city’s Muslims, Roman Catholic Croats and Russian Orthodox Serbs.
The three groups spent the early part of the 1990s fighting one another amid the breakup of Yugoslavia. The war killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced about half of Bosnia’s 4 million people.
The expression on Sgt. Jason Cole’s face is thoughtful as the humvee he is riding in rattles to a bumpy stop near a row of blown-out buildings on the outskirts of Kalesija, in northeastern Bosnia. Sgt. Cole, a 26-year-old from Beach Lake, Pa., spent the afternoon patrolling a nearby village, stopping at one point to speak with a Bosnian Muslim man who told him life was “going good” though water pipes to most of the houses had frozen.
He walked with a Bosnian translator and three other American peacekeepers to a cafe where he likes to drink coffee and occasionally eat chevapi, a popular local dish of skinless beef sausages and bread. “I like going out and talking with people and finding out what their problems are and hopefully making a difference,” he said. “I’ve learned to appreciate what we have in America.”
The most noticeable change in the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia has been its steady reduction in size, from 60,000 in 1996 to fewer than 17,000 now. Recently, there has been another change, embodied in soldiers such as Sgt. Cole: More than 99 percent of the American peacekeepers, about 1,900 troops, are from the National Guard or the Army Reserves rather than active-duty personnel, as were those sent exclusively by the Pentagon when the mission began.
Though it may be too early to evaluate this reliance on “part-time” soldiers, the result so far has been positive. “I think there is a real advantage to having National Guard in these kinds of conditions,” said Gen. von Trott, a National Guardsman from Harrisburg, Pa. “My soldiers tend to be a little older, a little more mature, a little more experienced in life,” he said. “They bring a great deal to bear in terms of additional skills.”
Peacekeeping involves patrolling towns and villages. Soldiers with M-16 automatic rifles travel in small convoys to the towns, where they stop and walk through streets, chatting with people about their daily life. The troops occasionally collect and destroy weapons found in homes in areas where the war raged.
As U.S. military involvement increases in conflicts around the world, the success of National Guard and Reserve troops in Bosnia may indicate a trend in the way the Pentagon manages future peacekeeping missions. The missions have become part of almost any military involvement.
Gen. von Trott said the National Guard prepares soldiers for the situations inherent to peacekeeping. “When you work in a peace-support environment, you have constant dealings with people and the institutions of a country,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things the National Guard does all the time [when] responding to emergency situations at home.”
The main difference between a combat soldier and a guardsman, Maj. Mell said, is that “we’re all volunteers. Nobody told us: ‘You’re going to Bosnia.’ We’re here because we want to be here. We want to help. We want to make the place better.”
In the United States, National Guardsmen are considered civilian soldiers because “they all have a set of civilian skills which varies from anything from a guy who works at a loading dock somewhere to a guy who’s vice president of a company,” Gen. von Trott said.
Seven years have passed since NATO peacekeepers entered Bosnia, ending the bloody ethnic and religious war, but Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader charged by The Hague International War Crimes Tribunal with committing genocide against Bosnian Muslims, remains on the run.
Although catching Mr. Karadzic remains a priority, it has been complicated by the mountainous terrain of this country about the size of West Virginia, said Army Lt. Gen. William E. Ward, the peacekeeping mission’s top commander in Sarajevo. Standing next to a wall map in his office, Gen. Ward points to a jagged line in the southeast of the country representing the rugged border area of Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro.
“You see that stuff down there?” he asked. “That is some tough, tough terrain. It’s just complete badlands. You could get in back in those caves, those mountains and valleys and crevices, and literally just get lost.
“Someone that wanted to hide in there and not get caught, it would probably not be too difficult. It’s deep, heavily wooded and rugged. Everyone down there knows everyone. If someone goes in there that hasn’t been in there before, immediately it’s known,” Gen. Ward said.
Mr. Karadzic, 57, is wanted on suspicion of masterminding an extermination campaign against Bosnian Muslims during the war, including the killing of an estimated 6,500 Muslim men from the northeastern town of Srebrenica, which was seized by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.
Though despised by Bosnian Muslims, Mr. Karadzic still has a strong following in Republica Srpska, a part of eastern Bosnia set aside at war’s end for Bosnian Serbs. In eastern and southeastern Bosnian towns, one need not look far to find a shop selling calendars or posters portraying Mr. Karadzic as a war hero.
Despite widespread rural poverty and an overall unemployment rate estimated by the World Bank at about 40 percent, the $5 million bounty offered for Mr. Karadzic’s capture has not led his supporters to turn him in.
Although support for Mr. Karadzic remains strong, there are indications it is not impenetrable. Biljana Plavsic, who served as his deputy during the war and later as Bosnian Serb president, pleaded guilty at The Hague in October to multiple counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Prosecutors at the tribunal have publicly indicted 79 persons, nearly all Serbs. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was arrested in April 2001 at his home in Belgrade, is on trial for reputed war crimes, including masterminding atrocities against Bosnian Muslims.