The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
June 20, 1999, Sunday
A soldier in Bosnia; BOTH SIDES HAVE ENOUGH VICTIMS;
Sgt. Torres encounters those who love him, those who hate him, and those too numbed by war to feel much at all.
Mark Petix, The Press-Enterprise
A SECTION; Pg. A05
HAN PIJESAK, Bosnia
Three miles east of Camp Demi, four armor-plated Humvees rumble through a black, wet tunnel of stone and into a disturbing world.
Sgt. Mike Torres of Riverside is riding shotgun. He is an extra set of eyes and ears for driver Sgt. Jeff Stinchcomb, who is wrestling 2 1/2 tons of steel and rubber down a road barely wide enough for two compacts.
An M16 shares the console between Torres and Stinchcomb with pastries liberated from the mess hall after breakfast.
At 23, Torres is an experienced soldier. He served with the U.S. Army in Germany, Jamaica, Canada and South America. But he didn’t know what to expect in Bosnia.
“You don’t really know what’s going on until you get there,” he says.
He found a country literally divided by rage.
The world begins to tilt 600 yards east of the U.S. Army camp’s main gate, where the rip-saw screams of a roadside lumbermill fade into unnatural silence, the vacuum pierced only by the rough hum and steel rattle of Humvees rolling through.
“Welcome to the RS, gentlemen,” Torres says. “This is the dark side. ”
The Republika Srpska. A country within a country. The angry heart of Bosnia’s Serbs.
Torres and Stinchcomb, 33, of San Diego, bring up the rear in a convoy of 12 soldiers and two interpreters headed for Han Pijesak, a mountaintop town with alpine vistas and a dark soul.
The U.S. Army Reserve’s 301st Psychological Operations unit will empty its strategic playbook in Han Pijesak (HAHN pee-YAY-zak).
The group will do a little public relations work at the town radio station, where Camp Demi’s commander, Lt. Col. John A. Simpson Jr., will answer written questions from citizens.
Soldiers will deliver donated clothing to a refugee center.
And they will spend several hours on the streets of Han Pijesak, jump-booted ambassadors bearing handshakes, hellos and Mirkos: NATO-produced full-color magazines promoting tolerance, mine awareness and democracy.
If there is to be lasting peace in Bosnia, Torres says, it must be rooted in places like Han Pijesak, where Americans were reviled as invaders years before NATO bombs began to fall this year in Yugoslavia.
“We need to do something about that,” he says. “Or at least try. ”
Torres will always try, says Stinchcomb.
“He’ll walk into places no one else wants to go,” Stinchcomb says. “I’ll think it’s a losing situation but he’ll make the effort.
It may be an audience that’s already made up its mind, but he’s not afraid to offer a hand of friendship to a hard-line Serb. ”
Torres calls it the best part of his job.
“Somewhere out there, a Serb soldier is telling his buddies he met an American soldier and shook his hand,” Torres says. “He may decide the Americans are not all bad. Who knows? I’ll know I did my part and he did his. He got his respect and I got mine. You don’t need an interpreter for that. ”
He learned respect from his late grandmother, who raised him in Desert Hot Springs. Ruth Putty was poor, so Torres went to work while still in high school.
“She was a retired telephone worker,” he says. “We did not have money. “The Army taught him discipline. He will need it today.
The air is sour with the hard stares of Bosnian Serb women in scarves and long peasant dresses and black-booted men working fields of damp, red earth by hand.
The road up and into Han Pijesak is narrow, without guardrails or shoulders. It bends back on itself at a turnout, where a bus has stopped so passengers can relieve themselves. A blonde woman, perhaps 20, turns and slowly extends her middle finger at the convoy.
“Outstanding,” says Torres, smiling. “Very nice. ”
A soldier must control his emotions, he says. The U.S. Army, and especially Psyops, cannot react to the shouts and obscene gestures showered upon them in the Republika Srpska (ree-PUB-lih-kuh SURP-skah).
“We have to be as impartial as possible,” he says. “We’re not here to take sides. You know, we’re an occupation force to them. ”
The peace negotiated in 1995 divides Bosnia into halves: Muslim and Croat on one side, Serb on the other. The boundary is marked by an invisible buffer known as the Zone of Separation.
On a map, the Zone of Separation is an abstract, a line created by peacemakers in Dayton, Ohio.
Here it is real, a demilitarized zone through which civilians may pass if they wish, but seldom do. On both sides of the zone, the unwelcome mat is always out.
Thick pines melt into a wide, green meadow near the entrance to Han Pijesak, where a sheepskin is tacked to a log barn.
Seventy-five minutes and a world away from Camp Demi, the convoy parks on a sidewalk in the town’s main square, near the high school.
A dark-eyed matron opens a second floor window and spits. Two or three old men mumble half-hearted responses to bright “dobor dans,”the “good days” Stinchcomb and Torres offer with much hope and little success.
Han Pijesak was a military stronghold during the war, headquarters of the Bosnian Serb Army and home base for Ratko Mladic, one of the primary architects of Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing.
He is a local hero here, indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for war crimes but not yet arrested.
Han Pijesak also was a resort favored by Yugoslavians for its stunning beauty: long valleys and steep ravines wrapped in a blue-green blanket of fir and vine not unlike upstate New York or the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.
Today, the town is a decaying, frozen place of rusting and gutted vehicles, smoldering mounds of garbage and graying stacks of oak and pine for which there is no market.
Yugoslavia is 20 miles to the east, and always close to the hearts of Han Pijesak. The area was bombed by NATO in 1995 after Serbs shelled U.N. safe areas. The people remember, Stinchcomb says.
With Lt. Col. Simpson in town for his biweekly radio show, there are no fewer than three U.S. Army convoys in Han Pijesak. Too many
soldiers. Too many guns.
“A town is like a person,” Stinchcomb says. “It has good days and bad. Today there’s a lot going on. ”
Unemployment is at least 50 percent, maybe higher. That doesn’t help. The square is jammed with men and women without much, if anything, to do but glower at the U.S. Army.
“When people are unemployed, they have time to be full-time Serbs,” Stinchcomb says. “And here comes the Army rolling through. ”
Two high school girls laugh at the patrol making its way through town. One girl flashes a thumb and two fingers – Serb victory on three fronts.
A small boy waves at the soldiers. His mother swats him sharply on the head. “I am on the moon with the U.S. Army! ” shouts Army interpreter Eldin Masic, rolling his eyes. The rosy-cheeked 24-year-old fought with the Bosnian Muslim army not far from this place.
Stinchcomb and 22-year-old Army Spc. Bill Bershinsky of Laramie, Wyo., climb the steps to a grassy park overlooking the square, where they attempt a conversation with four old men sitting on a stone bench.
The men smile and say, through an interpreter, that they don’t like Americans.
“Our mission is different,” Stinchcomb explains. “We are here to keep the peace. We are not the ones who are bombing Yugoslavia. ”
“I think you are the same,” one man says. The others nod.
Stinchcomb tells the man that if he has family in Yugoslavia, he hopes they are safe.
“Yes, I have relatives there,” the man says, shaking Stinchcomb’s hand. “The Serbs there, they are our brothers. You go to hell. ”
Marta Vidovic has been watching the exchange with her 4-year-old grandson, Stefan.
“Evil is all around us,” the 63-year-old widow says quietly through an interpreter. “There has to be a better future. For the kids. My grandson, he is scared when he sees the planes. The end of war, we are living for this. ”
A Bosnian Serb soldier stands at the bottom of the hill, watching. Vidovic glances down, then continues.
“(Yugoslav President) Slobodan Milosevic, these people,” she says. “These people are without feelings. Animals. I am not going to
let my grandson in the army. “Elementary school students pour through the park and into the square. Stinchcomb and Bershinsky hand out Mirko magazines to the few who will take them.
A woman at the bottom of the hill wrestles a magazine out of a boy’s hands.
Stinchcomb and Bershinsky follow the last of the students, picking up pieces of shredded magazine. They work without a word.
The convoy makes its way to a narrow street on the western edge of town, a refugee center for Serb families forced to flee villages near the predominantly Muslim municipalities of Kladanj (kluh-DAHN) and Olovo (O-lo-vo).
On a street named Aleksanor Kraljevic, eight families live in a two-story shell of crumbling plaster and rusted metal shingles.
There are no beds, only a few cots and blankets in this refugee center.
Out of the house and down the street they come.
“Hello, hello, hello! ”
At least 50 people, mostly old women and young children, crowd the Humvees as Torres and the other soldiers unload moving boxes full of shirts, dresses, blankets and, prize of all prizes, two soccer balls. The balls are immediately put into play.
The refugees’ stories spill out, unbidden. Tales of fleeing into the woods with what they could carry, stumbling away from the fury of Muslim neighbors and Serb shells bringing death without regard for ethnicity.
Golijan Todor has been at the refugee center since 1992, when Muslim neighbors he had known for decades burned his home and threatened his life. Todor, his wife and two children survive on a monthly assistance check equivalent to about $ 25.
“I am 77 years old, and everything is burned down,” he says through an interpreter. “I have two children. I think the world of the (U.S.) Army. They give us food, clothing. “Dasa Stukeljic is 50 and lives in a shanty near the center. She has lived there for six years. She wraps her arms around her 11-year-old daughter, Dajana.
“We live in a hole in the ground,” she says. “It’s like a dog’s house. No water. No power. My girl is sick because of the moisture.
Nobody goes home, and nobody gets anything. I live. That’s all. ”
Milana Mirovic is 77. Her son is dead, killed in the war. Her daughter-in-law remarried and abandoned the family. Mirovic is raising her grandchildren, boys 11, 8 and 5.
She remembers when the Serbs began shelling her village, near Olovo. They were in the hills, she says. Muslim, Croat or Serb, the bombs did not care who was below.
“It was laundry day,” she says. “The laundry was hanging outside.
When the explosions began, all the laundry flew away. ”
That was 1992. She and her grandchildren were trucked into Han Pijesak, to this center, where she has lived since.
“I always wonder how long we will have to stay here. ” She begins to cry. “I can’t live with it anymore. ”
Mirovic lets go of a column she has been using for support. She wobbles for a moment, falls back into the wall and sinks to her
knees. No one seems to notice.
“It’s hard not to take sides when the Serbs give us so much grief and the Muslims show us so much love,” Stinchcomb says. “But both sides have enough victims to go around. ”
Torres steps behind a Humvee. A soldier will not shed a tear without a fight.
“A refugee is a refugee,” he says, eyes focused on some invisible point ahead. “Serb, Croat or Muslim. When you see how they live . . . it gets to me. This is what their country can provide for them.
What can you do? Pray, I guess. “