Hostile territory; American soldiers extending the hand of peace find no takers among the implacable Bosnian Serbs of Vlasenica.

The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
June 21, 1999, Monday , ALL ZONES

Hostile territory;
American soldiers extending the hand of peace find no takers among the implacable Bosnian Serbs of Vlasenica.

Mark Petix, The Press-Enterprise

A SECTION; Pg. A01

VLASENICA, Bosnia

Hate lives in Vlasenica.  It gives the air a metallic taste and sucks the chatter out of a convoy of four Humvees making the 40-minute trip from Camp Demi.

The city’s rage is  as blunt as the message painted in large, red letters on a soccer stadium wall:

“Death to Americans.”

Vlasenica is 12 miles west of Yugoslavia and the stoniest ground. Sgt. Mike Torres of Riverside and his Psychological Operations unit will work in the Republika Srpska (ree-PUB-lih-kuh SURP-skah).

This land is Serb, unrepentant and unbowed.  Even in the Serb stronghold of Han Pijesak, American soldiers can expect the occasional polite wave or a courteous, if forced, hello.  Not in Vlasenica.

If there is a friendly voice in Vlasenica, someone with a word of kindness for the NATO-led Peace Stabilization Force known as SFOR, they know better than to speak aloud.

It is in places like Vlasenica that a lasting peace must somehow be built.

“As much as we love to go to the Muslim/Croat Federation, we really need to stay engaged in the Republika Srpska,” says Sgt. Jeff Stinchcomb of San Diego, a Psyops unit member.  “It’s hearts and minds.  I know it really sounds corny, but this place is why we are here.”

It is Psyops’ job to stay calm, appear casual and return week after week to Vlasenica, hoping to gain more than a toehold in a place where SFOR is blamed for the city’s economic collapse and 70 percent unemployment.

As the convoy enters the city, a man leaps from the curb to make sure he is heard.  “SFOR go home! ”

The U.S. Army and the 30 other nations of SFOR have the firepower to keep the peace, Torres says.  SFOR owns Bosnia.  He points to a thin, black receiver hanging from the roof of the Humvee.

“Thunder Mike.” The God phone.

“This is a very powerful phone,” Torres says.  “Tanks will roll, scouts, air support.  Like (Camp Demi’s commander Lt.  Col.  John A. Simpson Jr.) said, there is nobody we can’t deal with.”

Despite the might of SFOR and the presence of international police, Vlasenica remains explosive.

In December, an International Police Task Force vehicle was one of three destroyed by grenades and firebombs during protests over the arrest of Radislav Krstic, a Bosnian Serb general indicted for war crimes.

Convoys vary routes and times into Vlasenica (vlas-en-EAT-zuh), but the way is narrow and choices limited.  Grenades and mines are still plentiful.

Before the war, 18,699 Muslims lived in the opstina, or municipality, of Vlasenica.  They made up 55 percent of the population.  Today Vlasenica is 100 percent Serb.

Most of the damage is found outside the city proper, where Muslim villages were burned and inhabitants sent packing to Kladanj and Olovo – or herded into the concentration camp known as Susica.

Camp commander Dragan Nikolic faces trial for war crimes involving the torture and execution of 14 Muslim men in Susica, which operated a few hundred yards from Vlasenica’s main street.

Some 2,000 people, mostly Muslim men, are still missing.

The convoy heads for the city’s center, past Club Skorpion, where the local mob and Bosnian Serb nationalists hold court.

A pop and a screech and the shortwave voice of Staff Sgt. Kevin Scott of Pomona breaks the silence in the Humvee in which Torres and Stinchcomb again bring up the rear.  A Los Angeles police officer in civilian life, Scott’s voice is wrapped in his best police radio monotone.

“When we get in we’ll do a victory lap through town to announce our presence,” he says.  “Then we’ll proceed to the radio station. ”

While Psyops offers the hand of friendship, there must be no doubt about who is in charge, Torres says.  The victory lap serves that purpose.

“Perception is reality,” Torres says.  “We are a professional police force.  Sometimes you have to let them know exactly what you’re doing.”

The lap leads the convoy on an unfortunate path, past a high school where students just dismissed for lunch buzz and bristle at the sight of U.S. Army green.

A blonde girl, perhaps 16, leans out a classroom window and flashes the Serb victory sign and a lively, local variation of the finger.

“The teachers encourage that,” Torres says.  “It’s hard to believe.”

A boy about 15 launches a stiff-armed Nazi salute and spits.  His friend smiles and draws a circle in the air, then points at a soldier:

Target.

Bug-eyed men perform vertebrae-twisting doubletakes as they pass the town’s radio station, where 12 soldiers and two interpreters huddle close to their vehicles.  American soldiers puff joylessly on damp cigarettes as icy ropes of gray rain begin to fall.

Psyops and reservists from the 354th Civil Affairs unit in upstate New York are here for some housekeeping.  Scott and an interpreter will visit the local radio station and pick up a list of questions for Simpson’s twice-monthly show.

Civil Affairs will meet with the local Red Cross director to discuss the city’s refugee problem.

Torres, Stinchcomb and the others will guard the vehicles and attempt to talk with locals.  The stony faces of passersby indicate a long day ahead.

“You are not my friend,” a boy of about 14 tells Torres.  “You kill my people.”

Torres says nothing.

“As an American soldier,” he says later, “that’s like slapping my face.  I thought, ‘I wish you were mature enough to understand what’s going on in your country. ‘ ”

The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia did not help.

“The peace we are putting together here is fragile,” Stinchcomb says.  “What’s happening in Kosovo could tear it apart.  It’s that fragile.

“But maybe our being here nine months, meeting people man to man, face to face, might help.  It might save lives.” The same faces pass back and forth, not speaking, just staring.

Scott and the interpreter return from a meeting with radio station director Zoran Jovanovic.  The meeting was short and terse.

The U.S. Army pays 12 deutsche marks (about $ 7) a minute for air time.  Yes, the station will take the money, Jovanovic says, but the military is not welcome here.

Across the town’s square, Maj.  Russell Wendling and Sgt. Lloyd White of Civil Affairs are finishing an unsatisfactory meeting with Branko Bajio, director of the Red Cross in Vlasenica.

The U.S. Army understands there are large numbers of Serb refugees coming into Vlasenica from Yugoslavia, Wendling says.

No, Bajio says.  Not true.  There are maybe 30 refugee families.

Wendling encourages Bajio to ask refugees and displaced persons to register with SFOR, to help the task force keep track of refugees.  No, Bajio says, they do not want to register.  They do not trust SFOR.

White says several churches in upstate New York are interested in donating clothing to the needy in Vlasenica.  Is the Red Cross interested?

“Yes,” he says, “but it would be best if it did not come through the Army.”

Wendling reminds the director that bringing Muslim refugees back to Vlasenica is a key to international aid.  “Under the Dayton Agreement, once they come back home, the door to aid is open,” he says.

Bajio shrugs.

Scott and another Psyops member, Spc.  Bill Bershinsky of Wyoming, have broken from the group, walking a short distance to a coffee shop.  A reluctant waitress produces tiny cups of thick Bosnian coffee.

A sickening THUD rattles the shop window.  Thoughts race to the convoy, where friends are standing.

It is a sonic boom, good news delivered over the shortwave with a special message.  “Sgt. Torres requests a triple scoop.”

That was a bad moment, Torres says later.  A good time to break the ice.  “And it’s the best ice cream you’ll ever taste.” Across the narrow street from the radio station is a field of sawgrass and dandelion.

A mosque once stood there, Stinchcomb says.  One night, Serb townsfolk knocked it down and carted it away, stone by stone.  When Muslims woke the next morning, there was only the field.

“We have asked about it, and people say there was no mosque there,” Stinchcomb says.  “But I asked an old woman who said, ‘Yes, there was a mosque there.  The story is true.  But it was a small mosque. ‘ ” Stinchcomb says it is not fair to judge Vlasenica by its rage.

These are people who love their children and believe, passionately, that they are right.

Psyops is unlikely to change the minds of adults here.  That generation appears lost.  But there is always hope for the next generation, he says.  The children of Vlasenica may be open to change.

“Vlasenica is not evil,” Stinchcomb says.  “This is a wounded place.” The U.S. Army can count on a poor reception any time it travels to Vlasenica.  “We are very sensitive when we patrol this part of the Republika Srpska,” Torres says.

But it is important not to show fear, he says.  It is Psyops’ job as SFOR ambassadors to go calmly into places, and situations, where trouble might be waiting.

Torres and a handful of soldiers and interpreters are called down the street by a small child.  They file up three flights of narrow concrete steps and into a courtyard where a pig is roasting slowly on a spit.

They have been invited by the child’s father to witness preparations for the Serbian Orthodox feast of St. George.

He is a hard-eyed man of about 40.  He flashes a forced smile and says he wants to explain Serbian customs.

“Every family has one saint day,” he says through an interpreter.

“On this day they open up their home for guests.  This is a custom only of Serbs.”

The man calls into the house and his wife emerges with six shot glasses, none alike.  He pours six shots of the potent homemade plum brandy sljivovica from a bottle that once held Ballantine Scotch.

Torres respectfully declines, saying he must drive back to camp.

A silver-haired man of about 60 wobbles down the hill, waving a large plastic soda bottle of the plum brandy over the fence.

After offering more drinks, he points to Torres.

“A soldier like you, you hide behind your guns,” he says.  “You are doing it for money.”

The man pats his chest.

“A Serb soldier, when he fights, he is fighting from his soul.”

A baby-faced Bosnian Serb soldier stands on the steps below.  You are parked in our spot, he says.

Time to move.  Torres shakes the soldier’s hand as he passes and offers a bright “dobor dan. ” Good day.

In the courtyard above, the hard-eyed man points again to the pig and then to his daughter, a small, dark-haired girl of about 4 huddled shyly in a doorway.

“I wanted you to see this,” he says, “so you will understand we are not all wild and crazy people as presented in the press.”

Someone asks his name.

“No names,” he says sharply.  He pauses, then smiles.  The smile cannot reach his eyes.

“My name is Serb.”

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