PEACEMAKER IN AN ANGRY LAND

The Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
June 20, 1999, Sunday

PEACEMAKER IN AN ANGRY LAND

Mark Petix, The Press-Enterprise
A SECTION; Pg. A01

CAMP DEMI, Bosnia

A world away from the luxury of Riverside’s Mission Inn, where he works as a bellhop, Sgt. Mike Torres is waging peace in Bosnia.

As NATO troops take their first tentative steps in Kosovo, Torres and a 7,000-member American military force continue a four-year, 31-country effort to preserve Bosnia’s fragile peace.

The 23-year-old U.S. Army reservist has put job, college and family on hold to spend nine months in a country divided by hate.

He travels narrow mountain roads where the brooding faces of war dead stare out from granite memorials, through an alpine landscape littered with millions of undiscovered mines.

To step off the road here is to dance with eternity.

He is welcomed as a hero, even a savior, by some.  He is cursed by others in places where the atmosphere is poisoned by old anger and new, raw rage stirred by the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

Today, the world’s attention is focused on the refugees of Kosovo and the aftermath of NATO’s intervention.  A NATO force of 23,000 troops, including 4,000 Americans, faces mines and misery in a race to return many of the 850,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to Kosovo by winter.

But what is happening in Kosovo happened in Bosnia.  The war that was ended by the Dayton Peace Agreement in November 1995 is still fresh.  Kosovo is both a mirror image of Bosnia-Herzegovina and a ghastly encore to 3 1/2 years of Serb-induced “ethnic cleansing” that claimed at least 200,000 Bosnian Muslim, Croat and Serb lives and displaced at least 2 million more.

Into this enforced peace walk Torres and his Psychological Operations unit, based at the U.S. Army’s Camp Demi, 23 miles west of the Yugoslavia border.

The 301st Psyops is here to offer friendship, reconciliation and hope for something better.  Serb, Croat or Muslim, it makes no difference.

Hands out, helmets off, Torres and company visit towns and villages, many of which are sweaty with hate for Americans.

Soldiers shake hands with a Bosnian Serb man who tells them how much they are despised.  They listen, quietly, to a Muslim woman who weeps because a soldier looks like a son killed in the war.  They sign autographs for Croat children who treat them like rock stars.

Five years after Dayton, the journey to lasting peace in Bosnia is slow and uncertain.  More than 1.4 million Bosnians have yet to return to their homes.  Progress is measured, as one Bosnian Serb man said, like the steps of an ant.

American soldiers taking part in the Peace Stabilization Force known as SFOR miss births and birthdays at home.  They struggle to soothe loved ones who can’t understand why their soldier is 7,000 miles away when the car breaks down.

Torres and the 1,000 reservists in Bosnia under presidential order must somehow juggle the demands of military and civilian life.

One weekend a month and two weeks of summer training are inconveniences.  Nine months in the Balkans, after three months of retraining, are something else.

Reservists postpone college degrees and pass up promotions at home to honor their service commitment.  Some lose their jobs.

December will bring Torres back to the Inland Empire.  Back to his 21-year-old wife, Beatriz.  To Riverside Community College and his job at the Mission Inn.  To hope of a career in law enforcement.

But December is Torres’ dream.

Until then, he is a soldier in Bosnia.

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