For UN Peacekeepers In Croatia, Isolation Is Tough Challenge

FOR most of the 14,500 blue-helmeted soldiers of the United Nations stationed in Croatia, their task - keeping angry Croats and Serbs and Muslims apart, endlessly clearing minefields, and being mercilessly shelled in Sarajevo - is a job, not an adventure.

"We have to get a handle on this situation," says Mike Gagne, a Canadian UN liaison officer. "Is it worth putting a lot more people into this place? I don't know."

Like soldiers everywhere, they live in crowded conditions, feel a bit on edge, and many want to go home for the holidays. Most feel cut off: from the local civilians, from the larger conflict around them, and from the world.

"When I first came three months ago," says Capt. Ric Jones of the Canadian forces near Daruvar, Croatia, "I would have said with certainty that the problem here is that communism fell apart, then Yugoslavia did, and that renewed 500 years of ethnic fighting. Now I don't know anymore. You hear so many charges and so many lies on both sides that you get confused. We are in a total vacuum here. We can't read Serbo-Croatian, and we don't get much Canadian news."

Ricardo, an Argentine soldier searching trucks for weapons at a checkpoint near the demolished town of Gaj, says life is a bit tough when "you don't speak Serbo-Croatian. Cars shoot past and all I know is `What do you have to declare'; `Good day'; `This is not allowed'; and `Please wait while I call headquarters.' "

Most of the UN men and women are model soldiers. They are allowed to go into town once every two weeks. If a UN soldier is found drunk or gets into an altercation, he is drummed out. The troops are carefully drilled on the UN rules, don't go near the fighting, and if fired upon have a strict set of procedures: first fire a warning shot, fall back, and only shoot as a last resort.

Most of the soldiers "do it for the money," says Rene Hamel, an affable, tank mechanic from Ottawa. All UN troops are paid equally - $1,300 a month above their average salary, which for soldiers from Nigeria, Nepal, and Argentina is a boon. Mr. Hamel wants to go into Bosnia-Herzegovina because that will earn him an extra $192 a month, but the Serbs won't let his tank unit into Banja Luka where the Canadians would guard aid shipments.

"I'm buying a small house and this is the down payment. Most of us don't care about the politics. We do what the UN wants; that's it. We don't want to know what's happening," he says.

Yet many troops say the conflict is unlike anything they have witnessed before. In the southern and eastern sectors, the peacekeepers wear the heavy flak-jackets all the time.

One Canadian stationed near Knin in the south says he is tired of watching soldiers from all sides "beat up the old ladies. It's incredible.... The latest thing is shooting men in the chest and throwing them into minefields. We're getting calls to pull these people out."

Which side is worse? The soldier shakes his head and pauses: "Maybe the Serbs. But really, both sides are doing it."

One British soldier interviewed by a Western delegation in Sarajevo says he feels enormous contradictions when seeing the people he was supposed to aid come under attack. In a Muslim village he witnessed Serbs driving a band of Muslim women - beating and shooting them. "What am I supposed to do when they are killing the people I am supposed to be feeding?" he asked.

Nor do the UN forces feel welcome. In the southern sector they are not allowed out after dark. Every evening local militias mine the roads around the UN protection force (UNPROFOR); every morning the mines are removed. Kids throw rocks at the trucks. Signs read: "UNPROFOR go home."

One Canadian responded: "I'll go home. Show me the plane; just show me the plane."

Not all is adversity, however. Around Daruvar, the UN forces have adopted several families. It started when troops going to the local dump every day noticed a family living there. They gave the children chocolate, and the parents bread. Now the troops play with the kids, and help a number of other families as well.

"It's something we want to do," one soldier says.

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