Checkpoint Charlies Dash British Convoy's Blithe Spirits

Traveling with 200 NATO troops to their new home in Bosnia, a reporter sees firsthand how harassment dies hard

THE checkpoint loomed out of the darkness on the frozen mountain road, a well-lit depot of Croat control afloat in a sea of darkness.

Our convoy - an armored column of more than 20 British NATO fighting vehicles with some 200 troops - blithely slid through, passing the Bosnian Croat military police with confidence born of superior firepower and a new, robust peacekeeping mandate.

But then the illusion of "freedom of movement" for NATO - enshrined in the Bosnian peace accord - came to an end. No signature can do away overnight with the ingrained "checkpoint culture." On a recent journey, this reporter was harassed by both Croats and Muslims.

For them, to be a guard is to know all power and control, and to relish inflicting tithes upon the unarmed and vulnerable.

Spying our civilian vehicle toward the end of the long British convoy, the Croat military police swung into action.

One guard waved his flashlight, telling us to stop; another uniformed thug lunged toward our hood, arms outstretched. Their bodies flashed in the headlights as we accelerated, sure that the might of British armor on our side might give the Croats reason to pause.

It didn't. The Croats sprayed the sky over our heads with bullets as we raced away.

The Croats obviously radioed forward to the next checkpoint. The flowing ribbon of bright-red taillights stopped suddenly, with a grinding of braking tank tracks on asphalt. We were within 400 yards of the new British base at a derelict shoe factory in Mrkonic Grad, but that didn't seem to matter.

The Croats here surrounded our car, pounding on the windows, then grabbed the driver's identity card. Finally, after a lot of coaxing by the convoy commander, the Croats permitted us to pass.

The Muslims, who are viewed as the victims of the war and will be armed and given military training by the Clinton administration, are little more forthcoming. During one military parade in Zavidovici, 15 miles north of the central Bosnian town of Zenica, this reporter was detained by a group of fundamentalist Muslim fighters, known as Mujahideen.

Often coming from other countries - veterans of the war in Afghanistan, or from Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan - these fighters resent the presence of any other foreign forces in Bosnia, where they have been waging what they believe to be a "holy war."

The parade was meant to be a victory celebration, with 4,000 soldiers of the Bosnian Army Third Corps. The Mujahideen company wore black-and-green headbands and telltale long beards. Their unit flag was painted with Koranic inscriptions. As I prepared to leave, two Mujahideen emerged from the crowd and rushed me, grabbing at my cameras.

They were young Bosnians and wore long willowy beards of men who have never shaved. Their eyes betrayed anger, and a certain glint of righteousness, that clearly would justify any behavior.

Regular soldiers and Bosnians looked aside - ashamed and intimidated - as my captors dragged me roughly away. When I resisted, they threatened to punch me, stabbing at my head with their hands and pulling my face close to theirs.

They crumpled my Third Corps accreditation papers as another meaningless distraction. Bosnian government officers were forced to play the game, and the Mujahideen insisted that every roll of film be confiscated. "Please, please, give them everything," pleaded one official. "Otherwise it will be very bad."

BRIG. RICHARD DANNATT, the commander of the British troops in Bosnia, has been battling Bosnia's checkpoint culture as a UN peacekeeper for months. He has now changed hats and commands NATO troops. In theory, Croats, Serbs, and Muslims will have no choice but to comply with him. But that doesn't mean they will.

"Checkpoints for them - and control - is normal," he says. "Unrestricted freedom of movement is abnormal, and foreign forces enjoying complete and unrestricted freedom of movement is almost anathema.

*Check our World Wide Web Bosnia page: http://freerange.com/csmonitor.

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