US Army Plays the Buffer in Bosnia

'SPEAKING for everyone here, we'd rather be somewhere else for the holiday season," grimaces Pvt. Jeremy Van Dyke, of Salisbury, Md., as he and other members of Alpha Troop warm themselves before a diesel-fueled fire roaring inside a 55-gallon drum.

The heaters in their armored vehicles are broken, they have not washed for three weeks, and their home is a frigid strip of desolate roadway that snakes across a no man's land awash with land mines.

About 50 yards to the north of their camp, the 24 soldiers of the US 1st Cavalry Regiment can see the front lines of the Bosnian Serb army. An equal distance to the south run the trenches of the Muslim-dominated Bosnian Army.

This is Checkpoint Alpha, the only position US peacekeepers have taken so far between the Serbs and Muslims they are charged with separating under the agreement designed to end almost four years of ethnic war in Bosnia.

The unit is among the 3,100 US troops of the Implementation Force, the 60,000-member NATO contingent policing the peace pact, who are now in Bosnia. Most were in advance teams that flew in to set up communications, command posts, and the US headquarters in Tuzla after the Dec. 14 Paris signing of the US-brokered peace plan. On Sunday, the first US combat units began trickling into Bosnia from Croatia on a pontoon bridge over the Sava River.

The remainder of the 20,000-strong US contingent, dubbed "Taskforce Eagle," is strewn across Croatia and Hungary or waiting to leave by train or road from bases in Germany. Defense Secretary William Perry asserts that more than half the force will be in the country by Jan. 19, the deadline for the Bosnian rivals to withdraw from their front lines.

But Mr. Perry's confidence may be misplaced: Since it began, the US deployment has been dogged by delays and snafus, natural and man-made.

Troops wait

Sabotage by an antinuclear group and tangled schedules have held up US troop trains bound from Germany to Croatia and a staging area in Kaposvar, Hungary. Bureaucratic snags have kept border crossings shut. Snow and rain have grounded aircraft and snarled convoys.

Accommodations in Hungary and Croatia are sparse: Some troops are housed in unheated warehouses lacking water for bathing. Others have only their vehicles in which to manage snatches of sleep.

An apparent wrong turn by a convoy onto a snow-carpeted Bosnian road on Dec. 30 led to the first American casualty. A soldier was wounded by a mine that exploded beneath his Humvee.

The weather has been the biggest hindrance so far, with the highest Sava River levels in 25 years stalling construction of the pontoon bridge across which US forces and supplies are moving into Orasje, Bosnia, from Zupanja, Croatia. Scores of military engineers were forced to abandon their tents and earthmovers early Dec. 29 when the river burst a dike, inundating their camp in minutes.

"We lost all of our spare clothing," Pvt. Ramiro Magallon, a mud-spattered Chicagoan of the 502nd Engineer Company, recalled as he directed vehicles off the bridge in Orasje. "Our clothes and boots are still wet. They have been promising us new clothing for five days, but they haven't come yet."

The bridge, however, has also been a success story. In a remarkable engineering feat, US helicopters dropped dozens of pontoons into the Sava. Small boats shuttled them into a 2,043-foot-long lifeline that officers say will carry up to 200 vehicles an hour. Gen. William Nash, the Taskforce Eagle commander, celebrated its completion by hugging Sgt. Maj. Johnny Fowler of Warranton, Ga., as he walked across the span on Dec. 31.

"When you see things happen, you rejoice," says Major Fowler, of the 1st Armored Division Engineering Brigade. "It's the taste of victory."

The Americans seem to have won big points with local residents on both sides of the river despite the fume-spitting convoys of Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, trucks, and Humvees that are grinding up their narrow streets.

"They are blocking traffic for civilians, but this is the way it has to be. There will be peace," sighs Pero Knezevic, as he watches a gaggle of grime-covered US vehicles crawl onto the bridge. He brightened at another thought: "This is good business for Zupanja. There will be lots of dollars."

Alpha moves in first

Alpha Troop first provided security for the bridge builders before rolling across to Bosnia, on Dec. 31. From there, its six Bradleys sped south, the tip of a spearhead tasked to secure the 40-mile road to Tuzla. After crossing the Posavina corridor, the narrow lifeline linking eastern and western Bosnian Serb territories, they pulled up in a no man's land near the hamlet of Dubrave.

Under gray skies, the unit set up its checkpoint, three Bradleys facing the Bosnian Serbs, three facing their Muslim foes. Along the roadway's slushy sides, yellow tapes strung on stakes and signs left by Swedish soldiers screamed warnings of mines.

The Americans spent their first night inside their cramped vehicles, their only tent too big for the narrow road. Things brightened when three Swedish soldiers materialized on Jan. 1 and loaned them a smaller tent.

"This makes my guys happy. We will be able to sleep lying down. It's a vast improvement," exclaims Lt. Charles Yi of Los Angeles, Alpha Troop's leader.

Surveying the bleak vista of snow-covered fields and skeletal trees, he considers the days just passed: "We spent Christmas at the bridge. Most Christmases I don't remember. This Christmas I will never forget."

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