On Kosovo frontier, a mission chasing 'ghosts'

President Bush is due to meet US troops in Kosovo tomorrow.

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Sgt. Mike Martinez shifts the rifle slung across his shoulders, scans the tree line across the valley, and listens to the early-morning bird song and distant cowbells.

In the meadow below him, nothing moves. He checks his Global Positioning System again, and shrugs. "That's why we call ourselves the Ghostbusters," he smiles. "If there was anybody here," he says, referring to their comrades' reports of eight ethnic-Albanian guerrillas passing through, "they're long gone."

The sergeant's fruitless patrol - a long Humvee ride followed by a long walk to search for guerrillas trying to slip across the border into nearby Macedonia - illustrates the difficulties facing the US troops in Kosovo, whom President Bush is due to visit tomorrow.

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"We're here for a peacekeeping mission, not war, so the assets aren't here," Martinez's company commander, Capt. Joe Ross, later explains. "And this is the most difficult terrain to work in. It's easy for people to hide" in the thickly wooded hills.

The 100 or so men from the 101st Airborne under Captain Ross's command, living behind eight-foot sandbag walls in a small base a few miles from Kosovo's southern border with Macedonia, are as close as any American soldiers in the world to a real war.

From their observation posts along the mountainous frontier, they have watched Macedonian troops and ethnic-Albanian guerrillas exchange rocket and mortar fire. And to stop such skirmishes from turning into anything worse, they have been trying to interdict rebel supply routes from Kosovo.

They have had mixed success, they say. The night before Martinez' patrol went out, another eight-man squad had been manning a roadblock in the ramshackle village of Zhegera shortly before midnight when an approaching car suddenly stopped, did a tire-screeching U-turn, and disappeared up a dirt side track.

The US soldiers gave chase, but their 5.5 ton armored Humvees were not designed to catch up with getaway vehicles. By the time they found the suspect and searched him by flashlight, he and his car were clean. "If he had anything on him, he's ditched it by now," said Sgt. Doug Clemons, the squad leader.

In the past month, says Ross, his men have detained some 100 suspicious men and sent them to the sprawling headquarters of US troops in KFOR at Camp Bondsteel for interrogation. Most have been released. Throughout the US sector, which covers the southeast corner of Kosovo, troops have seized 626 weapons, ranging from rocket-propelled grenade launchers to pistols and large quantities of ammunition and explosives since May 1.

Keeping the peace

Few of the 5,400 American soldiers stationed in Kosovo since the end of the war two years ago see as much action as Clemons and his men, however. The vast majority spend their six-month tours of duty keeping the peace between the ethnic-Albanian majority and the Serbs who stayed behind when their army withdrew as allied troops entered Kosovo.

They guard Serbian orthodox churches and Serb homes against revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians; they encourage mixed villages in their sectors where Serbs and ethnic Albanians cooperate by rewarding them with American fire engines; they organize mixed soccer matches for children. Engineering units mend roads and medical orderlies hold open clinics, in small steps to help Kosovars rebuild their broken province.

The troops are under orders to maintain high security: Humvees leave their base only in pairs, soldiers must carry their weapons and wear flak jackets and Kevlar helmets outside the camps. But normally, it is not dangerous work. Only once have US troops come under fire in the past two years, and only two soldiers have died; one stepped on a mine, and another was killed in a car crash.

The most persistent danger soldiers face is dehydration, as they patrol in the sticky summer heat under 35 pounds of flak jacket, helmet, weapon, ammunition, and other supplies, known as "full battle rattle." Along with two-quart water bottles, they carry "camel packs" of water on their backs, from which they can suck through a tube.

The three platoons in Ross's company rotate their duties, spending four days in Zhegera base, four days in the hills on patrol, and four days in Camp Monteith, a large base 20 miles to the rear.

Camping in a compound

Life in Zhegera is cramped: the men live in a 60- by 50-yard graveled compound surrounded by walls built of large sacks of earth, protected by two guard towers, rolls of barbed wire, and powerful arc lamps.

They sleep on cots in air-conditioned tents and in steel boxes resembling shipping containers, but they enjoy relative comfort: Hot showers work well; Armed Forces Television airs on the mess hall TV; hot food is trucked in twice a day, offering such typical choices as ribs and fried chicken; and one tent houses a workout room with weights and Stairmasters, since the soldiers are not allowed off the base to go running.

Not that they have had much trouble with the locals, except for the kids who try to steal ration boxes from the Humvees. When the soldiers go out on patrol, they are generally greeted with waves and treated like liberators, which is indeed how the ethnic Albanians in Zhegera see them. "The people here seem to want us here, and when they try to talk to us they seem very sincere," says Spc. Luis Arroyo.

The debate in Washington about how much longer US troops ought to stay in Kosovo, or in Bosnia, is distant for soldiers at Zhegera. Nearing the halfway point of their six-month tour, they have their eyes firmly fixed on the day they will be going home to Fort Campbell in Kentucky.

"For the first two months, everything is new, and then it gets real slow," says one soldier in the mess tent, shoveling food into his mouth as he watches Shaft on the TV. "But from three months on, it's all downhill."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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