US Troops Bivouac in Bosnia Mud

HOME for American Special Forces soldiers in central Bosnia will be an old brick factory that could easily be called ''Camp Mud.''

Among the first units of a 60,000-strong NATO force that will implement a Balkan peace deal to deploy, the 32 soldiers of the 1st Battalion 10th Special Forces Group - liaison officers for the NATO operation - were pleasantly surprised when they arrived Dec. 10 in Kiseljak - near the capital, Sarajevo.

They found a Christmas tree decorated by French Foreign Legionnaires - part of a contingent of UN troops already here - that graces one side of a parking area churned into a sea of foot-deep mud.

The job of this group, and that of the 200 or so other Special Forces soldiers who will complement them, is to serve as liaison officers between the 25 national contingents and the top British, French, and American divisional commanders.

Among them are linguistic specialists who speak Farsi, Malay, and Arabic - for the Implementation Force (IFOR) units - and Serbo-Croat. Within days of the signing of the Dayton peace agreement on Dec. 14 in Paris, they will have created a unified command structure for the entire US-led NATO mission.

The Special Forces deployed into Sarajevo so stealthily that they managed to evade all the 1,500 media representatives in Bosnia, except for a lone TV camera. Their secret: arriving shortly after another planeload of American troops, who were mobbed by the waiting press. The journalists went home, and the soldiers then convoyed to their new brick factory base at Kiseljak.

Their route took them through the Sarajevo front-line suburb of Ilidza, one of the areas most destroyed during nearly four years of war in Bosnia.

''I was amazed at how shot up Sarajevo was,'' said the unit commander, Lt. Col. Frank Bohle, from Baltimore. ''Even after reading the intelligence reports ... it's obviously seen a lot of action.''

The glue for allied forces

Similar units served as the glue between the various allied forces that took part in the Gulf war against Iraq in 1991. So far in Bosnia, they say, cooperation has been trouble-free. ''We had 33 exercises last year throughout NATO,'' said Colonel Bohle. ''Having had that relation ... you always stumble across someone you trained with or worked with. This is going very well.''

Before receiving orders to deploy in Bosnia, he said, his units had been training for months with Bosnia in mind: to pull out UN peacekeepers who earlier this year had been facing difficulties from Bosnian Serb forces.

This is a peacekeeping mission, but they are prepared for war. They won't begin work off this base without wearing their bulletproof body armor.

''If you feel the threat or are threatened, then you clearly have the right to defend yourself,'' Bohle said about NATO's new and robust rules of engagement for this mission. ''If we get into a situation, we will concentrate on self defense.'' The threat now, he said, is ''fairly low.''

Learning the ropes

The Special Forces have nevertheless learned about ''checkpoint situations,'' and before leaving Stuttgart they received specific mine-awareness training from British military engineers.

For veterans of other, warmer American deployments, the cold snowy skies of Kiseljak - and the mud - posed the greatest immediate threat.

''In the Gulf war, we were real hasty in a non-secure environment,'' said Sgt. Ed Moan from Boston. ''This facility seems pretty secure, but definitely this is a change of temperature.''

Expecting to set up their tents in blinding snow, possibly under fire - for this is Bosnia - the soldiers instead took over some empty rooms at the Kiseljak brick factory, setting up their cots under the dim light from one hanging bulb. With snow shoes jutting from some backpacks, and snow camouflage fatigues deeply buried in their bags, they set up makeshift heating tubes and lights, and cleaned their rifles.

Sausages beat MREs

The accommodation far exceeded expectations, and there were more surprises in the mess hall, where they forsook their ''Meals Ready to Eat'' for more British fare of sausages and mashed potatoes.

''They even have Heinz ketchup for us!,'' beamed one young commando, from under the brim of his thick winter hat. The half-gallon pot sat on the table beside his plate.

There were plenty of reminders on the seriousness of the mission, though, and the risks that await them beyond the confines of the camp.

Pinned to one wall were posters showing the vast array of mines found throughout the former Yugoslavia. ''Remember,'' warned one, ''Mines have not signed any cease-fire agreement.''

But the troops are not without their creature comforts. Along with their tents, 10 days worth of combat rations, rechargeable batteries, and a dozen types of heating apparatus, they brought a TV and VCR and asked their families to send videos.

They also brought a small video recorder to send Christmas messages back home.

''We have been told to plan for a year,'' Bohle said. ''These are tremendous sacrifices for our families. Without their support, we couldn't do our jobs.''

But Christmas is not at the top of his mind. ''If we can even slow the conflict here,'' he said, ''we have a chance to make a difference. It makes it real to the soldier, so the soldier understands what that sacrifice is all about.''

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