Mick Germaine, regimental sergeant-major with the 4th British Brigade in Kosovo, scanned the horizon from his Land Rover. Along the road leading to the southwestern Kosovar city of Prizren, armed members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) milled around the devastated landscape last week that retreating Serbian forces left behind.
"I'm not taking any risks," says Sergeant-Major Germaine. "If there's a KLA checkpoint, we're turning around and reporting it to base."
A four-wheel drive occupied by three Serbian Orthodox nuns followed behind. They were returning deep into KLA-held territory to check on the state of their monastery. Without the British escort, the nuns would not have dared the drive through a patch of Kosovo now almost completely devoid of local Serbs.
In the first 10 days of the KFOR peacekeeping mission, advancing NATO troops have been confronted with a wide range of tasks, as varied as fixing locals' cars to disarming KLA rebels and de-mining roads. In a few cases, NATO soldiers have had to shoot to kill.
While the United Nations still plans its civilian mission, KFOR has fanned out over Kosovo to establish basic law and order in the wake of the Serbian withdrawal. The soldiers on the ground are often the first to hear reports of atrocities, answer villagers' questions, and allay the fears of local Serbs.
"I've spent the last days trying to convince the local Serbian population that we've come to protect them as well," says Germaine. "They were very wary. Hopefully we've brought them down from that fear."
If he were Serbian, Germaine confesses, he would have fled the region as well.
Yet as a British soldier, he is glad he can be here to do his job. After a four-month tour in neighboring Macedonia, he was up for leave the day before KFOR entered Kosovo. In lieu of a visit to his family at a base in Germany, he maintains contact with his wife and children by cell phone.
Communication with the locals is often much more difficult. Few KFOR units have their own interpreters, but often a hand gesture and the appropriate tone of voice achieves the desired results.
"Turn off the vehicle and step outside!" shouts Sgt. Andrew Smith of the 82nd Airborne Division, at a United States checkpoint outside Kacanik in southern Kosovo. Seven ethnic Albanian refugees returning from Macedonia spill out of the white Audi, as Sergeant Smith opens the trunk to check for weapons. Finding only a few plastic bags filled with belongings, he waves the car through. "Home, home," a woman calls out in English.
A battered black car pulls up from the other direction, filled with five KLA soldiers. Smith immediately spots a rifle and confiscates it. "The KLA is not supposed to have rifles or pistols," he bellows at the sheepish rebels, in a confrontation that occurred before the KLA signed a demilitarization plan with NATO over the weekend. "The Serb forces are gone. You have no need for weapons."
As the first KFOR vehicles rumbled in from Macedonia, Kosovar Albanians lined the roads, chanting "NATO, NATO" and throwing flowers onto armored personnel carriers. Jubilation overtook orthographic precision on banners: "NATO welcom kosova" or "Toni Bler, Clinton, I love you NATO." Probably not since the end of World War II have allied forces received such a warm welcome in a foreign country.
"We're getting very kind and warm responses from the villagers," says Lt. Chris Kushmaul of the 82nd Airborne Division. "They appreciate everything we've done."
The platoon commander from Ann Arbor, Mich., patrols the highway from the Macedonian border with his five Humvees. On a road clogged with returning refugees and military vehicles, his job is to provide security.
Many KFOR soldiers, who spent the first days of the mission sleeping in tents or their vehicles, say they miss access to mass media to gain a broader picture of the operation beyond their areas of responsibility.
And in a region of raw ethnic hate and volatile emotions, KFOR soldiers are attempting to maintain their sense of balance and fairness.
"I've been around," says Staff Sgt. George Person, assigned to a unit guarding an alleged mass grave site outside Kacanik. "I try not to be judgmental."
The Gulf War veteran from Fayetteville, N.C., says he only feels sorrow at the devastated town, nestled in a beautiful setting of wooded hills and deep ravines.
"This place was nice before; you can tell," says Sergeant Person. "It's a shame that they lost it all."