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Georgia’s 48th Brigade helps ensure safe return of refugees — July 22, 2001

July 22, 2001

Copyright 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
The Macon Telegraph
July 22, 2001, Sunday

KR-ACC-NO: K5617
LENGTH: 2251 words
HEADLINE: Georgia’s 48th Brigade helps ensure safe return of Bosnian refugees
BYLINE: By Drew Brown

KULAGRAD, Bosnia-Herzegovina _ Staff Sgt. James Ross and his six-man squad watched as two Muslims hauled rubble from the ruins of a house in this hillside village.

Hadzic Siban, 45, shoveled debris into a cart. His nephew Zekereja Siban pushed each load up a gangplank and dumped it into a battered pickup truck.

“I don’t see how they do it,” said Ross, a lanky 33-year-old trooper with the Georgia Army National Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade. “If it was me, I don’t think I could do it. “There are people here who would slit their throats in a minute if they could. It takes a brave person to return to something like this.”

A victim of “ethnic cleansing,” Hadzic Siban fled the area with his Muslim neighbors when Serb paramilitary forces stormed the village in a campaign of murder and terror that sparked the 1992-95 Bosnian civil war. The Serbs destroyed Siban’s home, along with most Muslim dwellings in the area.

The intent of ethnic cleansing is that victims will stay away if they have nothing to return to.

But now, everywhere around these lush hills, new homes are under construction as former residents return to rebuild their lives.

“I feel safe now,” Hadzic Siban said through an interpreter. “Besides, where else can I go? This is my home.”

Halfway into a six-month peacekeeping stint in Bosnia, Ross and his fellow soldiers are the reason Siban and his neighbors have come back. Because of the soldiers’ daily patrols in recent months, Siban said, mwe’re dealing with now are the hard returns, where we have to evict someone in order to establish the safe environment to which refugees can return home.”

Such tasks often are daunting for soldiers like Ross, a Macon resident who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I’m a war fighter, not a peacekeeper, so this is hard for me.”

A Sunday morning last month started like any other as Ross led a two-vehicle patrol from Camp Comanche, one of three main bases where U.S. troops are stationed.

Within 20 minutes of leaving Comanche, Ross’s squad encountered a crowd that had set up a roadblock to prevent traffic from moving through its neighborhood.

The Americans were dismantling nearby Camp Dobol as part of a gradual reduction of U.S. forces. Traffic to and from Dobol had been routed for weeks onto a gravel road that ran through a small cluster of houses.

White dust blanketed fields and homes alongside the road. A hand-lettered sign at the barricade declared in Serbo-Croatian: “We want to breathe clean air!”

The soldiers drove their Humvees past a long line of trucks and cars that had begun to back up in front of the barricade. Spc. Elysha Wood of Lawrenceville watched calmly from his gun turret.

“It looks like they’re blocking the road because of the dust,” Wood said.

The roadblock posed a problem for Ross and his squad. The Dayton agreement guarantees freedom of movement throughout the Federation and the Republic of Srpska. About 50 people milled about the barricade under the blazing sun.

Ross told his driver, Cpl. Ted Yrizzary of Atlanta, to ease the Humvee forward. Ross called in a report on his radio, then got out of the vehicle to investigate. Yrizzary joined him a few minutes later, an M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder.

A thin, middle-aged man, Ramiz Jajcevic, stood in the road. He pointed at his wife and two young children standing at a nearby fence.

“These are my children,” Jajcevic told Ross through an interpreter. “All of this dust goes down in their lungs and makes it difficult for them to breathe. It is not healthy for them.”

Ross replied that the Dayton accord left him no choice but to open the road.

“I live on a dirt road,” Ross told Jajcevic. “So I understand your concerns. The U.S. government has promised me for years that they would pave my road, but it hasn’t been done. That still doesn’t give me the right to block my road.

“Now, I am a soldier, and I have a duty, which is to open this road. Will you open this road?”

Jajcevic said residents were tired of the dust and would not move until SFOR fixed the problem.

Ross said he had no authority to make that decision.

“Then I have a solution,” Jajcevic said. “Call someone out here who can make a decision.”

The crowd gathered to hear the exchange. The line of vehicles stretched into the distance.

Ross spoke calmly but firmly, never breaking eye contact.

“We’ve got to clear this road,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. We’ve got to maintain freedom of movement.”

A man stepped up and identified himself as the local police chief. He and other police officers sympathized with the residents and would not force them to remove the roadblock. A group of local policemen and Finnish observers watched from nearby.

Ross paused for a moment, then spoke to the police chief. The Finnish soldiers moved in quietly to listen.

“Look, I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m just a soldier trying to do a job, and these people are hindering me from doing my job. I understand his complaints, but I’ve got a job to do. Please help me do it.”

The discussion continued for several minutes. Finally, they compromised. Ross promised to have his battalion commander meet with Jajcevic and the police chief if they would remove the roadblock immediately.

The chief said he did not want a confrontation. Ross handed the chief his commander’s phone number and promised that the officer would call later to arrange a meeting.

“I’m trying to do the diplomatic thing,” he said. “But I’m just a soldier on the ground.”

The police chief ordered the roadblock removed, but warned he could not prevent further trouble.

“Please understand,” he said. “We may do this again.”

Everyone shook hands. Traffic flowed. A few people honked and waved.

Ross’s squad gave Coca-Colas, egg biscuits and bananas to Jajcevic and his family. They accepted the gifts graciously. The police chief offered cigarettes all around. Most adults in Bosnia smoke.

“These people have a gripe and a grievance,” Yrizzary said. “You can’t blame them. But the bottom line is, come on, you gotta act like people.”

Ross described the situation as the most difficult he has faced so far in Bosnia.

“We could’ve cleared this road. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But we’re here to keep the peace, not start another war.

“I was prepared to stand there and talk until I was blue in the face and he was blue in the face, if that’s what it took. Now, everyone is going away happy with what they want.”

The patrol continued on and stopped at a sprawling, open-air market dubbed “Virginia” by SFOR troops. The market straddles the border between the Federation and the Republic of Srpska.

There are several border markets in Bosnia along the former front lines. When the fighting ended, SFOR encouraged the establishment of markets as a sort of safe zone, where people separated by the war could meet old friends, neighbors and family.

The markets have since evolved into some of the largest open-air bazaars in southern Europe. It is not uncommon, according to American troops, to see customers from many neighboring countries and even as far away as Germany. The markets bear the names of U.S. states.

Ross and his squad stroll through the market occasionally, always armed, as much to establish a presence as to check out the local merchandise.

On this Sunday, fruit and vegetable stands were crammed alongside kitchen appliances, furniture, clothing, compact discs and porn tapes. A woman under a roadside umbrella cooked cevapcici, a grilled sausage that is the national dish.

Out on the road, gleaming new BMWs jostled for position with horse-drawn wagons and fuel trucks. Rap music mingled with the vaguely Middle Eastern strains of traditional Bosnian songs.

“They only do this on Sunday,” Ross said. “By noon, it will all be gone.”

Some people waved to the soldiers. Others glared. A few people shouted hello. Others muttered insults. After all, Ross and his squad were now on the border with the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republic of Srpska, where they are just as likely to get the middle finger as a smile.

Many Serbs distrust the Americans, the soldiers said, because they believe America blames their entire ethnic group for starting the war.

Most historical accounts of the war blame it on former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and other Serb nationalists who wanted to carve a “Greater Serbia” out of the six republics of the former Yugoslavia.

Two million Serbs were living outside of Serbia when Yugoslavia fell apart in 1990. When Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, its government sought to create a multi-ethnic society where Muslims, Croats and Serbs shared equal rights.

But when Bosnian Serb nationalists, under the control of Radovan Karadzic, took up arms against the government, Milosevic provided them with weapons and direct military support. Serb paramilitary groups seized half of the country, killing or driving Muslims and Croats from most areas. The process became known as ethnic cleansing.

Croat nationalists in western Bosnia carried out a similar war against Muslims and Serbs until signing a pact with the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government in 1994. The Dayton Peace Agreement ended the fighting.

Ross and his squad stopped for lunch in Zvornik, a town on the Drina River across the border from Serbia. The village of Kulagrad lies in the hills above Zvornik.

Much of the Drina Valley was Muslim before the war, but now the region belongs to Bosnian Serbs who displaced them during the war.

Some people waved at the Americans. Most were indifferent. A young boy ran out and slapped Ross a high-five as the patrol passed.

Ross and his squad acknowledged they really do not understand the Bosnian conflict and just wish they were back in Georgia.

Ross said he missed his girlfriend, Christy Richardson of Milledgeville. They plan to marry as soon as he returns.

“I know I got a job to do,” he said. “But I’m really ready to go home.”

On the way back to camp, the patrol stopped at a mass grave site near the village of Sapna.

About 300 bodies were exhumed at the site last summer and buried in proper graves with markers. The names and dates on the wooden markers identified them as young and old, men and women. All were Muslim, victims of mass murder. Their resting place lay unmarked for years.

Each side committed atrocities during the war. A war crimes tribunal was established at The Hague, Netherlands, in 1993 to prosecute the crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia.

The tribunal has indicted 100 people so far. About 25 remain at large, including Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, his military commander. They are wanted in part for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, where as many as 10,700 Muslims were murdered.

About a third of the graves near Sapna bear only a number. Those are the dead who will never be identified.

Ross walked slowly past the rows of the dead.

The clay atop each grave was baked hard by the sun. Weeds sprouted from cracks. A rusting spade lay on a mound of earth in front of one marker.

“If it were up to me, I’d indict every one of them,” he said, referring to the killers.

“I wish my mother could see this,” he continued. “Then she might understand why I am here. When people ask why I’m here, it’s to stop things like this from happening again.”

Ross paused and looked at the distant hills.

“This was not war,” he said. “This was just slaughter. This was not combat. This was just murder.”

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