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GIs, Bosnian Serbs Warily Size Each Other Up

January 8, 1996

SEKOVICI, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ When 11 GIs in battle gear pulled into Sekovici blasting Dolly Parton songs Monday, locals in the Bosnian Serb town did a lot of staring and not much fraternizing.

Memories of U.S. air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions last year are still fresh, and many locals think Americans consider them bloodthirsty beasts.

``People here are made a little nervous by this peaceful invasion,″ said Zeljko Krnjic, one of about 300 Serbs standing at the town’s main crossroads to size up the visitors.

But the GIs and Sekovici residents soon warmed to one another.

GIs handed out sticks of gum and an elderly Serb tried to get a young American to go down the street for a beer. Another Serb said he was surprised by how friendly the GIs were.

``It’s been encouraging,″ said Col. John R.S. Batiste, commander of the First Armored Division’s Second Brigade.

Part of his job is talking with Muslim and Serb commanders and civic officials. He said all seem eager to help.

The 11 GIs in Sekovici, 20 miles southeast of Tuzla, were sent by Batiste to make contact with the locals and to talk with Mayor Veljko Stupar.

The GIs’ route took them 15 miles on narrow tracks from Batiste’s remote mountain headquarters, east through a deep gorge that crosses the front line separating Serbs and Muslims, and into Sekovici.

As the Americans approached Sekovici, they blasted Dolly Parton songs over the outer speakers on one of their four Humvees.

When the Americans arrived, the men milling around the main intersection _ many of them in Bosnian Serb military uniforms _ seemed suspicious.

A group of policemen approached two GIs. One of the policemen, Milan Mrkajic, gave an American soldier a cigarette. The soldier pulled out a tin of chewing tobacco. Mrkajic took one whiff and handed the tin back. When the GI offered chewing gum instead, Mrkajic smiled and accepted.

That seemed to break the ice; the policemen and other locals said the GIs were welcome in their town and would be safe.

Tihomir Cestic felt comfortable enough to ask the soldiers some delicate questions: ``Why do you come to our community with your flak vests and your guns? And why do you like Muslims but hate Serbs?″

The soldiers replied that they are under orders to travel armed, and that they are not biased.

Pfc. Jeremy Calvert, 21, of Hollidaysburg, Pa., who is on a ``psychological operations″ team, handed out newspapers printed by the U.S. military in Serbian about the Dayton peace accord.

A withered man tugged at Calvert’s elbow and offered to buy him a beer. Calvert smiled but said he couldn’t drink while on duty.

Other GIs met with Mayor Stupar to ask where the Army could set up a tent camp, and if it was possible to buy fuel, baked goods and other necessities.

``One by one we will solve the problems and you will get what you need,″ Stupar said.

He added that he could recommend a good barber.

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