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Between Mines and a Hard Place: U.S. Forces Worry for Refugees

January 24, 1996

OLOVSKE LUKE, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Before the war carved one of its many front-lines through this ravaged town, 2,000 Muslim, Serb and one Croat family lived a good life together.

``This was beautiful, beautiful country,″ says Sgt. 1st Class Leon Snyder of New York City. ``You can see why the people want to come back.″

Indeed, you can. The mountains are breath-taking, falling off steeply into rivers where every stone glistens. In the snowy silence you can nearly hear an echo of children at play on a long summer’s day.

Now there is no sound. It’s one more no-man’s land. And the war has left danger hidden within the beauty.

Hundreds of Muslims have begun straggling back to this town in northeast of Sarajevo in recent days, eager to come home or at least take a good look around.

Too eager, given the risk.

``The people feel a need to go back to their homes. It’s a natural human inclination,″ says Capt. Will Davis, a civilian affairs specialist with the 1st Armored Division here. ``But it’s very, very dangerous. You name it, it’s out there.″

Though American troops have secured the military separation zone, hundreds of mines, booby-traps and who-knows-what else are still scattered at every turn in this territory due to come under the control of the Muslim-Croat federation.

In theory, Serb commanders were responsible for removing their detritus before withdrawing. They claim that they have.

But hundreds of mines remain, including many sown by the Bosnian army. It will take years to get all of them cleared.

``We hope for the best from Americans. That’s why we dare to come back,″ said Idriz Beridan. The 60-year-old Muslim remembers happier days _ the days when he worked side-by-side at the factory with Serbs, one of whom helped him build his now-gutted cinder-block house.

``It’s very nice to come back here, but it is also very hard. I lost my 30-year-old son in the war, just up on that hill,″ he says, shaking his head. ``I would prefer it be my son coming home to his two children.″

U.S. soldiers’ hearts go out to the people, who face a long wait.

``I escorted a man ... and gave him some binoculars so he could take a look. He really choked up. And that about summed it up for me,″ says Capt. Joe Jacky of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion. ``This guy hadn’t seen his home in four years.″

But whatever expectations locals might have, U.S. troops are not planning to do anything more than what they are already doing: separating warring factions and securing the peace.

``Nation-building is not in the mandate,″ says Jacky, 33, of Sacramento, Calif. ``We can provide suggestions and offer some advice, but it’s up to the civilian authorities here to re-establish a safe place.″

But between now and Feb. 4, when the Serbs must pull still farther back, the flow of humanitarian aid and help with mine-clearing is likely to be slow. Meanwhile, for NATO forces the pressure and worry continue.

On Jan. 19, the first pull-back deadline, the streets of nearby Olovo erupted in song. A band played and couples danced, more than 200 people gathered against the back-drop of their bombed-out town, just a mile behind the front line that runs through Olovske Luke.

``That was a huge surprise _ and big indicator,″ said Davis, 28, who is based in Germany. ``You would never have seen a group gathered like that before that day. Way too dangerous.″

Finally, people relaxed a little. Finally, their territory was squarely their own. And so they began streaming back, venturing closer and closer to home. They were tentative at first, but in the past several days they have come in growing numbers.

Groups of 30 and 40 have been straying perilously along snow-covered paths which hide ``toe-poppers,″ hockey-puck sized mines that take off a foot in the blink of an eye, and into gardens where trip-wires can be spied among the trees.

They’re everywhere outdoors. And, U.S. soldiers fear, there’s no telling what unpleasant surprises angry Serb troops might have left behind in people’s burned-out homes.

``You see that one?″ says Davis, spreading out a U.N. pamphlet picturing the spectrum of mines. ``I saw one of those down by the river the other day. ... We can’t limit civilian traffic, but I can’t say enough: Until it’s safe, I hope these folks will stay out.″

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