'Hold Your Fire!'

It started with Serbs spitting at the Americans. Soldiers of the 82d Airborne Division were emerging from a building in Mitrovica, Kosovo, that they'd searched for weapons. A crowd gathered. "Come on, shoot me, you cowards," one Serbian man shouted, baring his chest. "You can't bomb us now," another sneered. Captain Mark Pratt ordered the 132 men of his Bravo Company to stand shoulder to shoulder. "Hold your line, Joes," he and his noncoms shouted, as they moved behind their line. That was easy enough. "And hold your fire!" That was harder. They upgraded their status to red, in Army parlance; rounds were chambered.

"All we could do is stand there and take it," said Specialist David Arsen, 24, of Tacoma, Washington--even when a snowball barrage gave way to trash, rocks and uprooted paving stones. "I grabbed a few guys by the shoulder; I could see they were getting pretty upset," Captain Pratt said. " 'Hold on a little bit longer, we'll get out of this OK. That's what they want you to do, shoot'." French KFOR troops moved in and formed a line in front of the paratroopers, and the Americans withdrew to their Humvees. A brick hit machine-gunner Michael Shane Price, 29, in the face and knocked him, dazed, out of his turret. With a broken nose and two black eyes, Price was one of two men treated by medics; many others had cuts and bruises.

"It could have gone either way," said Pratt. And that's what made Mitrovica so frightening; last week, indeed, America's U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke called the town the most dangerous place in Europe. A year after the start of the war in Kosovo, the province remains a place that is at best in a state of cold peace. Communal relations between Albanians and those few Serbs who remain are abysmal. Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic remains in power in Belgrade, willing and able to foment trouble in Kosovo. NATO's commitment to the peacekeeping mission is less than wholehearted. There are meant to be 49,000 troops in Kosovo; there are just 29,000 at present, and last week NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Wesley Clark called for urgent reinforcements. In those conditions, it's easy to see how a spark could ignite a real fire, how a humanitarian intervention could turn into a military disaster. That, after all, is exactly what happened in 1993 when 18 U.S. Rangers were killed in a fire fight in Mogadishu, Somalia. And nobody wants something like that to happen again.

The peacekeepers' workload is daunting, even for the Americans, whose Kosovo Protection Force (KFOR) contingent of 5,500 is the largest of any nation's. U.S. troops mount an average of more than 300 patrols a day--the bulk of them on foot, and many of them 12 to 14 hours long. They don't normally work in volatile Mitrovica, in the French sector, and KFOR quickly pulled the 82d out last week. But even in the Americans' own sector, the southeast, it's hardly quiet. Consider just the past fortnight in Novo Brdo, where the 63d Armored keeps the peace in a zone of mountain villages smothered in snow. An elderly Serb woman, living alone after she had gone crazy, was murdered; an entire village of 15 Serb families fled after each one was robbed at gunpoint; an apartment building next to the American base was torched by arsonists, driving out a Serb family and Albanians accused of being collaborators for renting to them. Total arrests: none. Thanks to the cold, though, "It's been real slow lately," says the company's First Sgt. Ernest Roth, a veteran of Somalia and Bosnia. "Right now Kosovo is off the radar screen back home, but they kill 15 or 20 Americans and it could change everything."

No one rules that out, even at the hands of the Albanian majority. Americans are still widely popular with Kosovo Albanians, who see them as their saviors--and don't expect them to help the Serbs. Many of the soldiers worry about what will happen when the bitter Balkan winter ends, and young men's fancies traditionally turn to renewed ethnic cleansing. So far only one American has been killed in hostile action, a liaison officer blown up by a remote-controlled land mine in the Russian sector last December. The way to deter further attacks, say many of the soldiers, is to get tough with all the locals.

Sometimes they may get too tough. The U.S. Army is investigating complaints that some 82d Airborne troopers were routinely roughing up Albanians in Vitina, where a soldier from the same unit has been charged with the sex murder of an 11-year-old girl. At Gnjilane, a crowded town near one of the major American bases, Camp Monteith, many soldiers make no secret of how to handle violators of the all-night curfew: "Beat them up a little and lock them up," as one private put it. Added his sergeant: "They're lucky we don't shoot them, [but] they shouldn't die for being stupid." Little wonder that American soldiers rarely complain about strict enforcement of rules requiring them to wear 25-pound flak vests at all times, and patrol with their rifles at ready.

"I don't know if we're doing a lot of good here," says Staff Sgt. Blake Summerland, after a late-night mounted patrol aboard Humvees in Novo Brdo, fruitlessly trying to trace the sound of machine-gun fire. "We deter the Serbs and Albanians from fighting, but when we leave an area, they go right back to it." "If we left, I'm convinced the Serbs would all be dead in a week," says Capt. Brian Byers. "They're all [living] just a hand grenade's toss from one another." In fact grenades only cost 15 Deutsche marks (about $7.50) apiece in Kosovo, less than a pound of coffee. Easier than a gun to hide, they've become the terror weapon of choice. Lt. Hector Rodrigues, commander of a platoon trying to guard Serbs in an Albanian neighborhood in Gnjilane, points to shrapnel holes a fragmentation grenade made in the wall of a Serb house. "No one sees anything, no one hears anything," he says. "I ask the Albanian across the street, how come you didn't hear anything, and he says he was sound asleep." Jokes another platoon sergeant, Gary Braden, "Please don't tell my wife. She thinks we're down here being traffic cops."

They're doing stuff that's a lot more dangerous than that. Last week Sergeant Braden handled the arrest of an Albanian curfew breaker who tried to pull a pistol on his soldiers. The man is already back on the streets. When suspects are captured they are turned over to the U.N. police, a mixed bag of officers from a score of nations, who are even more understaffed than KFOR. But since there is neither a working judiciary nor a prison system in Kosovo, the police just release many of the suspects. During one 12-hour day patrol in Gnjilane, Sgt. Eric Roberts's four-man squad investigates a dud grenade tossed at a Serb house, an Albanian attempt to squat in a Gypsy home and a looting incident. "Before that, we hadn't had a grenade incident in four days," he says. "Usually there's one every day." In the apartment building opposite his platoon's Checkpoint 5-6, manned round the clock, the only remaining Serb resident answered his front door and was shot dead. "That was a while ago," says Roberts, "things are quieter now." How long ago? Two weeks, he said, after some thought.

The Americans are better at counting the days until they go home. At the First Infantry Division's Bravo Company 2-2 command hut in Camp Monteith last Thursday, the situation board toted up the scheduled R&Rs (none), patrols (10) and, up top where no one can miss it, days to TOA--116. Transfer of Authority is when they hand it all over to another American unit. The board also noted days to spring--24. "We're not looking forward to the warm weather," says Byers.

In truth, this will be only the first of many NATO-patrolled springs in Kosovo. American officials don't expect a resolution of the Serbian province's status for 10 to 20 years. In their view, U.S. troop pullouts won't be possible soon unless Milosevic falls--if he does. Most peacekeeping operations assume that both sides are comfortable with the presence of outside monitors. But in Kosovo, even the Albanian parties haven't really agreed on peace terms with one another, let alone with the Serbs. Instead, KFOR troops must post 24-hour sentries at the homes of Serbs in Albanian neighborhoods, guard their weddings and funerals, escort their children to school and even take their parents out shopping--when they're not busting them for trying to kill one another. "The U.S. Army, your soldier on the beat," cracks paratrooper Jim Keaton of Kansas, one of those hit by Serb-thrown missiles last week. Like many others who have stepped in to break up someone else's fight, he learned that neither side is likely to be grateful.