Few Friends in Bosnia For Isolated U.S. Force

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- U.S. soldiers in flak jackets and helmets worked long hours last week fortifying the front gate of the air base in Tuzla, filling metal cages with stones to hold off "an enemy attack," as one soldier described it.


Norwegian troops, also part of the NATO deployment in Bosnia, were hard at work as well, packing up their belongings for a move to a new outpost in Bosnian Serb territory.


When the Americans called it quits for the day, they retreated to their tents. The Norwegians took off for downtown Tuzla, where a fellow soldier was singing with a local choir.


"The Norwegians are very liked in our town, because they are not just soldiers but also human beings," said Nedzmija Omercehajic, head of the Tuzla Music High School, sipping coffee with several Norwegians after the performance. "The Americans are acting like policemen. I don't know why they seem so afraid here."


It has been more than a month since Americans arrived in Tuzla, and the massive show of strength is beginning to fray some locals' nerves.


Residents in Tuzla say they are frightened by the military might. Peacekeepers from European countries complain of American overkill. And some U.S. troops say they are fed up with a security policy that prevents them from even stepping off base to meet the people they came here to help.


Four hundred pounds of blankets and coats, for example, sent to the Air Force for distribution to needy people, have been stranded at the base because of a ban on community outreach. Soldiers manning checkpoints have been ordered not to give handouts to begging children, and even leftover meals are being thrown away rather than offered to local residents.


"If I have to get it cleared, it will never happen," said the Reverend Stephen Booth, a Roman Catholic chaplain in the Air Force who carried a shoe box of candy and toys to the front gate to offer to children. "It is easier to get forgiveness than permission around here.''


"It is like a fourth group has joined the warring factions," said Rupert Wolfe Murray, an independent Scottish consultant to the Tuzla city government. "We had the Chetniks [Serb nationalists], Moslems and Croats, and now we have the American soldiers. They may be the good guys, but they are so secluded on the base nobody knows it."