Peacekeepers in Bosnia Fight an Uphill Battle

VITEZ, Bosnia -- It is a long way from the cool Scandinavian order of Stockholm to the overheated chaos of Bosnia, but for Private Hans Schaerer the journey would be worthwhile if he could lend a helping hand.

Only decisive military action, he and other UN peacekeepers believe, can salvage hopes for an end to the violence in the former Yugoslav republic.

The role of a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia has never been easy. In their attempts to mediate disputes, monitor the war and protect convoys of humanitarian aid, the 24,000 blue-helmeted soldiers have been shelled, shot at, arrested and held hostage.

But until recently most of the mistreatment came from the Bosnian Serbs.

That changed with Srebrenica, when Serb forces swarmed past 400 Dutch UN troops and took over one of the cities the United Nations had vowed to keep safe, driving 42,000 Moslems into the hills of eastern Bosnia and onto refugee buses.

For UN soldiers, a difficult situation became nearly unbearable almost overnight.

Bosnian Moslem forces began imitating the behavior of the Serbs. In the past two weeks they have detained and shelled a Ukrainian UN unit near the besieged Moslem enclave of Zepa, shot at a British helicopter and arrested the officer on board as he landed in central Bosnia, and delayed for hours at a time one UN convoy after another, including those carrying aid to Moslem refugees.

"It was particularly frustrating the other night when we were held up at a checkpoint for a number of hours,'' said Simon Farmer, who, as a British army chaplain, is paid to keep in close touch with the mood of the troops.

"A lot of the soldiers I was talking to as I walked down the line felt very frustrated, especially seeing some of the local factions who had probably had a bit too much to drink and were sort of jeering at us," he said. "The lads themselves were feeling like, well, we're here to help. ... So deep down people are sort of asking, what the devil are we doing here?"

"That's the question I ask myself every day," said Corporal Denis Perrier, a French Canadian from Montreal, serving as a military policeman for UN forces. "I would like to work to help the country, but if they don't want us here, what can you do? ... We used to have some observation posts at Visoko. The Moslems told us to take them down. Maybe they thought we were giving out information, even to the Serbs. I don't know what we're doing here anymore."

It is not as if the soldiers do not understand the post-Srebenica reactions. "I've a good deal of sympathy for these people," said Major Alan McCubbin, a British army doctor. "The UN, as far as they can see, has singularly failed to act to save those [Moslem] enclaves.''

Or, as Swedish Private Schaerer put it, "The UN has not done what it should have done."

But there are also deeper currents of resentment that the soldiers sometime fail to sense. Some are a result of the way each UN unit has set up its own little world within Bosnia, isolated and seemingly aloof.

The British, for instance, have their mess hall with its baked beans and bacon for breakfast and its barrels filled with tea. The French have their bowls of coffee and their wine, the Pakistanis and Malaysians have their curries.

Each national unit inevitably retreats behind its barbed wire and sandbags every evening to drink its national beer while watching home television beamed in by satellite. When a soccer match for Britain's FA Cup is broadcast, you can hear the cheers of the soldiers for blocks in Vitez.

The locals also cannot help but notice the contrasting treatment received in the wake of crises.

Five days after the fall of Srebenica, Moslem refugees who had been under siege for more than two years streamed into a sweltering tent village surrounded by mines and razor wire at the Tuzla air base.

The first 55 Dutch soldiers evacuated from Srebenica, meanwhile, had already enjoyed a meal of Dutch cuisine and Dutch beer, and had just completed their first two counseling sessions with three specialists in psychological stress. A flight to Amsterdam awaited them.