Reporters Notebook
Photos by Keith Nordstrom

OPERATION KOSOVO
BY CRAIG BORGES / SUN CHRONICLE STAFF

There are certain things you don't do in a war zone. Actually, there are many things, but those in charge of getting the press in an out of the Balkans safely have a penchant for stressing one thing in particular and with good reason.
Land mines have killed or maimed hundreds if not thousands of people in the Balkans. Mines dot the countryside, from fields, to woods, to roadways and sidewalks. Before reporters are allowed to travel with the military into Macedonia and Kosovo, they must undergo a series of briefings, all designed to keep them alive.

The four of us traveling on this trip to Kosovo - myself, Sun Chronicle photographer Keith Nordstrom, WHDH-TV reporter Caterina Bandini and WHDH-TV cameraman Trung Dang - all had our own take on the politics, the many conflicts and the reasons why Yugoslavia disintegrated into numerous small nations over the past 10 years, all broken and dressed in mourning with little hope for the future.

During the long days and sleepless evening hours that we've spent together earlier this week waiting for a military plane or vehicle to take us further from Massachusetts and closer to the chaotic border that divides Macedonia and Kosovo, we discussed, debated and dissected the Balkan question.

But the reality of all the political talk started to sink in with a briefing on landmine dangers given to us before leaving the states by U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Craig Seay at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Graphic photos and numerous props showed not only the damage a small landmine can do, but just how disguised the killing machines can be. Many are the size of soda cans or cigarette packs. Some have double detonation, designed to kill the person who successfully dismantles the first one.

Again and again the subject of mines came up among the soldiers assigned to escort us through the Balkans.
"Stay on the road at all times," they warn. "But keep your eyes on the road as well."

As one soldier put it, it only takes a second for someone to lay a mine. Even if the road had been cleared, the danger remains.

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A U.S. soldier with an M16 strapped across his shoulder and a smart-alack look on his face said it best: "This isn't Germany, gang."

The location was Skopje Airport in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (as Macedonia is called in politically correct terms). The soldier who made the remark was leading other soldiers, along with the four of us, from the tarmac at the Skopje Airport to the streets outside.

Outside then airport gates, hundreds of soldiers from various countries, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Jordan and France, milled about alongside armored vehicles of every sort. Rolls of razor wire lined the roadways as we were herded onto a waiting bus to be taken to Camp Able Sentry outside Skopje, to be checked in and obtain our KFOR (Kosovo Protection Force) press passes.

The soldier was correct. We weren't in Germany anymore.

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At 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, our four-person press group was called together at Camp Able Sentry in Macedonia, handed flak jackets and helmets and told to listen up. It was border-crossing time.

While a bus idled, a sergeant gave us a heads up on the art of driving into a war zone.

"You must keep you flak jacket and Kevlars (helmets) on at all times."

"You must obey the senior officer on board if something were to happen."

That "something" he spoke of could be any number of things, we were told, from hitting a landmine, to getting ambushed by soldiers unfriendly to NATO or looking to make a statement.

We took our seats on the bus along with numerous soldiers being sent into Kosovo for duty. A humvee with a 50 caliber machine gun attached to its roof sat in front of the bus, another behind it. Inside each humvee was a group of heavily armed soldiers. The humvees began to roll. The trip was under way.

Military vehicles and convoys from various nations dotted the highway leading to the border. As we approached, the tension seemed to increase. Radio communications between the bus driver and the lead humvee crew became more rapid and frequent.

"Watch the truck broken down in your path," a voice crackled.

"Roger to that," was the response.

"KFOR police are trying to remove it before you approach."

At the border, the bus stopped for a moment to allow civilian interpreters to get off and cross the border on foot. Moments after the humvees and bus convoy got off the highway and onto a thin dirt road that ran alongside it. This, we figured out, was the military road, allowing us a quick route through an otherwise chaotic and jammed border station.

Trucks lined the highway above us in both directions. Soldiers swarmed over vehicles, checking for explosives under each with mirrors attached to poles.

On the other side of the line, there was a small but incredibly dusty town made up of shack-like buildings that sold everything from insurance to hamburgers.

We were now in Kosovo, Yugoslavia.