Dress rehearsal for a ground war

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The Independent Online
THE SOLDIER screams in pain. Both his legs had been smashed above the knee, when his tank hit a Serb mine. On his left leg, a piece of bone juts through a bloody mass of tissue.

He screams and screams again, as his mates help him out of the cockpit and lay him down on top of the tank. Their faces are tense. Then they give him a shot of morphine, from one of the small syringes they all carry in their kit, and his screams subside to groans. Further down the rough mountain road, another wounded man is propped up against the gun turret of his tank. He has crushed his chest. There is froth around his lips. His pulse is nearly gone. The rest of the patrol waits, in Challenger 1 tanks and Warrior armoured personnel carriers, while an armoured machine grinds up the wooded edge of the track.

With great metal jaws in front, and two huge bundles of metal rods above (used for throwing into ditches, to make an instant bridge), it looks like a giant ant carrying sticks. Its jaws - actually something more like a snow plough - will clear a path through the mines, so a field ambulance can collect the wounded men.

All right, it's not for real. I am watching a training exercise by British troops, somewhere in Macedonia. The smashed tissue is actually torn foam and the blood is, yes, raspberry jam. I am reminded of Saving Private Ryan. Remember the scene of the man lying on the D-Day beach, with his guts spilling out from his stomach like? Well, they do that one too - using animal intestines. "Realism is so important," says the commanding officer. But what makes it so realistic is not the props but the quality of the soldiers' acting.

"Do they take it seriously?" I ask a medical orderly.

"They do now," he replies, with a wry smile.

Now, because in a few weeks time they may actually be driving through Serb minefields and facing Serb snipers, as they drive across the mountains into Kosovo to implement a peace agreement. Now, because if no agreement is reached, and Tony Blair manages to persuade President Bill Clinton, then in a few months they may be invading Kosovo, fighting a bombed but still formidable Serbian army, in a kind of warfare British troops have not seen since the Second World War.

That thought helps to make your acting pretty realistic. We are at the crossing point between virtual reality and neat tombstones amid tidy bushes - a piece of foreign soil that is forever England. (And, of course, as a glance at the names reminds you, also Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.) British troops have been in Macedonia before.

In the capital, Skopje, just behind the Orthodox church of St Michael, there is one of those British military cemeteries that you can find all over the world, immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Trim lawns. Here are the graves of 123 soldiers, six of them unidentified, with an inscription that reads simply "A Soldier of the Great War known unto God". They are just a few of the 10,000 British troops who died in the so-called Salonika campaign, half of them from malaria.

Beneath a tablet proclaiming "Their Name Liveth for Evermore", there lies a wreath from Prince Charles, who recently visited Macedonia.

The Salonika front was opened in 1915 to help our then-allies, plucky little Serbia, against our then-enemies, Bulgaria, Austria-Hungary and, of course, Germany. Today, our forces are deployed in Macedonia to act against Serbia (or at least, against President Slobodan Milosevic), and our allies are ... the Germans.

Not far from the British camp you will find the most efficient headquarters of the 12th Panzer Brigade.

Together with the French and the Italians, the British and the Germans provide the backbone of the more than 14,000 Nato troops now stationed here, under the overall command of a British General, Mike Jackson. Among the military precedents they study are, yes, the German invasion of Yugoslavia in the Second World War (a point not lost on Serb propaganda), but also the British one in the First. Back in London, senior retired military men, like Field Marshal The Lord Bramall, and conservative politicians like Alan Clark suggest we have no business to be there again - and certainly not to contemplate moving from a bungled bombing campaign to a perilous land war. What British national interest is involved? What half-baked liberal folly this is!

If any of the military men on the ground think that in private, they were not certainly not saying so to me. Partly, their attitude is phlegmatic military professionalism. I asked one squaddie what they thought of fighting their way into Kosovo.

"If that's the job we have to do, we'll do it." Or, as Tennyson put it in "The Charge of the Light Brigade": "Their's not to reason why..."

But it's also something more positive than this. They can see that the credibility of the alliance, with which most of their working lives have been involved, is now at stake. They can see that to let Mr Milosevic defeat Nato would encourage dictators everywhere. They are frustrated by the thought of standing by, fully armed and highly trained, while atrocities are committed a few miles away. And, perhaps most importantly, they have seen the other army: the unarmed, dispossessed quarter of a million Kosovo Albanians.

Many of the British soldiers have worked in the refugee camps. Indeed, the first major camp was actually thrown up on the initiative of British officer, while the representatives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees sat around flapping their hands. (And I have this story, in case you were wondering, not from self-congratulatory Brits but from a senior American official and Macedonian sources.)

If you talk to the refugees, you are left with an overwhelming feeling: we must get these people back. Moreover, if you take their stories in detail, you are left in no doubt that, while Nato's bombing campaign did not cause the ethnic cleansing, it did precipitate the mass expulsion. As soon as the first bombs fell, Mr Milosevic pressed the button to activate his long-planned "Operation Horseshoe", to expel a whole people.

Standing in front of his tent in the Stenkovec 2 camp (16 people sleeping in a space the size of an average living room), Jusuf Mustafa, a once- prosperous building contractor, told me how, back in March, they had gone out on to the balcony of their home to applaud the first Nato bombs. Within fifteen minutes, he said, the Serbs had started throwing grenades into their neighbourhood; within a few days, they were driven out at gunpoint. His story must stand for many. We have a direct responsibility for these people being here, and hence for getting them back home and back to a real life. Cry your eyes out, Steven Spielberg.

The sight concentrates my mind too. It's one thing to argue, from my Oxford study, the political and strategic necessity of preparing ground troops for a possible invasion. It's quite another to talk to the men who may risk their lives as a result; and to watch them practise getting wounded. Real people, with faces and names. Two of them friends of an old friend of mine. A third, it turns out, once taught by my brother.

I ask one officer whether he ever wonders what on earth he is doing on a Macedonian hillside. "Yes," he says, "I do." Especially first thing in the morning, when we wakes up under canvas behind his tank, and for a moment can't remember where he is. Finally, there is something that is not easy for the British troops to see from their bivouacs in the woods: the impact on the county in which they are sitting.

Mr Milosevic's purpose with the mass expulsion was not merely to "cleanse" Kosovo of its Albanian majority, and restore Serb dominance. It was also to spread havoc by destabilising its neighbours. Nato fights with bombs, he uses civilians. And in Macedonia, he has very nearly succeeded.

This small, poor country of just two million people has been hit for six by the war. Its economy is in shock, since 20 per cent of its exports went to Serbia, and more depended on trade routes through Serbia. Unemployment, already more than 30 per cent, has soared as up to a third of its factories fall idle. Meanwhile, it has taken in more than 250,000 refugees; in other words, more than 12 per cent of its existing population. It's as if the United States received, within two months, 30 million Mexicans, or Britain took in seven million refugees from the Indian sub-continent.

Moreover, these are all Albanians - and Albanians already made up roughly a quarter of Macedonia's population. Suddenly they are more than a third. Throughout the Nineties, the country has been plagued by ethnic tensions between the Albanians and the Slav Macedonian majority. The political leaders of the Macedonian Albanians have so far displayed great restraint. "Milosevic's aim is to destabilise Macedonia," one of them told me, "so my priority is not to allow him to succeed".

The country's President, Kiro Gligorov, told me they are struggling to remain what is effectively the only functioning multi-ethnic state in the Balkans. But already there have been several nasty confrontations between Macedonian police and Albanian refugees. One big incident - say, an attempted break-out from a camp, met by police shooting - and the tensions between Albanians and Macedonians could explode.

To prevent this, Macedonian leaders are begging the West to take more refugees, or help pass them on to Albania, and to give immediate financial help. Typically, Britain has been in the lead in sending soldiers, but well to the rear in taking refugees or giving money - although we have now, finally, promised to take up to one thousand refugees a week, and Tony Blair, on his recent visit to Skopje, offered pounds 40m in aid.

The only hope for Macedonia is to get the refugees back into their homeland, and do it before the winter snows descend. To do this, even with a Russian- brokered agreement, requires British soldiers on tanks.

I flew back from Skopje to the German city of Aachen, where I have just watched Mr Blair receive the Charlemagne Prize while a crowd of protesters whistled and chanted outside. They held up placards saying "no prize for war" and "you are crazier than your cows, Toni".

But inside, the Prime Minister strongly reaffirmed his commitment to the refugees. "They will go home," he said. There had been no half-measures about Mr Milosevic's barbarism and there would "be no half measures about our response". I think he is right. I hope he can persuade President Clinton and wavering Europeans. But what a heavy responsibility he bears. For even if we go in to implement a Russian-brokered agreement, this will mean British soldiers going through real minefields where the red stuff would not be raspberry jam.

Timothy Garton Ash, a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, is author of `History of the present: essays, sketches and dispatches from Europe in the 1990s'.