Captain Andy Taylor is sitting on top of a Macedonian mountain. Squinting in the bright sun, the British paratroop officer stares out at the city of Skopje spread beneath him like a map, the river Vardar dividing the Albanian quarter from the ethnic Macedonian side of the city. Huge mountains rise all around, their peaks visible but their bodies disappearing in the heat haze.
This is Mount Vodno, the place with the best view in Skopje – and one of the Macedonian army's key defence points overlooking the city. Sentries behind sandbags watch as Captain Taylor's Land Rover passes, their guns pointing at the road.
"This position is very important to the Macedonians," says Captain Taylor. "If anyone got hold of this position, they could shell the entire city from here. It would be like Sarajevo. That's what we're here to stop."
The stocky Scottish soldier is one of up to 1,900 British troops in Macedonia as part of a Nato task force trying to prevent fighting between security forces and Albanian rebels escalating into the fifth Balkans war in a decade.
But they are not conventional peacekeepers – their job is only to collect arms surrendered by the rebels as part of a Western-brokered peace deal. The mission was seriously undermined yesterday when the Macedonian parliament indefinitely suspended a debate on whether to adopt a Western-brokered peace deal.
This is a troubled time for the British Army. At home, there is a recruitment crisis, with fewer and fewer people joining up. Nato's mission in Macedonia, dominated by British troops, has come in for heavy criticism, with many in Britain saying the alliance should not be here at all.
Worst of all, a British soldier, 22-year-old Ian Collins, was killed in the first week of the operation, when Macedonian youths, angry that Nato is in the country, threw a concrete block through the windscreen of hisvehicle.
"We were on the same road just half an hour after he was killed," says Captain Taylor. "You think, 30 minutes earlier and it could have been me. We've had stones thrown at us on that road, more than once." There is deep resentment of Nato's mission among the ethnic Macedonian majority, many of whom believe the alliance is biased in favour of the Albanians.
"The general feeling is we're here to help and then they do this to us," says Captain Taylor. "But everyone accepts that these things happen. Soldiers are not naive enough that if one of our boys is killed that will completely affect our morale, though within his unit the guys are pretty upset."
Captain Taylor jokes amicably with his Macedonian counterpart, Captain Straso Stojcevski. Macedonian resentment of Nato makes Captain Taylor's job even harder. While most of the British troops are collecting arms from the rebels on the front line, Captain Taylor is a liaison officer between Nato and the Macedonian army. But he is unimpressed by those who say the British Army should not be here.
"I'm doing the job people join the Army to do," he says. "We're the guys who get to see it and do it. I think, actually, missions like this help with recruitment. If you've got a young guy in England who's never travelled, he looks at us off to places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone, and thinks: 'This is how I can see the world'."
The Macedonia mission seems a far cry from the dramatic world of Army recruitment adverts. British soldiers here are just politely gathering up the Kalashnikovs the rebels hand over. Surely this is a disappointment for someone who joined the Army looking for the intensity of front-line combat? But Captain Taylor disagrees. British soldiers enjoy their many peacekeeping missions around the world, he says proudly. "This is something we do, and we're very good at it. The Balkans is the powder keg of Europe. If this thing really blew up here, it would undermine everything we've done in Bosnia."
After two tours of Bosnia, Captain Taylor seems engaged by the Balkans. He knows his stuff, and talks at length about the intricacies of the situation here.
"I understand that the public may be wary of yet another Balkans mission. But in Bosnia, the problem was we went in after the fighting. If we can step in early here, maybe we can make a difference."
The British Army has a good reputation in the Balkans, and it is clear Captain Taylor has won the trust of the Macedonians manning the defence position at Mount Vodno. They and Captain Taylor's troops appear relaxed in each other's company, and the men sit drinking coffee together as a Macedonian colonel speaks with a visiting British major.
"They were pretty frosty at first, but it's fine once you build their confidence," says Captain Taylor. "Basically, we did that just by being very British, not going in with all guns blazing, not asking too many questions straight away."
Mistrust is still threatening to wreck the peace process. The hardline speaker of parliament, Stojan Andov, yesterday suspended a debate on granting more rights to Albanians in return for the weapons handovers, because, he claimed, the rebels were harassing Macedonian refugees trying to return to their homes.
If the peace process breaks down, British troops like Captain Taylor may find themselves stuck in the middle of two fighting factions. "We're not here to use force, like we can in Bosnia," says Captain Taylor. "Nothing out here is worth a British soldier dying for."
Captain Taylor is hoping he will be able to leave in 30 days, on schedule, with his job done. "I just celebrated my third birthday in a row in the Balkans," he smiles ruefully. "Sometimes it's difficult. I have a 16-week-old daughter at home. But we know the score. We're soldiers."
1974 Born in Dundee. Educated at the private Dundee High School
1992 Read geography at University of Northumbria
1995 Joined the Army. Went to Sandhurst as a cadet officer
1996 Commissioned as an officer in the Royal Artillery. Based in Germany
1997 First tour in the Balkans
1998 Married. Moved to Topcliffe, Yorkshire.
1999 Second tour of Bosnia
2001 Sent to MacedoniaReuse content