War In The Balkans: German Reaction - Mothers with no desire for a fight

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The Independent Online
"THE ALBANIANS are helpless," says Ilona Rothe. "It's a crime what's happening to them. I don't know how I would feel if I weren't personally involved."

But Ms Rothe is involved, because her son is one of 3,000 German soldiers awaiting orders in Macedonia. So she is against the war in the Balkans, against Nato air strikes, and bitterly opposed to German participation.

Ms Rothe is the founder of Mothers Against the War, a movement only a week old but already enjoying national fame. It began with a heart-rending proclamation in the form of a reader's letter addressed to a Berlin newspaper, accompanied by Ms Rothe's telephone number. Since then, she has received more than 1,000 calls and appeared on television chat shows, and there is now talk of sending her to sort it all out with Slobodan Milosevic.

"We have touched a nerve in Germany," she says. "I hear the women crying on the telephone for their sons or their husbands."

Outside the Balkans, no country in Europe has felt the trauma of war as acutely as Germany, now striding into the quagmire of Yugoslavia, its soldiers and their relatives unprepared for shedding blood.

Ms Rothe's 24-year-old son - she will not give his first name - signed up for the Bundeswehr (the German army) four years ago, expecting little travel and even less action. For the past three weeks, they have all been waiting in Macedonia for an order that until recently would have been unthinkable.

"They lie awake at night, get up at half past five in the morning, and the first thing they do is listen to the news," says Ms Rothe. "All sorts of questions are swirling in their heads: `What happened last night? What if they fired a rocket at us?'."

So far, Ms Rothe's son and his comrades have done nothing more violent than polishing their gun barrels, but the Luftwaffe (air force) is dropping bombs on the Serbs every day, and the use of ground troops is becoming more likely.

Ms Rothe is trying to prevent that by giving peace a chance. "I heard an interview with a Serbian mother, in which she said, `I want my son, I don't care about Milosevic'. That's how I feel," she says.

Her group proposes that "all weapons fall silent immediately", and that representatives from all sides gather round the negotiating table. No, she does not think she is being naive; naive were the Western politicians "who had eaten and drunk with Milosevic... They know what kind of a guy he is."

There are no easy answers. But German public opinion, despite the traditional misgivings, is slowly coming round to the view that "something must be done". According to the latest polls, 28 per cent reject the use of ground troops, but 47 per cent think that the Bundeswehr should not stay out if Nato soldiers cross into Kosovo.

But faced with pictures of fleeing Albanians, support for air strikes has increased, with 62 per cent of Germans now in favour.

While German newspapers remain at best sceptical, and politicians on the left campaign for a ceasefire, one group of Germans has undergone a spectacular metamorphosis: the Greens are pacifists no longer. According to the latest polls, 72 per cent of Green supporters say that the air strikes are justified.

If the Yugoslav government wanted to destroy Nato's resolve by engineering a humanitarian catastrophe, the gambit has clearly failed in Germany.

The images of civilians in flight from organised brutality are painfully familiar here, triggering knee-jerk reactions that Germans thought they had purged long ago.

"I must say, when I look at Milosevic, he reminds me of Hitler," says Ms Rothe.

"Couldn't somebody poison him?" she asks, only half in jest.