War In The Balkans: Paunch wobbling, Britain's warlord rallied his troops

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The Independent Online
GEORGE ROBERTSON had a little trouble climbing on to the armoured personnel carrier that had been laid on as his speaking platform yesterday. His paunch wobbled through his sports shirt when he was hauled aboard, but as he gazed out over the cream of the British army spread all around him in the Macedonian hills, he quickly got the hang of things, moving immediately into warlord mode.

As a once fervent CND activist, the young Robertson never had much time for the military. It wasn't until Tony Blair gave him the job of Secretary of State for Defence - and his own army - that he realised how exhilarating it could all be. And how great were the opportunities for Churchillian oratory. For 20 minutes he gave it the full Monty: good luck lads; God speed; get up that road and rescue the frightened and weak; drive out the evil force before you, the nation is proud ... and so on.

It seemed like his Agincourt-style harangue would never end. Peroration was topped by peroration, in a great cream cake of a speech, and when he finally threw out his arm (a la George C Scott in Patton) and pointed to what he thought was north, and Kosovo, he waited like all politicians for the roar of applause - and instead heard the sound of total silence from the 700-odd young soldiers who had gathered to hear him. A couple of hundred Gurkhas who were nearest to him had not the faintest idea who he was. And the soldiers slunk away, shrugging and grinning like schoolboys who had just heard the headmaster's waffle.

The entire performance was like so much of what has happened around this border in the past five days. Within an inch of bringing to a close the whole savage mess, the testosterone-fuelled behaviour of a handful of Nato military officers and inept politicians seemed hell-bent - by wringing the last ounce of humiliation from an enemy they never even faced on the ground - on sending it all spinning into weeks of additional bombing and the possible deaths of more innocents.

In the sweltering, choking dust of the camps lining the borders of Kosovo, the thousands of refugees wait to hear the common-sense words that will end this madness. Instead they hear the droning of pumped-up generals.

Yesterday it was Robertson's turn to beat the drum. He roared on about the raping and the looting and the killing, using his pet phrase - "Milosevic's murderous machine" - again and again. He almost relished his forecast that the brutal dictator would renege on his promises. And there was a drooling quality as he promised that the bombing would not only be stepped up - but intensified.

When cool and calm words were most required, when subtle negotiators were most needed to disguise the humiliation being heaped upon Serbian vanity and pride, we were witness to the worst kind of machismo. Demands for instant withdrawal and abject surrender were made by posturing Nato military chiefs in a sweltering tent in the middle of the night. And for days we have waited for a United Nations Security Council resolution to be hammered out by the semantic deadheads of the G8 - a simple document that could have been prepared in 24 hours. As meanwhile the bombers return once again to Belgrade.

All around the portly politician yesterday, in a great five-mile-wide bowl in the hills south of Skopje and just 15 miles from the poisoned and ravaged land of Kosovo, the cream of his nation's military force - the core of the entire Nato peace-keeping force - lay baking in the Macedonian sun.

Battle tanks throbbing in the forests, helicopter gunships roaring through the sky and thousands of young British soldiers waiting and cursing the brass and politicos everywhere. They are like soldiers throughout history. Just give us the job, and let us get on with it. And save us from politicians who like to have their picture taken on the turret of a tank.

There can be no complaints about these young men, or their officers. They will go down in history as the army that announced its intention not to fight until the enemy went home. But that piece of ludicrous strategy was devised by their political masters. They deserved better, because month after month we have watched them using their vast skill and ingenuity, sweating and toiling to build massive refugee camps, producing food by the hundreds of tons, and laying on high quality medical attention to the sick and wounded. The decency of these young men is a source of pride of all who have witnessed it. In countless meetings with the refugees they have made the same promise: you will go home because we will take you there, and we will protect you for as long as it takes.

Their professionalism as soldiers is not in question. This is the biggest battle force Britain has assembled since the Gulf War, and when everything is finally gathered together, almost one-third of the British Army will have been deployed. When the order comes to move, they will need all their ingenuity to combat the tens of thousands of mines, thousands of pieces of unexploded Nato bombs and countless booby traps in houses, road tunnels, bridges, public buildings, shops and offices.

The Serbs are the world's masters in the production of mines and booby traps. They have made scores of different varieties, from tiny plug-like devices that can blow off legs, to massive hidden monsters that can throw a 40-ton tank 10 feet into the air. And they have had months to prepare their nightmarish version of an adventure playground for the home- coming of people they regard as vermin.

"Kosovo is now the most dangerous place in the world," said a young bomb disposal man. "We will have to inch our way up that road. Even we, the experts, cannot possibly find all of these things. Anybody who goes wandering into the woods or hills up there is walking into a death zone, and for years to come, those mines, booby traps and unexploded ordnance will be killing and maiming people."

The first 20 miles could be the most lethal for the huge force that will enter Kosovo. It involves a deep defile, with three long narrow tunnels and eight bridges. And every mile of it is likely to be mined.

Huge four-wheel-drive vehicles called Mambas, with porcelain blast shields, will be needed to sweep a path ahead. And even the heavy-duty men of The Parachute Regiment, who will be first to secure all the mountains and passes before the "heavy metal" of the armoured division rolls in, are cautious about their job. "We won't be going walkabout in those woods and hills," said Brigadier Adrian Freer, commander of the 5th Airborne Brigade, the spearhead of the peace-keeping force. "We will let the mine disposal people do their job. Every inch of that place will be a loaded with bad pieces of kit and they have stuff that would blow a big helicopter to pieces if it landed in the wrong spot."

They do not expect to be fighting their way in. At least not against the Yugoslav army. They will, in effect, be protecting this army from marauding KLA fighters - now battle hardened and well armed - whose more hot-headed elements may want to wreak revenge on a departing enemy.

Some of the best combat units in the British army were camped out last night in the hills of the border. Gurkhas, honing their scythe-shaped knives, grinned at us. "Charming people," said one of their officers, "but their reputation for extreme violence is well deserved."

We watched the crews of the big Challenger tanks brewing up tea. They live in these things that look so impregnable. But they know the Serbs have a particular mine whose explosive force could cook them alive.

The soldiers know the invasion itself may take only days, but there is a feeling that this tiny piece of south-east Europe may become an almost permanent posting in the years, even decades, ahead.

All day we watched these young men preparing to go into the poisoned land. They have slept, eaten and trained in these hills for three months now, without alcohol or the company of women. But, strangely they are neither bored nor frustrated nor angry. They have seen, met and exchanged the valuable currency of life with hundreds of refugees. They know and understand the tragedy of Kosovo.

They also know and understand what they have to do. Not a single one was gung-ho. There was no macho talk about getting in there and doing the business. Watching George Robertson was something else.