As British troops pour into former Yugoslavia to make up nearly a third of the peace implementation force, I-For, they face a stern reminder that the biggest danger is not bullets or mines but road accidents.
In the four weeks since I-For took over from the United Nations on 20 December, there have been 87 road accidents, resulting in 21 write-offs, including seven container vehicles. About 60 per cent of the accidents had "no civilian interest whatsoever" - they were I-For's fault, or involved only the force's vehicles. In that time, there have been 19 military casualties, one civilian death and one civilian left in a coma.
The British have 7,000 vehicles in their part of the theatre and are by no means the worst offenders. The Americans, new to the region, and the French have also experienced the hazards of a run-down road system in an unforgiving climate that has suddenly met the largest influx of heavy armour since the Gulf war. Not only are 60,000 I-For troops pouring in, but the former UN Protection Force is pouring out.
"It's congestion up there, to say the least," said Sergeant-Major Ian Ford, briefing a new British contingent on the conditions. "You'll have a 2,000ft cliff on one side and a 700ft drop on the other. You'll hit snow, ice, white-outs. You name it, you'll hit it," he continued.
''If you only have two snow-chains, please put them both on the same axle," he warned. "There have been vehicles spotted in Bosnia with one snow chain on the front left and another on the back right. That's about as much use as a chocolate fireguard. OK?"
Then there was a surprising concession: Many accidents were due to tiredness. "It's often said that on an operation hours don't matter," Sergeant- Major Ford said. "They do matter. If you feel tired and about to nod off at any time, you stop and you pull over and you rest. The operation can take second place for a bit."
Of the 13,000 British troops due to form part of the Implementation Force, 10,000 have now arrived. Split is the main airport and seaport and most troops fly in here, on RAF Tri-Star flights, as if they were on a civil airline, complete with cooked meals, refreshing towelettes and in-flight magazines.
Everyone is processed through a "Theatre Reception Centre" located in a big, draughty hangar south of the airport. Everyone goes through the procedure: even Major-General Mike Jackson, the British sector commander, as well as soldiers on their third six-month tour. Here in the TRC, the sergeant-major, with his didactic skill, is king.
''Form a circle round the briefing board. Welcome, gentlemen - whoops, sorry ma'am, ladies and gentlemen. Right, first you will get the road safety briefing, then the intelligence briefing, then the medical briefing. There is no smoking in the TRC. If you want a fag, go out of the door. Then you will move in the direction of the arrow and swipe your card through the machine. You will collect your I-For identity card. Then you can grab some tea or soup. You will collect your luggage and the sniffer dog will have a sniff - see if he can find the pounds 10,000 in used notes. Any questions?"
The sniffer dog, a King Charles spaniel called Zack, who looked more like a pet, was part of a "deterrent policy" against drug use. All British soldiers are liable to be tested for drugs at any time. Zack frolicked around as his military police handler sat quietly in the corner.
The new, credit-card style army identity card, with a hologram and a magnetic strip, contains all the vital information about the individual.
The "swipe" serves to book people in to the theatre of operations, with all their details, including medical records, blood group, whatever - hence the precise count of how many had arrived. The yellowish I-For cards are numbered and only state name, rank, number and nationality.
"Well, have a good tour," said the sergeant-major. "I'm leaving in two days. There are two ways of leaving here. One is the way you came - and the way I'm going: up the steps, with a big smile on your face. The other is six of your mates carrying you in a box across the tarmac. Got it?''
Christopher BellamyReuse content