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Former Cold Warriors Craft Peace In Bosnia

  • Kitty McKinsey

Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina; Jan. 19 (RFE/RL) - In the control tower of Tuzla Air Base, where they guide the giant military transport planes bringing in soldiers and equipment to the American military sector in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is absolutely clear that the Cold War is really, definitely over.

Former Cold War enemies - American and Russian military men - are working side by side here for the first time since the U.S. and Soviet Union were World War Two allies.

It is admittedly a strange experience for each side after years of indoctrination to regard each other as enemies.

Captain John Fiske, a U.S. Air Force air-traffic controller, says he never expected to work alongside Russians, but is more than happy to do so. Said Fiske: "That's what makes this whole experience so interesting, the fact that they are in our tower, next to us right now, part of this mission here in Bosnia. I never thought it would be like this, but I'm glad it is."

When the full Russian contingent arrives in Bosnia, there will be 1,500 elite paratroopers working in the U.S. sector in the northeastern part of the country. Some of them are already out in the field, patrolling the zone of separation between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian government forces. Some Russians are stationed at the Tuzla Air Base of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR), and a few of those are in the control tower.

Although the U.S. Air Force is in charge in the control tower, the American officers work closely with the Russians, because the Russians are familiar with their own aircraft that fly into the base. English is the language of communication between the tower and the pilots, but within the tower, Americans and Russians have to rely on a Russian interpreter because neither side speaks the other's language.

Despite the language barrier, Captain Fiske says cooperation is both professional and friendly. Between flights, the military men find time to socialize, to chat about a whole range of subjects.

Fiske said: "We are learning about their personalities and how they view things. It's been great so far." He says any cultural differences are bridged by their common role and common experience as military officers.

A Russian colonel in the control tower refuses to give his name or speak into a RFE/RL reporter's tape recorder, but he endorses Captain Fiskes's enthusiasm for Russian-American cooperation.

The Russian colonel says he has been in the military for 32 years, and admits that ideology long divided his country and the U.S. But he says he never considered Americans to be his enemies, even less so since he started going to the U.S. on military exchanges during the last two years.

Elsewhere on the Tuzla Air Base, exchanges of a different sort are going on at a lower level. Two American soldiers have struck up a conversation - conducted mostly with smiles and hand gestures - with a group of Russian paratroopers, who are unloading their food supplies from the back of a truck. The Americans are particularly keen to lay their hands on the distinctive blue-and-white striped shirts that the Russians wear as part of their uniforms, and a RFE/RL reporter is drafted in to act as translator for the bargaining.

U.S. paratrooper Daniel Flores, from San Antonio, Texas, is satisfied because he's traded his beret for one of the shirts. But the Russians do not have a shirt big enough for his friend, Eric Young.

In six years in the military, Flores said he never dreamed he would be working alongside Russians. He says it is too early to consider them allies, but they definitely are partners in the important work of bringing peace to Bosnia.

Young says there is little difference between soldiers from various countries. He says: "They go through the same thing we do, the similarities are there."

For their part, the Russians all chorus that the Americans are "wonderful kids." One Russian said: "We are still getting to know each other." Working together will come later.

As with any non-NATO country, in dealing with the Russians, NATO guards its secrets closely. Air-traffic controller Captain Fiske said he was, in his words, "briefed and re-briefed" not to divulge classified information, even to Russians with whom he is working. But if information is unclassified, he says, "then we explain as much as we can."

Captain Fiske thinks NATO, and particularly the U.S. military, will reap lasting benefits from cooperation with the Russians. In his words, "It shows that we do know how to cooperate (and can understand) each other as people."