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U.S. Troops Pin Hopes on Balkan E-Day

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sgt. Christopher Harvey is not one to clutter his 1996 pocket calendar with frivolous entries. Jan. 6 got a mention. That was the day his U.S. Army squadron rolled across the Sava River into Bosnia. There was Aug. 23, when his son was born in Germany.

Then comes today, Sept. 14. It is known simply as E-day.

“Everything we have been doing for the last eight months has been building toward this moment,” said Harvey, a no-fuss Bradley fighting vehicle mechanic from Ontario, Calif. “I can’t wait. I want to get it over with.”

Harvey isn’t preparing for combat. In fact, he won’t be doing much related to his eight years of military service. Instead, he and 15,300 other American troops will be helping residents across Bosnia exercise their right to vote.

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E-day is election day. Polling places open at 7 a.m. today in the first postwar balloting for national offices in this bitterly divided country. The tenuous experiment in democracy, mandated by the Dayton, Ohio, peace agreement, is widely regarded as a pivotal moment for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who will be choosing a collective presidency, members of a countrywide parliament and representatives to numerous local assemblies.

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E-day may also be emancipation day for the 60,000 NATO-led troops sent here to keep the peace. If all goes well at the polls, Harvey and most other soldiers bet they will be home for Christmas. If not, they won’t even hazard a guess about when they might leave. No other day has weighed so heavily on the minds of U.S. troops since the first anxious weeks of their deployment.

“This is the one day that is going to make us or break us,” said Harvey, 26, who is stationed at this roadside base in a former meatpacking plant in Bosnian Serb territory. “Every soldier in Bosnia realizes it. Because every soldier in Bosnia is ready to leave.”

Almost everyone in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force arrived in Bosnia with a military mission in mind. But it is one unpredictable day of civilian activity--not NATO’s impressive show of strength over the last nine months--that ultimately may determine the deployment’s future.

As such, NATO preparations for the biggest civic event in Bosnia since a disastrous countrywide referendum led to civil war in 1992 have been as extensive and demanding as any military operation undertaken here.

“It took a month just to educate myself before I could begin approaching other soldiers about the elections,” said Capt. Greg Anderson, 27, election planning officer for Camp McGovern, an American base near the hotly contested town of Brcko. “This is all new to us. At first I was overwhelmed, but then we just took military techniques and applied them to elections. We treated the elections like anything else we do.”

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IFOR, as the NATO-led peace implementation force is known, has spent three months fretting over logistics for today’s 12 hours of balloting. Officially, the Americans and other international troops say they are charged only with providing security on election day, ensuring that none of the formerly warring armies try to stir up trouble.

But in practice, American soldiers will be doing everything from guarding and delivering ballots to passing out doughnuts and coffee to stranded motorists. The elections are too important, military officials acknowledge, to be allowed to fail because of NATO’s narrow rules of engagement.

Some soldiers were still undergoing training this week in crowd control, something NATO commanders had long insisted was not a military responsibility but that they ultimately accepted as an unavoidable election day task.

“I’ve trained my whole career to use bullets and guns, and now we are being told to use our voices to break up a crowd,” said Harvey, who was among a group of soldiers--many not sure what to make of their new police-like duties--getting the crash course this week.

“And they don’t even understand our language,” said Spc. Christopher Walker, 21, a mortar crewman from Victorville, Calif. “It is hard. I am not sure how it is going to work. I am a little nervous about it.”

If all goes according to plan, American attack helicopters will be airborne beginning at 4 a.m. to track the movement of refugees--estimates range from 30,000 to 150,000--who will be directed to special “election routes” leading to polling places in their former towns and villages. Aerial traffic reporters will have radios and cameras aboard, so they can alert police and ground troops to problems as well as capture on film any violent face-offs.

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“My helicopters that were designed to destroy tanks [five miles] away just so happen to take good pictures,” said Lt. Col. Anthony W. Harriman, Camp Alicia commander.

The videotape surveillance was deemed crucial in the investigation of a clash last month between Bosnian Serb police and Muslim refugees in the town of Mahala, in which international police monitors were held captive and IFOR troops from Camp Alicia were needed to disperse a hostile crowd of Serbs.

Although American commanders have publicly defended their handling of the volatile incident, complaints about the IFOR response prompted the last-minute crowd-control training, including techniques designed to rescue international officials from angry mobs. The Mahala clash also highlighted the need for an impartial recording of what happens, so no side can distort events, U.S. officials said.

“No matter what happens, I want ‘Quarterhorse’ to capture the ‘Who shot Johnovic’ on TV tape,” Harriman wrote in a three-page preelection missive to his troops, who call themselves Quarterhorse. “An accurate portrayal of election day events is important.”

Armored vehicles will roll out of IFOR camps at 5:30 a.m., taking up positions near many of the 1,731 polling stations in U.S.-patrolled territory, with similar operations underway in the British and French sectors.

By 6 a.m., “crisis action cells” will be running in major police stations, with IFOR soldiers, international election officials, U.N. police and local authorities crowded into one room. The idea, the Americans say, is to better the odds that the many overlapping jurisdictions will talk to one another.

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In the end, no one is expecting a perfect election day. Both civilian and military planners predict problems; some may be serious.

Such talk has made soldiers nervous; commanders have lectured all week on the importance of “staying focused.” That has also meant not thinking too much about Christmas.

“All the talk about leaving has been both good and bad,” said Capt. Kevin McAllister, who commands Alpha Company at Camp McGovern. “If you are always thinking about the next game, it doesn’t help you play your best now.”

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