In just 30 seconds, they were gone.
"X-ray, this is Blue 5, we're taking direct fire."
What haunts Sgt. 1st Class James Lashelle, the platoon sergeant for the three U.S. soldiers who were captured by Serbian forces last week while patrolling Macedonia's border with Kosovo, is the tone of Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone's voice when he radioed in that they were in trouble. Stone's voice was so calm, Lashelle says, he at first thought the three soldiers might be joking.
But the call that came seconds later made clear it was no joke.
"They're all over us. We're trapped. We're trapped."
And then the radio went dead.
"I really feel bad about it. I get very frustrated," Lashelle said Wednesday. Like almost all the 400 U.S. soldiers here in Macedonia preparing for a possible future deployment to Kosovo, Lashelle constantly retraces step by step the moments that led to the disappearance of the three soldiers many here knew well: Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, from Michigan; Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, from Los Angeles; and Spc. Steven Gonzalez, from Texas. All are younger than 26 years old.
Their fellow soldiers are no doubt encouraged by the efforts of Cyprus President Spyros Kyprianou to secure a release, although State Department officials warned not to count on it. The soldiers are still disturbed by the Macedonians' failure to help their early search for the men. As U.S. and NATO troops scoured the mountainous border area in the moments and hours after the three went missing March 31, Lashelle said, local villagers threw stones, cursed and mocked them.
"The local nationals showed their dislike of us. They threw stones and made gestures. They were very lackadaisical. They said they knew nothing" about the missing soldiers, said Lashelle. Many of the villagers who live along Macedonia's rugged border with Serbia are Serbs themselves, and make no secret of their dislike of the U.S. soldiers and the NATO airstrikes against Serbia.
"For me, it's kind of disappointing, because we're out here trying to help this country," said Sgt. Ronald Hintay, 29, a U.S. soldier on his second tour as a peacekeeper in Macedonia. The first time, in 1995, Hintay remembers, the Macedonians smiled and waved at the blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers. Now, the U.N. mission has been canceled, 12,000 NATO troops have arrived in Macedonia to prepare to deploy to Kosovo to the north as peacekeepers, and NATO has carried out a two-week campaign of airstrikes against Serbia that has been followed by an exodus of more than 150,000 Kosovar refugees to Macedonia. And the Macedonians have changed their minds about the foreign troops. "The little kids still wave, but teen-agers throw rocks at us," Hintay said.
"When our soldiers were here wearing blue helmets, the populace was indifferent or friendly," says Brig. Gen. John Craddock, the commander of the U.S. forces in Macedonia. "Now, we're wearing green helmuts and green uniforms, and those who were friendly before are ambivalent, and those who were ambivalent are unfriendly."
The irony is that in recent days, U.S. and NATO forces have served less as soldiers than as humanitarian superheroes. With stunning efficiency, they have built tent cities and refugee camps to support more than 100,000 refugees and provide them with food, water and medical care -- erecting seven complete refugee camps in just a couple of days. Their effort has very likely saved the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of the refugees expelled from their homes by Serbian forces and paramilitaries -- in particular the 45,000 Kosovars who were being held outdoors by Macedonian authorities at Blace, with minimal access to food, water, sanitation or medical facilities. Forty people died at Blace in recent days of exhaustion, hunger and exposure.
But in a development almost as eerie as the disappearance of the three American soldiers, those 45,000 Kosovar Albanian refugees at Blace simply disappeared overnight Wednesday, leaving behind in the muddy field the only precious belongings they managed to grab when they fled Kosovo: passports, photographs, blankets, baby food. Also disappeared are the tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians who had been waiting on the other side of the border to get into Macedonia. The field is now empty; smoldering fires and the refugees' discarded belongings are all that remains.
It now appears that the Macedonian authorities -- not happy to add more ethnic Albanians to the country's mixed population -- secretly bused some 15,000 Kosovar Albanians to Albania and Turkey and possibly Greece in the middle of the night Wednesday. None of the refugees had any choice about where they were going, said Paula Ghedini, of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Skopje.
"As refugees were loaded onto buses, typically a family of six would be put on four different buses," Ghedini said at a press conference in Skopje. UNHCR has asked the Macedonian authorities to stop involuntarily moving refugees, and to try to keep families intact.
The field at Blace, littered with the refugees' belongings, made it appear that they were forced to leave very quickly, in a panic. "Refugees don't usually leave the few things they still have left, like baby food," Ghedini said. "It appears that pressure was placed on the refugees."
Privately, UNHCR officials expressed horror at the way Macedonian authorities trucked refugees to Albania, unknown other countries, and to refugee camps overnight. "There are approximately 10,000 people still not accounted for," said one official, who requested anonymity. "We're extremely concerned at the procedure used. People had no idea where they were being taken. They were relieved when they got to a refugee camp and saw that there were other refugees, and NATO there. NATO is something they find very comforting."
Her words echo what one young U.S. soldier in Macedonia, Cpl. Michael Fernicola, 23, of Phoenix, said Wednesday.
"Everyone's biggest enemy now is fear. We see the refugees fleeing from Yugoslavia afraid of the Serbs. The Serbs are afraid of the NATO bombing. And we're afraid we might not get our soldiers back."