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Border a twilight between bright peace, dark war


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- The Albanian Muslim pads through the rose garden in the courtyard of the old mosque. He opens a padlock on a chain pulled through two worn slots cut in an ancient wooden door. He invites us in.

The late afternoon sun falls in soft golden shafts across the Oriental rugs that cover the floor. The dome high overhead is decorated with blue arabesques. New white plaster like scar tissue seals cracks made by the 1963 earthquake.

The air is still. Prayer beads await evening worshipers on plush pillows by the eastern wall. The pendulum in a very old standing clock ticks off the ages in seconds. The guests feel a moment of ineffable peace.

The old man writes "500" on a scrap of paper. The age of the mosque. "Mustafa Pasha," he says. The Turkish conqueror who built it.

We've come from a border checkpoint down a route used by warriors through the centuries, the last the Germans in World War II.

"Macedonia's problem is that it is in the center of the Balkans," a local journalist says.

Near the village of Jazince, Norwegians from the United Nations' Nordic Battalion run an observation post and count vehicles crossing the border.

During the day, trucks come south, often carrying lumber and whatever else is under their lashed-down tarpaulins. At night, trucks drive north, equally battened down.

The U.N. soldiers don't look inside. It's not their job. The U.N. mandate here is to "monitor, observe and report." Someone must think this might help keep the war from spreading from Bosnia-Herzegovina and engulfing all of the Balkans.

So the Norwegians keep score on a pad of forms like referees in some odd game with obscure rules. And they patrol the border daily. Serbian soldiers patrol the same routes.

"In the beginning we talked sometimes," says the corporal who runs the post. "To feel safe, now we stay back a little bit."

Swedish soldiers from the Nordic Battalion were detained 10 hours by Serbians about month ago after they wandered across the border. They were treated "kindly," the U.N. commander here says. But it's a risk.

U.S. soldiers will be joining the Scandinavians soon, after a bit more training as peacekeepers. They are primarily combat infantrymen. They have to learn they can only shoot after they've been shot at -- if then.

The sun slants down hard and bright on the Norwegian OP. The mountains that rise sharply to the north fade in a hazy light. The landscape is calm and peaceful.

Farmers work fields with a few small tractors and a lot of horses. They cut the golden-ripe wheat with scythes and pitch the straw onto horse-drawn wagons by hand.

The wheat alternates in narrow bands and elbows with green crops such as corn and beans. Small orchards mount the hillside toward brown and barren highlands. Windbreaks of tall poplar trees define the edges of the fields everywhere, marching in rows across the ancient and patient land like stately village elders.

The war in Bosnia seems a millennium away.

The Norwegians patrol in an armored personnel carrier. They stop in a Serbian village dominated by an Orthodox church with a new roof. Young men shoot baskets in the tiny village square. Basketball has always been a popular sport in the former Yugoslavia.

A slim youth named Goran says it's a good idea that the Americans have come.

"Maybe they'll make peace," he says. "Maybe war is coming to Macedonia."

Zoran Jancesvsky wears a Desert Storm sweatshirt ("Support Our Troops"). He says he's Serbian.

"Americans like to have troops in all countries in Europe," he says. "You want all war in your hands."

We come down from the hills on an old country road and slip back into the rhythm of another century, where gnarled herdsmen and women and children watch grazing cows, and flocks of sheep, and goats with full pink udders. Plums ripen on the tree. Fields of sunflowers bow heavy yellow heads.

As we come around a turn, the city of Skopje opens up before us in the distance. From here, Skopje is a city of red tile roofs and socialist-modern mistakes. It looks perhaps like Sarajevo before the artillery siege. The photographer stops to take a picture.

"The last picture?" I ask. "In case of war."

"Yes," he says.

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