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Scott man promotes peace on Earth

| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Inside the wire security fence, it's Christmas time. From his desk, John Dowling can hear singing beyond the wire that calls Muslims to prayer five times each day.

"One is never very far from religion here," said Dowling, 35, of Scott Township.

He and thousands of soldiers are at Eagle Base, just outside Tuzla, Bosnia, to help the United Nations ensure that people outside the wire don't start killing each other again in the name of religion and ethnicity.

Today is the eighth Christmas that U.S. soldiers have spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina since a 1995 peace accord ended three years of fighting. Inside Eagle Base, some soldiers have set up colored holiday lights, wooden Santa sleds and decorated evergreen trees. Dowling is among more than 1,200 U.S. Army Reserve soldiers — mostly from the 28th Infantry Division in Harrisburg — who are stationed at the base.

"Bosnia is a lot of Pennsylvania in many respects," said Dowling, a public-affairs commander for the U.S. Army National Guard who has been on the base since August. "Especially the central part of the state, with high mountains and deep valleys."

This land also is the confluence of three major faiths — Islam, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Many of the region's Muslim residents fled after Serbian paramilitary troops — most of them Eastern Orthodox — began attacking the Muslims in 1992. The United Nation's goal is to help Muslim refugees who want to return and to enforce the peace.

Part of the job includes showing respect to all three denominations.

"Peacekeeping soldiers are discouraged from entering religious facilities to demonstrate impartiality toward all of the people here," said Dowling, who is on military leave form his job as spokesman for the Allegheny County Economic Development Department. "If it is observed that we are preferential toward one side, the other will ask for equal treatment or could make an issue out of it to gain leverage."

Soldiers can visit area churches and mosques only through arranged tours. Religious observances are held at the base's chapel — shared by Catholics, Protestants, Jewish and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

On a recent trip, Dowling said, he noticed his first visible sign of Christmas in Bosnia. About 40 miles from the base, in the main square of Bijeljina, a city of about 120,000 people, street vendors were selling Christmas ornaments, lights and garland. The square also contained several Soviet-era monuments to World War II and a basketball court.

Bijeljina, though, has an unhappy past and a troubled present. Back in October, U.N. soldiers from Eagle Base raided a weapons factory in the town, which is now dominated by Serbs, after learning the factory had been selling weapons to Iraq, according to news reports. The city is part of the Republic of Serbska, the Serbian slice of Bosnia.

During the war in Bosnia, about 27,000 Muslims were forced out or fled the town, according to a recent report from Human Rights Watch. Many refugees still are unwilling to return.

"Many of them anticipated the coming storm and vacated their homes before being forced out of them," Dowling said. "Others were forced with the option of leaving peacefully or never leaving at all."

He said most refugees struggle with keeping enough food on the table.

"Despite a very educated work force, unemployment runs very high," Dowling said. "In the more rural areas and even close to the cities, people are forced to grow vegetables and tend farm animals to feed themselves."

Dowling said the unemployment rate is 40 percent.

For the soldiers at Eagle Base, life is more secure.

The base is a former Yugoslavian air-force center and has a full-sized gym, movies, coffees shops and fitness center. The food court there recently added a Cinnabon pastry shop and has fast food, such as Taco Bell and Burger King.

A high-speed Internet cafe on base lets Dowling and other soldiers keep in touch with their families back home. His wife, Shelly, is a math teacher at Bethel Park High School, and the couple has two children, Emily, 3, and Steven, 2.

"I talk to my family twice a week through [personal computer] camera," Dowling said. "I've seen my son turn from a baby to a toddler in the past few months. … I even got to watch my kid's birthday party in September."

On Christmas Eve, Dowling said he and his family plan to open their gifts to each other in front of their computers.

"It's not the same as being at home, but it's better than nothing," he said.

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