TUZLA AIR BASE, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA
THE massive media attention embarrasses the few US Army soldiers here. Network anchors are running out of things to say. And American camera crews scramble madly for a shot of any jet trying to land in the freezing fog.
For days, winter weather has delayed full deployment of US forces to Tuzla, Bosnia, but the pack of hungry media - eager to report a 1990s D-Day - still has to be fed.
The result: a farce. Cameramen are taking pictures of cameramen. Reporters are interviewing reporters. Journalists - including this one - are so desperate they have resorted to the most embarrassing practice of the trade - filing stories about other journalists.
Each day, 10 camera crews, 50 still photographers, and dozens of newspaper reporters stand in a roped-off section just off the main deserted runway of the Tuzla air base for four-to-six freezing hours.
The only structures in sight are an Army radar system and a tall platform where television reporters stage on-camera "stand-ups." Journalists haplessly report on what has happened so far in Tuzla - nothing.
The entrance to the air base is a jarring juxtaposition of high-tech and ox carts.
As ox carts pass by in Tuzla, mobile satellite dishes instantly bring the non-event to the world.
TV networks have bought the half-dozen houses just outside the main gate.
As Bosnian farmers pass by in ox carts, 20-foot mobile satellite dishes sit in yards and smaller microwave dishes jut from windows of old Bosnian farm houses - instantly bringing the nonevent to the world
The smiling waitress in the once-deserted cafe across the street from the base's entrance - which is now experiencing a huge windfall courtesy of journalists' expense accounts - sports a red "NBC News" baseball cap.
Bosnian farmer Tahir Malkic, walking by the front gate with his wife, daughter, and a wheelbarrow filled with an ax, saw, and 20 pounds of salt, says he is surprised the mighty American military is being stopped by the weather. Mr. Malkic says he is eager to have Americans enforce a peace he has waited years for and is positively embarrassed that Tuzla's skies, which are famous for fog, are not cooperating.
"It will break in a day or two. It must," he says apologetically. "I guess they don't have fog in America."
As the fog rolls
A thick mist has hung over the Tuzla airfield, preventing dozens of US C-130 cargo aircraft from landing here since Friday. The American segment of NATO's largest military deployment ever is being held up by thick fog and Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Embarrassed military officials insist they are in no hurry and have planned for such delays in what is expected to be a time-consuming winter deployment.
"Safety is being stressed throughout the operation," says frustrated Maj. Ryan Yantis, an Army public affairs officer from Red Bluff, Calif.
"There is not a rabid adherence to a set time schedule. This will not affect the movement of ground forces," Major Yantis adds.
Once every few hours, a C-130 transport aircraft may pass overhead and set off a panic among cameramen. But the fog is usually so thick that the plane can't be seen. If the photographers are lucky, a plane actually breaks through the clouds and flies away.
The end result is that there are far more journalists in Tuzla - several hundred in fact - than there are American soldiers.
Jay is on the way
And in order to make sure this is a Christmas in Tuzla for American troops to remember, comedian Jay Leno is on the way. He flew into Aviano Air Base in Italy yesterday. And if the fog lifts, he'll be here in time to entertain the American boys a la the Bob Hope Christmas Special.
Public affairs officer Yantis has grown so tired of answering the same questions from bored reporters that he has taken to holding his hands on either side of his helmet, rolling his eyes and telling the crowd of cameras in front of him, "You people are going to make my cerebellum explode."
Yantis, who literally twiddles his thumbs as he answers questions, says the deployment of US forces by land from a forward base established in Kaposvar, Hungary, will proceed as planned despite the delays at the Tuzla air base, where the US headquarters for the region is to be established.
One of several pontoon bridges will soon be erected over the Sava River, which divides Bosnia from Croatia. US forces then will cross into Bosnian Serb held territory and move by land to pre-determined bases.
US troops will move in company-sized units, meaning 14 tanks or a dozen armored personnel carriers, through Serb territory in a show of force. For security reasons, officials will not say when the operation is going to occur or where the Americans are going to deploy.