It is not the critic who counts,
nor the one who points out how the strong man stumbled,
or how the doer of deeds might have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
who strives valiantly and spends himself in a just and worthy cause.
Who, if he wins, knows the triumph of great achievement
and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
He who dares, wins.
Bosnia Hercegovina, unknown to most people until a ticking time bomb of national identity, insecurities and propaganda detonated in the very heart of the country. The beautifully desolate hills and valleys. The sparkling blue green lakes and rivers. The timeless feel of the isolated villages and the unmistakable tone of its cities have been brutally altered forever. The hills are alive with the sound of gunfire and the valleys are bruised and scarred. The rivers have flowed red while carrying the dead. The isolated villages are cleansed godforsaken places, some devoid of life altogether while the cities are submerged in the fallout of refugees forced or escaping from the villages captured by the advancing BSA. The whole country is now polluted forever with fear, hate suspicion and death.
While our eyes and ears fascinated themselves watching episodes of the television war drama “The Gulf War—Live!”, atrocities not seen since the days of Nazi Germany were being committed in the heart of Europe.
Politically the timing was brilliant. The new infant leaders of Croatia and Serbia knew the world media was preoccupied in the coverage of events in the gulf. No news team would be heading their way for a while yet. Strike now. Cleanse.
By the time the first Gulf War was over the main bulk of Ethnic Cleansing had been carried out in the Balkan’s. Heinous acts of barbarism and brigandage had been committed in the name of National Purity. Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims were at each other’s throats and huge swathes of Bosnia Hercegovina and Croatia were already annexed in the name of the Greater Serbia.
It took a while for the press to get an angle on what was going on and who was who, but pretty soon, as exciting graphics and attention grabbing headlines and by-lines came into play, the whole world was tuned in to a new real-life drama unfolding before them. This one didn’t have any of ‘our boys’ in it, yet, so we could watch with impunity.
Sometimes something gets under your skin and you just can’t get rid of it. It gnaws away at you and bugs you constantly. Demanding attention. The term Ethnic Cleansing was doing this to me. I didn’t like it, not one bit. It sounded like I might find it under the same heading as Extermination Camp. It has the same initials. When the first pictures started coming out of the conflict they burned into my conscience and kept me awake at nights. The shelling of Tuzla and Sarajevo itself by the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) chilled and scared me. The destruction of Osijek, Vukovar and Mostar appalled and angered me. Pusillanimous snipers who were targeting old people and children at play woke me up dramatically.
They ask you, “Why are you coming to my Country?” It’s a hard question to answer. Why am I here? Have I nothing better to do? Do I really feel for these people? Am I not, after all, just an unholy tourist? Have I seen and heard enough shit to qualify”
Lost. Gnawing conscience. Those pictures on the TV. The desperate lines of war and terrorism being etched into every face. The children were playing in the streets and pulling at my heart. I knew I could go, but I didn’t know why. So don’t ask me, OK.
The first time I succumbed was a blast. The PSI were slowing and I was sick of drugs, sick of touring, sick of clubs and sick of worrying about girlfriends and mates and where are we going and what you wearing. Sick of hangers on and sick of the phone. My sister died in her bathroom at the age of 18 from an epileptic seizure and that was the final straw. After the funeral I was on my way to Bosnia. It still took another six months to get there, but get there we did, on a fucking tourist bus to Zagreb. Then a hellish journey down the Dalmatian coast to Split.
Help For the Forgotten.
We had been in Split less than twelve hours and a big adventure lay just a few hours away. It was one in the morning and we were pumped. Grinning madly at each other over the top of our sleeping bags. It was pointless trying to sleep. May as well grin. Rendezvous at four thirty a.m. Leave at five. Herbie was an ex-Austrian Army sniper and possessed Aryan blue eyes and a long beard which he liked to stroke often. Tall and confident, with the manner of a council youth worker. This was his third time in country, he knew the people and the language. Herbie was the seasoned Kommandant.
Benno, a contributor who had recently been in Afghanistan and scored a heap of hash, took it back to Vienna and sold it to buy his contribution of potatoes and onions for the people of Bosnia. He too was a volunteer. He wore leather pants from South America and a red, green and gold woolly hat holding in a set of dreads which when unleashed from the hat reached down to his waist. Benno is fifty years old and proud to be Rasta
Christoph was the driver of the Uni-mog. Quiet and drawn up inside his parka with just his eyes and blonde head poking out the top he watched and said little. He drank a lot of beer though, which was a good sign.
I made a point of making sure Christoph always had a beer. Benno produced some of the source behind the potatoes and onions, which was an even better sign. A couple of joints later and I was impressing Herbie with my new edition map of the Balkan area and he was showing us the route we would be taking to Zavidovici.
A deal had been struck. We could hitch a ride with the Austrians as long as we pulled our weight and paid our own bar tabs. It was almost midnight and we were leaving at five thirty. It was hoped that somewhere along the way we would cross paths with the SRT convoy. Well that was the loose plan, things had taken a turn for the better and we were content to let whatever happened next happen. Jim was not so confident and expressed his concern, which we talked about and got over. Jon felt a bit left out because this was as far as he could go. He would stay in Split but other commitments were forcing him to return to London and it was a three-day trek back to Blighty. Rendezvous time came, Jim was out of bed brewing some coffee and we had time for a quick hit. Jon had asked us to wake him but goodbyes had already been said before he retired to bed slightly pissed a few hours ago. After leaving a good luck and goodbye note for him we headed out into the morning to hook up with the Austrians across the road.
There was a bustle of inactivity in the HFF camp. Josef, Patrik and Helmut were introduced to us and we shook hands warmly in the cold morning. Josef came from Spain, spoke very little English but the very competent driver of an old Dennis thirty-eight seater bus he had converted into half storage and half-living area. It was his pride and joy. Benno’s potatoes and onions were in the storage part along with tinned foodstuff, loads of party balloons and two or three kilo’s of chewy sweets.
We were to travel in the bus with Josef and Benno. Herbie was in the Uni- mog with Christoph. Another young Austrian, Patrik, travelled as radio-man with Helmut driving the Volvo. Helmut was ex-German Army and an inspiration in a bar.
All vehicles were fitted with CB radios. The Merc was Wagon Ein, we were in Vagon Zwei and the Volvo was Wagon Drei. Travelling in that order we were to maintain visual as well as radio contact throughout the trip.
Five a.m. and the activity in the Austrian huddle was non existent. The inactivity was due to a huge spliff being passed around the crew. We stowed our bags away and partook in the morning ritual. Herbie assured us that we were on schedule to leave and this we did at five thirty on the nose.
Pulling out of the car park and onto that road was a wonderful feeling. There was that sense of change again. I knew Martin felt it too because he had gripped my knee and was a grinning Scottish fool. This small convoy made its way steadily south down a route the UN had named Gannet. The road was a scenic affair with rolling hills and cliffs on the left and the ever blue Adriatic on our right. Makarska, a beautiful town that boasted a sign calling it the “Croatian Riviera” came and went along with numerous other Balkan seaside hamlets. On our left now was a cliff face, sheer and straight up. Great climbing I thought to myself.
We hung a left at Podgora and started a tortuous climb up the cliff on roads with more hairpins than the Mercedes Fashion Week.
Wrecks of cars, mainly Yugo Zastava models and VW golfs and Kombis, littered the gullies. Victims of one hairpin too many. Someone had had the idea of creating barriers with the doors of the wrecks, they stood like works of art, strung on the outside bend of a tricky hairpin, all the colours in an east European range of car doors. Strange shades of green and mustard yellow, overlapping baby shit browns, racing reds and blues. They had even gone as far as to group the salvaged items by part and sometimes even make. This made for interesting crash barriers of Zasatva doors, Golf bonnets and kombi tailgates.
We climbed higher heading inland and leaving the sea behind us. The terrain was rough and rocky on both sides. The occasional steep gully would appear just to remind us that we were still climbing. In some of these gully’s were patches of rich soil washed down by rains from above. Fenced in with car wreckage these plots of fertile land had been fully taken advantage of, crops were being easily cultivated in an otherwise barren landscape.
I was busy taking all this in like a tourist, wowing at the wowable sights. Martin was doing the same, Benno was smoking a joint and listening to Bob Marley on the stereo. Suddenly there was a frantic blaring of a siren and horn from behind as a car overtook and came up alongside Josef. I could hear shouting and then Josef hit the brakes and the car sped off. A man was leaning out of the passenger side waving and pointing a gun back in our direction. Josef got on the radio and warned Herbie of the impending nutter on his tail. Herbie kept the channel open and we all heard the car speed up and overtake the Unimog with an outburst of shouting.
“Fucking idiots,” said Herbie over the radio, “Catch up to me and we will wait for a few minutes.” This gave us the chance to stretch our legs. We looked at maps and Herbie showed us where we would cross the border into Bosnia a few k’s out of Vrgorac. From there we would head south again through Ljubuski and rejoin Gannet at Caplijana. We had been on the road for three hours and the morning air was crisp and fresh. A breakfast stop at Ljubuski was in the offing and all haste was made to get there. But first there was the Checkpoint at the border.
Herbie assured us that missing breakfast and the hour and a half we spent waiting at the border was nothing. Nothing compared to some people who had been there for days. There was a whole assortment of transport from small cars with whole families in to coaches full of tourists bound for the holy town of Medjgore. Trucks of every description, some empty some full, all to be checked. We pulled up and killed engines. Herbie jumps out of the Merc and bounds off with a Lever Arch file full of papers under his arm. He comes back with the same bounce in his step and tells us to make coffee. He tells us it is just a matter of finding the right guard.
He bounces off again. “Some are easier to talk to than others,” he says bouncing back in for a coffee, “and some you can just outright bribe.”
Which is exactly what he did, with a bottle of Ballantyne’s Whisky and a couple of girlie mags.
I asked him about the bouncing. ”So what’s with all the bouncing then?” “Oh that’s so people notice me.
” He answers, “I let them think I know where I am and what I am doing,” He was right, it is better to be noticed. People remember you from last time. They also remember the whisky and razz mags. We were to employ this method of crossing the border many times. We seemed to have a good supply of girlie mags and Ballantyne’s.
So far all the only signs that there was a war of any kind going on was the distinct lack of menfolk in the villages. The villages themselves bore no scars like the ones north of Split near Zadar. We were in safe country the front line being some sixty or so kilometres away to the east. This was Bosnian Croat territory. The chequerboard flag was everywhere. It hung across the roads into the villages, in shop windows, stencilled on walls and doorways. Checkpoints at every village and town bore the red and white shield of Hrvatska.
Underneath a brand new flag of Croatia we breakfasted as planned in Ljubuski. Delicious warm bread and cheese, they make a damn fine Turkish coffee too. Bread and cheese was to become our diet for the next few days, washed down with either beer or coffee. The water was not to be trusted unless boiled first.
This was reinforced later in the day when we went to fill our canteens and containers from the River Neretva south of Mostar. I chanced to look over to the other side and there caught in a twist of limbs and branches was the bloated wreckage of a man. You could tell it was a man by the clothes. Whether he was a violent victim of the war or not was hard to tell but we became transfixed by his grotesque relationship with the tree. No one really said anything about it except, “Wow”, and “Gross”.
Despite our Christian upbringing’s we drove off leaving him there, it felt kind of wild and irresponsible.
“Shouldn’t we inform someone of that?” I asked, all naïve and innocent like. No answer. If we had found that in England it would be in the papers for days and I would be in therapy. We took to the road again after breakfast and descended into Caplijana shortly after midday. The Croatians still administered at the border crossing south of the town in Metkovic, but one got the feeling the European Community was firmly in control of Caplijana. The red and white chequerboards were there but not as prolific. This was a major supply base for all the NGO’s and UN affiliated programs in Bosnia. The town was awash with white UN vehicles and white NGO vehicles and Press vehicles that had been painted white to match the rest. Herbie had to see some UN official and get a current situation briefing before we could proceed. We stayed with our vehicles feeling pretty conspicuous. A splash of colour in this otherwise blank setting. People looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and envy as they drove by in drab white APC’s and brand new Landcruisers.
Herb arrived back with the required information and divulged. We can continue north on Gannet, Mostar would be passed at around three thirty and it would be getting dark then. There would still be plenty of traffic on the roads up until around eight. There was a ten o’clock curfew and anyway after ten the roads belonged to the bandits and it was unsafe to be out. All the UN routes were open but anything else was as you find it. We were going as you find it once we reached Travnik, in territory held by the Bosnian Croats. Our destination today was a Franciscan Monastery on the outskirts of Bucici, a small village near Travnik. Snow was on the ground passed Mostar and all points north. The roads, we were told, were passable but if it snowed again we could be in trouble. We only had snow chains for the Volvo and anyway, no one likes messing with snow chains. Josef just laughed and said, “no problem”. His driving was truly inspirational.
Silence fell as day turned to night and our little convoy passed through the East Side of Mostar. The whole place looked completely fucked up. Every building, every home, every wall wearing scars of confusion, hate and war. In the fading light it was a surreal experience that Martin and I Shared in silence, shoulder to shoulder. People moving in slow motion, no lights except the yellow of candles and the orange-red of a fire here and there.
We passed a checkpoint on the way in and another on the way out and each time Herbie came aboard the bus to let us know in detail our next movements. The snow in the mountains was bad but not impossible to negotiate and we had no choice now but to keep going. No one felt like staying in Mostar.
Once we had cleared the CP out of Mostar the roads took a turn for the worse. The bridge over the River Neretva was down and the UN engineers had extended the road by a few kilometres, to where the river narrowed, and had built a pontoon affair which was wide enough for one way traffic. We came to the end of the queue and waited our turn to cross. The night closing in and the stars blinking down, unaware of the tragedy that was Bosnia. The Moon giving off a light cursed by some and blessed by others. This was truly surreal, in the air a sense of impending something or other, maybe hysteria or just panic mixed with anxiety.
In the queue were small cars and vans, trucks and UN APC’s. Coming the other way were bus loads of refugees and people on foot, empty eyes asking for a cigarette, in silence we gave them our packet. The packet was passed around and came back empty. Mumbled thanks and “Nema Problema’s”, we get back in the bus before we lose our shirts. For some reason I couldn’t help noticing the footwear. Tragic stuff, same brand as the Croatian soldiers we encountered on the bus to Split. Slowly the traffic moved and we crossed the bridge and started the climb north into the mountains and into the snow. Herbie rode with us for a while and we had a chance to talk to him about the convoy’s mission and where we were headed.
Zavidovici, our penultimate destination was near the front line in northern Bosnia. There we would unload the supplies we carried and would stay for a few days while we made trips out to smaller villages in the locality.
We would also be meeting the Mayor and finding out what were the essential supplies he needed on the next run. Zavidovici had taken a fucking pounding, kids and old folk were living in basements, and shelter from the harsh winter was hard to find and keep warm. Since the UN had another route into Tuzla which negated the need to go through Zavidovici they had neglected the situation here and things were looking bleak.
Herbie had adopted the town as HFF’s main recipient, just as other NGO’s were adopting towns and villages across Bosnia. There was nothing special about Zavidovici, except it seemed to be at the bottom of everyone list of places that needed help. And it was five hundred metres to the front line in three directions.
Most agencies were heading for the glamour spots of Mostar and Sarajevo, Tuzla and Bihac. Places that had been featured heavily in news bulletins flashed around the world. Gorazde and Srebrenica were also top spots for a while. Herbie explained the HFF way of working in Austria.
They would stand outside of supermarkets and get people who were going in to buy an extra kilo of potatoes or onions or carrots etc. At the exit they would have someone else collecting the donated veggies and when they had a truck full, which didn’t take too long according to Herbie, it was then a matter of getting the stuff to Zavidovici.
Corporate donations were always welcome too. They achieved this through advertising and plain old fronting up to a corporation and asking for money. Herbie’s credentials were good and HFF were active and had a profile in their home town of Vienna. Herbie organised everything. From the hits on the supermarkets to the carnets for getting the aid through the border customs and checkpoints. He kept the organisation small and manageable, hand picking the crew and drivers from a group of friends who shared his humanitarian vision.
Except for Benno.
Benno was a bit of a loose cannon and his looks attracted more attention than was necessary some times. I liked him a lot, apart from the fact we were both living in leather trousers and long johns. He had great timing and only once was it off but even then his reasons were sound. We wound our way up and up and up some more. The snow on the ground, which had appeared just after we left Mostar, was getting thicker as we climbed higher.
There was a small debate about snow chains which petered out when Benno pointed out that we only had chains for the Volvo anyway and if we wanted to turn back and go get some from Split that was ok with him.
Very funny Benno. He smiled and we smiled and Josef laughed and said something about him never needing them before and he sure wasn’t going to start now. The night was in on us now and we hadn’t seen another vehicle for ages. Bob Marley was back on the stereo and ‘Stir it up” drifted through the bus. Josef had an elastic band around the key-in button on the comms so everyone could hear.
Zavidovici Snieg Rat.
We’ve been in Zavidovici for two days now and it’s cold. The snow is thick and wet. We are trying to get across town but got pinned down by enemy fire, a surprise ambush, they know who we are too. We shoulda seen it coming, things were too quiet, like a secret about to be told. Where are they, twelve of them I reckon.
Well it looks like we got a fight on our hands here. They’ve got spotters making the marks too. Get them first. Cut and run, dive for cover. This is unbelievable, I thought we were safe here. Cut and run, dive for cover.
Ah man I’ve had it. We’ve been fighting for over an hour now. I’m exhausted, hungry, wet and wild. I must have been hit cos I can feel this wet patch on my neck, cold trickling sensation as it runs under my collar and down my back.
We’ve taken cover under some long planks of wood leaning against a wail. It’s dark and safe, for now. We expect another onslaught any minute, as soon as they work out where we went to ground. I start to prepare the ammo. Make sure we have enough for the breakout. Helmut wants to full frontal them, willing to take his chances weaving and firing. I’m going to take the left flank, Martin is going for the cover of bushes to our right, he wants to belly along in the snow until he is almost behind them, wait for them to pass and then let them have it. We should have them pretty well fucked.
We persuade Helmut to hang back a while, maybe we can make them run in his direction. The plan is agreed just in time. We hear them approaching, I sneak a look through a chink in the planks. Martin is away on his belly, slithering through the snieg (snow) he makes it to the bushes just as they round the corner.
Breath bated, they didn’t see him.
I am ready to go, waiting for Martin to appear at the end of the line of bushes. They still don’t know where we are but they’re heading straight for us. I see Martins head bob up as he reaches his vantage and I take off at full speed in a big arc towards them, their shots are missing and I skid to a stop wheel round and let go a few. First one misses but the second catches one of them in the side of the head as he tries to duck out the way. The cheers go up as martin takes them totally by surprise from the rear, he gets a few shots in and then breaks towards them firing as he goes.
Jesus, I thought to myself, he must have made loads while he was there. The plan is working, they run towards our old cover to find Helmut waiting for them and boy does he let them have it. He fires fast and accurate, hitting more than he misses, but he’s running out of ammo fast. Suddenly they regroup and Helmut goes down in a flurry of snow and giggles. More cheers.
They turn on Martin and he hasn’t got a chance. Overcome in seconds, his breath coming hard as he takes maybe five or six hits before his hands go up in surrender. We are outnumbered by four to one and they sure can fight. I am out of ammo, they turn on me, I think for a split second about making some more but raise my arms in surrender instead, in the vain hope of avoiding the unavoidable. They let me have it, all of them.
I hear one of the old folk, who have been watching and laughing at our antics, reprimand the leader of the opposition for firing on an unarmed and surrendering foe so they let him have it too.
I am soaked to the skin, shivering, icy cold melting snow is all over me after their last assault. I am also laughing my head off as Helmut picks himself up and heads over making “lets have beer” gestures with his hands. It was a good fight. Probably the best snow ball fight I have ever been in. The kids here really know about tactics. They don’t take prisoners either.
Time to make a snowman I reckon
(Alex spent nearly two years in Bosnia before moving permanently to Australia with his partner Natasha. He now has a five year old daughter Arki Grace and is writing music again.)