Friday, November 20, 1992 - Vitez, Bosnia.
Up at 6 AM. Very cold. Considering the noisy neighbors, I slept surprisingly well. A quick cold splash takes the place of a shower, bottled water for the tooth brush, load up and meet downstairs. There's no one at the desk, so we leave the agreed amount for the rooms (Bosnian money is almost useless, we've been told, so we leave dollars) under the blotter with the keys and go looking for Anders.
A couple of wounded soldiers are waiting by the door. One is carried out on a stretcher when a station wagon pulls up for him. The bloody reality of war. These are mostly very young men.
Anders picks us up at 6:50 AM in the typical UNHCR 4-wheeler. We quickly make our way through the small, surprisingly pleasant-appearing city of Vitez. We're not far out of town when we come upon a Red Cross ambulance that has flipped on the roadway. It looks pretty messed up, but apparently no one was hurt. I guess it slid in the ice and they lost control. We hook up the tow line to our vehicle and pull it out of danger, then move on. We're headed for UNPROFOR HQ in Kiseljak (KISSEL-YAK), from which the armed UN convoys leave for Sarajevo.
Anders, asked his opinion of the views expressed by Nick and Paul, says he doesn't disagree that there are violations on all sides. He does seem to feel that the problems can be worked out through negotiations, but emphasizes the difficulties inherent in the current, entrenched power relationships. He has had to be the go-between in negotiations between forces who, despite being only a short distance apart physically, and even harder to understand, in spite of having been neighbors for years, refuse to speak to one another.
What's clear as he talks is his sense of overwhelm at the flood of refugees they're facing. He has most recently been involved with trying to resettle and deal with the needs of the thousands who poured out of Jajce after it fell. Most of them are now in Travnik and the overflow is hitting Vitez. Some of the stories he relates are in and of themselves eloquent testimony not only to the horror of the situation, but also to the extraordinary courage and utter devotion to humanitarian principles of Anders and his staff.
-A Serbian artillery barrage on the town of Travnik when he and his staff were feeding and interviewing refugees from Jajce nearly killed all of them.
-Images of hundreds of old men, women and children cringing on the floor of the local high school gymnasium as shells crashed around them.
-Taking testimony from countless numbers of people who had suffered horribly, yet struggling to maintain an objective view of all sides in the conflict.
The fact that he is so totally invested in the situation here makes crystal clear the reason he feels so frustrated at the attention being lavished on other areas of the conflict. The emotional toll on these volunteers is incredible.
Driving through the countryside is an exercise in non-sequitur. The beautiful landscape, the towns, homes, farms and rivers are impossible to reconcile with the tales of horror describing the behavior of the fighters, particularly the Serbs.
And it is peculiar, I must admit, to see "typical" rural European towns and villages, with their farms, country lanes, horses and wagons and all the trimmings and then see a minaret standing in the midst of it all.
Driving through particular areas, Anders gives us the run-down on the local politics, or at least a sense of who controls. He makes clear, as others have, that Muslims in Croat controlled territory often face grave difficulties, in some instances to a degree that rivals what others have faced from the Serbs. Claims of the same kind of behavior in Muslim controlled areas against Serbs (and sometimes Croats) have also been lodged.
Entering one town he says we should expect to be stopped by the Croat forces (HOS) who are in control. They are often openly hostile to the UNHCR because of their conviction that the UN organizations favor the Muslims. Anders' interpretation is a bit different. He says it's because they know that if the UN wasn't here the Muslims would have folded long ago and the Croats and the Serbs could have worked out a division of the land between them.
Approaching the Croat checkpoint he starts to tell us to let him handle everything, to reassure us that all will be well, and then is surprised to be waved through with hardly a glance. With a laugh, he indicates that this is typical of the craziness here. Things are almost never as one expects them to be.
In approximately an hour, we enter Kiseljak, a thriving city which Anders says is known as the "Hong Kong" of Bosnia. Perhaps it's the large UNPROFOR force based here or perhaps it's in an area the control of which is undisputed, but the city is not only unmarked physically but seems calm and untroubled by the difficulties elsewhere.
Anders indicates that people come here from all different parts of the globe to do business. Name your pleasure.
We pull through a gate and into the parking area, stop and get out. We're at the base of a hill atop which is what looks to be a college or hospital building now converted to the use of the United Nations Protective Force. Vehicles are everywhere, some of them the track-driven armored personnel carriers of my nightmares. Built like a tank without the swiveling gun turret on top, these are the devices that evidently keep people safe from harm going through "sniper alley" while striking terror into the hearts of claustrophobics who become unable to breathe at the thought of entering one.
Leaving our gear in the car we trudge up the hill and through the crowd to the front door. A circular drive at the top of the hill is filled with vehicles apparently ready to depart for Sarajevo. They are varied in type, though almost all are military vehicles of some description, and almost all are already full. My heart is made a bit lighter by the fact that there are some regular trucks in the circle, some Jeeps and a couple of vans. (Maybe, I calculate, if I break into tears, scream, tear my hair and throw myself writhing onto the ground I can manipulate my way into one of the more open, human-style vehicles one can actually take a breath in.)
At the door we're stopped, asked to show our credentials, then told we're not on the list. Long way to come to not be let into the party. After a bit, Barbara and Anders are admitted into the building and go to look for the person who is supposed to have made arrangements for us. Phil, Stephanie and I stand at the door watching the parade of uniformed and non-uniformed people come and go, watch people loading their gear and weapons into the various vehicles, watch everyone don their flak jackets: it's a full-fledged military operation in preparation here and people are taking it very seriously.
A big English sergeant with a very Irish face seems to be in charge of who goes where. He's carrying a clip board and directs individuals to their assigned spots. As Barbara and Anders come back out, the sergeant waves an arm and a VW van pull out of a spot by the side and into the circle. He turns to us and hollers, pointing to the van, that if we want to go we'd better get in. Anders says the van's for us and he'll bring the car up to the top of the hill so we can get our gear. I want to kiss him. And the sergeant. I've been trying to think of anything but having to get into one of those APCs, not knowing what I'd do if told it was that or stay here.
We rush over to the van and say we're with them (it's being driven by a uniformed woman and another soldier is in the shotgun seat) and that we'll be back in a minute with our stuff, then head over to grab our gear and say thanks and goodbye to Anders. Back to the van, in and the convoy is moving.
8:15 AM - Down the hill and out the gate. An armed half-track is in the lead (so-called because it looks like a truck, though it's armored, has truck tires in front and tank-type tracks in the rear), followed by a white UNPROFOR Jeep (with the big Irish sergeant in it), then us. Our van is third in line, fifteen other vehicles trail us. The woman driving doesn't say much, doesn't seem to speak much English. The soldier riding shotgun has a shoulder patch indicating he's from Holland, but speaks English with a Cockney accent. Has been here for four months, is going home for the holidays. Will fly out of Sarajevo with one of the supply flights and on home from Zagreb.
We're quickly through the streets of Kiseljak, headed toward the countryside.
8:25 AM - Outside of the city now, all is peaceful, normal appearing. Small village here, wash on the line, livestock in the field.
8:30 AM - A serpentine road up a hill, bombed out ruins at the top. Through a checkpoint at the top, then, it would appear, we're in no-man's land.
A woman is walking on the side of the road. Was my assumption a bit hasty?
It's beginning to snow.
8:33 AM - Stop at a Serb checkpoint. It's tense here. The Cockney Dutchman has been through this before, says they're often very hostile here, can hassle you pretty good. The Serbs walk by outside the van, check us out carefully. Then another group. Grim-faced, staring.
The Irish-faced sergeant and an officer are outside the Jeep ahead, showing papers, talking with the Serb officers.
Another Serb officer comes by, opens the car doors, asks to see ID. He's pleasant. One follows him who is less so. One guard leans in to check the ID of the soldier up front and leans the muzzle of his automatic weapon against the seat (effectively pointing it at him). Very unpleasant moment.
Two women under parasols saunter through the checkpoint, are looked over by the soldiers.
Another guard wants to see our ID.
There are plenty of Kalashnikovs (Soviet made automatic weapons) in evidence and a number of Hecklers, which our resident expert (Dutch soldier) says are a cheap copy of the Kalashnikov.
8:45 AM - We're off, though with a Serb escort. This, again according to our expert, isn't unusual.
Pass through a bombed out, virtually ruined village. Again, wash is visible on a line outside a half-destroyed house.
Everything is shot up here, yet a group of people stands by a building, apparently waiting for a bus. (!)
We wind our way down a hill. Snow, haystacks, wash on the line, appearance of normal life. (?) There are many buildings here, some burned, destroyed, others occupied. Here a group of men is standing at the side of the road looking at us. They wear civilian clothes, but carry weapons.
8:55 AM - We stop. The Irish Sergeant comes back to the van, asks us to get out and into the (**%++##) armored personnel carrier that comes clanking up. From this point on its too dangerous for non-military personnel, flak jackets or not, to be in view. "You're sure about this?" "Absolutely." Ahh, God. Deep breath time. The back of the thing winches down exposing a tiny, cave-like interior maybe five feet across and four feet high with a narrow bench on each side. Three soldiers stand in the middle, their heads and shoulders poking through a hatch, weapons at the ready. In front of them the head of the machine gunner is visible above the roof of the vehicle. We're to get inside and cram ourselves onto one of the two benches, leaving room for the bottom halves of the three soldiers and, insult to injury, another civilian and another soldier who are right behind us. I don't like this a bit. Barbara doesn't either, I sense.
The others are great, wanting to help any way they can. But what can they do? In we go. Squashed. Deep breaths. Think about something else. Hah! Phil, Stephanie and Barbara having gone in first, I'm at the end of the starboard side bench. One of the soldiers sticking halfway out above, whose leg is pressing against me, is a woman. Settling in across from me is a man in civilian clothes with long, dark curly hair whom I had noticed at the jump-off place and assumed to be a journalist. Next to him is the extra soldier. Phil gives me the thumbs up and I give it back; OK so far. Barbara says she's OK. Stephanie too. The door grinds its way up, shuts with a thunk! Deeper breaths. It's loud as hell in here, as someone, I think Manoel, said it would be. Good, gives me more to think about.
It's everything terrible I had feared: crammed together, barely room to breathe, much less move; others, total strangers, in control. The almost perfect recipe for uncontrollable panic. And it's kind of an interesting experience! I can breathe after all. I'm OK. This isn't the place I'd pick to spend a relaxing evening, but it isn't so bad. I can handle it.
The man across is a representative of an organization called Medecin le Monde (Medicine for the World, founded by the same man who started Medecins Sans Frontieres, [Doctors Without Borders], the wonderful group so active in Somalia and Kenya). They have 45 "missions" in the world, of which Bosnia is one. He supplies medicine to 50 different medical centers in central Bosnia, including necessary medications for surgery, vaccination, dialysis, blood transfusion, radiology and treatment of diabetes (insulin). They chose these in particular, he says, because they are often given short shrift during wartime. He says they also operate in Croatia and will next be setting up in Serbia.
9:03 AM - We begin to move forward. Sniper Alley, here we come.
The clatter from the treads is deafening. Close as we are, even shouting at each other we're pretty much reduced to reading lips. The soldier across from me pulls out a package containing earplugs, but after struggling unsuccessfully with the packaging for a while finally gives up with a laugh.
It's very cold with the hatch open for the soldiers, but I'm not going to complain. I can crane my head around and actually catch a glimpse of the sky.
9:16 AM - We suddenly veer sharply to the right. As with a tractor, the way these things turn is to stop one tread and press on with the other. In effect, you turn on a dime. It's a bit startling to those inside, I can tell you.
The Frenchman (having done this before) leans across and says we're leaving the main road to Sarajevo and taking the new route they've developed to the airport. The main road, he says, has been mined. Good call, driver.
9:18 AM - We stop. Craning around, I can see the edge of a red tiled roof and some more sky. The soldiers seem to be totally alert. The engine shuts down. God, what a difference!
The Frenchman says he's based in Kiseljak, agrees with Anders that it's an international trade zone on the order of Hong Kong and says it's very quiet there. Nothing like this.
9:20 AM - We're off again. Now I can catch glimpses of the tips of more buildings, more red tiled roofs. Now some multi-story buildings with boarded-up windows, pock-marks from bullets.
9:23 AM - We're now, per my source, leaving Serb-held territory and entering the road that runs between the city and the airport. "Sniper Alley," he says, is part of this road, but it's in the other direction. He says it's actually a huge avenue that runs to the city. (He's been in and out of here maybe 30 times.)
Now, as we turn, then stop, I can see the tops of buildings that are clearly part of the airport. The windows have been shot out. Sandbags are piled behind them.
Friday, November 20, 1992 - Sarajevo, Bosnia
9:28 AM - The huge rear door opens and we're out! Welcome to Sarajevo. UN vehicles are everywhere. The buildings for the airport stretch out in a line, offices directly in front and to the left, warehouses to our right. Busy place. Forklifts operating, moving stacks of supplies, food, blankets, plastic sheeting. Behind us is the apron, then the taxi strips, the runways and, beyond them, the mountains through which we've just come. Sandbags are stacked virtually all over the place, providing protection for walls, windows, gear and, I guess, hide-outs for personnel.
Irish-face asks where we're going. Barbara asks how to get to the PTT. He says to get our gear from the VW van and to get back into the APC. Well, shit, I just got out of there! Oh what the hell. We go, grab our bags, thank the driver and hop back, only to find our friendly APC full of soldiers. Irish points to another, saying, "They're both going."
Moving around to the back of the second one I see that the hatch in the roof (which admittedly was full of soldiers in ours, but at least provided some air and a bit of sky view) is closed. Arghh. Pushing in beside Phil, who is jammed up against the forward bulkhead on the port-side bench, I look up at the small hole that accommodates the machine gunner, feeling the panic beginning to build. "You OK?" Phil asks. "I don't know yet," I answer. Stephanie, on the bench across, very sweetly holds out her hand and says, "Hang on." I demur, saying, "Thanks, let me see how I do. I may need that later." More soldiers are piling in behind us, filling up the space between us and the opening (out of which I'm considering bolting at any second) and the machine gunner comes down through the hole above me, filling it up. I ask him, stupidly, if, should I feel the need, I can stick my head up out of his hatch. Confused, he looks down at me, then back up, saying, "I don't think there's room." (Well, the panic wants me to ask, would there be room if I yanked you out of there, beat you unconscious and took over the space myself?)
As Irish is pulling the lever to close the heavy back door, I lean across the soldier next to me and yell in the most grown-up voice I can manage, "As somebody who really doesn't like to be closed up in small spaces, how long is this ride going to take?" Irish says, "It'll be a few minutes. See that chain?" He's pointing to a rubber-covered chain strung across the ceiling. I nod. "It opens the hatch, in case it gets real bad. But I wouldn't recommend it. They can shoot in through there." Then he closes the door the rest of the way. For the second time in less than two hours I want to kiss the man. This could turn into a serious affair.
Phil, Barbara and Stephanie are great, doing their best to provide moral support as the engine roars to a start and we begin to clank away. Deep breaths to prove I can still do it and I start to concentrate on my notes. After a bit it all settles down and this roaring, bumpy, throbbing experience begins to be fun. Amazing. I can look around and think about it and breathe and everything. Amazing!!
9:44 AM - We clank to a stop. We back up. The door grinds open and we're out. Again. Alive.
The PTT, as it's known, is the home of Sarajevo's main power terminal. It's about 4 or 5 stories high and has been shot to hell. It's now the main HQ of UN operations here and has been fortified to the extent possible. Sand bags line the walls and windows, barbed wire has been strung around the perimeter of the property and armed guards are at all the entrances. Tanks and armored cars, all UN white, are at the gates or stand helter-skelter in the parking lot.
We disembark in the parking lot, grab our gear and head for the sandbagged bunker that is the front door. Showing our UN identity cards to the guards, we're waved in and pointed down the hall to the UNHCR offices where we meet Peter Kessler, a young American who is second in command of the office here. Like so many of the others, Peter is embarrassingly young. I'm sure he's older than he looks, which is about 20, but I wouldn't take any bets. Short, slight, with brown hair and a fresh, open face, he could pass for a college student on any campus in the U.S. In fact, he was here in Sarajevo for some post-graduate studies a number of years ago, so he's older than he looks. He also, as a result of that time here, loves the country, is pained by what's happening here and wants to help.
Peter is, as we say hello, in the middle of a press briefing and invites us in. We are introduced to a number of people from various international papers, networks, etc., including Christiane Amanpour from CNN and Blaine Harden from the Washington Post.
What's interesting is the degree of passion we hear expressed by these people whose reporting must maintain a certain amount of objectivity. They're interested in our mission and when we indicate we're here to see what we can learn and want to let the people of the U.S. know of our impressions through whatever forum is available to us, they're surprisingly open about their own feelings.
- "This is the first post-Cold War challenge (to face the community of nations) and it's being dropped."
- If the pattern holds, in the Spring of '93 others will be in big trouble of this order of magnitude (in Kosovo and Macedonia).
- Television is being used as a "hate machine" by Milosevic (to spread propaganda and work the Serbs into a frenzy).
One of us asks them, "When you sit and talk to Milosevic, is it clear that he's a madman?"
I raise the issue of human rights violations and repeat Bayisa's assertion (without using his name or designation) about them being equal on all three sides in type and severity but different in style and number. Reaction?
- "Quantity is the point, isn't it?" There is a cause and effect relationship. Everyone may be doing bad things now, but the origin of current behaviors has to be laid at the feet of the Serbs. Since the Muslims became politically recognized as a separate entity, they've been targeted.
What do they think should be done?
- International leaders should identify Milosevic as the maniac he is and put him on notice, make deadlines, set limits. "Stop him from carrying on a racist war, most effectively symbolized by a medieval siege against a modern European city."
- "It is shameful!"
After what is an interesting, informative, impassioned exchange (it's rather wonderful to see reporters, who sometimes tend to be rather cynical, so fervently involved in condemning what they see to be crass injustice) we head out with Peter to meet some of the staff of the only existing newspaper in the city.
Having stashed our bags in the office (since this is where we'll likely spend the night), we head outside and load into another, somewhat larger, armored vehicle, this one operated by a French unit. This is a snap. The vehicle is bigger all the way around than the APC we came down in, much more roomy in back, with windows covered by steel ports that can be pulled away to look out (though they warn us not to do so because the glass, while bulletproof, can't handle some of the more high-powered projectiles that are being used today). Two French troopers stand, weapons ready, their feet on the ends of the benches on which we're sitting, their heads and shoulders poking through hatches in the roof. Phil, his camera running, is up front next to the driver.
Peter gives us a bit of a tour, pulling open the port to point something out then quickly shutting it again. He says, "Civilians are targeted everywhere in this war. Nowhere I know of in this conflict was a battle won in the traditional way of fighting forces competing, but rather by affecting citizens through terrorizing them and killing them."
We come to a stop outside the front door of the building housing "Oslobodenje" (Liberation), the city's newspaper. There is some discussion over the intercom, then the driver is told to move to a different location because of risk of snipers shooting from the church across the way. (!) One of the UN troopers, an Egyptian, was shot by a sniper this morning, we're told, which is cause for extra care. Things are a bit quieter because of the cease fire, but there is still a great deal of danger. They are finding, he says, that the snipers are equipped with night-vision scopes and/or goggles, so darkness isn't as much of a cause for relaxation as before.
After a bit of jockeying, the vehicle stops and we open the back doors to find ourselves in the garage of the newspaper building. Walking up the ramp we pass stacks of newspapers and a few workers, but not much activity.
It's 11:00 AM and we're led up two flights of stairs toward the office where we'll meet. The halls through which we pass are littered with broken glass and pieces of plaster. Windows have been boarded up, those you can see sport bullet holes; the place has been trashed. It's very cold, inside as well as out.
We sit with Goran Jovanovic (YOH-VAN-OH-VITCH), the paper's Technical Director and Zbatbzo Disdarevic (DIS-DAR-EH-VITCH), a reporter, who tell us proudly that the paper has been in existence for 50 years and has never missed a day's publication even though "the Cetniks" (Serb nationalists) have targeted it since the beginning of the war.
The two are in their 40s, probably, both a bit heavy with dark hair and ready smiles, if a sense of melancholy. They point with pride and bitter irony to the destruction around them. Not a window in the place, it would appear, has been spared.
As we're looking at the windows, one of the men calls attention to the buses moving along the roadway below. 200 Slovenians are being evacuated from the city today as a result of a deal negotiated with the Serbs. Peter says they are all leaving "on one passport." One of our hosts notes, with some sarcasm, "Slovenians are very practical."
Clearly, while it is a point of pride with many Bosnians that they will not be driven from their homes by the Serbs, it is also a strategic necessity that people remain. As with the dilemma faced by relief workers who want to resettle people out of the country, to some degree everyone who flees the terror, the sniping, the bombing, the horror of the war, is aiding the oppressors in the hated process of ethnic cleansing. A multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic state can only make a legitimate claim to continue to exist if it has within its borders the constituent parts of a functioning society.
Today's edition, our hosts explain, is only 8 pages, while it used to be three times that length and twice the page size they now put out. The siege has resulted in an inability to get supplies of all kinds, so they've had to down-size regularly. They also can't repair machinery when a breakdown requires new parts, but they're carrying on in spite of it all. For example, today's edition is printed on book weight paper, since they're now out of newspaper stock.
- Oslobodenje is today 65% employee owned. Their daily edition is now down to l0,000 issues, because of the shortness of supplies, but it sells out every day. Because vendors on the streets have been targeted (in another directed attempt at intimidation) members of the staff go out on the corners and sell the papers themselves.
- "In a situation where there is no television, no telephone service, no electricity, this is the life-line for information."
- The intimidation is constant. Snipers are l00 meters from here. "After so many months, we know where they are. After so many months, this is normal."
- "Many in the city are armed (referring to dangerous people, not regular civilians) with all kinds of weapons."
- Power for the building is supplied by a generator, "but we only have three more days of gasoline."
Pictures on the wall detail the destruction of the building. The place is being systematically shredded.
- They have no telephone contact to the outside, no FAX.
- "Sometimes I don't know how we do it, but we know every day the newspaper must be on the streets."
- Reiterating that they haven't missed a day of publication, he says, "We believe we should survive this situation. Our 50th anniversary is coming soon and we will have a party to celebrate."
- Of the staff, "We are different nationalities, that doesn't matter to us. What matters is that you are a good reporter. They don't believe that and that's why we are targeted."
- There has been no formal declaration of war by Serbia. They maintain they have no interest in Bosnia-Hercegovina, say it is a civil war. It is in fact a war against civilians by the Serbs.
- The chief negotiator for Bosnia-Hercegovina is a Croat. The vice-commander of its armed forces is a Serb. "It is war between two concepts of living. This is a problem (caused by) the kind of thinking from the Middle Ages. Bosnia-Hercegovina has lived more than 600 years in the model of living as a community. This is a war for territory."
Leaving the office, he takes us down the hall (shows us where to duck to stay out of the line of fire from the sniper across the street) to see the offices they had to abandon because of sniper fire. The place is an unbelievable shambles. It's as though someone actively tried to destroy everything within the walls that could be reached with a bullet. Shards of glass line the floor, wires hang from the ceiling, nothing is unmarked. Sheer, mindless, destruction.
What they've done is pull in, move everything to offices in the center of the building. This way they effectively stand their ground and allow the outer offices to act as a buffer.
As he shows us around, we try to get a sense of what drives these people to stand up to this pressure, how they maintain. He says, "For us as professionals, it is normal to be here, regardless of the circumstances. It is our job, it is our duty and we are here until the end."
It is utterly humbling to hear such a simple, eloquent statement of the recognition and acceptance of one's perception of his purpose in life, his duty.
**Some newspaper or organization of journalists should adopt this paper, provide them with a satellite telephone link with the outside, make their survival an issue!
11:45 AM - Shots are fired which hit the building. They're not near us, as far as we know, but it's dramatic just the same. We're told it's time to go. Many expressions of appreciation for our coming. Most of us are speechless.
11:50 AM - Back in the garage. Our French unit is ready to load us up but they insist on keeping the ports buttoned up as "it appears the shooting has picked up a bit."
We're heading into the downtown area to see if we can locate a theater group Phil has heard about that is supposed to be doing a production of "Hair." Some of the reporters told us there was a show at noon.
Peter says, "Everything people eat now (in the city) comes in through the airlift (operated by the UNHCR)."
- "In July and August we didn't have armored vehicles. We all used to drive around in pickup trucks. Now I tend to be more careful. You begin to think about the odds."
Many in the city, he tells us, are without water and electricity. (A growing concern given the onset of winter.) Some few have their own generators, some have dug wells.
Driving past the Parliament building, Peter raises the steel port covering the window for us to take a quick glance. It's been destroyed. Glass and debris litter the place.
NOON - We pull up and climb out onto a normal appearing downtown street. Pedestrians walk by, apparently doing business as usual. On closer inspection, however, one sees that many of the businesses are closed, the appearance of normalcy is just that.
We head into a beautiful old arcade and up some stairs, then into a crowded, smoke-filled coffee-house type place. A quick explanation by Peter and we're taken through some doors and into the theater lobby, but it's standing room only with bodies filling the doorway. Familiar music, then dialogue in Serbo-Croatian, spills out of the theater. Someone takes Barbara and Stephanie to one side and Phil and I explore the other. We find a side entrance where we can squeeze in and look over shoulders (Phil with camera at the ready) and find ourselves in the middle of a "happening." A young, talented, spirited cast of actors, singers and dancers is having a hell of a good time in hippie garb, belting out songs about freedom and fairness and justice and recognition of the beauty in the other, dancing and acting their guts out!! "Let the sun shine in!" The audience is rapt, loving every minute of it, encouraging, enthusiastically applauding every wonderful number. It's an act of beautiful lunacy, a communion of the heart, with every member of the audience and the cast passionately thumbing their noses, through their participation in this love-in, at the madness outside the walls. I can't hold in the tears.
Phil is ecstatic, climbing over people to get into position to shoot this spectacle. He's on all fours, up on a box, down in the aisle, almost on the stage, then out past me and through a door into the back-stage area, everywhere. We're trying not to interrupt the people's enjoyment of the show, but can't help whispering to each other about how fantastic, how perfect, how utterly thrilling we find this to be.
When it's over we fight our way out with the rest of the audience to offer our thanks and encouragement to the cast, who are warm, personable, charming and very appreciative. The whole thing is unbelievable!!
After a few minutes we find our way out into the coffee-house area. Phil is talking with someone from the theater, probably the director, and wants to continue. Peter has suggested we might want to walk around a bit, so he and Stephanie, Barbara and I leave Phil with his new-found friend and head back down the stairs. Walking on the main street in the shopping/business district of Sarajevo is a strange sensation. Peter points out the bakery, just down the street from the theater, where a number of people were massacred while waiting in line for bread. I remember the pictures of it in the paper.
People walking along, some briskly, some at a more leisurely pace. To where? From where? Peter says citizens of Sarajevo insist upon maintaining their schedules where possible. Some go to work every day and sit in offices where there is no business, nothing to do. Others are trying to maintain families, lives, in whatever way they can. They barter, trading away precious family treasures for enough food, or enough money to buy food, to sustain their loved ones.
As we walk there is the sound of gunfire in the distance. No one seems to pay any attention. But when we cross an open area, at an intersection, attention is paid. Heads down, well-dressed men and women sprint across open areas they know to be dangerous, then return to their normal pace.
An old man stops us. "Little bread, little water, no electricity," he says, looking for help. Peter tells him of a place to go for food.
Another man, walking by, says angrily, "Go home!" Peter explains that many Sarajevans are angry that the Western world has sent in humanitarian aid but nothing else. They want arms. They detest the blockade that has had an impact on them, they feel, and not the Serbs.
We're stopped by a young Australian who has recognized me. Says he came here months ago with his wife to see her parents, now can't get out. Can we help? Peter tells him who to talk to at the embassy, but he says he has tried that. Peter gives him another idea, which he says he'll try. He appears so lost, it's heart-breaking.
I'm painfully aware, as we walk along, of the fact that we'll be able to leave here without any problem (all things being equal), while people such as this young man cannot, and that as we walk these streets we're at least somewhat protected by the flak jackets we're wearing, while others, with less choice in the matter, wear no protection at all.
All the buildings show signs of destruction. Bullet holes are everywhere. Rarely does one see a whole pane of glass. On this beautiful, cobbled, modern European main street we find an abandoned car, wrecked, shot to hell.
After walking for a while we enter the Old City. Soon we come to a gate which Peter leads us through. Inside is a Muslim Seminary that has been converted into a temporary refugee center. Between 300 and 400 people have found asylum here. Many of them are elderly. A woman is cooking on an open fire in the yard by the wall.
Inside we are shown around by a man who is some sort of caretaker. He says there is no heat (many of the windows have been blown out) and no running water (we see some women carrying water in from outside). There is no place to cook the food they can get (witness the open fire in the yard). He states what has become increasingly obvious. As the winter becomes more severe, many will die, particularly the elderly.
Leaving the seminary we continue our sobering walk. Again, the contradictions are staggering. The old city, with its cobbled streets, mosques, churches and fabulous buildings, is riddled with madness and human misery.
Some of the obvious destruction to the buildings, though it was initially caused by shelling, has been made worse by people who are stripping away what they can reach of combustible materials, to use for firewood, or of usable pieces with which they can repair their own homes. Unfortunately, they have also begun denuding the streets of trees for the same reason. The authorities have denounced the cutting of trees, but given the growing cold it’s inevitable.
Peter says that it is possible for people to leave. It is dangerous, which deters some, but more are put off by the insistence of the authorities that they have an obligation to stay. Extra-nationals, like the Aussie we met and others, some of whom have sent their loved ones away, often find themselves stuck in the middle of a lousy situation not of their making and without alternatives.
Gangs, he says, are developing. Some Croat, some Muslim, they are a creature of the chaos here. Not a good sign.
We come to a beautiful, broad avenue with a river running along in the middle. "A dangerous area," Peter says. We watch a few people race across the open stretch. No shots this time. It's a bit like Russian roulette.
As we walk back Peter tears open a UN food package, offering us a chance to have a snack and sample the wares all at the same time. A lot better than C-rations from years ago, but one can see why people want some options. Barbara and Stephanie feed much of theirs to a stray cat they find on the street.
2:20 PM - We're back at the theater. The French armored vehicle is waiting for us. Phil, saying he's seen it from up front, offers the seat. Since it takes a rather gymnastic effort to get into it, Barbara and Stephanie decline, leaving it to me. It's a totally new viewpoint, the chance to see the city through which we've been driving, so I squeeze into the shotgun seat, make room for the legs of the gunner above me and say hi to the young French soldier who is driving.
Traffic is minimal but, improbably, there is bus service. Peter had said that the bus drivers were some of the true heroes here, providing a sense of normalcy to the populace, and God, is he right! Ruined vehicles of every type dot the roadway and yet some people, including those heroic bus drivers, make their way through the streets. Destruction is everywhere the eye turns. Buildings with walls blown away, bricks, concrete pieces in the road, I'll bet there isn't a solid pane of glass in the city. It looks like those newsreel shots of post-war Germany. Or Beirut.
Then, from the side of the road, kids wave at us. What the hell are they doing out there? On the left, cattle graze on what was the lawn of a business center. Strange sights.
2;35 PM - We pull up in front of the building that houses the television center. While TV isn't working, there is an FM radio station still broadcasting from here. Peter is to do a radio interview and wants us to come, perhaps take part. This building is another favorite target, last suffering serious shelling a couple of days ago.
Inside, past the sandbags and security checks, we meet Mavrak Ranko, the show's moderator, who takes us through the building. He gives us a tour of the destruction, which is massive, shows where there have been direct hits from mortar, artillery, rocket and tank fire. Huge chunks of the building have been blown away. It's enough to give one religion.
Mavrak takes us into a room where we meet a woman whose name, I think, is Nadia. She's in her 40s or 50s, is tall, stately, seems to be the head of the organization. As Peter does his interview with Ranko, automatic weapons fire tattoos the background. He tells the audience of UNHCR's work; delivery of food, blankets, plastic sheeting and tape to repair and weatherize damaged living quarters. Says they're working with the Croatian Government regarding refugees' right to asylum. Talks of trying to bring in prefabricated housing units to a Bosnian area (Srebrenica (SER-BREN-ITZA), further east, where there have been horrible problems) Says UN convoys were turned back in August and in October, that UNPROFOR has made a difference. Yesterday, he says, a French unit was fired upon by Serbs when trying to deliver food. For the first time in this conflict, UN forces fired back.
Next, Nadia and another man join us at a table and tell us of their situation. To say it's difficult is to understate it by miles.
Q. - How much longer can you go on?
A. - We hope circumstances will change before long, but everything depends on how long the war lasts. We've passed through difficult phases; first the intense shelling, you've seen the damage from that; second, our technical equipment is now a problem - we've been without replacement parts for 7 months; third, our journalists cannot go out of the city, so we cannot check facts. Also, we cannot communicate with other parts of the country or the world. It would be helpful if we had better contacts with journalists. If there were no foreign journalists here, we would hardly know what was happening in our own country.
- We have no phone lines, no FAX, no satellite phone. We have no people at the UN, in Washington, in Zagreb. It's impossible for a radio station to operate in this way, but we are still doing our job.
- Our audience is dependent on us to know as much as we can tell them. There are 700,000 Bosnian refugees in Croatia. The only information they get from Sarajevo is from us. We broadcast on short wave and FM to almost all of Europe and the Middle East.
Q. - How can anyone help?
A. - The most important thing would be material to repair our equipment. Batteries and parts. Also, connections with journalists who can get us information about what is going on in the battlefields.
Expressing our admiration and appreciation, we take our leave. On the way down, Phil and I discuss the sense of frustration and hypocrisy attached to saying goodbye and good luck as we simply walk out of these people's lives. Over and over.
3:54 PM - Back in the shotgun seat. It’s eerie, driving through this city. A few pedestrians make their way down the avenue, one couple walking with a small child. A plucky lot. Or crazy.
Certain streets are blocked off with large steel obstacles that look like giant jacks, apparently made by welding three or four 6’ sections of “I” beam together. Nothing stops this rig, though, as our driver pulls us through the maze very deftly.
4:10 PM - Through the guarded front entrance again, we’re back at the PTT. As we bid adieu to our chauffeur and bodyguards they ask if we’ll pose for photos with them. (Someone must have told them that this is the Hollywood contingent.) They’re so sweet about it that we do so even though it feels a bit foolish under the circumstances.
Inside the PTT offices we’re introduced to Jeremy Brade, the main UNHCR rep. here. A tall, heroically good looking Brit, he’s apologetic about having missed us earlier (he probably only had to deal with a life and death crisis of some sort) and wants to be caught up on what we’ve done. Very charming fellow.
After a bit, we announce that we’ve decided to stay at the Holiday Inn (do you believe there’s a Holiday Inn here?) in the city instead of bunking here at the PTT. Without making an issue of it, Barbara and Jeremy indicate that in their official capacity they have to say we’ll be safer here. Fact is, the press all stay at the H.I. and some of them, in talking to Phil and Stephanie, said that’s where the action is (not actually the most eloquent endorsement under the circumstances) and we agreed to try it. Why not? Things are fairly calm (and it’s clearly the cool thing to do).
Peter commandeers a UNICEF vehicle, but it won’t fit all of us and our gear, so Jeremy offers to give a couple of us a lift. Stephanie and Barbara quickly volunteer.
We head out about dusk. This ride through the streets has a decidedly different feeling because, for one thing, the UNICEF car is not armored. The driver has been around for a while, clearly knows the ropes. He darts around certain corners, goes very slow in places, races through others. It’s a lesson in Politically Correct driving, Sarajevo style. At one point Peter and the driver have a bit of a disagreement about whether or not the particular road we’re on at that moment is now “safe.” God, I’m hoping the one arguing the affirmative is right!
It’s getting fairly dark as we climb over a curb and head down a ramp toward the underground parking area. Once below the street level, with walls on both sides, he stops and says it’s safe to get out, so we grab our bags and scoot.
Barbara and Stephanie join us, indicating that they think Jeremy is pretty much the right stuff. Not only that, his car is armored.
Once inside, the lobby is dark. This place has its own generator, but they clearly limit its use. Peter, who has decided to stay here with us, points out the place where the shells came through the atrium (this is one of those places with the big, open-to-the-ceiling lobbies, where the rooms rise around the space, flanking it). We scare up a receptionist and, surprise, there are “plenty” of rooms available.
As we sign in, Peter makes sure that we’re given rooms on a certain side (I think the west). It’s now very dark in the lobby and none of the floors above are lit up. We’re all on the fourth floor so we head for the elevator, which works, and up we go, just like civilization. There is a light in the elevator, but none in the corridors outside. As we come to a stop at four, Peter says it’s a good idea to “get out fast and move along the wall, because this is not the good side” and the snipers watch for the light from the elevator. (This is where the action is, all right. What the hell are we doing?) Once safely out and against the wall, it’s so dark that we need our flashlights, but “is that a good idea, given what you’ve just said?” He says it’s fine as long as we hug the wall and move along slowly. “Just use the light once in a while.” As we’re groping our way along, Peter says, “It’s fine once we’re off this side.” Fine.
We find our rooms, all on the “good” side. Fine. Phil is two down from me and Barbara and Stephanie are together again a few doors up the hall. We all seem to feel a need to stay in touch. Peter heads out to see if someone he knows is here, figuring he’ll crash there.
Inside, the room looks like a typical Holiday Inn accommodation. Two large, comfortable-looking beds, lights that work (though I’m a bit dicey about turning them on), a toilet that flushes, running water (no hot) and, once I turn off the lights and carefully pull back the shade, a large hole in the window that, despite the plastic sheeting over the hole, is letting in the Sarajevo winter’s night air.
Lest I feel too sorry for myself, gunfire rattles outside, punctuated by the roar of an artillery piece, serving to remind me that there are plenty of people out there who would gladly trade places tonight.
The temperature is way down in here, which reminds me that Manoel told us that he got very little sleep when he last stayed at the PTT because it was so cold there. Jesus, the poor people in that seminary must be freezing!
There is a thick, carpeted, sliding shade that goes in front of the regular window shade, but it does little to stem the flow of cold air, nor does it do much to calm my concern that someone out there may decide to put another hole in this window just because there’s light behind it. So I sit, away from the window, in my down coat and think about it.
Checking with Phil, who is also freezing, it turns out he doesn’t have a hole in his window, “but if you’ve got one, I want one. It’s in my contract.” So I check with the desk about another room. No problem, or, as they say here, “Nema problema.” It requires leaving the company of my friends, as it’s on the third floor, but there are no holes in the window. It also requires, I find out later, a trip back to my old room to steal the blankets off the beds. This room has only a sheet under the spread.
We’ve had nothing to eat today but what could be scrounged from the health-food-store/hard-bread bag and the sampling of UN provisions Peter offered, so we’re all looking forward to seeing what the Holiday Inn “buffet” the reporters talked about has to offer. As it turns out, when we file into the room at the appointed time and seat ourselves at the “newsies” table, it’s very impressive.
It’s actually set up as a buffet. And not a bad one. Wine is available, good soup, bread, some vegetables. For those who are less finicky in their eating habits it’s actually pretty sumptuous, given the situation in the city. According to the press who come in and join us, things can be fairly spare here during the week but on Friday they try to pull off a nice buffet, so we lucked out.
Talking over dinner with some of the news people, we learn of a UN convoy going out in the morning to distribute blankets in an outlying area. Peter thinks he can fix it if we want to go along. Putting our heads together quickly, we decide we might give it a try. (A burst of automatic weapons fire outside provides an interesting background to the conversation.) Other than being scheduled to fly out on one of the supply planes tomorrow, we really don’t have an itinerary while here in the city. Circumstances being what they are, that would be a bit silly. The people at Oslobodenje asked us to come back and Barbara has the names of some people we may try to find, but the convoy sounds like a good way to be helpful and see more of the situation at the same time.
The talk turns to what we can do with the information we’re gathering once we get home. There’s an enormous, almost overwhelming sense of responsibility that comes with being able to visit a situation like this, see the reality (or at least a piece of it) and touch people in a personal way. It makes one feel an urgent need to somehow have an impact upon this reality by informing others who perhaps have no understanding of it and who, if they knew the facts, might be able to help in some way. Clearly, with the added obstacle of their requisite objectivity, these journalists feel the same.
Phil, finding that he and Mark Biello, the CNN cameraman sitting next to him, have a friend in common, gets into a lengthy discussion. An interesting, unassuming dark-haired young fellow, Mark's been around. It turns out that he, among other things, was Peter Arnett's cameraman in Baghdad. War stories abound, one of them leading to a mention of the night vision lens he used in Iraq. He has it with him here, he says, and it almost cost him his life. It seems that the lens feeds back a faint blue glow, so that if you pull your eye away from it before turning it off, a sharp-eyed sniper can catch the blue flash and zero in on you. In Mark's case he heard the bullet whip by just over his head. Now he turns the lens off before pulling away his eye.
This happened, he says, upstairs in this very building, where they have their "look out." Would we like to see it?
Would we? We check it out between us. Well, we've done every other damned fool thing offered us so far, haven't we? Why stop now?
So off we go to collect our flak jackets and flashlights. We're set to meet on the fourth floor landing of the back stairway. No elevator for this trip. When we're gathered, Mark has been joined by Nick, a CNN producer who is not only wearing a flak jacket, but a helmet as well. Nick says we should all really have helmets to go up to the look-out but, if we don't have them, we don't have them. We don't have them. Nick, who was here at the time, then shows us where the artillery shells came through the building and where they struck. The glass or plastic shield that is intended to keep people from plummeting to their deaths in the lobby below was torn away by the blast. Never been replaced. (Guy's a real breath of spring.)
Heading up the stairs, Mark and Nick tell us that the hotel has ten floors, but only the first five are in use. Damage from the shelling has made the upper floors unusable (the upper floors through which we're now climbing). When we get to the tenth floor landing, before he opens the door to the hallway, Mark says no more flashlights. We have to negotiate our way by available light. (Why are we here again?)
Slipping through the door and around the corner, we grope our way down the hall single file, holding hands in the particularly dark stretches, keeping in touch by whisper. Stepping over rubble, I have the feeling that this must look similar to the newspaper or the television building. That is, it would if I could see. Oddly, I'm having a difficult time keeping from laughing. Oddly? How about crazily?
After much stumbling, groping and whispering, either Mark or Nick opens the door into a room probably not much different from mine (after all, it is on the good side). At least I think it would look like mine if I could see it. The one thing I can see is the major difference between them. Where mine had a hole in the window, this room has a hole where there was a window. I know it must be cold up here because I'm shaking. Or is it that I must be shaking because it's cold? Nick is at the wall to the left of the hole, Mark is crouched down sort of in front of it, but below the jamb, if there was a jamb. I can hear Phil and Barbara and Stephanie, but I can't see them. After I stumble over a bed, some hands pull me toward a sofa. Oddly, (again) all I can think of is how fascinating it is that there's still furniture in this room.
Mark is setting up his camera, blue-lit night-vision lens and all, and Nick is giving us a kind of scenic tour of the city. "Over there, if you could look over there, you'd see..." A few places can be seen, but it's pretty dark and “it’s best to stand away from the window.” While we've been hearing automatic weapons fire all evening, this is the first time we've been able to see it. Tracers (specially treated bullets that leave a trail of fire so the shooter can see if he’s hitting what he’s aiming at in the dark) streak the night sky. They're beautiful in an awful way. If you could separate them from what they are and what they do, they’d be delightful to look at.
Mark tells of two snipers out there they’ve come to know. One of them, “Wrong Way” or some such nick-name, apparently couldn’t hit the side of a barn. (Him I like.) He’s usually in a certain place off to the right of us, which they point out. The other, “Dead Eye,” or whatever, is usually positioned down here, to the left. Fascinated, I move over a bit closer to the right side of the window/hole to see what they’re referring to, at which point both of them, rather sharply, warn me back. Mark explains that even if there’s no light he sometimes knows they’re here, so they think he has a night-vision scope. One night, he says, someone noticed a little blue dot on the ceiling, then saw that it was moving, scanning the room. They think it was some sort of laser sighting device. (We are having fun, aren’t we?)
By this time, Mark has the camera set up and the night-vision lens working. Each of us in turn very carefully moves to the camera and takes a look. He’s careful to wait until each individual’s eye is flush against the eye-piece before turning it on, then cautions the one looking to let him know when through so he can turn it off before the eye is withdrawn. It’s a curious process, kind of a by-the-numbers ballet with potentially lethal consequences if something goes wrong, but the look through the lens is fascinating. Through a gray-blue haze, everything is laid out before us. Outlines of buildings are clear, lit-up places are bright spots and it’s possible to distinguish a good deal of detail in areas that would be dark to the naked eye. Technology. The notion that someone out there might be looking back through something with the same capability is enough to give you the creeps.
What a life these guys lead! Mark says the woman he replaced here had her jaw shot off when she was reloading the camera. He didn’t say whether she was in this room at the time, or if he did I blocked it out immediately.
So, having had all the fun this ride offers, we make our way back out, grope our way down the hall (avoiding the railing on the right where the safety glass isn’t) and back to the stairs where we can once again turn on our flashlights and see. What a totally surreal experience!
Off to a cold bed. (First, of course, I have to go steal the blankets from the other room and disturb the sleep of the guy behind the desk to order a wake-up call, which I’m not at all sure I’ll get.) More automatic weapons are fired, closer. Mortar or artillery bursts punctuate them. In bed, covered with blankets and bedspreads, wearing long johns and socks, I’m suddenly overcome with a sense of gratitude and well-being. Go figure.
Saturday, November 21, 1992 - Sarajevo.
6:00 AM - The phone rings me out of a sound sleep and a voice, speaking very good English, says, “Wake up call.” I thank him and crawl out of bed, splash enough cold water around to make for a serviceable French bath and climb into the cleanest clothes I can scrounge together.
Regrouping at the reception desk a bit later to pay for the pleasure, we compare notes. Phil froze, discovering that he did have a hole in his window after all, and Barbara and Stephanie did OK. Peter too. I slept great for some reason. I mention my surprise at the good English of the person who woke me up. “That was me,” Phil says. “I figure if I don’t sleep, you don’t sleep.”
Peter has been trying to find a car for us to get out to the airport in time and hasn’t had much success. The convoy is scheduled to leave at 7:45 AM, so we’re relegated to standing at the desk, hoping to cadge a ride from some of our news friends who might be headed that way.
Two guys from VIZ News come by. They’re heading for the airport and have room for one who’s willing to squeeze into their pick-up truck, so I volunteer. The pick-up has some of the protective armoring, double-glass, steel-reinforced doors, etc., but Sean, the driver, says none of that stuff will stop the high powered armor-piercing bullets the bad guys are using these days if they hit you straight on. (Ever hear one of those things you’d just as soon not know?)
Driving through the city in the bright morning light is not pretty. It’s everything we saw from the French armored vehicle yesterday, squared. Again, a few people are walking the streets in plain sight, running in some places. Buses wend their way along through the destruction. Wrecked cars and buses line the road. The buildings are ruins. It’s horrible.
Turning into the main road to the airport, “Sniper Alley,” is eerie. This is the stretch we went through in the APC yesterday. Sean points out buildings that are known to be particularly dangerous the way bus drivers point out movie stars’ homes in Beverly Hills. He says most of the journalists who have been killed in Bosnia since the war began were shot here. He points out the place where the ABC producer died.
This is the main road. It links the city with the airport, thence the world. For that reason, the Serbs want it closed. The road bisects the territory held by opposing forces, is in fact the “front line” to the degree there is one. (As if to underscore the fact there is a very loud burst of automatic weapons fire just off to our left. Nothing, apparently, comes our way.) The sides of the road are littered with wrecked trucks of all sorts, jeeps and tanks. One dead tank sticks halfway out of a trench, its cannon aimed at the sky, looking like an ugly, crumpled bug. That this was once a neighborhood is sadly evident. Where children once played, splintered, splattered, gutted houses are now being used as cover for fighters, automatic weapons and tanks (most of which, thankfully, seem to be honoring the cease-fire today).
To enter the airport requires pulling up past obstacles that force you to zig-zag, then to stop at a guarded gate. If the guard here passes you in, the UN tank blocking the road behind him backs away to the side, allowing you room to pass. Once into the area behind the buildings, onto the apron, it is as I remember it from yesterday morning (can it be only yesterday morning?). Sean pulls on down past the offices to the warehouses and stops in front of the second one, where a number of UN trucks stand loaded, ready to go.
No one is about, so I unload my stuff and stack it on a bench by the door to the warehouse. It's cold. Foot stomping cold. Colder now than it was yesterday. Maybe even colder than last night. The sky is overcast, it feels like snow.
A guy comes racing up in a UNHCR 4-wheeler, screeches to a stop, jumps out of the car and starts yelling at people. Sean tells me this is Marc, the UNHCR rep. in charge of logistics and, when he stops yelling, introduces us. Marc is tall, lithe, dressed in tight jeans and a leather jacket. With his great features, wavy dark hair and French accent, he cuts quite a figure. He's not at all happy to see me or learn that he might have guests going on this convoy. "What the hell is this?" he wants to know. "Nobody told me about this!" Before I can even attempt to explain, he yells again in the direction of the trucks, says "Shit!" and turns to the car. Climbing in, he calls to me, "Come on!" So what the hell? Leaving my stuff on the bench, I hop in as Marc screeches out backward, straightens out and races down the pavement toward the gate with the press guys in hot pursuit. "Shit!", he mutters. "Stupid sons of bitches!" Not knowing which stupid sons of bitches he's referring to, I keep my own council. Rounding the corner, evidently not liking what he sees, he says "Shit!" again and races up to the gate. The tank pulls back and we pull out, waving briefly to the guard, zip through the zig-zag, turn into the road and stop. "Shit!" Fuming, Marc sits there for a minute, then pulls around and heads back in the gate.
As we pull back in and turn into a parking area near one of the buildings, Marc is continuing to mutter about the "sons of bitches." Jumping out of the car, he strides into the UNPROFOR commander's office. In a minute he's back and we pull out at a much more leisurely pace, heading back for the warehouse as he apologizes for his earlier attitude.
Evidently, the convoy had been held up by a detachment of Egyptian UNPROFOR troops who had been late, which made him mad. What made him even madder is that they then pulled out without him, without even informing him (perhaps to meet the Egyptians, that wasn't clear) and were now stymied down the road, unable to get past a Serb roadblock (this he had just been told in the UNPROFOR commander's office).
Marc doesn't think much of the Egyptians. Lazy and unreliable, he says. Cost him an hour, miss an appointed time at a checkpoint, people don't get their blankets. "One hour a day for seven, eight days, that's a full day's work missed. Two hundred metric tons of food and supplies doesn't get to the people! Shit!"
By the time we're back at the warehouse, he's calmer, apologizes again. He wasn’t, he insists, mad at me. He can handle surprise visits, guests on the convoy. What pisses him off is the stupid Egyptians. “Shit!” He takes me back to his office at the rear of the warehouse, says I can stow my gear there. Heading back we pass piles of blankets, plastic sheeting, bags of food stacked in rows waiting to be distributed. Sarajevo has about 400,000 people, Marc says. UNHCR now estimates 10% of them are slightly malnourished. If supplies are cut off, the weaker ones will be the first to die, some within a week. Buildings are now being stripped of burnable materials so families can have heat. As winter worsens, what will they do? He has heard reports of old people pulling up daisies to eat, digging up roots of trees that have already been cut down so they'll have something to burn. There are two confirmed cases of typhus here so far, he says, twenty in Jajce. "Shit!"
I had thought he was French, in fact he's French Canadian, from Montreal. Very colorful guy. I'm freezing in my down coat and he's prancing around in his jeans and leather jacket cursing the gods, the fates, the Egyptians, the injustice. Inside the back office we stash my stuff in his sleeping quarters (where the big, tough, profane guy pulls a tiny kitten out from under the bed to introduce to me), then he shows me around the rest of the place. In the main office he points out where a mortar round came through the wall. "I was in the bathroom," he shrugs. Another round hit the dining room, but they were all outside working at the time. Part of the job, he infers.
Back out front, Phil and Barbara show up, then Stephanie. Explaining the situation, Marc says he's waiting to find out if the Serbs will let the convoy through. If so, we can go hook up with them. The blankets and sheets are for a Muslim community in the hills outside the city. The Serbs don't want them to get the material, hoping the cold will drive them out. This business at the checkpoint is "bullshit," per Marc. "#@%%$^^& Egyptians!"
Marc has been here for months, "October was the worst." He has signed up for an extension, but only if they'll promise him he can stay here at the airport, where he "knows the tricks." He has developed relationships with some of the Serb officers that allow him to get through the sticky places easier sometimes.
We've seen one or two of the C-130s land with supplies, but now fog has come in so there haven't been any for a while. It's very cold.
9:15 AM - We get word the convoy has been scrubbed. The Serbs won't let them through because they say a bridge is out. UNPROFOR says the bridge can be repaired, so they'll try again tomorrow. Tonight will be a cold one for the people in that community.
Marc says he'll drive us in to the PTT. There's nothing for him to do at the airport since it's fogged in. Because we're supposed to fly out on one of the supply planes this afternoon (if the fog lifts) we leave our bags in Marc's room.
Marc's colorful descriptions are priceless. His accent adds to the charm. Driving down sniper alley he shows us where he was shot. "Twelve times into the front of the car, ping, ping, ping!" Another time they shot out his tires. He lost control and drove off the road that time, he says, and got stuck on some sandbags, which worried him. "You sit still they can boom boom you with a rocket!" So what did he do? He worked the car off the sandbags and "I get the hell out of there."
9:30 AM - Back at the PTT, we're in time to sit in on a press briefing where a French UNPROFOR major gives a run-down of yesterday's activities.
- There was an accident involving a couple of trucks, a breakdown, then some mortars were fired at or near a convoy that was halted for the accident. A repair unit was dispatched to the scene and mortars were fired at it as well.
- Yesterday there were 44 rounds of outgoing fire and 68 rounds of incoming (this referring to artillery, mortar and tank fire, they don't report small arms fire) and was considered a "light fire" day. The western areas of the city received most of the incoming rounds. (There are reported to have been more than 50,000 casualties as a result of shelling since April.)
- There was a report of a possible chlorine gas leak at a power plant near the town of Tusla because of a fire. It isn't known if the fire was caused by an exploding round.
- Peter then tells the reporters of the convoy being postponed. He says the Serbs refused permission to pass because the river is high and they feared the raft portion of the temporary bridge wouldn't hold up under the load.
- In response to a question about fuel in the city, Peter says the UNHCR provides fuel for the city's buses, the bakery and the hospital. They do not have the capacity to deliver wood or coal for people's use.
- To another question he says that a 280 metric ton daily minimum of food supplies is what is needed to maintain nutritional support in the city. That is the goal the UNHCR is trying to meet.
- Because an attempt to maintain an appearance of normalcy seems important to both the citizens and the authorities here, much is being made of the fact that, with the help of the UNHCR, the city has arranged for the first trash/garbage pick-up in six months.
- To another question about pedestrians, Peter says people seem to want to be able to come and go in the city, even though almost all businesses are closed. Some just go to their offices and sit. It is an attempt, he emphasizes, to maintain a sense of order and normalcy in their lives.
Press briefing over, we’ve got to figure some things out. Because of the concern about flights, we’re reduced to making a choice. We don’t have time to go back to Oslobodenje and try to find the family we’ve been told about and still get to the airport for the flight out this afternoon. After conferring, we opt to try to find the family. Barbara had gotten a letter at the UNHCR office in Washington from Senator Al Gore, forwarding a concern from a constituent that she had been unable to communicate with her parents, who live in Sarajevo, for seven months. She fears for their safety, doesn’t know if they’re alive or dead. Is there anything the office can do? Well, we can try.
On the way, Peter wants us to see a small UNHCR warehouse in part of the city close to where these people are supposed to live, so he arranges for a couple of cars and we set out.
Another drive through the city. One turn our driver takes causes Peter to exclaim that it’s been a long time since anyone dared drive on this street in this particular section. I’m not sure how comfortable to feel about this groundbreaking feat.
The UNHCR staff at this small warehouse in the city is made up entirely of locals. Peter is particularly proud of the work they’ve done in seeing to it that the food and supplies are portioned out equitably, given the pressure they are under from family, friends and neighbors. Taking us out behind the offices, the young woman manager shows us a fairly depleted storehouse and tells us a bit about their work.
- There are 65 public kitchens in Sarajevo. Displaced people or those who for whatever reason can’t get their UN rations can get an ID card that will allow them to eat at any one of these kitchens. Food for the kitchens in this area comes from here.
- UNHCR maintains that the 280 metric tons of food per day coming into the city (when they can get it in) is enough to provide the minimum nourishment sufficient to support the health needs of the average person. Bosnian authorities, however, claim that what they’re getting only meets 20% of the need.
- Tension is increasing in the city, she says, as people’s private resources atrophy, supplies diminish, the cold worsens and the war continues. The prognosis is not good. They will do the best they can.
More goodbyes and words of admiration and appreciation. Their heartfelt expression of thanks to us for coming does little to ease our sense of guilt at leaving. One of the women, after showing them the address we’re trying to find, says she’s going that way and will lead us. Otherwise, she indicates, we’ll never find it.
Mr. and Mrs. Vidic (VID-ITCH), the people we’re seeking, seem to live out on the edge of the city in the foothills. Except for the now-routine erratic driving speeds, things seem almost normal as we pick our way along, though that impression is tarnished by the bombed out buildings and torn up cars we pass periodically. Up a fairly steep hill in a residential area pebbled with apartment houses, we finally come to the address. Our guide kindly goes into the building to try to determine which apartment belongs to the Vidic family, or even if they still live here, and we tag along. Phil, as always, has his camera going. Sure enough, three flights up we find a woman scrubbing the stairs who points out the apartment.
Alas, no one is home. What a disappointment! As we came closer and closer to finding the place the idea of actually being able to provide an avenue of communication between these people and their daughter after all this time became very important to us. It became, in our minds, a tangible way to make a small dent in the inhumanity around us. We knock and knock, hearing a small dog barking inside, but no luck. The neighbor woman is wonderful. She immediately understands the significance to Mr. and Mrs. Vidic of what is happening and runs around knocking on all the neighbor’s doors, hoping to find them. Finally, she gives up in frustration and asks us into her apartment so we can at least leave a note that she can give them, explaining our mission.
Then, as Barbara, Stephanie and our guide start into her apartment, a couple, she in a housecoat, he in a shirt and work-pants, come walking slowly down the stairs. It’s them! They were visiting another neighbor upstairs. Pandemonium, as the neighbor woman rushes out to meet them, in tears, talking a mile a minute. Our friendly guide, explaining what we’re here about, also breaks into tears, as does Mrs. Vidic. Pretty soon, we’re all standing around in the stairwell outside their apartment wiping our eyes as the reality of it all comes home.
Mrs. Vidic, a round, red-haired woman in her 50s or 60s, with a jolly face and a personality to match, suddenly becomes embarrassed about forgetting herself and invites us all into her home. Mr. Vidic, probably in his 60s, is a silver haired, powerfully built man, strong, stoic, taciturn. You can see he’s enormously moved, but says nothing, graciously escorting us inside.
The apartment is clean, neat, tastefully, almost daintily furnished. Exactly what you’d expect it to be. Mrs. Vidic can’t contain herself, thanks us endlessly. Mr. Vidic hovers in the background, a sweet, stunned smile on his face. We take a moment, with the help of our interpreter (who certainly had no idea what she was getting into but now couldn’t be chased out with a gun), to explain our mission here, the letter from Sen. Gore and our hope to take back personal word from them to their daughter.
Mrs. Vidic listens, eyes brimming, then composes herself and begins to tell us what this word from her daughter, this opportunity, means to her. Shortly she is overcome, as are we all, and can’t continue. Stephanie rushes to embrace her and words aren’t possible for a while.
Again we pull ourselves together. Mrs. Vidic, with Mr. Vidic hovering supportively in the background, talks about how tough things have been, suddenly gestures for us to come with her. She leads us into the small dining room and points through the door to the smaller kitchen, where there has been some repair work on the wall. A tank fired a round, she says, from the hill across the way. If they had been in either of these rooms at the time, they’d both be dead now.
Barbara asks Mrs. V. if she’d like to write a letter to her daughter. We’ll carry it out, she assures her, see that it’s delivered. Again Mrs. V. cries, then goes to the dining room table to sit and write.
When she’s completed the note Phil, who has been catching as much as he can on his trusty video camera, suggests that they might want to say something to their daughter on video. If so, he’ll see that she gets it right away.
Well, it’s wonderful. Of course, she’s nervous and embarrassed, complaining, as she has been throughout, that she’s in her housecoat and shouldn’t be receiving guests without dressing, etc., but then she calms herself, takes a deep breath and goes for it. It’s almost more than I can bear. No interpreter will ever be necessary for any human being to understand every word the woman says to her daughter. It’s one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever been privileged to witness. All of us are awash with tears. Then, to make matters worse, Phil asks Mr. Vidic, who has been standing in the background the whole time, if he’ll say something to his daughter. I’m gone. If the woman is wonderful, and she was, this man breaks your heart. His simple, stoic, rigidly composed declaration of love and concern to his daughter is the perfect ending to this extraordinary event.
As we’re taking our leave, with hugs, kisses and more hugs, I congratulate Phil for the brilliant idea and ask if he thinks he got it all. He says, “I don’t know, I couldn’t see through the tears.”
Leaving the apartment, Mr. and Mrs. Vidic wave us down the steps. As we make our way to the car, Mrs. V. follows, waving, smiling, crying all the way. Once on the street, she points up to the wall where the vivid scar from the shell’s explosion testifies to the fragility of their situation.
Back to the PTT. On the way, Peter tells us the story of a Muslim mother and father who were subjects of an ethnic cleansing operation recently. During the attack, with shells bursting around them, they grabbed their children and ran, only to discover after they had run for a considerable distance that they had each grabbed two of their five children... (The sort of story that strikes terror into a father’s heart.)
At the PTT, we find Marc still there, yelling at someone on the 2-way radio. "Idiots!" he exclaims. There's a problem with a shipment coming in. What's new? Peter is going back to Zagreb with us, gets his gear together quickly. Marc is heading to the airport and volunteers a ride, so we head for his 4-wheeler.
12:15 PM - On the road again. Once more through the city, a last harrowing race through sniper alley. Is it possible to just get on a plane and leave this place?
Marc insists we fly out with a Canadian crew. Why? "They are the best pilots. These bastards never shoot them down." The French and the Germans won't take passengers at all, not wanting to deal with the headaches - or the liability, I gather.
Once through the gates, we pull up at the office. Marc takes charge, goes behind the counter and makes the right noises with the Danish military who seem to be running the flight operation, and we're in. The next flight in is with a British crew at 1:15 PM. As soon as it's unloaded, they're right back out again. Marc says ruefully, "British! Lousy pilots, but it's OK."
Nothing to do now but wait, so we go back outside. Marc says goodbye and heads back to the warehouse to deal with more idiots. Truly one of a kind. I’ll miss him.
Standing here in front of the office the hills across the airstrip are beautiful, now that the fog has cleared. If it weren't for the crack of automatic weapons and the thud of artillery rounds you could invent a whole other story to go with this vista. Winter Olympics.
Peter breaks out some more UN rations and we pick through them, offering a package to a couple of men who appear to be waiting for the flight too. It turns out they're not, having just arrived on the last one, but are instead waiting for a ride into the city. After a pregnant moment the man says hello and I realize he is Dr. Landrum Bolling, founder of the Middle East Peace Institute, member of the board of the Center for International Policy in Washington and renowned humanitarian. We met in the West Bank in 1988. Dr. Bolling is here to see the situation for himself and asks what we recommend, so we're able to steer him to some of the people we've met. Sweet, soft spoken, probably in his 70s, he is one of the great thinkers in the realm of non-violence and international mediation.
Suddenly there's a C-130 taxiing over toward us. I wasn't even aware that it had landed. Goodbyes to Dr. Landrum and his friend and we're told to line up at a certain place on the apron so the security people can check out our bags. As the airplane is quickly being off-loaded we're searched and our bags are gone through. The Danish MP apologizes for all the security, but explains that the Serbs have been "locking on" the planes today and, since there's a high level RAF officer going out on our flight, they're taking no chances. (We’d seen three military officers walking around, inspecting the place. Must be one of them.) Once our bags are cleared they're loaded onto a wooden pallet and transferred into the back of the C-130 by fork-lift. Once again we're told to stand by. The Danish MP explains to us that we shouldn't be alarmed in the event the aircraft uses some evasive maneuvers immediately after taking off. Such as? It will probably go into a full throttle steep climb, causing us to feel a considerable "G" force, then they might do some other things until we get out of range of the missiles. Phil asks, "How long until we're out of range?" "20 minutes," is the reply. Swell.
After just a few minutes we're waved aboard. Climbing in through the back, the C-130 is great. It's like a small warehouse inside. Nylon webbing on the walls of the fuselage holds all kinds of equipment. A system of rollers on the deck enables the cargo pallets to be moved easily. Crewmen welcome us aboard as we climb over stacks of webbing on the empty pallets, step over the one loaded with our gear. At the forward end of the cargo area, aluminum framed seats strung with the same kind of nylon webbing are made available to us. The frame is light-weight, reminiscent of a chaise lounge, but they're securely fastened to the bulkhead and have seat belts that will do the same for us. Looking around I see that one of the crewmen has a ten-speed bike aboard. I point at it, laughing, and one of the guys says, "Hey, you never know when you're going to need a way to get home."
No time is wasted. The giant cargo door is winched up quickly, one of the crewmen passes out ear plugs and we strap in. In very short order we're revving up and taxiing down the strip. It's clearly no-fooling-around time. Without hesitation (it's not as though there's a lot of traffic here, I realize) we make a sharp turn, he gives it the gun and after a very short run-up, we're in the air. Almost immediately, there is a decided shift in the roar of the engines, the nose tips up sharply and we're going up very fast at a hell of an angle! This is exciting! (Especially if one doesn’t think too much about the reason for it.)
After a few tense minutes with nothing to do but hang on and consider the possibilities, the pressure begins to ease, then we level off, the noise decreases and we all look at each other and smile, able to breathe again. Crew members get up and walk about, so we unbuckle our harnesses, get up, stretch and take a look. From here, Bosnia is lovely. Snow-capped mountains bisect beautiful valleys dotted with villages and farms. God, it’s heartbreaking. Off to one side another C-130 goes by, loaded with food and supplies for Sarajevo.
It’s fun roaming around in the open cargo chamber. Barbara flops on one of the stacks of nylon webbing and goes promptly to sleep. Stephanie does the same thing on the row of seats across the way. Some of the crew are reading, others sleeping. Phil, his seat belt holding him up, dozes beside me.
The Brit officer comes back after a while, sits and talks. He’s a Vice Air Marshal of the RAF, or something like that. (I was told later he’s number two man in the Royal Air Force, equivalent to a four-star general, next in line for the top job.) Interesting guy, very friendly. Wants to know what we saw, what I think.
“The situation is horrifying. We can’t just let these people perish. We’ve got to do something.” Agreed, but what can we do? The military options are limited, certainly. “Well, in my view,” I offer, “other than to guarantee delivery of relief supplies, I don’t think the military option should be our first consideration.” What would be? “I think Bill Clinton or Al Gore, more realistically it would probably be Gore, ought to come to Sarajevo. Sarajevo is emblematic of the entire country and because of the ‘84 Olympics it’s better known than the country as a whole. If Gore were to come here it would do, I think, three things. 1) It would sensitize him (Gore) in a way that facts, figures and reports can’t to the human catastrophe taking place, 2) it would put Milosevic on notice in an unmistakable way that the world’s leaders are in sympathy with the suffering here, a kind of “Ich bin ein Berliner!” statement, and 3) it would set in motion a process of re-evaluation and condemnation on the part of the civilized world that would have teeth behind it. I don’t think Milosevic would be willing to continue in the face of that kind of opposition.” (I’ll admit to feeling a little sheepish about being so bold, but I was tired, frazzled and he asked.) “It’s a good idea”, he responded. (!!) “I’m somewhat concerned about those who are calling for an all-out military assault from first go.”
Thus encouraged, I went on. “Well, I guess I understand that, but certainly we’re capable, if need be, of knocking out the guns around Sarajevo, aren’t we?” “Yes,” he said, “if the source of fire can be spotted accurately, say with laser pin-pointing, that can be done, but there’s always the danger of what we ran into in Malaysia. There we found that if you go in and kill one friendly by accident, you’ve created ten more enemies.” “But you would agree that on a limited, selective, consistent basis, there is more we could be doing militarily?” “That is true. Certainly we could protect the convoys, if need be.” “And,” I pressed, “safe havens for refugees could be set up and protected, should it be agreed that it would be the best thing?” “Indeed.”
After a bit more conversation, we said goodbye and he went back to the forward cabin. Interesting man. Heady stuff.
The crew here couldn’t be nicer or more considerate of us. Tea is offered around (British, you know), and biscuits.
Saturday, November 21, 1992 - Zagreb.
2:54 PM - Touch down, Zagreb. Mike Keats welcomes us. There is a bit of juggling about which vehicle we can use, then we’re off to the hotel. Collecting our bags from Manoel’s room turns out to be a giant pain in the ass because he’s not there. The guy at the desk simply can’t let just anyone go into the room and take out bags, even if we can prove they’re ours. Ah, well, at least we can take a shower. Hot.
Later that evening Stephanie, Barbara, Phil and I walk through the cold, clear air to a beautiful old hotel and have a fine dinner at an elegant little restaurant. No gunfire, no bombs, no ruins. It’s hard to comprehend where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. We’re all a bit shell-shocked.
Sunday, November 22, l992 - Zagreb.
It’s incredibly luxurious to be able to wake up when you feel like it. Shower and stroll down to breakfast, then back up to pack. Pay the bill and load into the car. Manoel has another person who needs a ride to the airport. Nema problema, except he forgot that we’d have all our bags, so there is hardly room for the four of us, the luggage and Manoel. Turns out he has to race to the airport with us, dump us with a quick goodbye and race back for the other person. Life goes on. For some of us.
1:30 PM - We go out of Zagreb on Lufthansa (my favorite) to Frankfurt, with a connection from there on Air France to Paris. Everything is on time. We’re actually heading home! I'm in such as state of discombobulation that I actually checked my bags all the way through to Paris. Phil stalls until the last minute, searching in the Duty Free shop for something, anything to take home from here. Finally settles on a watch. Good thing, the plane is about to leave us stranded here forever.
Sunday, November 22, 1992 - Frankfurt, Germany.
3:05 PM - We arrive in Frankfurt, hustle off the plane onto the shuttle bus to find our way to the transit terminal. Barbara, Phil and I are going on to Paris from here but Stephanie is going to London and from there to New York, I think, for Thanksgiving. (Thanksgiving, my God!) In the hurly-burly of the crowd of passengers going one way and another, we share a quick hug - and then there were three.
Waiting in the Air France terminal, with time to look at a newspaper, the date connects. JFK was murdered 29 years ago today. What a different world it would be...
Also noted, Air France is on strike. Ah. "Most" of the long distance flights will go as scheduled, though, the article assures. Welcome back.
4:35 PM - The flight to Paris, at least, is going. So far so good.
Sunday, November 22, 1992 - Paris.
DeGaulle is beginning to feel like the old stomping grounds. Through the now familiar ropes I lead Barbara and Phil to the Air France counter for our vouchers ("Oui monsieur, most of the longer flights are going out on schedule. Not to worry." [Most!]), then out onto the bus for the Meridien Etoile.
After checking in we ask at the desk about flight cancellations. The concierge pulls out a list so long it looks like a joke and, after checking forever, pronounces us (Phil and I are on the same flight tomorrow evening to LA) OK and Barbara in trouble. Her flight has been cancelled. Merde. Fortunately, with a couple of calls, she's able to reschedule on another air line into Dulles in the AM.
Later, we meet in the lobby to find a place for dinner. What to eat when we have choices? Phil learns of a Chinese/Thai food place just across the Champs Elysees, so we try that. Not great. We're all a bit spacey anyway. Then a walk in the light rain to the Arc d'Triomphe. Incredibly stirring, resonant, somehow vital, invigorating.
Monday, November 23, 1992 - Paris.
Slept OK, not great. Feel off. Somehow it seems that I shouldn't be able to just walk away from it all so easily. I guess it won't be "easy".
Barbara rings, she's off this morning. We meet in the hall, hug, wish each other well, promise we'll work together to figure out how to tell people what we've seen, done. And then there were two...
Phil has called Del, who is still in Paris, arranges to meet for lunch. It's good to see him. He's full of regrets that he didn't come with us, is also still full of the Africa experience (which seems a hundred years ago, now), can't get straight with it. Somehow, in ways difficult, perhaps impossible, to define, we all know we'll never be the same as we once were.
Del goes back to his thoughts and Phil and I head for the Metro. He wants to find a particular shop where he can pick up a favorite scent for a friend. It's an odd, wonderful time. Two new friends, unknown to each other a few weeks ago, having shared intimate, terrifying, bizarre, hilarious, fabulous, gut-wrenching experiences, now find themselves at leisure, free to wander, look, laugh, joke or be silent, as they choose, in a beautiful, clean, functioning city. No war, no mass starvation, no weeping, fearful, huddled, terror-stricken human beings.
It's something to think about.
3:00 PM - We check out of the hotel and walk over to get the Air France bus to De Gaulle. The bus schedules are a little schizzy too, but it gets us there OK. Checking in, no problem. The flight is still on? "Mais oui, monsieur." The Business Class Lounge is closed, but Phil gets me into the First Class Lounge with him. It's actually going to happen. We wander over to the shop and I buy something to read on the flight. Books, even crappy ones, cost a fortune here!
4:30 PM - They call our flight. It's happening. Phil, courtesy of Universal, goes to First Class, I to Business. It's OK. Actually it's good. We need some time. Two guys from the States are behind me, say hi, want to know if I've been in Paris long. "No, just overnight. On my way home." "From where?" "Somalia and Bosnia." Silence. Then, "God, that must have been tough!" "Yeah." "What was it like?" .... I don't know what to say.
5:00 PM - We take off. I'm going home. Thank God.
How will I ever find the words...?