by Marios Cleovoulou, March 1996
It's my first time in a recent war zone. My first time on an aid convoy too.
I help Daniel, founder of Urgence Humanitaire, load the truck with winter clothes and blankets in France. We rejoin Henri, the driver, and the Scania truck & trailer in Ancona, tourist capital of the Italian Adriatic coast. We have a smooth crossing on the overnight ferry to Split on the once equally visited Dalmatian coastline of Croatia.
Henri, the round-faced smiling driver, works for ATLAS; our contact with them here is Irene. Daniel asks Irene where she is from. Irene looks troubled. "I'm an ex-Yugoslavian" she says, in enchanting accented French, "a mixture" and waves the subject nervously away.
We help unload into a Red Cross distribution centre in Solin, just outside of Split. This is the last we'll see of the goods on the truck. The Red Cross will see to the job of distribution to the day-by-day needy from here.
It turns out the trailer contains a shipment from Handicap International. The occasional split cardboard packing box reveals crutches and wheelchairs. The first one I see into makes me stop and take a breath of mind. Three million mines in Bosnia & Herzegovina we're told.
As we unload a bunch of smiling children appear. It seems that foreign aid workers are often the source of sweets, truck drivers being known as Mr. Bonbon. The eldest, maybe twelve, quickly gets to my speaking English and introduces herself and her half-a-dozen friends. Helen. Hers is the only name that's familiar. I get gales of laughter trying to repeat some of them. I'm ill-equipped for bonbons, but they're keen enough to have their photographs taken, and run off happily to climb a tree.
One of the many curious images from my journey is that of the children. Apart from one stark exception, my perception of the countries' children is of a smiling, waving, tobogganing set of happy kids. I wonder if they looked like that before the Dayton accord.
ATLAS is our host for this trip. They occupy a house to the east of Split. One evening I stroll into a nearby sleepy coastal village. Sleepy except for the occasional drone of IFOR helicopters buzzing down the coast. One, less than enchanting, aspect of the journey will be the number of acronyms I will see daily. The locals stare at me. I smile. They nod. I don't suppose they've seen many camera toting tourists recently.
We visit the municipal Red Cross. They are up to a very wide range of activities here. From the immediate, food to the needy; to reconstruction aid, farm animals and clearing equipment for land that has lain unused for five years; to local health aid, running a free pharmacy; to youth programs for the growing number of young drug addicts; to development aid in the form of free computer training on equipment provided by the British consulate.
Our host, an electrical engineer by trade, tells us he enrolled in the Croatian army for two years, "When I thought my family was in danger" but after the immediate fear receded he joined the Red Cross instead. "I'm not a soldier." he says.
My smile is returned most often by the people who have least, when I visit a refugee camp. A few wooden huts accommodate several hundred people. People; well, there's the very old, and the very young and their mothers, but few young men. It's mostly Bosnian Croats here, although there are some Muslims, and a few Croatians from Vukovar, where it all started.
The residents are keen to show me their efforts to make a home of the tiny rooms they have been living in for two years. One old woman indicates they have eight living in their room. Eight? How? On four single beds. With one tiny wardrobe and a two ring stove.
The weather is lovely the morning we set off for Bosnia & Herzegovina. Cool but clear blue skies. Our small convoy consists of a Nissan Patrol 4WD, two Scania trucks of food going to Zenica and Sarajevo, and one truck of medical supplies going to Tuzla. Daniel is up front with convoy leader Christian in the 4WD.
As I climb into "my" truck -- tagged UNHCR 10927 -- I can't help but notice that my feet are resting on a set of snow chains. I hope the trip won't prove that challenging. I look over my shoulder and see the bullet proof vest and helmet and note their singularity! They implicitly have Thierry, the driver's, name on them.
Behind us is Serge and behind him Marko, our only native Croat speaker. As we head off there is a constant chatter between the drivers over the CB radio in a terse mixture of French, English, Croat, and German. Nobody is fluent in anything other than their mother tongue. Doesn't matter.
The chatter dies down as the road becomes more demanding. The landscape is dramatic as we wind up the mountains, that grow almost straight out of the sea, on a narrow road. "No," says Thierry, in response to my asking if this is the best road to Sarajevo, "but less problems with customs this way."
Less is relative. On the wall at the drivers' house is the old joke defining heaven and hell in terms of national stereotypes. Added to the bottom of the "Hell is where..." list is "...customs are Bosnian." The drivers have planned two days for this 350Km (220mi) trip. This will prove to be optimistic.
The snow line and the border come together within an hour of Split just after the tiny village of Komensko. The border post is obviously a hastily erected affair consisting mostly of temporary cabins. Oddly one of the few permanent building that is finished is declared by large letters on it's side to be a duty free shop. It is empty and closed.
We are the twelfth truck in the queue, Serge and Marko are behind us. The trucks were loaded yesterday and sealed by Croatian customs in Split this morning, yet we are kept for two hours for no apparent reason and with no visible activity by outgoing Croatian customs at the border.
After exiting Croatia we enter Bosnia & Herzegovina. More precisely we try to enter the Herzegovina part of the country. The incoming customs here don't seem to have uniforms yet -- unless jeans and sports jacket is it. He is just about to pass us after a mere half hour delay when he notices "vitamins" on the list for the food trucks.
"What kind of vitamins?" he wants to know. The drivers don't know, they didn't load the trucks. One truck is unsealed under supervision. There's corned beef, rice, canned carrots, beans, fruit, sardines, toilet rolls, and, yes, vitamin C, in the form of one and a half tonnes of orange juice.
"This is bad for you," he says, tossing a container of orange juice around in his hand, "very bad."
He seems sympathetic, looking for the word "vitamins" on the box in vain. Finally he declares that fruit juices are a luxury and we must pay a duty. However, he has no provision for collecting customs duties, so he tells us to detour to a customs office within Herzegovina to sort out the matter.
The detour is arduous but stunning. The route takes us around the huge iced over Lake Buko, beautifully set in deep snow covered mountains. The road climbs high above the lake increasing in panoramic splendor and driving difficulty. I find myself wishing tourism was the purpose of the mission as I gawk at the view before me and crave for a photo stop.
Meanwhile, Christian has started to radio back pothole warnings as the road degenerates. The road gets narrower and the IFOR convoys don't help. Christian acting as forward pilot and my being stunned by the sensational beauty of the country will be recurring themes during our journey, often at the same time.
After a bit less than an hour the convoy rolls into the customs compound at Tomislavgrad. The truck with medical supplies is passed in an hour, and then customs closes for the day. Marko goes on to Tuzla alone, but the rest of us must stay the night and try and sort out the matter of the orange juice in the morning.
Tomislavgrad is a big village sitting in the middle of an elevated plain in a shallow bowl of mountains. There's an IFOR depot here and the convoys of trucks heading across the snow covered plain form a wintry wagon train. The occasional French zebra-coated helicopter buzzes overhead.
The village has a Catholic church, a couple of cafés, and a small bistro. The cafés are half-full of young men in military uniforms. The bistro has three tables. "Mixed grill" we are offered. The mountain of food that arrives overwhelms our expectations. Even the truck drivers can't finish, and it's good and cheap too. We eat to the sound of Joe Cocker singing "With a little help from my friends".
It's a crystal clear night with the stars twinkling traditionally and the waxing barely gibbous moon gleaming on the snow. We sleep in the trucks with the engines going for heat. Sleeping on top of a throbbing V8 is an acquired capability I'm told.
The morning is lovely, but freezing. I drink some of our personal supply of vitamins and we go to the café in the customs compound. The coffee here, "kava", is an espresso; short, dark, loaded, It goes well with the Bob Marley on the café CD player.
Christian restarts discussions with customs. Duties are one thing, correct paperwork is another. Christian must go back to the border at Komensko to sort things out. The compound parking lot is like an ice rink. I wish I'd brought along my skates.
Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
By the time the 4WD returns from the border the third time that day the ink rink has, predictably, turned into a mud pool. It is decided that it's best to unload the orange juice into the customs warehouse here and let somebody deal with it later, so as the convoy can move on. We unload but it's too late to get paperwork declaring we no longer have the orange juice, so we must stay another night.
We go to the same bistro again. The drivers go for a repeat assault on a mixed grill. Daniel and I are up for something lighter. I put my hands together and swim them towards the waiter. We get a delicious pair of pan-fried trout each. They're fresh and locally caught we discover after much gesticulation. Just what we need to prepare us for another night in the trucks.
Thursday, 29th of February, 1996. The last leap day of the 20th century. Another beautiful blue sky day with a bitter breeze adding a biting edge. Christian takes the 4WD back to Komensko again. This time he takes longer, but when he returns we are passed to go. The convoy finally leaves Tomislavgrad some forty-eight hours after arriving, rolling away our frustrations of the last two days with the excitement of being able to move again.
There haven't been any direct signs of conflict yet. They start soon after Tomislavgrad. A hint of ongoing danger appears at a turnoff onto a road the U.N. has named "Friar". It is closed due to mines. An apparently derelict farmhouse in the distance becomes more obviously blown out as we get closer, the hole in the side a testimony to the force that made it.
The convoy crosses a high featureless plain. This road is called "Albion". There's nothing here except the snow and the wind. The scene makes me huddle into my sweater, even though the truck cabin is warm. "Little Siberia" says Thierry. It's bleak, but not as bleak as the first wiped out village we come to. Kupres is now a collection of battered walls. No windows. No doors. No roofs. Sometimes no walls. No people.
We trundle slowly through a tunnel, emerging to a panorama that quickly dispels the grim views before. The countryside here is truly magnificent. Deep, deep, valleys and soaring mountains. Pine trees heavy with fresh wet snow bent over almost to their roots, giving a frozen fairy grotto feeling to the steep rock faces. Nature reserves the right to astound. Tito's holiday home is here. Don't blame him.
Thierry tells me this area was occupied by Bosnian Serbs during the war. Occupied? The terrain is almost vertical. It would make the Swiss envious! It's impossible to imagine how a war could be fought in such confines.
We have a 17km downhill stretch of twisting road in front of us. The road has been well cleared by British military snowplows, but the north sides are still icy in patches. It is slow going. At the bottom we are stopped at a military checkpoint overseen by a Dutch IFOR tank named "Arrogance".
A minaret announces the first mosque as we motor into Bugojno. There's hardly a roof intact on the side we drive in on. Some preliminary repairs and other signs of impending return by a few of the ex-residents were in evidence, but it's mostly empty. Bugojno is the first town we reach in the Bosnia part of Bosnia & Herzegovina, and we are required to check in with customs here.
While we are waiting for our paperwork to be stamped we enter the smoky café on the customs compound and experience a culture change. The coffee is now "kafa" and is decidedly Turkish. Brewed in individual copper pots on the stove, the spoon almost stands up in the cup. The music is of middle-Eastern orientation, adding flavour to the coffee. We cannot find any language in common with the waitress, who shrugs, smiles, and offers us her cigarettes.
A change in currency is needed too. The Dinah is the official national currency of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Up to now, in ethnically Croat Herzegovina, we have been using Croatian Kuna, although we have been quoted prices in both Kuna and German Marks since entering the ex-Yugoslavia. From now on, in Muslim Bosnia, all prices are headed "DM" only.
It doesn't take too long to clear Bugojno. The convoy moves through a region where a broad stroke of destruction has rendered village after village totally uninhabitable. A whole area of roof-less, shell-holed, burnt-out hamlets. Home after home laid to waste. It's beyond me what strategic military value justified such devastation. I fear I know the answer.
Civil war is a contradiction of terms.
I go deeply silent, entering a robotic state of shock, wanting only to witness, fearing to think. I try to go into automatic and document the scenes passing by with my camera. I have to fight my eyes glazing over as well as the constant jolting of the truck. I miss many poignant shots.
We start climbing upwards again. The convoy crosses a couple of temporary bridges, structures placed on top of destroyed originals. The picture becomes more rustic featuring sheep and goats, and haystacks built around a central pole. Horse-drawn flatbed carriages are used for transporting everything from wood to men in battle fatigues. Fuel of all sorts is in short supply.
The town of Travnik goes by quickly, but leaves me wanting to return. The half that hasn't been ruined is very picturesque, the mosque one of the most ornate I've seen. The kids wave at us. The sight, soon after, of a demolished mosque with its minaret, still mostly intact, lying at a slant across the rubble, visually depicts one excuse for the horror we behold.
We arrive in Zenica in the early evening. The trucks are parked for the night at a UNCHR World Food Program depot and we retire to a house rented by ATLAS on the edge of town. Although the house has central heating, there is no fuel. A small wood stove gets the house comfortable, although it will have to be refueled during the night. The water is only on for three hours twice a day. It's on when we arrive, although the landlady has filled some bottles for us in case.
I awake to find that the house is next to a river. Zenica is in a deep valley and the morning is misty. The day will remain cloudy, the only such day during the trip. Our first duty here is to finally clear customs. After this we will be able to move on unchecked, with the trucks unsealed. The process takes less than an hour, despite a detailed examination of the contents of the trucks. The customs official carefully examines a can of corned beef, then a can of sardines. He asks for a can of sardines to be opened and takes a long sniff of the contents. He confiscates four cans "for analysis" and clears us for the rest.
Intervenir is a French non governmental aid agency. The food we are carrying is destined for their distribution depots in Zenica and Sarajevo. As the truck is being unloaded I see a dirty, mop-haired boy watching us through the wire fence around the warehouse. He is an urchin straight out of Dickens. I offer him some pens. He is eager to accept, nodding energetically, examining each carefully before clipping them into his shirt pocket. Another nod of thanks, but no smile.
The people of the ex-Yugoslavia are quite tall in general. The women slender and attractive, the men strong and noble. The Muslim head scarves and colourful ankle length skirts worn by the occasional woman the only easily visible sign of underlying differences. I've only seen these in Bosnia and I see more of them here than anywhere else. I also see the most men with missing limbs here.
Zenica has many high rise apartment blocks. The balconies have laundry draped over the outside in time honoured fashion, but themselves are stacked with firewood, even on the highest floor. The gas supply is unsafe. Attempts to turn it on have resulted in leakages with devastating consequences. Heating with firewood this winter is an improvement over last year when all the inhabitants had to burn was their furniture.
The road to Sarajevo is the best we've been on yet. It's still only one lane each way, we didn't see anything wider outside of towns, but it's a generous lane with a good surface. Unfortunately a bridge out ahead means we must detour. The alternative is the worst roads so far. Reporting the rock falls and potholes becomes a full-time job for Christian in the 4WD as we twist down narrow valleys and through shell pocked villages.
We approach Sarajevo from the east, in the shadow of Mount Igman. An Orthodox church introduces the residential areas of the Bosnian Serbs. Not that there are many residents left now. This section of suburban Sarajevo is almost totally destroyed, leveled in parts. The tram system in the middle of the wide road is shattered, the track in convoluted twists in places and the power cables hanging tangled from their posts, like some art nouveau may pole. A tram sits, perforated with bullet holes, rusting.
The road is heavily pitted as we drive up "Sniper Alley". The scene astounds me. The amount of devastation is overwhelming. I thought I was getting used to the sights of ruin, but so far I've only seen villages, towns, and suburbs ravaged. This is a city.
High rise apartment blocks are in a desolate state everywhere I look. Four tattered towers in a row, barely still standing, present an eerie memory of city planning. Office blocks by the score, the PTT building, a Holiday Inn, a supermarket, all show the wounds of a persistent pounding. Nearly all are deserted. There is not a building unmarked, unaffected. The ones with some structure still present paint the most dramatic picture. Many others are just an unrecognisable pile of rubble.
A burnt out car and a crane truck riddled with bullet holes sit outside the Sarajevo Intervenir depot. While the trucks are being unloaded Daniel and I visit the International Committee of the Red Cross to get some contacts. The building they are using, a modern office building on Sniper Alley, doesn't have a single unbroken window on the outside. The entrance is protected by concrete slabs and sand bags.
We stroll down Sniper Alley. "Welcome to hell" declares a graffito. The cafés that provided the locus of Sarajevo's once multi-ethnic society are gone. Burnt out. There are bullet holes and pocks everywhere; even on the lampposts. The Catholic church here is hit, as are the mosque and Orthodox church just down the road.
"Surreal" observes Daniel. A good word for the image surrounding us. For amidst the appalling condition of the city there is the contrast of normal looking people doing normal city-folk things. The trams are working in this part of the city and most are crowded. Kids jump on grabbing onto the outside for free rides. People with shopping walk around the transport containers the U.N. placed in the city as safe havens from the sniper's bullet. Men with briefcases hasten to their appointments.
In an act of brave beginning a worker paints the door to a small office block; the rest of the building will need much more serious work. I miss a photo-scoop when a boy of seven or eight points a crude toy rifle at an IFOR armoured vehicle and then runs off, giggling, with his friend. This is probably the first year in many that they've been out of their homes.
Yet the signs of strain are there. Street peddlers selling cigarettes or chocolates or plastic bottles of petrol are ubiquitous. I see an old lady finding a small pile of sticks and hurrying to put them into her bag.
As we leave the city we drive through the old section. We pass many historic and aesthetic buildings, a lot badly damaged. The large city library is utterly gutted, just a collection of pillars and a roof. The quaint bridge where Archduke Ferdinand's assassination triggered the first world war is still there, as are a mosque and church facing each other, showing past mutual acceptance. It's evident that Sarajevo was once a lovely city.
We leave Sarajevo heading southwest towards Mostar. The road heads downhill to run for many miles alongside the resplendent blue-green waters of lengthy Lake Jablanicko. The deep ravines dropping into the lake add drama to the surroundings, as we are treated to an alpine sunset. The road back will prove easy for the most part, despite a couple of dirt track sections and pontoon bridges. Passing through customs is easy with empty trucks. We arrive back in Split late in the evening, making the return journey from Sarajevo in just over five hours, as opposed to three days outgoing.
I stand on the aft sun deck of the ferry, as Split recedes, looking at the snow covered peaks in the distance. I have a feeling of a visit too short, and an accompanying desire to return. I think of Irene, the ex-Yugoslavian. I didn't get to say good-bye, and I wish I'd had the chance to tell her of the spectacular, dramatic, beauty I've found in the land. Of my deep sorrow at the scars that the snow cannot cover. And of my hopes that Sarajevo, Travnik, and the many other places I missed, will be magnificent again.
Urgence Humanitaire: A French non-governmental aid organization. 4, Place des Arcades, 06250 Mougins, France. Tel/Fax: +33 493 64 85 03
ATLAS: Action Transport Logistique Assistance Service. An EU funded humanitarian aid transport and logistics support service. 67 avenue de la République, 75011 Paris, France. Tel +33 (1) 48 68 49 29. Fax +33 (1) 49 29 48 69