You know a city is on its knees when its Marketplaces sell bricks, metal joints, nuts, bolts and ammunition. What would you expect if you had been under siege for 3 years? The snows had fallen and gone, the City now looked like a wet dog waiting to dry in the Spring sun.
Sprawled out on a hillside, a graveyard lay like some giant morbid tapestry, testament to the slaughter. I was a UN soldier at the time and we monitored the shells that were fired from Serb guns in the surrounding hillside.
I digress. The route into Sarajevo was a long one where it could have been relatively short. We spent 8 hours on a coach from Split. Treacherous mountain roads granted us vertigo brimmed views of valleys. The country here is beautiful and idyllic, at complete odds with my expectations until I pass the remnants of a town. It looks like it has been recently burnt out and destroyed. It must have been the ethnic cleansing I’d heard on the radio.
We travel through Mostar and this really does open my eyes to the war over here. The city is split into two. One side is seemingly unaffected while the side facing the river is devastated by shell and rocket. The ancient bridge is still here, this will soon be destroyed. The drivers credentials are checked either side of the bridge by the opposing sides and we carry on. (side note: not sure if I passed through on my way back from R&R or on my initial visit – this was in 1995).
We arrive at a place called Kiseljak (pronounced Kiselyak) and stay at the hotel there. It’s from here we get our first glimpse of Sarajevo on the horizon. It’s dark and there are flares over the city, and somewhere a flash of light. There were thirty of us and we would be staying here for another 2 days while the passage into the city was negotiated. The hotel was a haven for reporters of all nationalities and in the evening the bar was full and we’d spend our Deutsche Marks for cheap beer and cigarettes. The balcony offered an impressive view of the route to Sarajevo and its airport. Transporter planes of all kinds made their way to the besieged city.
Two days later and we’re on the back of a Bedford Army truck. The route to the city is a strange devastated one. Decrepit and wasted vehicles line the route. We go through the rigmarole of a Serbian checkpoint and drive 300 metres to be checked by a Bosnian checkpoint. A single wall with the slogan ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’ greets us. It’s daubed in English as if to greet any foreigner or UN soldier. Butmir is a deserted town that looks more like the town in the end of the film Children of Men. The houses are riddled with many small holes and parts of the walls are completely blown away by the fighting.
The transport system which was a great success to the city had long since been abandoned as many of the passengers were being shot at by snipers. We pull into the TV2 building. The TV1 building was used by the press and no doubt by the likes of Martin Bell and Kate Adie. The place was shrouded in a blanket of damp snow that looked heavy and intruding. The showers were outside and one could get warm water on an evening only. The toilet situation wasn’t as bad, we had a jerry can of water to flush the system out. Down stairs we would eat and the cleaners were seldom prey to the advances of the soldiers no doubt. Promises of money and food would lead to any action.
On a rare occasion we’d be granted permission to go to the quiz at the Bosnian High Command building. We lost to a team of SAS men and American Journalists. The beer was cheap here and the laughter loud to match the adversity of the situation.
One time we spent a while touring the city with our uniforms on and rifles. We entered a bar and put our rifles on the bar. I ordered 4 cokes and was charged 16 Deutsche Marks. How much!? I asked. There’s an embargo on! What do you expect! I’m told in reply. Many of the streets here are marked with mortar splat marks. We couldn’t get near the bridge where the Archduke Ferdinand was shot with his wife 81 years ago. It was simply too dangerous.
There were three positions we’d occupy with our Cymbeline Mortar Locating Radars. One was at the Airport and we’d turn the radar onto aircraft coming into land. We’d laugh at the chaff spilling out from the side of the aircraft. They thought a Surface to Air Missile had a lock on them. Down one end of the runway was a crashed Russian aircraft, I think it was an Antonov. A small Antonov compared to the 16 wheeled transport plane that would probably take up the entire runway. Across the other side of the airport a ruined village housed many a sniper and it was there rumour has it the Serbs were digging a tunnel under the runway. Now and again shells would rain down on the would be entrance. Fighting would delay any shift change and we’d be graced with some firework displays. Tracer fire would fly overhead as a battle raged in Butmir between streets.
Another position was the fort location. This offered us a beautiful view of the valley towards a place called Pale (pronounced Palay). Here we’d be visited frequently by the locals to trade or to chat. There was an old German man who had stayed here after the second world war. He was a kind man and we’d trade his vegetables for our luncheon meat. Cats and Dogs were our friends and I remember one child who we used to give the Army ration boiled sweets to.
The journalists would make their way to the top of this vantage point as you got a view of the whole city. And it would literally blow you away.
I’d stand there in the evening as the moon shone on the city and wonder why. The great library was still there, burnt out and ‘The Holiday Inn’ that had been shot up so bad no one wanted to stay in there apart from Bosnian snipers. During the winter months Martin Bell once went up there in his ITN white Landrover, he had his walking cane and white suit on. Nothing spectacular and we just let him get on with his news report.
I remember we had to destroy our rubbish by burning it in a bin that was located 100 meters from the entrance to our Fort living area. There was a guy who was in the same Troop as me and quite literally mentally unstable. We would pour a load of Petrol in the bin with a load of paper and stuff; then we’d light a piece of paper, drop it in and run away. A ball of flame would explode behind us and bits of rubbish would tumble from the air. That was the highlight of my day.
The same unstable guy took a can of pork sausages with him to the toilet. What he’d done was remove the middle one. The sausages were coated in white fat; I remember the heat from the summer sun was very offensive. We don’t know what happened to the middle sausage, but we know what he intended to do with the remainder. He came out the toilet red faced and slightly flustered. I don’t think I had sausages for the remainder of the tour.
I got sacked as chef during my first attempt to cook. I made an all-in-one meal. Luncheon Meat, Beans, Corned Beef Hash, biscuits, pilchards, margarine, you name it I put it in the pan and it was a large pan. I was forcibly removed from office as the cook when the Bombardier took one look at the pan full of All-In-One. That crazy guy I talked about earlier, became the chef despite the sausage incident and did make some lovely far eastern dishes with what we had.
I got charged £500 for being drunk on duty once. I monitoring the radar net in the UNMO HQ (United Nations Monitoring Officers). They were having a function and even invited me to it. I left the radio and played pool and drank until 2am. Five hours later I’m being woken up and taken to the transport. It’s only when I reach the TV2 building I realise I left my beret back in the UNMO HQ. What a hangover I had a day later. I was absolutely no use to anyone and can see now why I never got promoted.
R&R (Rest and Recuperation) occurred in May and a 9hour journey took only 20 minutes on a flight from ‘Maybe Airlines’ which was the joke motto of the UN Air section of Sarajevo Airport. We were all herded onto the Russian made aircraft that had no seats. We were told to hold onto the straps on the inside of the aircraft while the plane took off. The back doors were still down while we were airborne and 20 minutes later we land at Split. We were soon on our little way from Split to the UK – Brize Norton. We were given an extra week off on top of the 2 weeks we were to have. I was in Norwich when I saw the jets bomb Serb positions around Sarajevo. I told the barman that I’d be going back there soon and I don’t think he believed me.
Going back to Sarajevo was a little slow as we had to wait a week in Split before another convoy was making its way there. I spent most of the week drunk. It was fun and we enjoyed the New Zealand bars and the Italian bars. I remember walking into a Royal Engineers’ Bar and, it was busy, very busy. There was one stool unoccupied and I, a fool, sat on it. I should have known better – they were Engineers. All the lights went out and a siren sounded. I had to buy everyone in the bar a beer. There was a cosmopolitan feel to the place. The Adriatic sea was a beautiful sight to see at sunset. I hitched a ride with a Gurkha who hardly spoke a word of English, but I crashed out in the Passenger seat.
A surreal part of the tour was watching Sky News (I think it was called Sky News then) as they reported on the French soldiers being shot at. For some reason the Serb Snipers hated the French – the British were left alone, thankfully. The pictures were live and we could hear the cracks through the city and on the TV as well. The guys used to watch the Football on a Saturday afternoon and I remember one time when a shell landed near the building, the explosion knocked the TV down and that was the end of the football. The lads were not impressed to say the least.
One evening we went out to the fire station. It was a UN Fire Station and the guy who ran it was an American. If you look at any of the Time magazines of 1995 or 1994 you will see him on the front cover firing a 9mm pistol into a fire. He said he knew it was futile to put out the fire and it was a vent of frustration at all the death he’d seen.
I remember the end of the tour in Split we were briefed on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think that was the first time I’d heard of it. I was lucky on this tour and it was my first witness to a war in Europe.