Having a Wee in a Minefield & Other Stories from Bosnia
Sadly the above photo is the only one from my trip but I’ve downloaded some images that help tell the story. The below image is the actual image which made me volunteer to go to Bosnia during the war. It is a still from a documentary I was watching. This is a concentration camp in Bosnia but it could easily have been an image from Nazi Germany. We had concentration camps in Europe again. We said it could never happen again, yet here it was. I couldn’t stand back and do nothing. I had to try and do something, however insignificant that may be.
Volunteering to Help in Bosnia
I had planned a round the world trip but decided to put this on hold and volunteer to help in Bosnia. I was very naive. I thought that I could just volunteer and off I’d go. This was the days before internet and e-mail, no-one I knew had a mobile phone. Off I went to the library, got a list of charities and wrote to them all, offering my services. Most didn’t reply and the ones that did had no programmes in place or only needed staff with medical training. Thwarted, off I went on my trip and had an incredible year exploring the world.
A few weeks after my return, I was in town and saw someone rattling a collection tin on which was written ‘Workers Aid for Bosnia’. I stuck a pound in the tin and was given a leaflet. At the bottom of it said ‘ anyone wishing to participate in an aid convoy please get in touch’. That was how a few weeks later I ended up in a truck going to Bosnia. In the interim I had been all over the country fundraising, supermarket collections in Bristol, asking people to buy something extra to stick in the truck, street collections in Durham, collecting in pubs in Leicester with a Bosnian refugee and appeals through my local newspaper.
Miners from Tuzla
During the miners’ strike in England, miners from Tuzla in Bosnia had sent aid to the strike fund. Even though they themselves were poor, they gave a day’s pay every month to our striking miners. To give something back these aid convoys were organised. Generations of my family were miners. My grandad, who brought me up, worked down a coal mine for 52 years. It made this trip all the more important.
My Truck Companions
There were to be 3 trucks in the convoy but until we got to France there was just one. My truck companions for the trip were Peter, a retired wine merchant and Jeff, an ex-squaddie. We were an eclectic mix but a good fit, we looked after each, kept each others spirits up, had banter, music and laughed a lot.
I’m reading my diary and I wasn’t scared of being shot at or putting myself in personal danger. What I was scared of what some of the things I was going to see and how I might change because of that. I didn’t want to lose my optimism or my faith in people.
Our first stop was Lille. Here a group of students and trade union activists had also been campaigning and raising funds. Here we also picked up one of the other trucks. It was driven by a Scotsman and fervent communist named Andy, who had been on a previous convoy. He was to be accompanied by a young, French, trainee journalist named Nadia, who wanted to to do a story on the conflict. We spent the night eating and drinking red wine with our new French friends who also kindly put us up for the night. It was a very enjoyable evening.
Our last stop in France was in Clermont-Ferrand, due to a problem with one of the lorries it took us 14 hours to get there. We arrived to lots of fanfare with television cameras, interviews and a huge feast prepared by thr townspeople. We also picked up the last truck and met the person who would be leading the convoy. Jeanu was a very interesting, charismatic character. He was a member of ETA, the Basque separatist organisation, which was then classified as a terrorist organisation in France. He had been to Bosnia 54 times and his lorry has been shot at on occasion.
He was accompanied by Olivia, a French activist, who was very ardent, very serious and very difficult to warm too. My French isn’t good, I was happy to let others carry out the interviews and political speeches and even happier to be able slip off on my own for half an hour to wander the streets, soak up some of the atmosphere and visit the magnificent Gothic cathedral made from black volcanic rock. I did meet some very interesting people, including some refugees, one of whom had been in a concentration camp in Mostar, beatings, rape, torture.
Southern France & The Alps
There were long drives, 14-16 hours a day. Southern France and over the Alps had pretty villages and rolling hills with ruins of castles perched on top. It was then into Northern Italy and through Slovenia and after problems at the border into Croatia. We slept in the lorries, normally near service stations.
Our next stop which was Split. The British U.N. base here kindly let us use their facilities. It was fabulous to have a hot shower and change of clothes. We headed into town. Split is very beautiful and even though it was November, the sun was shining and the weather was warm. Myself Peter, Geoff and Nadia sat in one of the restaurants overlooking the waterfront. We only had enough Croatian money for either 1 beer or a hamburger. Two men sitting at the table next to us heard us talking about our trip and our plight. They struck up a conversation with us, joined us and then insisted on buying us lots of food and drinks, very welcome and very appreciated.
That next day we headed towards the Bosnian border. We met a previous convoy who were returning from Bosnia. They’d had a few issues. Some of their party never made it to Bosnia. 6 were arrested in Mostar, beaten up and thrown in jail for 2 days, before being let out to make their way home with no explanation. It made us very cautious when we passed through Mostar.
When we arrived at the border there were issues. We crossed out of Croatia but couldn’t get into Bosnia. We needed extra paperwork for the desks and school equipment in Jeanu’s lorry as it wasn’t classed as humanitarian aid. No amount of pleading, smiling or bribes of cartons of cigarettes would work. We ended up in no man’s land with no passports and that’s where we spent the night. I decided to continue sleeping in the cab of the lorry. I didn’t use lights due to possible snipers and it was a nervy night. Due to land mines my toilet was 2 inches from the lorry. The next morning Jeanu had obtained the extra paperwork and we were allowed through the border.
Mostar had been a beautiful city and is once again. Then, the buildings were pockmarked from bullets and grenades. The weather had changed and it was grey, dark and menacing, which seemed more fitting. The famous Mostar bridge had been blown up although it has now been re-built and restored. Huge blocks of flats had chunks blown out of them but were still standing and still inhabited, bullet holes formed mosaics in the walls. Families were walking with their possessions in carrier bags.We were also warned of snipers on the roads.
After Mostar there was more devastation. A village utterly decimated, now uninhabited, the houses and church sprayed with bullets and mortar shells.
We came across an accident, a UN lorry that had either ran off the road due to an accident or as a result of snipers. Either way we were warned off by men running around waving guns and told not to stop in any circumstance. At the time Sarajevo was under siege and blockaded. Snipers sat on the hills surrounding the city or in buildings, waiting to shoot people if they ventured out for water from the standpipes or food.
A Near-Death Experience
We had to skirt around the city. On the outskirts we heard gunfire. All of a sudden a track pulled in front of ours. On the back was mounted a machine gun and it was pointed straight at me. You always wonder what would happen in a situation like that, would I see my life flashing in front of my eyes. What should I have done – duck? What did I do – nothing! I looked at him and he looked at me. It seems we held eye contact for a long time but it was probably only seconds. It felt like time had been frozen. He then fired the machine gun in the air and the lorry pulled out and drove off. There is realisation though, that he could have easily pulled the trigger and it wouldn’t have mattered to him, I didn’t matter. It wasn’t my time though, although I did tempt fate a couple more times on the trip.
All along the route were 100s of UN vehicles, troops, busses and checkpoints. We didn’t take the main route to Tuzla as it wasn’t safe. Instead it was steep roads and hairpin bends, not ideal in a truck.
Taking a Wee in a Minefield
So the dangerous thing is forgetting where you are. We’d picked up another person Allyosh, who was going back to Tuzla. As there we now 4 of us, we were taking turns to travel in the back, it was my turn. We stopped by the side of the road for a leg stretch and briefing. I was dying to go to the toilet and mentioned it to Andy. He said ‘go up there’, pointing to some trees up the bank. I ran up the bank and went behind the trees.
Jeanu saw me coming back down and went absolutely ballistic at me. “There minefield”, he shouted. I’d just had a wee in it! What a way to go, not the most dignified, bottom blown off by landmine. Just that split second of forgetting where I was could have had lethal consequences.
A Warm Greeting in Tuzla
We made it to Tuzla and were greeted very warmly. It wasn’t just about the aid, what we were bringing too was hope. The fact that someone cared, that the outside world hadn’t forgotten them. In the trucks were food and clothes but also there was an incubator needed for a hospital, school desks and chairs for a school being set up in a basement.
We would be staying with local families. The Nationalists wanted to create a greater Serbia and rid the country of all non-Serbs. How is that possible in Bosnia?
The father of the family I stayed with was a Serb, the mother a Croat and one of the daughters had a boyfriend who was Muslim. That’s the story all over Bosnia where different religions and races had lived together, intermingled and inter-married for 1,000 years.
Sanya & Tanya
The family I stayed with were wonderful. There were 2 daughters Sanya and Tanya who spoke English. I spent a lot of time with them and their friends, many who learnt English from MTV. I was so impressed by the dignity of the people I met, as well as their stoicism. What I also realised was that people didn’t have a choice but to fightback – or be massacred. Also staying in the apartment was the wife’s sister who had to flee her home when it was destroyed by Serb troops.
The Standard of Living
The town was shelled frequently and there were often late night warnings. Water and electricity were sporadic and never normally at the same time. At least they were free. There was very little food. All bank accounts had been frozen and they received the equivalent of about 85p a week, about the same price as a packet of cigarettes. A lot of people had had to sell off their possessions to buy food. What we’d brought was so welcome. Despite everything they were trying to live normal lives. They were so glad to have me there. The mother even tucked me up in bed, I felt like a child but it was a nice feeling.
Yugoslav People’s Army
I was lucky enough to be able to meet someone from the War Crimes Commission who was monitoring the situation. I’d already heard about some of the atrocities that had occurred in Croatia and Bosnia and these were confirmed. Some of the worst atrocities were committed by the JNA – the Yugoslav People’s Army, made up mainly of the former Yugoslav army units.
In the Croatian conflict Vukovar was totally destroyed and ethnically cleansed with mass graves. I’m going to be graphic but it’s warranted. Soldiers played football with human heads and wore human eyes as pendants round their necks. A 4 month old baby was placed in an oven and burnt to death while the mother was made to watch. The ethnic cleansing continued to Bosnia with concentration camps, villages destroyed, mass murders and rapes and unspeakable, inhumane atrocities.
His figures for this area showed that:
15,000 identified people killed, many others missing
230,000 expelled from their homes
30,000 sent to concentration camps
205 schools destroyed
107 medical instsitutions destroyed
There were 305,000 war criminals named in the files of the war crimes office
Massacre in Srebrenica
I had left Bosnia when the massacre in Srebrenica happened. In the July of 1995 some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up, taken away and executed, whilst UN peacekeepers stood by and watched. I watched it on the TV and sobbed. It was the largest massacre in Europe since the holocaust.
In Tuzla there was one cafe that was really popular with young people. I went there with my Bosnian friends. A week later someone planted a bomb there which killed several young people. In total 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian conflict and 2 million people, more than half the population were displaced.
Whilst we were in Bosnia there was also a conference, attended by representatives from many European countries. I always remember the, representative from Bosnia saying “don’t think this can’t happen in your country, that’s what we thought”. He said he was not a Serb, a Croat or a Muslim, he was a Bosnian and Bosnians admire the rainbow because it is made up of so many different colours. I learnt of the extent of the rise of the right wing and Nationalist parties in so many European countries. I look at the same happening today and realise we haven’t learned many lessons.
Witnessing a Grenade Attack
We visited a school close to the front line to whom we’d given supplies of typewriters, fax machines, paper, desks, chairs and filing cabinets. We had a musical performance from some of the students. It was very moving and poignant. The piano was propped up on crates because the leg had been blown off in a mortar attack. This was also where we witnessed our first grenade attack. I remember Peter ducking down on the floor with his hands over his head. I figured if my time was up, it was up and, that wasn’t going to help. For a long time afterwards I hates the sound of fireworks, they reminded me of grenades.
Later we met teachers, ministers and members of the Belgian parliament. They said they would never forget what we’d done and would always remember the aid and support we’d brought. So many schools had been destroyed, lessons were held in cellars and houses, some teachers walked 15-20 kms to their schools, hungry and tired. The daughter of the family I’m staying with is a teacher and walks 2 hours to school every day.
Dutch UN Soldiers
I met Dutch UN soldiers frustrated that they couldn’t do anything to help stop the atrocities. They tried to help by fixing up the school. I met street kids, orphaned by the war ducking and diving to get by. I met survivors of the concentration camps, I was told stories of the camps. 2 soldiers were made to stand together, one was shot in the head. The other had to eat the contents of his brain that had spilled onto the floor. Others couldn’t talk of their experiences, it was too raw and too painful. The young people I met though could still laugh, could still hope and could still think.
Leaving My Bosnian Family
I got to know my Bosnian family very well, they did become my family and I was very sad to leave. They thanked me so much as has everyone I’ve met here, I just felt very humbled. They asked me to call them ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ which I did. I’ll always remember all the kindness, the laughter, the singing and the dancing. I’ll never forget these people. They are crying because I am leaving, it’s like I’m taking a bit of hope away with me. They wanted to give me presents but obviously didn’t have much materially. I was given an address book and 1 oven glove, I still have both. I also have flags, symbols of the resistance that I had to hide. If I’d been caught with them the consequences could have been dire.
The Journey Back
The journey back was quite eventful. We passed an armoured vehicle, I have no idea what it had attached to it, but it sliced right through the metal on the side of our truck. Myself and Alyosh were in the back propped against the side of the truck. Luckily, we’d put a mattress there for comfort to lean on, otherwise, it would have been our backs it sliced through. It shredded the mattress. Again we dealt with it very matter of factedly.
The Worst Sight I Have Ever Seen
Then the worst sight I have ever seen. It was a Coca Cola lorry – this made it much worse. Into the back were being thrown body bags full of dead people, like they were sacks of potatoes. Some of them were tiny. It is something that is etched in my mind, that I’ll never forget.
Wars and times of adversity bring out the best and worse of people. I’ve seen that in many places, in Bosnia, in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Look at now with the Corona virus, compare the acts of selfishness and greed with the the incredible acts of kindness, selflessness and humanity. Look at how everyone has pulled together.
Returning to Bosnia
I returned to Bosnia 4 years later. I visited the family I had stayed with and it was bitter/sweet. It was lovely to see them and I got such a warm welcome and they were doing well. Mohammed, Sanya’s boyfriend however, was suffering from shell shock. It was heartbreaking to see someone so young sitting shaking and an emotional wreck. He had a near death experience as a soldier in the war. Again, everyone wanted me to stay. They’ve spent a lot of time trying to find me a nice Bosnian man to marry.
I also got to visit Sarajevo which I couldn’t do the first time and which was a beautiful city. The scars of war were still there but there was also a vibrancy about the city, an appreciation of life and a determination to enjoy it. If you get the chance please visit.
How Bosnia Has Affected Me
Going to Bosnia was a very moving experience for me. It hits people in lots of ways. For Alyosh it came in his dreams. In one way for me there was a feeling of invincibility, I felt I could take on anything. I got the same feeling after I’d back packed round Papua New Guinea and had a few hair raising experiences. It’s also exciting and I don’t mean that in a blase way. There’s also so much adrenaline pumping, it gives you a real buzz and how do you top that, how do you get that feeling again. I totally understand thrill seekers pushing things to the limits. I was so calm the whole time I was in Bosnia, when I got home I started shaking. For a while I wasn’t really back, I felt a bit like a zombie and it was a while before I could talk about it.
I used to write a lot of poetry when I was younger and writing a poem about Bosnia was cathartic for me.
These are pictures I was given by some of the kids in Bosnia. Here kids draw houses and families and trees and flowers. There they drew guns and bombs. Things that always remain though are hope, courage and kindness.