Saturday, 28 June 2014

100 years ago

Today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  I have been to Sarajevo - or, to be more accurate, I have driven through the city.  It was back in the late autumn of 1996, not long after the end of the civil war.  I was with a party of Lions taking aid to refugees.  At the time I was employed by a newspaper and this account of the trip was published in it.


Vitez, Bosnia - Saturday

Late at night, a convoy of cars comes down the road from the mountains, lights blazing and horns blaring.  They disappear somewhere in the town.  Twenty minutes later we hear a burst of automatic rifle fire.  Then the convoy, now twice the size, returns into the mountains, still with lights blazing and horns blaring.  We settle for the night in our motor caravan, secure in the knowledge that we are in a locked compound protected by an armed guard.

Our party of seven had left Dover the previous Monday in our own convoy of two lorries and the motor caravan.  The lorries were loaded with 30 tons of foodstuff, clothing, medical supplies and toys, all donated by people and companies throughout south-east England and bound for refugee camps in Bosnia.  The motor caravan was to act as a support vehicle, providing facilities for both cooking and sleeping.

The journey through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Slovenia had been fairly uneventful.  With the lorries fully laden, we had plodded down the autobahns at a maximum 56mph, slowing to less than 25mph on the steeper hills.  There had been delays of two and a half hours at the Austria-Slovenia border and three and a half hours at the Slovenia-Croatia border.  But worse was to come.

A burnt-out factory
We travelled down the Dalmatian coastline, through rugged, inhospitable mountains and past seemingly endless islands basking in bright sun in the blue Adriatic Sea.  Before reaching Split, we turned inland to head for the border crossing into Bosnia at Kamensko.  From here on we saw almost constant signs of the conflict – burnt-out cars, buses and lorries beside the road and deserted villages with every house in ruins.  In the towns, complete factories had been destroyed, their fleets of lorries standing blackened and useless after the fires.  Churches and mosques alike were without roofs or windows.

In 50 miles, perhaps one per cent of the dwellings had signs of people living in them and many of those were of questionable habitability.  Fields were untended, many of them marked as uncleared minefields.  For mile after mile we passed through ghost towns.

We reached the Croatia-Bosnia border just after 6pm yesterday, Friday.  The evening was spent in fruitless argument with customs officials in an attempt to untangle red tape.  The problem seemed to be that the Croatian officials were loath to let us leave the country because our paperwork, which was clearly marked “Humanitarian Aid”, stated that we carried coffee.  Unfortunately we were quite unable to tell them how much or where it was because we had hundreds of shoeboxes packed by many different people.

After passing the night under the watchful eyes of the Royal Military Police and the ambulance section of 23 Para [British army units] who maintain a guard post on the border, proper hot showers this morning were a real and unexpected luxury.  We were even able to obtain an up-to-date map of Bosnia showing the IFOR (Peace Implementation Force) road markings.

We were starting to despair of ever entering Bosnia when, at 11.00 this morning, a British couple working for Children’s Aid Direct, the charity with which we have contacts, passed through the border into Croatia.  They were able to convince the officials that we carried only humanitarian aid, and by 11.15 we were on the road again.  We had spent 18 hours at the border and were now 24 hours behind schedule.

Croatia had seemed bad, but Bosnia was even worse.  Burnt out vehicles – including a tank – were more frequent.  Piles of rubble beside the road marked cleared road blocks.  Minefields were more extensive.  The IFOR presence is very heavy.

If one could ignore the signs of was, the scenery is magnificent.  Travnik must have been a beautiful town, but now every building is pock-marked by bullets and most of the doors and window frames have gone for firewood.

We finally reached Vitez late this afternoon where we made contact with Stuart.  He is the resident Children’s Aid Direct worker and an ardent St Johnstone fan!  [A Scottish football club.]

Visegrad, Bosnia – Sunday

This morning we discovered that last night’s disturbance was just a high-spirited wedding party.  We all hoped that the next weddings we attend will be a little calmer!

We met Oliver, the project manager for Children’s Aid.  He has three refugee collecting centres that are in need of aid such as ours, but he recommended that we visit just the one outside Visegrad, near the eastern border of Bosnia.  This is the one which is best organised, which means that there is less chance of our aid ending up on the black market.  Furthermore, because we are so far behind schedule, there is little time to see the country.

Sarajevo: the library
Visegrad is a five-hour drive from Vitez.  Our route took us through many villages and towns, including Sarajevo.  Nowhere has been spared the destruction of war.  In Sarajevo, high-rise blocks of flats look like ruins – then one spots just one or two flats with washing hanging on the balconies.  In some places, wooden huts not much larger than garden sheds have been built at the roadside and serve as shops.  There are bailey bridges over rivers and across bomb craters in the roads.  Bridges and important road junctions are guarded by soldiers from the UK, Canada, Italy, Portugal and Malaysia with tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

Where the Gorazde convoys assembled.
We stopped for coffee at one of the canvas-roofed cafés that have sprung up amid the ruins where the convoys for Gorazde were assembled in less peaceful times.  These cafés were opened to serve the troops of the Portuguese battalion now guarding this most important of road junctions.

We had passed through Visegrad and travelled for some miles along a lane when we saw, on top of a
A corner of the camp.

bank beside the road, a couple of transport containers.  A second glance showed that these containers were different.  They have windows and chimneys and are being used as dwellings.

The main part of the collecting centre is in a large building that was once a school.  At first sight it appears almost pleasant as one looks down the drive through the trees.  Then one sees the extra plywood shacks, the mud, and the women doing the laundry in a stream beside the drive.

Doing the laundry
There are about 350 people living here.  We have qualms about their ability to store 30 tons of aid, but the medical supplies will be taken to a hospital and the refugees’ eagerness to take what we offer dispels our doubts.

Today there was time to unload only the smaller lorry before dusk fell.  When the work was done we were invited inside for refreshment, including small cups of thick coffee.

The refreshments were taken in one of the dormitories, a classroom that is now home to 84 people.  They live and sleep in bunks not much larger than double beds, three to a bunk, with the bunks stacked two high.  The only place to hang clothes is on the side of the bunks.  An ancient wood-burning stove provides cooking facilities.  We would consider it barely large enough for a family of five or six, so we have no idea how 84 people manage.

We eventually tore ourselves away with promises to return early tomorrow.

The vehicles are now parked outside a hotel some five miles from the camp.  We wanted hot showers and a good meal.  This, we were told, is the best hotel in the area.  We shudder to think what the rest are like.

The hotel seems to be in use as a psychiatric clinic, but we have taken two rooms just the same.  Three of us will stay with the vehicles, but there is no reason why the rest of the party cannot have a little more comfort.  Unfortunately, the hot water runs only fitfully, and when it does run it is only just the tepid side of cold.  The meal, when it was eventually served, was of the same standard.  But at least the beds are clean.

Vitez – Monday 

Here for another night in the guarded compound, and now on the homeward journey.  We are all tired, but exhilarated.

This morning, the lorry guards started work at six o’clock, moving supplies from the larger to the smaller lorry.  The idea was to speed up delivery when we returned to the camp.  The smaller, 16-ton lorry can be driven into the camp but the articulated truck is too big, and had to be left almost blocking the road.  By nine o’clock we were all at the camp, with the smaller lorry being unloaded.  The remainder was later trans-shipped in three or four loads.

The men stood and watched.
Most of the work was done by the women and young people.  It seems that in this culture the men just stand and watch.  Most of the children should have been at school.

We all spent time talking with the refugees as best we could.  Fortunately, there are four children who speak some English.  Otherwise sign language suffices.

As well as more coffee, we were given walnuts and corn on the cob roasted in the ashes under a still.  Some of the older men asked us to take their photographs.  By dint of crossing themselves and then holding their index fingers in the form of a cross, they indicated that the photographs were wanted for the headstones on their graves.

One man was so overcome with emotion that he spent five minutes shaking hands, completely speechless, while tears ran down his cheeks.

Dover – Friday

Back in England almost 12 days to the minute since we left the country.  More than 3,000 miles have been covered, with only 120 to go.

On the ferry, we took the opportunity to assess our reaction to the trip.  The poverty and destruction had been far worse than we had expected.  On the other hand, the people, including the refugees, had seemed reasonably well-nourished.  Perhaps there is a magic ingredient in the coffee.

A new teddy bear
Oliver had told us that our supplies would see Visegrad through the winter, which was a comforting thought.  We remembered, too, the gratitude of the refugees, not just for the food and clothes but also for the fact that somebody, somewhere had cared enough to do something.

We reminded ourselves how we had to show the children how to unwrap sweets and to teach then to use skipping ropes, and how the sheets of hardboard used in the packing were prized almost as greatly as the aid itself. 

There was no doubt in our minds that this had been a very worthwhile exercise.

With smiles at the memory of one little girl fiercely clutching her new teddy bear, we started on the last lap for home.

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