Sunday, 24 January 2016

Road trip to Bosnia, part 2

I was telling how I travelled to Bosnia with an aid convoy organised by Lions Clubs in south-east England not long after the end of the war in the 1990s.  On my return I wrote an article which was published in a national newspaper.  This continues from yesterday.


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.

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.

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.

Coffee stop

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

A second glance

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.

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.

Cooking for 84?
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.

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