bosnia report
New Series No. 15/16 March - June 2000
 
Journey through the heart of darkness
by Susan Nickalls

Sarajevo was once again under siege. Two days before the high-profile Stability Pact the city was taking no chances. President Clinton, Tony Blair, heads of state from all over the Balkans as well as representatives from Serb opposition groups were due in town to discuss the economic futureof the Balkans. This stellar line-up could prove all too tantalising atarget for any terrorist group wanting to make a political point. Sniperscrouched on roofs and armed units swarmed around the now shell and bullethole-free Holiday Inn where the delegates were staying.

It was also the venue for some of the press conferences - I counted three buses for the White House press alone. The laid-back Sarajevans had seen this all before and were merely amused by the fuss - one friend joked about having to wave a white handkerchief before stepping out to water the plants on his balcony. The previous evening on our way into the city through pouring rain, we had noticed a policeman stationed on every bridge between Vitez and Sarajevo. However, it was only when we settled into our hotel that we realised the full extent of the last minute security arrangements.

The city was effectively closed from 6a.m. until 11p.m. for the duration of the conference. No buses, no trains, no trams, no taxis. Only official cars and those with special permits were allowed on the road so our hire car was banished to the hotel garage. These restrictions were to have profound implications for our travel arrangements. My partner Nigel Osborne, a music consultant for the charity War Child, had just finished a week-long children's workshop on a Croatian island and was about to start another project with Kosovo children in Albania. Ruaraidh, our three year old, and I were accompanying him. In between the two trips I had suggested a quick visit to Sarajevo. So the day before we had hired a car from Split and driven more than 320 km. We had planned to leave after lunch the next day for Zagreb then make our way to Ljubljana in Slovenia for our flight to Tirana the next day. As far as I was concerned, leaving the city right away without seeing any of our friends was not an option. We figured if we drove through the following night we might just make the lunchtime flight.

The one good thing about the delay was being able to stay on for dinner with Miro Purivatra, Izeta Gradevic and their son Edin, who is about the same age as Ruaraidh. During the war in Bosnia we brought Miro and Izeta over to the Edinburgh Festival in 1993 as part of the Obala artists' exhibition, Witnesses of Existence. Izeta now runs the Sarajevo Film Festival and Miro, Bosnian Television (BiHTV). This is something of a poisoÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ned chalice - he is simultaneously accused of Islamicising and Catholicising the service. But he did bring the Teletubbies to Bosnia, redubbed as the Teletubsies, much to Ruaraidh's delight. For his trouble Miro was pictured as Dipsy alongside President Alija (Tinky Winky) Izetbegovic on the front cover of Dani, a Bosnian counterpart of Private Eye.

During the evening Miro fielded many frantic calls from the station. The coverage of the Pact under the watchful gaze of the world's media was a challenge BiH TV were rising to with aplomb. Enthused by the enormity of the event, they were keen to transmit live every detail including airport arrivals of VIPs and delegates eating dinner! In between we saw news bulletins showing heavy flooding to the east and west of the country in Tuzla and Bihac. These were the two main routes to Zagreb. Because of the weather Miro suggested we go straight up the middle through Zenica and Dobojto Bosanski Brod on the Srpska/Croatian border. This route was on a faster road but it mean spending longer in Republika Srpska; at that point, however, there appeared to be few alternatives.

Just after 10 p.m. we arrived back at the hotel and were told we could leave straight away under special escort. I felt like the von Trapp family in The Sound of Music as we quickly packed to take advantage of this window of opportunity. We fled to the relentless accompaniment of pounding rain. It was strangely comforting to see the solitary policemen manning the bridges despite the late hour and the dreadful weather. With only a hat and cape for protection, these phantoms provided an eerie escort all the way to RS.

The border post at Doboj was abandoned and we stopped only for the temporary traffic lights that diverted us past a destroyed road on to one just as pock-marked with shell and mortar holes. Barely tarmacked roads shaking our bones to bits were to become an enduring memory of this nightmare journey through Republika Srpska. Doboj had been bombed to bits from the air by the Yugoslav Federal Army early on in the war, although it looked like it had happend yesterday. The blackened faces of the empty houses bore silent witness to an unspeakable horror. As we were to discover, virtually all of RS had been reduced to an ethnically cleansed wasteland stalked by restless ghosts.

The pre-war ethnic mix in Doboj had been roughly equal numbers of Muslims and Serbs, with a Croatian minority; while the next town Derventa had had a Muslim minority, with equal numbers of Serbs and Croats. However, in the region as a whole, the Serbs were in the minority. We reached the border at Bosanski Brod, now renamed Srpski Brod, at around 1.30 a.m. From a distance the burning flame at the gas works lit up the sky, making it look as if the town was still on fire. This was one of the first places to come under attack in the war in 1992, when the Serb nationalists blocked the bridge over the Sava River. The town was part of the corridor providing a strategic link between western Bosnia and Serbia. During the intense fighting Muslims had been rounded up and put into the town's stadium, which the Serbs then shelled.

A guard - suspiciously cheerful for that hour of the morning - announced the border was closed. We would have to go east another 30 km to the crossing at Odzak. This was extremely frustrating as across the river at Slavonski Brod we could see the motorway that would take us speedily to Zagreb in just two hours. Before we even left the outskirts of Bosanski Brod we somehow ended up on a desolate farm track that took us even deeper into the evil-edged darkness. With some parts of Republika Srpska still heavily mined, this was not the sort of place to stray off the beaten track. We turned back and picked up the right road, which ironically ran parallel to the road we wanted to be on but going in the opposite direction. It wasn't long before what barely passed for a road disintegrated into nothing but shell holes. The Chetniks must have shelled everything that moved to cause this amount of damage -ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ virtually none of the original road existed.

Around a sharp bend we came across what looked like a bridge. Thankfully something made me stop as only a third of the bridge was intact - if we'd attempted to cross it we would have ended up in the Bosna River. Backing up we noticed another bridge half hidden by trees. Nigel jumped up and down on it and seemed to think it was OK. I crossed my fingers, held my breath and put my foot to the floor. After a few tense miles we rejoined the proper road. It became clear that whole sections had been completely bombed away, so we were constantly being diverted through dubious bits of countryside.

The road map was irrelevant, bearing no relation to the reality we were confronted with. We would probably be still wandering through RS if Nigel, who can read Serbian, had not been able to decipher the signposts written only in Cyrillic. Driving into Odzak was one of the most hair-raising parts of the journey.

In 1992 the 6,000 minority Serb population with the help of paramilitaries had driven out 16,000 Croats and 6,000 Muslims. It was like a ghost town - burnt out house after burnt out house. Every now and again in the midst of this unbelievable destruction we saw well-kept homes, the outside lights on, at least two cars in the drive way, and colourful bougainvillaea tumbling over the balconies. No doubt the owners slept soundly in bed while their neighbours lay in the cemetery or, worse, in mass graves. How could people live like this as if nothing had happened? I just could not comprehend how people could destroy so utterly their own environment. What was the point?

I kept hearing in my head the words muttered by Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, `the horror, the horror'. Although I have been to Mostar many times, the scene of incredible carnage, somehow this selective elimination of people was far more chilling.

We should have known, the border at Odzak was also closed until 6 a.m. Once again the lights of the motorway, which had come to symbolise safety, normality and civilization were just a few yards away but remained elusively out of reach. I was beginning to feel someone was playing an unpleasant game with us. For half a second I contemplated making a dash through the barrier, until Nigel assured me the snipers hidden in the woods would shoot without hesitation. So we headed even further east towards Belgrade, to what was left of Modrica. It was desolate apart from an unlikely welcoming committee: a pack of marauding dogs that looked as if they ran the place. They had a lean and hungry look which quite unnerved me, particularly as we didn't seem to be able to get out of the place. The sign to Samac, pointed right, but the road no longer existed. Eventually we got back on to what we hoped was the right road heading in the right direction. I was beginning to become increasingly unsettled and when startled by a motorbike roaring out of the darkness - we had seen no vehicles virtually all night - I plunged into a deep shell hole in the road. There was an ominous hiss from the front tyre.

I was almost too terrified to look. It was two thirty in the morning in what I had come to regard as enemy territory - inhospitable, heavily mined and a strong, discernible smell of evil. With relief I noted that the tyre seemed OK and that Ruaraidh, bless him, was still asleep, so we pressed on.

Bosanski Samac is where Izetbegovic was born, not that he would recognise the place now. We passed some policemen who waved us down, curious about why a car with Croatian number plates was travelling through Republika Srpska in the middle of the night. Like all the other policemen we had met, they were creepily polite. During the war prisoners at the Samac local police station were tortured and I had to keep asking myself if these smilingly helpful men had anything to do with these atrocities? Or if they didn't, surely they were complicit by choosing to remain in Republika Srpska? I was too terrified to speak and left the talking to Nigel, who raised their suspicÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ions further by speaking fluent Bosnian.

After a few false turns we finally arrived at the Orasje border and it was open. What a relief. Within minutes we were in Zupanja and on to the motorway to Zagreb. It was 4.30 a.m., this prolonged detour through Republika Srpska had put four hours on our journey and taken us 160 km out of our way. At Orasje we were a stone's throw from Brcko, nearer to Belgrade than to Zagreb, now 230 km away, and not that far from Hungary. When we stopped at Zagreb to return the hire car the front tyre was flat, a tangible reminder of what seemed an unreal and scary journey to hell and back.

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