the war

Most people here identify with three particular stages of life. Before, during and after the war. Full stop. So by default, my life too has been tossed in this most unfair of baskets. The difference for me is that this wasn’t my place before the war. During it I spent half my time trying to figure out what the hell was going on and the other half ducking. But those three years of figuring and ducking have made it hard for me to call any other place home. I am often asked what was the hardest part about coming to Bosnia. The answer is simple: leaving. War changes you. There’s no doubt about it. Some for better and some for worse. For a lot of us, it’s a combination of the two.

The war has certainly defined present-day Bosnia in more ways than one. But I’m not particularly interested in writing about politics anymore. I’m more interested in revisiting my bizarre connection to the people and places of this tiny Balkan nation – then and now, as well as sharing with my friends and family a war story or two I haven’t yet told. There are a million ‘truths’ about the war the ravaged this country. I will simply tell mine as I saw it, lived it, breathed it for a long, emotional, and riveting three years.

Kusturica goes Hollywood

The Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica plans to make a film about Serbs from Kosovo being murdered in order to sell their organs during the war in 1999. A motivating factor, he claims, is to undue the negative image of the Serbs. When I want to shed positive light on something, I definitely don’t need to belittle others or to paint a collage of collective victimhood to do it. Apparently he does. Affirmation of one’s own culture through the degradation of another’s, however, is a favorite Balkan pastime. I find it rather pathetic. In the end, it simply won’t fly. Let me tell you why.

I worked in Albania and Kosova just before, during and after the NATO campaign in 1999. I was with the Save the Children Alliance that was first based out of Tirana and then later in Prishtine. It was a crazy time. Although I was field officer for the entire country, I spent most of the bombing campaign on the Albania – Kosova border in the northeast town of Kukes. It was a shitty little town of maybe 15,000 people that was inundated with a quarter of a million Kosovar refugees. A total of 500,000 Kosovars were expelled across the border at Morine by Serbian forces. I was there to witness a large part of this exodus. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, welcome to the monkey house.

kosovo refugees

There were people everywhere. And I must admit I wasn’t impressed with local Albanian hospitality towards the Kosovars. The foreign journalists and aid workers didn’t help much either by snatching up accommodation for themselves – which drove the prices sky high and out of reach for most refugees. That forced most Kosovars to sleep in tractor trailers or in tents. I pitched a tent near the lake in the midst of around 20,000 refugees.

Camps were soon established by CARE, the Turkish government, and even the United Arab Emirates military. They ran a tight show. It was the best run camp I had ever been in….and I’ve seen many, at least in the Balkans. It was a monumental task to get this all organized. I guess the military discipline of the UAE camp came in handy. They didn’t take any shit…as the Albanian mafia would soon find out.

There were always rumors floating around about the kidnapping of children and girls. Some to steal their organs, others for prostitution in Italy. You could literally see the fear of god in the eyes of both the Kosovars and locals when a car pulled up with a Vlorë registration tag. Vlorë was, and some purport still is, the mafia capital of Albania. I know we were not allowed to travel there. The Vlorians were kind enough to make the effort to visit us, though.

There were a few reports of missing children in the camps. But those are very difficult to confirm in the chaos of massive refugee movement. I did, however, witness several things. One of our staff members, a young Kosovar lady, was approached by a van with Vlorë plates. The door swung open and two men grabbed her. What they didn’t know is how strong this little woman was. She got away. It confirmed, up close and personal, our concerns about the kidnappings. We were all on red alert. And in the days to come we learned of more similar incidents. Several days after that two men were shot dead by UAE soldiers. Access to the camp was very limited and, like I mentioned earlier, they were not fucking around. One man was caught attacking a woman whilst the other tried to flee back over the fence. Neither of them made it. They were apparently both from Vlorë.

The stories of murdering Serbs in Kosovo during the conflict for their organs may very well be true. The numbers are most likely quite small. Only one, of course, is one too many in my book. I personally experienced retaliatory tactics by Albanians against Serbs in Kosovo. That’s what war is. It’s plain ugly. I was, for that matter, forced to leave Kosova for defending an old Serbian lady. So it goes.

But what I do know is that the Kosovars themselves were victims to that same brutality. That I witnessed first-hand. The underground of the organ smuggling world is indeed an nasty one – but it is one that knows no borders or nations. It is something that I have never spoken of, perhaps because it is so hard to fathom that it could actually be true or because it’s so hard to get the bottom of things of this nature. The mafia thrives on conflicts and disarray. The chaos of the situation allowed them to step in and wreak their havoc almost unchecked.

My point is, these horrible things did happen.They undoubtedly happened to the Kosovar Albanians at the hands of the Albanian mafia. And a lot more atrocious things at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries. Is it feasible that the same thing was done to Kosovo Serbs? Absolutely. In fact, I’d bet on it. If Emir Kusturica is looking to affirm the Serbs as a nation and a people, though, I can think of a million better ways to do it. Playing the victim card simply ne pije vode. What happened in Kosovo was the Kosovar Albanians taking a large, large brunt of the brutality (after decades of state-sponsored oppression) – mostly at the hands of Serbian paramilitaries and, in a completely different context and to a much lesser extent, by the Albanian mafia. What happened later is another story altogether.

Organ trading is the business of the devil. If Kusturica is trying to glorify the Serbs and defame the Kosovars via a one-sided organ theft story, I’m afraid he’s going about it in all the wrong ways. Perhaps Kusturica rightly criticizes the quality and accuracy of Hollywood when it comes to the Bosnian war (although he wouldn’t know because he wasn’t here). But, knowing him, he will most likely follow in their footsteps with a biased and sensationalized tale of the victimization of ‘his’ people in Kosovo. Two wrongs never make a right, Emir.

You openly attack the credibility of Hollywood films about the region and the unfair demonization of the Serbs. It seems your objective is to do exactly the same. It would be immoral and factually incorrect to portray the Kosovar Albanians as evil organ smugglers terrorizing innocent Serb civilians. That innocence was taken from us all quite some time ago. Mainly by the people you liked to rub elbows and drink rakija with in Beograd.

 

 

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Josip

I don’t think I’ve made a conscious decision to regurgitate specific events or memories from my past. If I have, I’m certainly not aware of it…yet. But Josip’s face keeps coming back to me. Let me tell you why. It might be a long one.

East Mostar. September 1993. I think.

We got stuck in a five or six day offensive. We were supposed to go in and out that day, just like we had done on earlier trips when we evacuated members of Mostar’s Jewish community and the Greljo family, who had two seriously wounded children, to Split. Lejla was only 19 days old and was wounded in the leg. Elmir, her older brother, had lost an eye and had hundreds of shrapnel wounds to his face and body. The tank round that ripped through their flat killed their older brother Dado. He was 5. But this trip was different.

The 6 days were so intense that I cannot decipher one from the other. All of the memories of that week are mish-mashed. It was that week that our ambulance was put out of commission from a 120mm mortar round. It was that week that a close blast blew me ten meters down the stairs, smashing my head into a stone wall (I was lucky, the guy next to me got 27 shrapnel wounds to the head – and lived). It was that week that I met Josip, sort of.

Every one of those six days the bombs fell like rain. We were in the hospital so one would think that at least that building would be spared. We were wrong. The wounded came in a fairly constant flow. So did the dead. I had eaten one night with a member of the Albanian community who was asking us to take him out. His body was amongst the dead the next morning. A Yugo pulled up, trunk open, carrying what must have been 5-6 bodies. Prisoners of war had been used to dig trenches on the front line and to do other dangerous work. They were not exempt from the brutality either. That’s when Josip came in.

Again, the details are very foggy. There was a lot of commotion around Josip. I didn’t understand the implications at the time. Probably didn’t care much either. He was an officer from the HV – which was the Croatia proper army. In short, proof that Croatia was fighting in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were so many wounded that he was placed in the hall on a stretcher to wait for surgery. I don’t have much of a grasp on the timeline, lulls in shelling are numbing as ones mind reels from the intensity of being under heavy artillery fire. But it looked a bit like this.

Operation theatres were full. Every doctor and nurse and free hand was here or there tending to the wounded. Josip and I found ourselves in the dark hallway, alone. It might have been 5 minutes it might have been 15, I really don’t know. He had a deep shrapnel wound to the abdomen. He was white as a ghost. I was fairly convinced he would momentarily become one. He had obviously lost a tremendous amount of blood. His stomach bulged, almost looking like a volcano. The hole at the top could easily have fit my fist. No blood ran from it. His head was turned to the side, towards me, as he slightly convulsed, vomiting a bit. We locked eyes.

It wasn’t freaky. I wasn’t scared. The only thing I was thinking was that I am going to be the last person he is going to see. I didn’t speak. We just stared. He was surely looking at death. I was looking at him. At the risk of sounding pathetic, I really just wanted to send him some love. And that’s what I did. And as I sat and he laid there, we stared at each other. The connection was made. His eyes sometimes registered that he was sharing his space and time with another human. Other times he was obviously looking straight through me. I always wondered what he saw.

Then another wave of madness interupted our moment. They swept in and rushed him to the operating table. The ensuing chaos absorbed me. I didn’t know what card fate would deal him. In fact, I didn’t even know his name at the time. I would find that out later.

On the sixth day we decided to leave during a lull in the shelling. We didn’t drive out like we had come in. Our ambulance was peppered with shrapnel and all four tires were relieved of their air. We left in UN armored personnel carriers. Mostar was patrolled by the Spanish Battalion (SPANBAT). Although I love Spain and the Spanish…I can’t say as much for their performance during the war. The only help they really provided us in Mostar was to unknowingly tip us off of an oncoming offensive by getting in their APC’s and getting the fuck out of dodge. When they left we knew the proverbial shit was about to hit the proverbial fan. They were mainly conscripts, unlike the Brits or the French, and it showed.

SPABAT Mostar

I had to run through a barrage of sniper fire to get to where they parked their APC’s. When I arrived to the APC they wouldn’t open the hatch. Where they were parked, or perhaps better put hidden, was completely safe. But it took about 15 minutes of me knocking (knocking on an APC hurts, by the way) and holding my United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) card up to the very small armored ‘window.’ All of a sudden a blue helmet appeared. He was young. Probably even younger than me. He held his hand up as if to motion ‘stop!’ The only English he could  mutter was this: “Moment.” Then he showed me his finger, turned it as if to dial a phone from the 1970’s and spoke again: “Madrid.”

My deductive reasoning led me to believe that to take a foreign UNHCR card holder a few kilometers down the road to safety they had to call Madrid for approval. They were probably just calling the boss in Medugorje or something but still, the weak UN mandate in the former Yugoslavia made at least two things clear: to secure humanitarian routes to allow aid convoys to reach the needy and 2. to protect and assist international aid workers/agencies, especially those affiliated to the UN. Now I wasn’t working for a UN agency but was an ‘implementing agent’ as they called it. Which meant I at least got this little blue card that, hypothetically, might save my ass in a tough spot. Wishful thinking.

The call, whether to Madrid or Timbuktu, finally came through and I got my first ever ride in an APC. Bumpy. Uncomfortable. Hot. But the lads in blue helmets were nice, like they always were. It was the UN that failed miserably at their mandate, not these kids. So it goes.

When we came back to east Mostar again, which wouldn’t be for several weeks, maybe more, I asked about the wounded HV officer. The room went silent. The doctors and nurses looked at each other. They whispered amongst themselves. An English speaking nurse approached and angrily inquired as to why I was so interested in him. I started to explain. I was cut off. They were now suspicious of me. I honestly didn’t know if he had survived. The answer shocked me.

He was stolen, I was told. I didn’t understand. Apparently the Spanish Battalion had come looking for him in the hospital by a ‘request’ from the other side to evacuate him. After some arguing and threatening, SPANBAT loaded him up in an APC and ferried him to the other side without permission. It had turned out to be a bit of a scandal. Lots of spy talk ensued about me after that but I just wanted to know if this no- named guy was alive or not. He was. His name was Josip Kordic. I never saw or heard of him again. Some people from Mostar are convinced even today I was/am a spy. Oh well.

peace

 

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Avlija continued…

So it’s dark now. We’re in the middle of nowhere. The South American soap operas are over for the day. The border guard has told us our official US Embassy document is falsified. To top it all off, I’m angry and seemed to have the uncontrollable urge to express that anger.

I’m pretty sure my mother can attest to my anger issues as a child. I had channeled them into a happy-go-lucky hippy sometime during my studies at Florida State University. I always had a problem with authority, though, especially when I felt it wasn’t deserved. Good leaders, on the other hand, I’d follow to the grave. I think the best way to compare the chemical reaction I had with heavily armed military police during the war would be to LA road rage. They probably have specialists in LA for that. The only refuge I had was a gulp of rakija (the infamous local firewater, aka moonshine).

I had flipped out on MP’s before. It genuinely seemed to confuse them. They weren’t professional soldiers or anything and that was obvious. Perhaps that’s where my irrational bravery came from. I think now I’d probably call it irrational stupidity. I would transform from this humble, smiling kid with big hair and red sideburns into an extremely ornery man. The funny thing, though, is that it usually worked. I was pretty good at keeping my tantrums to when I was solo or with one of my team, though. Now I had Mirsad in the jeep. I held my tongue. It was time for plan B, which, by the way, didn’t exist…yet.

Another inexplicable personal phenomena for me was my ability to be exceptionally quick on my feet in crisis situations. I wasn’t like that before nor am I afterwards. But hey, at least it kicked when I needed it most.  Mirsad was in distress. I turned the Jeep around and headed back to who knows where. As Mirsad chain-smoked in the back plan B came to me. Not too far from this border crossing was another near the town of Posusje. Posusje was my first ‘gig.’ It’s the same place that had cleansed the camp of its Muslim population just five months earlier. It now housed Bosnian Croats who were forced to flee from the central Bosnian town of Bugojno.

Suncokret, the organization I worked for during the first 10 months of 1993 still had a house and volunteers there. We’d go there for the night and try our luck at the other border in the morning. I hadn’t been for a while so really didn’t know what to expect. I did know that a friend from Zagreb was there. She was now the co-leader. She’d be cool. But i still concocted an elaborate lie. Mirsad was now Ante. We showed up at the house. They welcomed us warmly. Ante was sheepish. He was scared. I would be too.

The volunteers still slept like sardines on awkward Norweigian military mattresses, just as we had. We were offered two spots on the floor. Ante just wanted to disappear into the sleeping bag and wake up in another dimension. Preferably next to his wife and kids. But he’d have to sweat it out at least another night with me and a handful of young, feisty, and angry fighters from the opposing army who were hanging out with the volunteers that evening. Some of the hate talk that night really shook Ante. I don’t think I can even imagine his anxiety. I knew we were safe, though. We’d been there a few hours, no one reacted to Ante’s timidness, and the boss was a good friend of mine. I think I actually managed to doze off. Ante didn’t sleep a wink.

Morning came, we rejected their kind offer of coffee and breakfast and made a break for the border. I had crossed this border a hundred times. Never had any serious problems. Didn’t expect to have them this time. But as we neared the crossing it did go through my head that the other border guard might have radioed to other borders in the vicinity of what had happened the night before. Looking back makes me chuckle. Communication isn’t the best forte in this corner of the world. Of course they didn’t inform anyone else of what happened. Silly me.

Mr man at the border didn’t have a clue. He didn’t speak a lick of English. That was probably a good thing. He took the document back to his little container. I saw him showing it to his colleague. His colleague seemed disinterested. That too was a good thing.

He strutted out back towards the Landy. He ordered me to open the back. I did so with a big, confident smile on my face. Half the trick of making it in wartime is at least pretending to know what you are doing and that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be, always – even when there’s a brown brick in your pants. He chatted with Mirsad in Croatian. I can’t recall the conversation. It wasn’t provocative. Mirsad had trouble making eye contact. He had lived in a city under a brutal siege for six months. Now he was faced with the men participating in that siege. He kept smoking. The guard came back to me. He held the letter, upside down, and rubbed the protruding eagle stamp with his coarse hands. He looked at me and nodded. It wasn’t the Croatian Ministers name that impressed him, it was the seal and stamp. They loved them then, they love them now. Nothing is valid without a stamp, not ever. This letter was special too, it had the raised eagle.This guy was mine. We were through.

We were quiet for maybe five or ten minutes…not sure if we had actually made it and perhaps wondered if a military jeep would soon be on our tail to double-check something. But the only thing that appeared in my rear view mirror was an old Zastava and a most-likely-stolen Mercedes. We were in the clear. I think Mirsad breathed for the first time since the border guard opened the back door. He smiled what was for me the first time since we met. He held his composure like a true champ. He was one step closer to seeing his kids. And he knew it.

I took him to Split. We both stared in awe at the normality of things. Electricity. Running water. Traffic. Cafe’s. He didn’t waste any time. He took the next bus to Zagreb, armed with his eagle seal. The next time I would see or hear from him he was living near Palo Alto in California. Selma was a smart and happy teenager. Mirza was a healthy and active kid. Mom and Dad were just happy their babies were ok. They had come a long way from their avlija. We all had.

peace

Mirsad and family today…

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Avlija

They were just two kids playing in their backyard. The avlija, a garden enclosed by a high stone wall, was the only source of normal play for them. Kids like kids, mom and dad let them into the well kept garden to play during a lull in the shelling. A 120mm mortar round came, with random precision, smashing into and through their world only minutes later. Selma, 9, lost her right arm. Mirza, 6, lost the heel of his foot. Both were peppered with shrapnel wounds. Sally Becker would later evacuate them and their mother to Split. From there they were medivac-ed to San Francisco.

Their father, a humble gentlemen named Mirsad, was left behind. He was a man of fighting age. Every army always needs every body they can get, no pun intended. He too was slightly wounded in the leg. My memory fails me as to how and when. I do remember his limp and an improvised bandage around his mid shin area.

As any sane individual would, Mirsad wanted desperately to leave and be with his family. I don’t know what or how much information he had about his gravely wounded children, but not being with his kids when their lives were in danger was doing his head in. I was working on a mobile hospital project for East Mostar, a donation from South Africa for the besieged side of the city. Timelines are shady for me. I think we made our escape in November 1993, just after 120 tank rounds had taken out the Old Bridge in Mostar. It stood for over 400 years. It was the symbol of the nation. It was their Statue of Liberty or Eiffel Tower. It was reduced to rubble at the bottom of the Neretva River.

Mostar wartime

Mostar wartime

Many years later I was made aware that I was accused of smuggling people out of Bosnia. In all honesty, I never really saw it like that. It seemed so less Harriet Tubman-ish than that. I knew Mirsad from the other evacuations I had done with Sally of wounded children and members of the Jewish community. He was always there, trying to figure out how to reunite with his family. Trying to see if we could take him out. On a very practical level, it seemed impossible, even in the midst of the chaos and lawlessness of war. One side didn’t want him to leave because they wanted his ability to tote a gun. The other side was his ‘enemy.’  Stuck between a rock and a hard place barely suffices in describing this man’s dilemma.

Again, I can’t remember everything but I do recall with each visit that he became more desperate. His family had been relocated to California. Selma had already begun to undergo the first of her thirteen major surgeries. He wanted out. I had no clue on how to help him without getting both of us shot or imprisoned.

The American Embassy in Zagreb was well aware of Mirsad’s plight, however. I was a bit in the dark about any of that. I had met an official from the US Embassy in Zagreb when one of my friends and colleagues was killed on the frontlines in Mostar. Collette’s parents couldn’t afford to fly her body home to Michigan, so we had her cremated in Split. Me and a few friends brought the urn with her ashes to her funeral in the states. I think the embassy officials name was Richard. He had arranged the cremation and death certificate for her in Split. Those days are exceptionally cloudy. She was our first close colleague and friend to go down. It was September ’93 I believe. Whether we admitted it or not, we were all in a bit of shock.

Richard. So he contacted me. I can’t recall how or when. He presented me with an official document from the US Embassy with both a seal of approval from the embassy itself and from the relevant ministry from Croatia proper granting Mirsad permission to come to US Embassy in Zagreb. Being that the US Embassy in Sarajevo was not fully functional (or perhaps not functional at all at that point, ne znam), Zagreb was the main US Embassy in the region. They had little or no access to Bosnia and Herzegovina. My guess is that it was too risky and dangerous anyway. So they asked me. I was naively enthusiastic about the opportunity.

I have zero recollection on how we organized it logistically. I know I was in my trademark blue Land Rover Defender. It was a right hand drive. I always thought it would give me better odds under sniper fire. I don’t know if Mirsad had the proper papers from the Bosnian side to leave. I’m not sure I ever asked. We made it through those checkpoints effortlessly if memory serves me. I felt I knew Herzegovina, particularly western Herzegovina, like the back of my hand. So there was no fear. Probably just nervous excitement. The adrenaline rushes from back then have yet to be matched. Not even close. I had been working there for almost a year and although it was a completely manic situation, even then I felt at home there. So off we went.

What I don’t remember but do know is that the first ten kilometers of our trip had at least as many military checkpoints on both sides. Mirsad sat in the back where there were no side windows. He was quiet. He smoked a lot. Out of nervousness he slightly rocked back and forth. I know we took some back roads. Which ones I have no idea. We reached the border just before nightfall. It was the Grude crossing near Imotski if I’m not mistaken. I did try to time the crossing to the schedule of the South American soaps. As crazy as it sounds, we were much more effective in getting convoys across borders during soap opera times. Even the border guards couldn’t be peeled away from the drama unraveling in Buenos Aires. And no, I’m not kidding.

As we approached the border I tried to assure Mirsad it would be ok and to just try and stay calm. If I had butterflies though, Mirsad must have been shitting himself. It was a tense and awkward silence when he took our papers and went back to his little box. Mirsad and I didn’t speak. The guard returned. He ordered us out of the Land Rover. He opened the back. The only thing that stood between Mirsad and an AK-47 toting ‘enemy’ soldier was a clueless American and a waxed eagle seal from the US Embassy. He held the letter from the embassy, staring at it for what seemed to be an eternity. He declared it a fake. My heart sunk. He ordered us back. We were told to return from where we came from. I was angry…’you’ve got to be fucking kidding me?!’…luckily he didn’t speak English. My arguments were in vain. He wasn’t having any of it. This attempt was a bust. Or was it?

To be continued.

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A New Year’s story

I’ve just realized that this period is exactly 20 years since my Balkan journey began. I guess it’s no coincidence that I’ve started here then, huh?

So I’m standing in the office of the Peace Hostel in Zagreb, heart on the floor, remember? You’ll have to forgive my memory, some things are very gray or simply not there at all. I try to fill in the blanks with a phone call or email to an old friend. I have no one to call on this one. So I’ll just wing it.

In a nutshell, they had no clue who I was. My ‘contact’ Feras had never contacted them about me as he had promised. I just walked into a country at war with no one expecting me, no one knowing who I was, and apparently with nothing at all to do. In retrospect it sounds scary. At that moment, after picking my heart up off the floor, things were really ok, though.

It didn’t take long to figure things out. Suncokret until then had only worked in refugee camps in Croatia – where the war had started a year earlier. They had no activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina where a vast majority of the refugee’s (or IDP’s as they’re called – Internally Displaced Persons) were. The average mission time for a volunteer was around three weeks. Being that they were heading to Bosnia, to a camp that was apparently not in the best of shape, they were looking for people to make a bit longer commitment. Logically, they sought some continuity in establishing their activities and providing the inhabitants of the camp with a bit of stability. A volunteer from Spain had been a no-show, so they made me an offer. We can place you in a camp, they said. But we’d like a two-month commitment from you. So that’s how it all started. Three weeks to two months to two decades. So it goes.

I agreed. Had a nice sleep on a comfy bunk bed at the Peace Hostel. The next day we were to set off for Posusje, a small town in the highlands of northwestern Herzegovina. That’s all I knew. When tomorrow came we set off on what was supposed to be an awfully long bus ride to Dalmatia. About an hour or so out of Zagreb we came to the town of Karlovac. After passing a few military police checkpoints we were stopped. I could here faint thuds in the distance. The sparkle of what I thought was a fire or two flickered in the same direction. A few thuds came a bit closer. They told us it was too dangerous to continue and that we had to turn around. We were told this was the only route through, so we turned back to Zagreb for plan B – whatever that was.

Plan B would have been great had it been July. But it was late December and plan B was a long bus ride to Rijeka to take a ferry to Dalmatia. It was a rocky ride, with the infamous ‘bura’ (winds that cut to the bone and literally pick up swirls of sea water and send them sprinting across the surface of the sea, smashing them into the nearest set of rocks) kicking the entire way. Luckily the Florida boy in me kept me from turning green. I can tell you that a few of my fellow volunteers weren’t so lucky.

We arrived in Split the next morning. One would think the beautiful stone architecture and Roman-era square would occupy the imagination. But we were greeted by more military police and what, at least for me, seemed like a flurry of military activity. We were certainly closer to the front lines than the ‘normality’ of Zagreb. The energy was very different. The bus station was literally a 30 second walk from the port. Within a few hours we were in the hinterlands of the Dalmatian coast, somewhere between the Adriatic Sea and Herzegovina. It was a sunny day. I had never seen anything like it. There was no war damage to speak of but we had entered old Europe, or at least how I would picture Old Europe to look like. The roads narrowed. The homes became more rustic and more modest. The obvious wealth of Split had disappeared as we crossed one mountain after another. Traffic mainly consisted of old Yugo’s, a fico or two, and lots of military vehicles. The bus barely made it up and over

SONY DSCeach hill. It spewed black smoke. The donkeys hauling hay seemed to move just as swiftly as bus struggling over the rocky, moonscape of Dalmatia’s hinterland.

One might imagine that all sorts of thoughts would be racing through our heads. As for my head, it was fairly still. I was thoroughly enjoying the scenery. I had no earthly idea what a war zone or refugee camp looked like, so, logically, no worries there, right? The only thing I knew about Yugoslavia was the capital was Belgrade, that Dubrovnik was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as a fourteen year old I was mesmerized by the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. Those few facts, and that Tito seemed to be a pretty cool cat, was the extent of my knowledge. I was perfectly happy to be an ignorant, happy-go-lucky hippy at least for a few more days.

I think by this point it was already the 29th of December. The crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina was uneventful. One military checkpoint looked like the other. The flags looked pretty much the same to me too. I couldn’t tell you where we crossed that day. I think it may have been the Grude crossing near the Croatian town of Imotski. But that assumption is by pure deduction, not recollection.

I would soon learn that our final destination for the day was not Posusje but rather a small village called Medugorje. As a ‘Catholic’ that was supposed to mean something to me. But it rang no bells. I wasn’t much the Catholic anymore if I could even call myself one at all at the time. Medugorje is a small town in the highlands of the Neretva Valley in western Herzegovina. In 1981 a group of teenagers had a vision of the Virgin Mary in the hillsides while they were playing. The apparitions continued. Word spread. Medugorje today is one of the world’s largest Catholic pilgrimage sites, second only to Lourdes I believe. We pulled up to a campsite with bungalows. This would be where we would lay our weary heads for a few days before heading to Posusje. I can’t recall why we stopped there and didn’t go directly to Posusje. There was no fighting in the area. Perhaps it was orientation…but in all honesty I can’t remember a thing.

We finally boarded our aging bus for Posusje. It may have been New Year’s Eve. It may have been New Year’s day. Ne znam. We lugged our backpacks to our new home. A small and cold rectangle shape room that was maybe five meters long and four meters wide. There was a bathroom and a foyer with a small electric cooker in the corner. At least that’s how i remember it.

What I do remember was this. It was getting late so they informed us we would visit the camp in the morning. It was cold. Very cold. We had a few drinks. When we laid down to sleep, lined like sardines on thin military mattresses on the floor, I think it was hard for any of us to doze off. As everyone managed to nod off one by one, I was still wide awake. Not out of the anticipation for the next day but because I had my Florida sleeping bag. It was minus whatever. It was friggin’ freezing. I shook for what seemed to be hours. A German girl, Katherine, was woken by my delirious mumbling. She looked at me, I guess I looked blue. In an exceptionally thick German accent she asked “Are you cold?” I didn’t need to answer. “Why didn’t you tell me!?” She opened up her Artic sleeping bag like a massive mother hen wing. She was a red-headed farm girl. Strong and obviously much more adept than I to the cold. She draped the side of her sleeping bag over me, drew me into her warm body, and gently scolded me “You should have said something, silly!” We did the fully-clothed/fully-platonic spoon all night. It was the best few hours of sleep I think I ever had. Saved by a German, again.

The New Year of 1993 would start here. The next day would change my life forever. I was 22.

So that is how it all started a long two decades ago. I think I’ll jump around from here on out. Chronology bores me. So it goes. peace

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A Christmas story

It was Christmas day, 1992. That morning I started hitchhiking to Bosnia. Or so I thought.

I was living in Muenster, Germany with my girlfriend Christiane. She was an assistant at a dermatologists office and was kind enough to find me a job. My job was to stand solo in a basement to fill small plastic pots, tubs, receptacles (I have no idea what they’re called to be honest) of special dermatological creams. There was a massive vat filled with the shit. I pulled the lever, which was very similar to a Carvel ice cream machine, until the pot was filled. Placed a cover over the cream. Screwed the top on. Placed the sticker carefully across the face of the pot. One down, infinity to go. All this was to save a few pence for my new destination. War-torn Yugoslavia. Or by that point, ex-Yugoslavia.

A friend of Christiane’s, I really can’t remember his name I’m embarrassed to say, came over the night before I left. He had bags full of toys for me after he learned I was heading to work in refugee camps in Bosnia. I had always sensed a sadness in him since I moved in with Christiane, which didn’t total more than three months. I thought it was because he was in love with Christiane. That’s what I get for thinking.

We were sipping a few superior German beers when he told me the story. His little brother, who I believe was six, had recently died. How recently, I can’t remember. But I know that he was worried about his mom who would not let anyone touch his brothers room or things. When he told his mom about my journey, she sent him over with a bag of her sons dearest toys for Bosnian kids. I hadn’t even stuck my thumb out and my heart was already broken.

The tipping point for my decision to go to Bosnia came from an unexpected source as well. When I was living in London earlier I was squatting with folks involved in the anti-war protests. My friend Lee Bryant had also begun to organizehelp-bosnia-now medical convoys for Sarajevo. He was actually at the protests in Sarajevo in front of the parliament when the war broke out. I had somewhat joined their efforts and decided then and there that standing in Trafalgar Square wasn’t enough. I needed to go to Bosnia but I didn’t know where or when…or how. It was a friend from this ‘movement’, Feras – an Iraqi Brit, that hooked me up to volunteer. Or so I thought again.

When I left for Germany I had found the Germans somewhat cold, indifferent even. I was soon to be educated on German ‘indifference.’ Roy Gutman of the NY Post and Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian had broke the story of concentration camps in northwest Bosnia in the summer of 1992. Another wave of reports came again in October. I remember watching the news, constantly looking to Christiane for a quick translation, in horror.

Without much or any time to ‘organize,’ hundreds of thousands of Germans all over Germany took to the streets with a simple but powerful message: this cannot be allowed to happen again on European soil. Or any soil for that matter. Vigils and protests seemed to be held in every major German city. I was blown away. So much for German ‘indifference.’

The next morning I set out, with beautiful toys for the kids, dermatological creams for the mom’s, and new found respect for the German people. I was armed to please.

I lucked out and caught a ride with some skiers heading to Schladming, Austria. It was a great ride. The Austrian Alps were, well are, amazing. But I was a man on a mission. I couldn’t sit still in this beautiful ski town. Hitchhiking further south wasn’t working out so I took a train to Ljubljana where I was greeted by the infamous Slovenian military police. I still today hold a grudge against Slovenes because of them. Luckily it was still a time when American passports were somewhat of an asset and not a trip-switch for harassment. I was officially in a war zone. The cops all donned heavy assault weapons (my favorite as you know). They were rude and grumpy. They disappeared with my passport for about an hour which, I must admit, made me pretty nervous at the time. OK, I was scared shitless.

I took another train to Zagreb. More heavily armed Slavs. The taxi driver was the first of many to rip me off of my whopping 300 Deutsche Marks in savings.

I finally made it to the Peace Hostel. By now Christmas had come and gone. I guess I spent most of it in a car to Austria and Boxing Day on a train to Croatia. I arrived at the Peace Hostel which was the headquarters for Suncokret (Sunflower), a marvelous organization that did social work in refugee camps with women and children. They greeted me warmly. I enthusiastically introduced myself. They sadly informed me that they have never heard of me and were not expecting me. My heart dropped to the floor.

To be continued…

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How I got here

I hitchhiked from Muenster, Germany on Christmas day 1992. Traveled by car, train and taxi to Zagreb. Ferry to Dalmatia. By bus to Bosnia. For New Years I was freezing my ass off in a refugee camp. More later…

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