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Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - "The Sarajevans have a problem.... They are clinically insane"

Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - "The Sarajevans have a problem.... They are clinically insane"
Refugees (111, I - 1998)

1 March 1998

Conflict in the former Yugoslavia was the most savage carnage in Europe since World War 11 when millions of people were ruthlessly denied even their most basic human rights. Kris Janowski recently left the region after four years as UNHCR spokesman and recalls the war he lived through:

It was an unfamiliar and shocking world to those of us who had never worked in a war zone - flak jackets and helmets, the deadly thud of artillery shells, armoured Land Rovers, the precious lifeline to the outside world by satellite phone, the drone of military aircraft, relief convoys and those ubiquitous checkpoints manned by surly guards clad in fatigues whose short-tempers were sometimes as deadly as their Kalashnikov rifles.

We quickly learned the ABCs - how to tell the difference between outgoing and incoming shells, when to try to dodge the snipers' bullets. But we never learned how to cope with the fear. Tony Land headed the UNHCR office in 1993 and he told me of his baptism in Sarajevo, a seemingly innocuous walk from his armoured Range Rover to his apartment building. The area was infested with gunmen and Tony recalled: "I was standing there paralysed with fear and I told myself, 'If you can't do it, you may as well go home.'"

The Sarajevans and some relief workers ran this gauntlet everyday. The convoy drivers, a tough and burly bunch, often ex-military, were particularly exposed, twisting around treacherous mountain roads, harassed by artillery and sniper fire, and negotiating checkpoints manned by drunken thugs. "At times, I just had to yell at the drivers: 'Get into the f...... trucks and drive,'" said Enda, a former Irish military officer who ran UNHCR's largest convoy base in Bosnia. A group of Danish drivers vividly recalled being seized by Bosnian Serbs in the summer of 1994, robbed, blind-folded and lined-up against a wall in a mock execution.

In 1995 the Serbs tried to strangle Sarajevo totally - blocking the daily humanitarian airlift and attacking overland convoys. The only lifeline to the outside world was a winding dirt road over Mount Igman. The Serbs targetted it with their heavy machine guns and artillery and the road was quickly strewn with the carcasses of trucks and cars which did not survive the chicken shoot. One afternoon a Serb major telephoned and warned that he was going to shell an incoming humanitarian convoy. "Run it," the UN commander said. We did. The major kept his word and shelled the convoy, destroying two trucks and wounding two Belgian soldiers.


It was a different war in the western Bosnian town of Banja Luka where the only international presence was a handful of UNHCR and NGO workers. There were few bullets and little mortar fire there, but the outsiders witnessed a campaign of violence and intimidation which systematically destroyed mosques and Catholic churches and reduced the town's once thriving Moslem and Croat communities to a handful of terrified third-class citizens.

"Two Moslem women showed us around their blood spattered house where their elderly parents had been tortured with scissors and broken glass and finally murdered in separate rooms," Lisa, a UNHCR protection officer, recalled. "One daughter, shielding her own young son in terror, heard the screaming from a nearby building. After useless words of consolation, a colleague and I sat in our car and asked ourselves whether the world had turned to stone."

On another occasion, Lisa remembers a Catholic church being blown up and a priest and nun incinerated in the blaze in a revenge attack following a Croatian army onslaught against the Serb stronghold in the Krajina area. "A group of men had been brought in to clean up the mess. They were Croats and Muslims working 'under obligation,'" she said. "There were 100 coloured candles flickering on the ruined balcony and beside the outline of the two bodies that could still be seen in the ash. In this climate of fear, death and silence, the dead were being bravely and openly mourned with candles dripping over the destruction."

Against this backdrop of ongoing violence, at least we foreigners could get out. We could also buy firewood and fuel for our cars. The Bosnians were just trapped. They had been stripped of virtually all of their human rights. Their only possible exit was through a narrow muddy tunnel scratched out underneath Sarajevo airport. The most vivid memory Amela, a Sarajevo friend of mine, can recall from the entire siege is a 20-minute crawl through the stinking, claustrophobic tunnel with two small children and her scramble up a muddy mountain path on the other side which was under constant sniper fire.

Sarajevans fought the shelling and suffocation of a city under siege with nonchalance. "The Sarajevans have a problem," psychiatrist Liljana Oruc once told me at the Kosevo hospital which absorbed regular artillery hits. "They are clinically insane." If they were normal, she said, they would sit terrified in the basement rather than risk being blown to pieces on the streets.

Perhaps so. But the crazy defiance helped Sarajevans retain a certain crazy dignity in a city which had once hosted the winter Olympics but which was now reduced to collectively begging for wheat, water and wood. "The worst that can happen to you is getting killed," one defiant old man said.

The UNHCR airlift and road convoys saved this city. But no-one will forget the humiliation of dependence on international handouts. Dr. Oruc was once waiting for a can of meat and a pound of sugar and broke down in tears. "There I was in my ridiculous Italian shoes and Benetton socks weeping and pondering the misery of my condition," she said.

The humiliation and sense of abandonment grew as the war continued. When NATO officials in 1993 threatened air strikes against the Serbs to enforce a peace plan backed by the West, Sarajevans spent the night on balconies and roofs waiting for NATO jets which never came.

Perhaps that was part of the reason why, when peace finally arrived, there was a sense of anticlimax and betrayal. Those of us who worked in Bosnia during the war understood it. We also knew it would take a long time for the wounds of war to heal and for anger and bitterness to subside. But today, 2½ years after the guns fell silent, people are slowly beginning to look forward rather than back

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)