As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, the author recalls his introduction nearly three decades ago to Europe's last war which paralleled it in the ruthless targetting of civilians and civic infrastructure, as well as the aggressor's lies about defending a threatened minority.
It was late winter of ’94 and the Republika Srpska, otherwise known as the Bosnian Serb Army, was in the middle of crucifying the city of Sarajevo. The siege, which had begun in spring of ’92, would last until winter of ’96. It was the longest any capital city would be under siege in the history of modern warfare. As a result, over ten thousand men, women and children would perish.
On the day I arrived, my knowledge of the turmoil in Sarajevo was still limited as I had, until quite recently, been working for the United Nations in Mozambique. Living on the other side of the world, spending nearly all my waking hours assisting a country struggling with the after-effects of a bloody civil war, had not left me much opportunity to keep up to date with the Balkan crisis. I knew what everybody knew— that there were atrocities taking place in Bosnia on a scale and of a depth not seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War and, until they had started up again, naively presumed to have been put paid to for good in that part of the world.
“First time on a C130?”. An Australian accent to my right pulled me out of the revery into which I had slipped.
“First time on this mission,” I replied, adding, “Got a taste of these big beasts in Mozambique last year. The flight wasn’t this rough though. Maybe we had better pilots.”
“Pete Grant, Australia. Welcome to Bosnia, Everything’s rough here, mate.” I returned his soldierly handshake.
“John Sexton, Ireland.”
“My people all come from Ireland but I believe they went over in leg irons.”
It was standard Aussie-Irish banter so I had a nice riposte at the ready. “Well, leg irons were considered required Irish footwear by the English in those days.”
We both laughed, which was funny in the non-humorous sense, given that behind our merriment lay the knowledge that our ancestors had faced untold miseries over the past several centuries.
The military cargo plane jerked as if it had drifted off to sleep, but then realized that it had yet to complete its mission. I fixated on the enormous pallets loaded in the middle of the cavernous hold. Broad nylon belts and hefty steel fasteners held the load in place but if the turbulence tossed the plane around enough, those pallets could dislodge and crush those of us sitting facing in toward the cargo. C130s are flying workhorses, not really meant to carry passengers. Between the roaring of the giant engines and trying to find any comfortable position on our fold away wooden seats, there was little hope of being able to drift off, tired as I was. I closed my eyes, not to bring about sleep; there was no hope of that, but to appear as if I were trying to rest. The Aussie was a nice enough chap, but my mission was extremely sensitive. I did not want to have to spin him a yarn since I could not afford to let anyone know the real reason I was flying into Sarajevo. As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: “Three can keep a secret if two are dead.”
The fact was that I was coming to Bosnia as a troubleshooter. My task was to investigate suspicions of a black-marketeering ring within the United Nations protection force and, if these proved to be true, to shut it down before the media caught wind of it. My superiors at Mission HQ in Zagreb had advised me that the business had the potential to turn into a nasty international incident that would serve to stoke generally unjustified rumors of entrenched corruption in the U.N.. Luckily for them, I was an adrenaline junkie in those days. Added pressure usually made for better performance.
Tricky situations were nothing new for me but this one was potentially as messy as it already was murky. There were more than 45,000 U.N. personnel, military and civilian, in the theatre of operations. My outfit, the Special Investigations Unit (S.I.U.) was responsible for every theft, sexual assault, unfair hiring practice, embezzlement, fraud, brothel, counterfeiting operation and murder within the task force. It comprised a grand total of four international investigators when I got there. With me added in, that made all of one investigator for every 9,000+ personnel.
The Danish Army Camp Commander in Sarajevo had made a formal report to the Head of Mission that a number of U.N. civilian personnel were purchasing unusually large quantities of alcohol and cigarettes from his camp’s PX (Post Exchange), which was based at the site of the ’84 winter Olympic Stadium. He was suspicious that they might be reselling the goods on the black market. I wondered why in the hell the Camp Commander did not just throw the suspects out of his PX and order them to do their cig and booze shopping elsewhere? That’s what I would have done, had I been in charge. If they weren’t committing a criminal offense, then they’d file a complaint. If they were, then they’d bugger off and that, most likely, would be that.
My mind was racing even though I trusted nobody would guess it to look at me. I was going to have to set up surveillance video in the PX. This was long before the current reign of ubiquitous CCTV. For a case to be successful, I’d need footage of the alleged perpetrators purchasing their swag on several separate occasions. The Camp Commander would take care of obtaining copies of their receipts. More importantly, I’d need to check that the suspects weren’t just delivering their purchases legitimately to the U.N. bar, or wherever else. That would be easy enough. If it turned out they weren’t though, I’d have to surveil their U.N. vehicle and catch them in the act of exchanging the goods. If it came to that, then I’d need support from the Commander to sweep them up and question them before they had time to confabulate and concoct a story.
Be careful. Be safe. Those were the words echoing in my mind as the huge cargo plane suddenly started to nosedive toward the ground. I shouted at the Aussie above the scream of the engines, “What the fuck is happening? Are we going to crash?”
“No worries, mate. The airport’s under constant shelling and sniper fire, so the pilots can’t afford to make a regular landing. This is called tactical landing; it feels like we’ll crash because our pilot is giving the snipers and artillery on the ground a faster target to hit. Just as it feels we’re about to go up in flames, he’ll pull the nose right up and get us onto the runway. “Flak jackets off, lads! Everybody sit on your flak jackets!”
“Why sit on them, Pete?”
“Because we’re on the front line, John. There are Serb machine guns on the other side of the runway shooting up into the plane. Bullets come up through the floor, ya see. So, if ya git hit, it’ll most likely be in you lower legs, your arse, or your family jewels.”
We had barely time to get our flak jackets under our bums when the plane made a strange heaving movement. The nose pulled up, just like the Aussie said it would. I clung for dear life to my skimpy wooden seat. They’d have to pry it out of my hands with vice grips if we crashed.
“One more thing,” Grant shouted to all present, “as soon as the hold door opens and the ramp has come down, run full pelt for the terminal. The Serbs will shoot at us the moment we come out. So, stay low and get behind the cement barricades quick as you can.”
The huge plane hit the runway with an unmerciful bang and took a couple of bounces before it showed any sign of slowing down. Peter Grant had already taken off his seat belt and was putting his flak jacket back on. Again he shouted loud enough so that the other personnel on the plane could all hear, “Flak jackets and helmets on. Grab your kit and head for the door as soon as the ramp is down. If you drop something, leave it. Your life is worth more than anything you brought with you.”
I admired how calm the Aussie was under fire. I’d arrived in Zagreb sound enough of mind and body but after a mere week in the war zone, I was already feeling tilted. I slung my two rucksacks on my shoulders and ran towards the terminal building at full speed. Tall slabs of thick concrete had been placed in front of the first couple rows of windows to block the snipers’ view.
Both outside and in, Sarajevo airport was in pandemonium, or so it seemed. A bunch of people who appeared to be passengers waiting to leave sat with their bags by their feet. Official looking people rushed around, but did not approach any of us. A couple of Danish soldiers were to meet me and transport me to their camp. The trouble was the place was full of men in uniform. I disregarded the uniforms I could identify and looked for Danish insignia. I was beginning to think they were late but after ten or fifteen minutes, I spotted them— two baby-faced Danish soldiers staring out at the plane from which we’d just bolted.
“Sexton,” I announced walking up to them, “I believe you guys are here to take me to your camp?” Like all Danes, they spoke good English and one of them greeted me straight away. The name on his uniform spelled something which sounded to me like ‘pickled herring’. I thought I’d best not try to call him by name. In my mind though, I was fairly tickled to be talking to Private Pickled Herring.
“Is it always this hectic here, Private, or has something happened that has everybody rushing around like mad?”
“Your plane was hit a couple of times from the ground. They are going to have to bring in cement walls on wheels to block it from the snipers so they can unload. The airport is now on red alert.”
“Remind me what happens when an airport is on red alert?”
“Nothing is allowed to land or take off, Sir.”
Although I had more pressing matters to be concerned about, it did fleetingly cross my mind that the airport would need to re-open before I could fly back out. We went outside and got into a white jeep. The driver pulled out fast and made a quick right turn on to the main thoroughfare.
“This is the main road into the city,” Private Herring advised me, “It is the famous Snipers’ Alley.”
“Just out of curiosity, what speed would we be doing?”
The driver, who hadn’t previously spoken laughed and answered, “I am aiming for 145 kmph, Sir.”
“Jesus, that’s about 90 miles an hour. Look, guys, I’m not in so much of a hurry we have to drive like maniacs through the middle of a busy city.”
Pickled Herring turned around in his seat. “The Serbs shoot U.N. vehicles, Sir. Also old people and children on foot or bicycles.”
This was not my idea of a party. It really was the hot zone. Thanks to the heavy-footed driver, we made the Danish Camp in short time. It was set up at the site of the 1984 Winter Olympic Stadium, virtually at the top of the city looking down onto the prevalent wreckage of the centre below. I spotted a running track with all sorts of exercise bars in the middle of it at the entrance to the camp. It looked pristine, which surprised me.
“Funny that, building a running track for a Winter Olympic Games.”
Private Herring shot me a fishy Nordic look. “Most winter sports require general physical training.”
It was then that I noticed the stadium above us — a massive structure, built into the side of the mountain. The top of it had been crushed, or more ‘smushed’ by the same mortar fire that had been raining down on the city for more than two years straight now. The steel facade and structure of stadium was now wrinkled and pushed together like a bull dog’s face. I was trying to take in the extent of firepower required to do damage like that when the jeep pulled up in front of a prefab. A blocky officer in his thirties emerged from the building and thrust out an arm to welcome me to the camp. I took it that this was the man whose complaint had brought me here and duly introduced myself.
Not having caught my host’s name, I looked at his breast pocket tag. It appeared to be Haagen Dazs. Was I that hungry, or did all Danes have names that sounded like food? If there was a private named for an appetizer and a commanding officer named for a dessert, was I soon to meet a non-com named for a main course. Did I know the names of any Danish main courses? Well, there was always smorgasbord. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Sergeant Smorgasbord. Meanwhile, the captain standing in front of me looked solid as a brick shithouse. Note to self: At all cost fight urge to refer to this man as Captain Ice Cream.
“I hope you did not find your journey here too harrowing, Investigator?” Haagen Dazs inquired.
“It was kinda hairy,” I admitted, “but I’m from the far north of Ireland and ever since I was a Little Boy, it’s been all bombs and bullets in our neck of the woods.”
“Yes, we follow your war back home in Denmark. You Irish are fierce fighters. It must have something to do with our Viking blood having gotten into your people.”
“Oh, I’m sure it helps but don’t forget that we beat you boys in the battle of Clontarf about a thousand years ago, so we had a good bit of fight in us for sure before you lot spread your seed!” We both laughed, which was strange when you considered that what we were talking about was our respective ancestral fitness to interpose ourselves into somebody else’s genocidal civil war.
“Right Investigator, we will begin the business for which you’ve come here tomorrow. The men we are interested in come to the PX each weekday between two and three p.m. I have instructed all my sub-officers to provide you with whatever resources you require. The ordinary soldiers need not know why you are with us. Meanwhile, I will have my corporal take you to your quarters. They are quite basic, I am afraid, but will get the job done. You can eat with us in the mess for each meal and I will have transport standing by for you at all times…Oh, one more thing, we get shelled with mortars every night around one a.m. Simply follow the others to the caved-in looking structure. We are able to use the passages underneath it as our bomb shelter. If constant shelling for two years has not destroyed them by now, it would probably take a nuclear attack to demolish them but thank goodness, Serbia does not have that kind of weaponry.”
The corporal standing next to us handed me a neatly folded uniform and an I.D. I noted with mild disappointment that the name on his tag did not resemble the word ‘smorgasbord’. Very shrewd of the captain to infer that I’d blend in better in uniform.
The Danes' quarters consisted of two rows of prefab huts, one on top of the other. I was on the top floor. When the door closed, I noted that it felt about as sturdy as a screen door on a porch. Good thing all those Olympic stadium tunnels were ready to hand for when the shelling started. Dumping my bags on the metal framed single bed, I changed into a sweatshirt, shorts, and runners. There was no way I was going to pass up the chance of a lifetime to run on a former Olympic track, even if it was only a practice one. I reckoned that jogging, I’d be a tougher target for snipers, not that there were likely to be any within range of the camp — or so I hoped.
J.P. Sexton grew up in the 1960s and 70s on the Inishowen Peninsula of Donegal in the far north of Ireland. Although poetry will always remain his first love in writing, in 2016 he published a memoir, The Big Yank: Memoir of a Boy Growing Up Irish to which he is currently working on the sequel. He had a long career working for international agencies, including the U.N., in Asia, Africa and the Balkans, as detailed here. He is currently semi-retired and lives in Florida.