|How Ordinary People Became Extraordinary Heroes
(also published as an OpEd piece on Sunday, July 3, 1994 in the Arizona Republic)
Copyright 1994 by Bob Djurdjevic. All rights reserved.
PALE (Serb Sarajevo) - The ominous-looking clouds which had been gathering all afternoon had turned to rain. Suddenly, it got quite dark. "When do you go back?" a senior Bosnian Serb government official with whom I was meeting asked me. "This evening," I replied. The official looked at his watch and suddenly became agitated. "In that case, please leave right away. The front lines are quite close to the road in some places. It really isn't wise to travel at night. The last thing we need is that something, God forbid, would happen to you while you're our guest here." He paused as if reconsidering what he had just said. Then he shook his head. "No, you should definitely leave now."
He spoke like a typical Serb who is concerned more about the welfare of his guest than about his own. You see, the official himself had just come through those allegedly dangerous stretches of the road. It was cute to see him worrying so much about a person whom he had just met for the first time.
Half an hour later, when my driver (let's call him VUK) and I left Pale, it was still daylight. But just. The rain was getting heavier. Dark clouds were gathering in the distance above Mount Romanija. They made it seem as if the night were nigh.
VUK topped up his tank at a gas station near the intersection at which the right branch of the road would take you into downtown Sarajevo, less than 10 miles away. The left one pointed toward Gorazde. It was strange seeing the road signs for the places made famous around the world by the war, which in my youth would have been as ordinary as the road signs to Phoenix or Tucson. Sarajevo and Gorazde, now held by the Muslims, were so close, yet seemed so far.
"How long have you been the driver?" I asked VUK.
"Since February," he replied.
"And what had your been doing before that?"
"I was serving on the front."
"Where were you stationed?"
"On Mount Trebevic?" (above Sarajevo).
Suddenly, some of my early childhood memories reappeared. When I was 11 or so (in 1956), my family and I spent a few days in Sarajevo visiting some friends with whom we used to vacation in Makarska, near Split in Croatia. In fact, both of our families had just returned by bus from such a vacation. I remember vividly riding a cable car to the top of Mount Trebevic from where one can enjoy a beautiful view of the city of Sarajevo. We also ate some "cevapcici" (a Yugoslav barbecue specialty) at a restaurant up there.
"Is the cable car still operating?" I asked, evidently naively. VUK looked at me in amazement. "No it's not."
"When did it stop?"
"When the war started."
As VUK drove across the rolling hills of Romanija, which looked so pretty earlier in the day in the sunshine, the heavy rain was becoming a real downpour. The visibility was no more than a couple of hundred yards. At one point, VUK swerved to avoid a cow which was crossing the road unperturbed by the elements. When the rain occasionally let up, lightening could be seen in the direction of Han Pijesak, which is where we were actually heading.
"What type of a unit did you serve in?" I asked. He used a military expression with which I was not familiar. It sounded like a rapid deployment infantry force.
"What's that?" I asked. "What did you do?"
"We were positioned slightly behind our front line. Our job was to plug in any breaches in our lines which a Muslim attack might have caused." "How many of you were there?"
"About 15 of us were infantry. Another 15-16 men were specialists."
"Specialists for what?"
"Deployment of 'tehnika.'"
"'Tehnika?' What's that?"
It turned out that "tehnika" stood for "technology" - loosely translated. It is a Yugoslav military expression for light tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Outside, the rain had turned to hail. As we started to descend down Mount Romanija, its tall cliffs and trees combined with the dark clouds to give the impression that night had already fallen. I looked at my wrist watch. It was just after 8 p.m. Had it not been for the storm, the sun would have been still out.
"How long did you spend on the front?" I asked VUK.
"21 months straight. And another month after I was wounded."
"You were wounded?"
"In 20 places."
"In 20 places? Was it a shrapnel?"
VUK nodded affirmatively. "I still have one piece here," he said pointing to the area just below his left shoulder. "They took out the rest."
"When did it happen?"
"When did what happen?"
"When were you wounded?"
"Last May. It was almost exactly a year ago."
He lit another cigarette. Earlier on, he had offered me one. I said I did not smoke. "Then this will be my last one," he promised. I guess recalling the trauma of war was too much for him to remember the earlier promise. I opened my window a little bit - just enough to let some air in, yet not too much to get drenched by the rain.
"How was the medical care?" I asked, thinking of the U.N. sanctions. "It was good. They took good care of me."
At first, I thought this may have been a "PR"-type comment. After all, VUK knew very well who I was. But he soon proved me wrong. "Our dental care stinks, though," he bitched. He complained that several of his teeth had fallen out during his 21 months on the front. "I guess I wasn't getting enough vitamins, or something..."
"Have you had your teeth fixed since?" I asked.
"No," he replied. Speaking calmly and rationally, he figured that was not a priority in war time.
By now, we had passed Han Pijesak, and were approaching Vlasenica. From other sources, I knew that this was the most critical part of the road. In some sections, the front lines are less than two miles away. But the visibility was improving. As we were descending to lower elevations, the clouds (which to us looked like fog earlier on) had cleared.
"What were you doing before the war?" I asked.
"I was a restaurateur in Pale," he replied. He said he still ran the same establishment when he didn't work as a driver.
It was VUK who then started to reminisce. "Pale was a weekend resort town before the war. We used to have all sorts of people from Sarajevo come to our restaurant. Many Sarajevans also owned cottages in Pale. It all changed after the war started."
"How did the war start - for you?" I asked.
"It was quite simple. The Yugoslav Army withdrew. We had to fill in the gap."
"Who is 'we'?"
"We, the local Serbs."
"How old were you then?"
"Not exactly a spring chicken to be serving in the army," I thought, but didn't say anything. "What about your wife?" I asked.
"She and the kids stayed home. She tried to keep the restaurant going." VUK paused and reflected. "The first year of the war was the worst."
"Because it was all new to us. We were disorganized."
"Are you talking about the army or family life?" I asked.
"Both," VUK replied. "After a while, we learned to cope much better." "When you were on the front lines, how often did you actually see action?" I asked. "Once a day, once a week, once a month?"
VUK thought about his answer for a moment. "I don't know. It's hard to tell. Maybe once or twice a month." He paused. "But sometimes it could be going on for several days, maybe even a week."
"What did you hate the most about the army?"
VUK surprised me with his quick answer: "Carelessness."
"I beg your pardon? Would you elaborate, please?"
"Well, we had a lot of young people in our unit. They were careless the way they handled their weapons. They'd horse around and point weapons at each other. I hated that. I did not want to get shot accidentally."
"What about the enemy?" I asked. "What did you think of the Muslim soldiers? Were they any more disciplined?"
VUK just waved his hand in disgust. "They knew nothing about military tactics. They'd just shout and charge our positions like cattle."
"What about their weapons? How well were they armed? As you know, in America, the Senate has voted to lift the arms embargo to help arm them better."
"Most of their weapons were American, anyway. They used to be to air-dropped to them. Now they also get them through Croatia."
"Did the Muslims use artillery to prep their infantry attacks?"
"Not except when I was wounded. That was the first time."
By now, we had passed Vlasenica and were descending toward Zvornik. The visibility was improving. We could even see the reflections of a setting sun on some high cliffs through an occasional break in the clouds.
"My father was also wounded," VUK suddenly volunteered a comment. "About a month after me."
"Your father? Was he also in the army?"
"How old is he?"
"He is 71."
"What was his job?"
"He was driving a truck when it hit a mine," VUK explained. "He is okay now. But my brother's leg is still giving him problems."
"You have a brother, too?"
"And a sister."
"What happened to your brother?"
"He stepped on a land mine. It almost blew his left leg off. The doctors patched it up, though. He now has a steel rod below the knee. But the leg is still hurting him. My brother is impatient. He can't wait for the natural healing to take place."
VUK said that his father and mother were now back in the Sarajevo suburb where they lived before the war. Their original house was within 50 meters from the Muslim lines. Now they've been evacuated to another one which is about 500 meters away. "My Dad refuses to leave," VUK explained. "He says he doesn't want to let the Muslims drive him from his home. My brother is now living with them, too."
"And your sister?"
"She lives in Hamburg" (Germany), VUK said. "She works as a nurse there."
"Is she married?"
"Yes. Her husband is a mechanic" (or something like that).
"How long have they lived in Germany?"
"Oh, I am not sure exactly how many years. Quite a long time..." VUK suddenly jammed on the break to avoid hitting a truck on one of the many hair-pin curves. We skidded a little on the wet pavement, but he maintained control of the wheel. "Stupid driver!" he grumbled.
VUK lit another cigarette.
"They also took part in the war."
"Who are you talking about?"
"My sister and her husband. They came back from Germany."
"To join the army?"
"Yup. She was riding in an ambulance as a nurse. He was on the front lines for seven months."
"And then they went back?"
We rode for a while without speaking. Suddenly, I was beginning to realize how all-encompassing this war has been for the Bosnian Serb people; how many it had touched. In this family alone, four men had fought - all in the 40+ age group; three were wounded; even a 40-year old woman left the comforts of Germany to serve with the troops. And these are the "Serb aggressors" which the Western media satanizes?
I also thought of how ignorant Bill Clinton, George Bush, Anthony Lake, Jim Baker or Warren Zimmermann are. Their Balkan policy models assumed that they were dealing here with some "city slickers" who would turn tails after the first threats "by the world's only remaining superpower." They should have come here and met VUK, his father, his brother, his sister and his brother-in-law - five ordinary people whom the war had turned into extraordinary heroes. They should have observed VUK's quiet determination and unassuming manner. For had they done that, they would have never encouraged the Bosnian Muslims to start a war they cannot win. Not without exterminating all the VUK's. Which was a tall order even for Hitler's Third Reich. And for the Austro-Hungarian Empire before that. And the for Ottoman (Turkish) Empire before that.
Bosnia became the "graveyard of empires" not because of its vast military resources, but because ordinary people like VUK simply declared, "better grave than slave!" The Bosnian Serbs are saying it again. Bill Clinton - are you listening?