A Travel Vignette

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From a Bosnian Travel Diary (1995)

On the Run...

FROM the Truth in Media Bulletin 95-11

MOUNT JAHORINA, Bosnia, July 15, 1995 (8:30L) - "What a gorgeous morning!" I exclaimed to the hotel staff, as I stepped out onto a terrace in front of a mountain resort at the 5,400-foot elevation. Most skiing events of the 1984 Winter Olympics were held around here.

"How far is it to the top?" I pointed to the Jahorina mountain peak.

"About 3-4 kilometers" (2-2.5 miles).

"I’ll go for a walk then."

Even at such a high elevation, and despite the fresh morning air, one quickly starts to perspire when tackling a slope this steep. Reminders of the 1984 Winter Olympics were everywhere.

A hotel called "Vucko," for example, appeared on the left. Seeing a large wooden figure at the hotel’s entrance, this writer remembered that "Vucko" was the Sarajevo Olympics’ mascot. The now rusted out and weather-beaten road signs also reminded the Olympic athletes and visitors in multitude of languages of what to see, where to turn, where to park, where to eat...

A little bit further up, there were remains of several burnt out mountain cottages, and a larger office building. The tower on its rooftop was a twisted mess of rusted out steel. Inside the empty building shell, several cows took shelter from the sun. The war seems to have intruded even in such a serene setting.

About an hour later, back at the hotel terrace, I saw Dr. Nikola Koljevic, the Bosnian Serb vice president, also arriving there after a brisk walk. Evidently, he had the same idea on a beautiful morning like this. Dr. Koljevic and I had coffee and tea, and then headed for Pale in his car.

PALE, July 15 (11:45L) - "Are you Bob Djurdjevic?" a man asked, as I stood and chatted with the guards in front of the old Serb Presidency building.

"And who wants to know?" I replied, a little startled that someone would know me this far away from home.

"My name is Ivanov. I am supposed to drive you today," the man explained.

"I see. In that case, yes, I am Bob Djurdjevic."

"Are you ready to go?"

"I am afraid not. I was supposed to meet here (Momcilo) Krajisnik (the President of the Bosnian Serb Parliament) at 11:00, but he has still not arrived at his office."

I paused and smiled, looking at the wrist watch. "I am quickly learning that time is not a particularly precious commodity around here."

Everybody laughed. "Can I go into town then?" the driver asked.

"Sure, why not. I am not planning to be long-winded. So just be here by 12:15."

Just before he left, I said, "Ivanov, ha? Are you from Vojvodina?"

"No I am from Mount Ozren" (in Bosnia)."

"That’s strange," I said. "Your famly name sounds as if you should be from somewhere in Vojvodina."

"Actually, my father did move from there to Bosnia," Ivanov finally fessed up.

I smiled. It was cute to see this Vojvodina Serb trying so hard to portray himself as a Bosnian Serb.

After a few minutes, Krajisnik arrived. We had our meeting. At about 12:30, we shook hands took off.

Along the road from Pale to Han Pijesak, dark clouds and sunshine played hide and seek with each other. Occasional brief rain showers and thunderbolts reminded us how quickly the weather can change in this mountainous region.

We stopped in Han Pijesak to have lunch and get directions about which way to go. I also met with a Bosnian Serb army friend.

e-bosnia.jpg (51866 bytes)  HAN PIJESAK, July 15 (15:30L) - Han Pijesak is a pretty little town at about a 4,200-foot elevation. Since logging was big business around here before the war, it was not surprising to see so many log-wood cabins. Except that some them were hardly cabins. They were large multi-story structures which housed a dozen or more families. Kind of like log-wood high -rises. "Even in the middle of a forest the communists had to build their ugly apartment buildings," I chuckled. The people who lived in them complained that they were cold and hard to maintain in the winter time.

After lunch, we changed cars and drivers. My new driver was Goran. He was accompanied by a man who said his name was Marko. They were both from Biljeljina. The two men checked out their machine guns which they placed close by to their feet. They also put a couple hand grenades into the storage compartments of the driver and passenger doors. We asked some local people about which way to go. We knew from yesterday’s reports that both roads to Zvornik were either closed or dangerous.

"Take the road via Sekovici and Ceparda to Zvornik," we were told.

As we got into the car, I tried to recline the back of my seat a little. "Just in case I fall asleep," I was joking.

"I don’t think you will," Goran said.

"Why not?"

"I think it will be an exciting trip."

HAN POGLED, July 15 (16:00L) - The view to the north toward Sekovici and Tuzla from the mountain pass we had just crossed was breathtaking. I made an admiring comment about it. My two fellow-travelers agreed. "No wonder this place is called ‘Han Pogled’ (Han View)," Marko exclaimed.

"Han Pogled? Was this Muslim territory before the war?" I asked.

"No, this has been Serbian land for centuries," Marko replied. "Why would you think this was Muslim territory?"

"Because ‘Han’ sounds to me like a Muslim word. Doesn’t it mean something like an ‘Inn?’"

"You’re right. It does. But that’s an expression the Turks have left behind."

Marko paused, as if contemplating something. Then he added, "I guess, you’re right. After all, the Muslims are also the Serbs who converted to Islam to avoid Turkish persecution."

"This is a very good water," Goran said pointing to a spring on the left side of the road.

"Then we must stop," I said. "My father, a forestry engineer, taught me that you never pass a mountain spring without stopping at least to wash your face."

"Really?" Goran said as he screeched to a stop. "That’s what we say in Bosnia, too."

The water tasted great on a hot day. We splashed our faces and necks and drove on.

We came to a fork in the road. The road to the left was blocked by a barrier. A military policeman stood guard. Goran turned right.

Just as we descended into the valley surrounded by forests on each side, we heard a rattle from the back wheel.

"Sounds like a flat tire to me," this writer said.

Goran stopped the car. All three of us got out. The rear right wheel was sitting on its rim.

"Goddamn it!" Goran exclaimed. "It couldn’t have happened at a worse time."

We all nodded. We knew from the map we had looked at earlier that we had just entered the war zone, the area through which the Muslim troops had to pass if they were to reach to Muslim enclave in Tuzla. Our eyes darted all around the hills on both sides of the road. For now, all was quiet.

Goran opened the trunk and got his tools out.

"Do you have a spare?" Marko asked.

Goran nodded affirmatively. As he loosened the screws on the wheel, Marko asked, "where does this road lead to?"

"To Milici."

"Milici?"

"Yes. Why do you seem surprised?"

"Weren’t we told to go via Sekovici?"

"I thought he had said Milici."

It was time for me to intervene, as ignorant as I was about the local geography. "I am afraid he did say Sekovici. I heard the man say that quite clearly."

"Damn it!" Marko exclaimed. "We’re in the middle of the fucking war zone and quibbling over directions."

He swore and spit angrily on the ground.

That’s when God intervened. A blue van was heading our way from the direction of Milici. Marko motioned him to stop. I am not sure I would have stopped if I were the driver of the van under these circumstances. We could have been the Muslims, for example, who stole a Serb car. But the van did stop.

"Which way are you coming from, friend?" Marko asked.

"From Zvornik."

"What’s the road like ?"

"Not bad. There are lots of our (Serb) troops around Konjevic Polje and Milici, but there was no shooting when I went through. I hear, though, that there is quite a show under way around Sekovici. Zulfir (a well-known Muslim terrorist from Srebrenica) and about 1,500 of his men are trying to fight their way through to Tuzla."

We thanked the van driver. He drove on.

"Mother-fucking son of a bitch!" cursed Marko, stomping his feet.

"Who are you talking about?" I asked.

"That man in Han Pijesak. He would have sent us right into the enemy hands!"

That’s when I realized that this was actually the second time God had intervened. The first time He did it at the fork in the road, a couple miles back.

Goran had finished changing the tire. "That’s pretty fast work," I commented.

"That’s nothing," the driver dismissed the compliment. "The other day we had a flat near Orasje (close to Croatian guns and snipers in Posavina). Cedo was with me and he changed the tire then. I don’t think that the Ferrari crews would have been any faster."

Marko was now laughing. "I know exactly what you meant when you said Orasje. Those Croat bastards can shoot." We got into the car and drove on.

Now the challenge was to find a tire repair shop. Without a spare, it would have been foolish to proceed even under normal circumstances, let alone in a war zone.

We stopped at three places which did display tire repair signs, but none of them had any rubber with which to glue the puncture. Finally, we were told to go to a deserted bauxite mine in the hills above Milici. "That’s the only place in town that can help you," a man from Milici said.

MILICI, July 15 (16:45) - We drove up the twisty and steep road in the direction of Srebrenica. The atmosphere was tense, as we did not know the terrain.

"We’ve already driven three kilometers," Goran said nervously.

"The man said 3-4 kilometers," Marko replied. "Give him a chance."

"There is no turning back now," I agreed with Marko. "We can’t go any further without a spare."

When we saw the gates to the mine, all of us felt a sense of relief. We drove past the guards into a parking lot which was full of huge ore hauling equipment. As the mechanics worked on the tire, I had Marko take a picture of me beside one of these giant machines. Its tire was taller than an average person.

At that moment, we heard three short bursts of automatic machine gun fire. Each echoed for a few seconds from the surrounding hills.

"Someone has just been killed," Goran explained.

"How do you know?" I asked.

"That’s what they do when someone dies. An honor guard fires three short bursts into the air."

"You mean someone has just been buried, not killed?" I tried to clarify.

"That’s right. They do that just before they lower the body into the ground."

The heat of the late afternoon was mixing in with the anxiety of the moment. The men who were hanging around while our tire was being fixed started to talk about the fighting which has been going on for the last few days. They said the Serb military estimated that there were 3,000 to 4,000 armed Muslims in the hills above Milici. "I just saw several tanks and transporters pass on this road in the direction of Konjevic Polje," a man said.

That’s where we were heading next.

"Let me tell you two something," Marko said, addressing Goran and myself. "I am in the back seat. If they open fire on us, you two duck right away below the dash. And I’ll open fire from the back."

"You have it all figured out, don’t you?" Goran said with a bit of derision.

"Well, I figure that when God decides to call my number up, He’ll do so anyway. So what’s the point fretting about it."

Inside the workshop, our tire was just about patched up. "Look at this," Goran said, showing me a small nail which caused our flat tire. "And we could have been all killed for an inch of metal!"

I walked inside the workshop. Several men huddled around what looked like an anti-aircraft gun.

"This is a Muslims improvisation," a mechanic said, pointing to the weapon mounted on two rubber wheels.

"But they were pretty stupid," he said. "See this?" he pointed to a metal bar which blocked the gunner’s access to the auto-fire switch. "If they had only cut this off in half, they could have had a fully automatic weapon, not just a single shot artillery piece."

"Maybe they weren’t so stupid," Marko said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Maybe that was done deliberately to conserve ammunition."

"What are these types of weapons normally used for?" I asked. "For anti-tank assault?"

"Normally, yes, that’s what they were supposed to be," Marko replied. "But in this war, all sides, including ourselves, have used them as anti-personnel weapons, too."

He explained that the latter was an especially effective use in forested terrain, when the shrapnel from the ricocheting shell can cause a lot of damage to the enemy infantry.

Finally, our tire was fixed.

As we wound our way down the mountain toward the town of Milici, Marko continued to talk non-stop. Maybe that’s how some people try to calm their nerves, while others just shut up and brood. I may have been, in part, responsible for setting him off.

"Isn’t this the third time in this war the Serbs and the Muslims are fighting over this territory?"

"It sure is," Marko agreed. "See that sports field over there?" he asked pointing to a wide expanse of land, which included several large swimming pools. "When the war started in 1992, the Muslims massacred many Serbs, their neighbors. These Serbs are buried in a mass grave over there."

It’s funny that I never heard about that from the New York Times, I thought.

KONJEVIC POLJE, July 15 (17:30L) - When you get into a dangerous war situation, you can feel the tension in the air. You can’t quite put your finger on any specific reason which makes you suddenly pay attention to the way the wind blows, for example, or the direction in which the birds fly. You just do.

In Goran’s case, when we reached the area where most of the fighting has taken place in the last two days, he showed his nervousness by flooring the gas pedal. That’s why at one stage Marko shouted from the back seat: "Slow down Goran. If they start shooting at us now at this speed, you’ll kills us all in a traffic accident."

Goran eased up on the pedal. And a good thing he did. For, just as we rounded the next curve, he had to hit the breaks hard to avoid slamming into a Serb tank. A truck was coming at the same time from the opposite direction.

"You see," Goran muttered, "when God wants to make trouble for you, He sure knows how to pick the worst time to do it."

I felt exactly the opposite. I though that God had saved us through Marko’s words, a few seconds ago.

"Did you see that sign on that tank?" I asked out loud.

"A sign?"

"Yes. That hand-painted on a peace of cardboard in large black letters."

"No. What did the sign say?"

"It read: ‘GOD SAVES THE SERBS’!"

All of us chuckled.

We rode in silence for a while. We were now traveling along a deserted part of the road. The needle on the speedometer rarely dropped below 100 km/h (60 mph). Our eyes were darting all over the landscape, looking for any sign of motion.

"Hey, Goran," I said jokingly. "You’ve just driven past a spring. Weren’t we supposed to stop at every mountain spring."

"Another time," Goran replied, his eyes intent on the road ahead.

"Come on now," I said. "I was kidding. What happened to your sense of humor?"

Goran looked over and cracked a smile.

"I remember that there was a mosque somewhere around here once," I said.

"You’re right. It was right on top of that big rock," Marko said pointing to our right. "Once upon a time, a Muslim woman killed herself by jumping off that cliff. Her husband built a minaret in her memory."

Once again, the road was getting lined with soldiers and military vehicles. Some of them were digging the trenches. Others were securing emplacements for the mortars. Then there were some who just sat in the shade of the trees which lined the road.

"These could be the Muslims, for example, waiting to surrender," Goran said. "How do we know who they are? They all wear the same uniforms."

"Don’t the opposing soldiers wear unique shoulder patches for each action?" I asked.

"Sure they do," Marko piped in from the back seat. "But what’s to stop a Muslim from pinning a red-blue-white ribbon (the Serbian flag), for example, on his shoulder?"

"A strange war," I thought. Suddenly, a military policeman stepped onto the road and held his hand out. We stopped. "Could you please give me lift to my station, a couple of kilometers up the road?" he asked.

We had to rearrange our guns and bombs a little to make room for this large man in the back seat (he was probably about 6’3", 230-pounds).

"Thank you brothers," he said, after squeezing in. "I’ve been here on the front line for three days and three nights. I just have to get a shut eye."

"What was it like?" Marko asked.

"Well, we hear that about 1,500 of the worst terrorists from Srebrenica snuck through our lines the night before last, and headed toward Tuzla," the policeman said. "But I never saw any of them."

"Yesterday, though," he continued, "Some 50 Muslims surrendered to me personally! I nearly pissed my pants, as 20 of them were armed. I was alone, and they could have killed me any time they wanted."

"So what did you do?"

"I called ahead by radio for reinforcements. Then we loaded them into a truck and drove them away."

We were entering another village. "This is where I get off, brothers," the policeman said. "Thanks for the ride."

Just before we exited the village, Goran said, pointing to the left side of the road: "Here’s another prisoner."

A man wearing a maroon shirt was relieving himself at the back of a house. He held his left hand at the back of his head while doing so. A Serb guard stood behind him holding a machine gun.

"I hear that not all of them surrendered so peacefully?" I probed Goran and Marko.

"You’re right," Marko agreed. "A Serb soldier told me yesterday that some of them were cursing the Serbs even as they were surrendering. One such a Muslim even struck a Serb soldier in the face yelling, ‘do you think we are afraid of you, SOB ‘chetniks?’ He didn’t live to savor the moment."

"And why would he do such a stupid thing?" I asked.

"Because some of them are fanatics. They think that they will become martyrs if they die while fighting for Islam."

I recalled what Prof. Dr. Nikola Koljevic, the Bosnian Serb Vice President, told me in Pale the other night. "At the height of the Sarajevo offensive (in late June), a Serb soldier said that he could not stand it anymore," Koljevic recalled. "Wave after wave of Muslims kept coming on. And he kept mowing down with his heavy machine gun - 20, 30, 50 human beings at a time."

Indeed, some knowledgeable sources have estimated that the ratio of fallen Muslim-to-Serb soldiers during the offensive was between 10-to-1 and 50-to-1. It is estimated that at least 3,000 Muslims perished in an offensive which was supposed to show their new-found military prowess.

After having passed through a couple of tunnels, the man-made lake, a result of the Drina river dam, showed up on our right. We all breathed a sigh of relief. The worst was over.

"See that restaurant over there?" Marko pointed out. "That’s where Risto Djogo (the head of Bosnian Serb TV) fell to his death last year," he explained, without waiting for me to reply to his question.

"I hear that Arkan’s people supposedly killed him?" I speculated.

"Who knows..." Marko replied philosophically.

bijelin.jpg (53908 bytes) BIJELJINA, July 15 (18:30L) - As we were approaching Bijeljina, a Serb military truck was parked on the shoulder of the road. "Do you see what I see?" I asked, pointing to a large American flag which fluttered in the evening breeze behind the driver’s cabin. "What do you suppose that means?"

Both Goran and Marko shrugged their shoulders. "With us Serbs, anything goes," said Goran.

"Maybe it’s an American volunteer who’s come to fight with the Serbs?" I speculated.

"Maybe," said Marko without showing much emotion.

Yet, under the present circumstances, displaying the U.S. flag in the Bosnian Serb Republic would be roughly tantamount to flying the Nazi "swastika" in London during WW II. The fact that the Bosnian Serbs are shrugging off so readily the use of the American flag, underlines the notion that they may still think that the Americans are their misguided allies who will come around eventually when they see the injustice which their present politics are causing.

"Strange people!" I said, leaving it to my companions to apply the comment to whomever they deemed appropriate.

* * *

Also see... "Fishing for Bodies" (1994), "From Bosnia War Diaries" (1994), "On the Run" (1995), "All in a Day's Work" (1995)

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