Did Radovan Karadzic have a deal with the Americans? I hope not. I’ve seen, first hand, the devastation of war in the former Yugoslavia.
I remember standing in what had once been a thriving ski resort in the mountains of Bosnia. Only a few years before this area had been full of tourists. Now the hotel was a burnt wreck, the ground at my feet littered with spent shells from AK47s, and looming lonely in the debris was a memorial to the men who had fought and died here just a few short years ago.
I was under strict instructions not to leave the path as the area had been mined. On our journey up here we’d passed at least three separate tanks sitting in the middle of fields – they’d been blown up by mines, their inhabitants killed, their bodies left to rot as no one dared cross the grass to retrieve them.
It’s 1996 a year after the Dayton Peace Agreement and I am in Bosnia reporting on the peacekeeping work of the British Army. I spent a few days in Gornji vakuf which was a town that had been in the front line during some of the fiercest fighting. It was strategically important as it was at the crossroads to central Bosnia. It was socially important as it was home to almost equal numbers of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
At the height of the war in 1993 the town was divided; Bosnians on one side of the High Street, Croats on the other and snipers on every roof ready to take out anyone that moved near the border between the two areas.
By the time I was there the snipers had gone and there was an uneasy peace as people tried to forget the past and move on. But it’s difficult to do that when all the houses are damaged, the shops are burnt out and wrecked cars litter the streets; a stark reminder of the pain and hate that filled the air only months before.
It was fascinating to see that it was the cafes that were the first to open for business. They served a rough and highly potent drink called Slipovitch (nicknamed “slip in a ditch – because that’s what you’d end up doing if you drank too much of it). The bars were bright and welcoming and fully renovated – no sign of the war left to disturb the customers. Does this say something about where we place our priorities and the human love of alcohol? Or is it because we’re desperate to return to normality after such horrors? Many of these bars became the focus for “business” deals, unofficial agreements and black market trading.
I met some amazing people during that trip to Bosnia – people that inspired me and moved me. I remember one elderly lady who welcomed me into what was left of her home and gave me tea, insisting it was served properly; from a pot, into china cups on a table with a tablecloth.
These people had virtually nothing left, they had lived through hell and still they welcomed me and fed and watered me. She told me (through an interpreter) that soon after the war broke out her neighbour had fallen ill. But her neighbour was a Serb and most of the village was Muslim, so no one was willing to help him, even though he was ill and elderly. So she had walked to the nearest hospital which was four hours away to get him medicine.
The village ostracised her for helping a Serb. She was lucky that that was all they did. She nursed her neighbour until he died. No one would help her bury him. So she and her sons chopped up their only table to make him a coffin and buried him in his back garden.
I listened in awe to this woman and how she’d found the strength to survive and stand on her own when the village turned against her and war raged around her. We couldn’t speak each other’s language but it didn’t seem to matter. We sat together on her sofa holding hands, talking, not to the interpreter, but to each other through the interpreter, tears streaming down our cheeks as she told her story so full of raw emotion.
I saw many things during my time in Bosnia –some truly inspiring, some truly horrific, but none affected me more than the hour I spent with this lady hearing her story and seeing her house – a house, a home, a family, a life – that had once been quite similar to the one we live in the UK, and yet was now changed forever.
That trip was 13 years ago and I haven’t thought about it for a long time. And that’s a mistake. It’s easy to forget that there was a war on our doorstep. It’s easy to forget the atrocities and focus our attention on newer more newsworthy areas of the world. The former Yugoslavia hasn’t miraculously sorted itself out, there was no group hug, no getting drunk and letting bygones be bygones. Instead there is a fragmented country with a population emotionally and physically scarred, a people living with an anger that hasn’t gone away.
I am not suggesting that we must all remember the conflict in Bosnia in particular. After all what makes it “more (or less) important” than Rwanda or Chechnya or any other country affected by conflict? I am however suggesting that sometimes we should take a minute to remember the conflicts and people affected, we should be thankful that its not us and we should remember what’s important to us.
I don’t want to have to live through a war to find out what’s really important to me. And I don’t want to let my prejudices or my bigotry (and we all have both), lead me willingly into conflict. I haven’t experienced war first hand, but I have seen, heard, smelled, touched and been touched by the consequences of conflict – and that’s enough to let me know there is very little that makes a war worthwhile.
About the Author: Chantal Cooke is a professional journalist and author and co-founder of PASSION for the PLANET