...are the ones that make the biggest difference

1.11.2005

Bosnia

My church participates in a program wherein we have access to a catalog of donated items that were overstocked by retailers. We just got in our latest order - I requested a couple of books; one on "moral realism, God's commands & human autonomy" and one on the war in Kosovo. As I have mentioned in the past, I spent some time in Bosnia with the Army Reserves, from Aug '00 to April '01, so the Balkans hold a certain - I suppose "fixation" is a good enough word - for me. I kind of have the urge to write something, but don't really have anything specific thats bugging me, so I'm just going to talk about my time in Bosnia.

A few background details: I was in counter-intelligence and my unit was jointly deployed with an intel batallion from Georgia. I was on a "force protection team." Our mission was pretty straightforward - identify, recruit & develop low-level sources with a primary emphasis on threats to US forces, and a descending list of other intel priorities that focused on the actual state of things in-country. My team consisted of 4 soldiers - me, my chief, and 2 "security" people. In other areas, security was provided by MP's or infantryman - you know, actual combat-arms types - but ours were Arabic linguists. I'm not sure how that came to be, but its what we had. We also had 2 private-contractor linguists. One was an American born Serb and the other was a Bosnian born American. Goran came from Chicago and was in his mid-20's, and Zoran was actually a Croat-Bosniak (Bosnian muslim) who had lived in Sarajevo during the siege. Between the 2 of them, we had excellent English and Serbo-Croat language skills, which was a huge help. Other teams were not so fortunate. We were stationed in a city called Doboj (pronounced 'dough - boy') in northern Bosnia, with the NORDPOL battle group - a mix of Norwegian, Danish, Polish, and other nations. My teams area was entirely within the Republika Srpska - the Serb Republic - and though there were some Bosniak and Croat returnees, the large majority of the people I dealt with were Serbian.

Being in the Serb area definitely changed the nature of my experience versus those of the other teams. The boundary between the Republika Srpska (RS) and the Bosniak-Croat Federation (BCF) region ran through the southern part of Doboj and once you went through a short tunnel, the transition was obvious. The Serbs were painted as the villains in the international media, and this negative portrayal resulted into far less international aid for the Bosnian-Serb areas. On a short ride from Doboj to Srpski Brod (formerly Bosanski Brod) of approximately 75km, we would see hundreds of destroyed homes. Just to the east of Srpski Brod was an area that had been part of the shifting front lines during the war and it was a wasteland. Mostly just dirt, a few trees, and mines everywhere. In most parts of Bosnia you didn't want to walk off the road or sidewalk, but here, you didn't even dare think about it. But when you went south and crossed that transition, most of the homes were rebuilt or repaired, roads were maintained and, perhaps most importantly, fields had been cleared of mines. Every 2 weeks we had to travel to Eagle Base in Tuzla to do maintenance on our vehicles, and we travelled through the BCF, so I was regularly presented with the huge difference in the lives of peoples in these different areas. In the 3 major towns in my team's area, homes that were not destroyed were riddled with pockmarks from bullet strikes. One day, in a town called Derventa, I was looking at a few buildings and realized that there was no pattern to these shots. This was not suppressive fire aimed at a specific window or doorway - there was no discernible concentration or pattern. It was just wild, sprayed at random across all the buildings in sight. I tried to picture this as it happened; a group of young men, probably about my own age, standing in the street with rifles and machine guns just shooting wildly. I couldn't get my mind around the sheer hateful madness of that act. It isn't human. The streets and sidewalks were also dotted with mortar strike-marks. There was even a school that had large mortar strikes on an exterior wall. On a daily basis, I was surrounded by evidence of the conflict, the very real, physical residue of hatred and death.

But it was more than damaged buildings - it was palpable in the air. It was like chewing on tin-foil all the time. It was a place bereft of hope and you could see it in the eyes of the people. Many had lost the understanding of what it meant to live, and those who hadn't, had left. They had fled into other parts of Europe, looking for a new life. I think the best example of this happened in Srpski Brod in early spring. There was a small carnival or fair that was passing through town and they had set up a little bumper-car rink. I'm sure part of it was just that these kids didn't know what bumper-cars are, but when we happened upon the scene, they were driving in joyless, unsmiling circles. We quickly remedied that - you should have seen the look of sheer schock, and yes, fear, when we hopped into those bumper-cars and actually started bumping them and each other. There were a few moments of confusion - were we mad? Were we crazy? Were we trying to hurt them? Understandably, a group of armed, foreign soldiers ramming you in a little electric car is a bit disconcerting. But they soon realized what those bumpers are for! We pooled our cash together and bought dozens of tokens to pass out to the kids, and all of a sudden there were hordes of kids eagerly waiting in line - waiting for their chance for a thrill, for the exhiliration of ramming each other in fits of giggles and playful shouts. After an hour or so we had to leave, but we left a scene of riotous fun, handing out all the remaining tokens before we departed.

When we were back in town 2 days later, they were again driving in circles.

4 comments:

Doug said...

Great post, Nathan. I'd love to hear more about your experiences and impressions in the Balkans. I'm really fascinated with the area, though I've never been there. Have you ever read "Black Lamb, Grey Falcon" by Rebecca West? I haven't, but it's on my wishlist. It's a massive thing, over a thousand pages, kind of a history and cultural meditation and travelogue of all wrapped up in one. It was written in the 1930s after Ms West spent a great deal of time in the new (former) Yugoslavia.

Nathan said...

"Great post, Nathan. I'd love to hear more about your experiences and impressions in the Balkans."

Thanks. I'll probably post on it some more, soon. I know my mom would like to read it, for one, and its kind of cathartic for me, as well. I've dealt with most of my experience over there, but parts of it still haunt me - you'll see what I mean in future posts. I haven't read West's book; I read a ton of other books before I shipped and while I was there, but those all focused on Yugoslavia's history after WWII and through the Bosnian conflict.

Anonymous said...

i would like to read some more of this bumpercar type of stories from area of BOSANSKI BROD(for us,vaste majority of prewar population,thats the name of the town not Srpski Brod).
and yes...those kids are still driving in circles...

best regards
milan
prewar Bosanski Brod citizen(now citizen of europe :))

http://www.naslist.com

goldietrickz said...

i would like to read some more of this bumpercar type of stories from area of BOSANSKI BROD(for us,vaste majority of prewar population,thats the name of the town not Srpski Brod).

Milan
prewar Bosanski Brod citizen
now citizen of europe :)
http://www.naslist.com

my sister lives in chicago,il,where she moved from germany where we lived as a refugees.i almost moved to chicago.