Wounds that Will Remain a LifetimeWar wounds. And, for many, talking about the war evokes painful memories. For others, however, talking about the war helps them deal with the pain. Or to keep the memory of loved ones alive.
Dionne and I have been surprised how many of our friends here are willing to tell their stories about the war. We rarely ask about the war. But it is a topic of frequent conversation.
For this week's blog post, I have compiled a handful of war stories from our friends. With the exception of Todd Ervin, I have chosen to keep these stories anonymous. To keep things balanced, I chose an American friend (Todd), a French friend, a Croat, a Bosnian Muslim, and a Bosnian Serb (whose story will be added later...it is still being written down). To fill things out, I have also included a handful of short memories from a new museum here in Sarajevo.
|Lt. Todd Ervin shakes the hand of Virginia Governor George Allen.|
The War Childhood MuseumEarlier this year, a museum dedicated to the memories of Bosnian war children opened in Sarajevo. Those who were children during the war were encouraged to send a 160-character text message with a brief recollection about the war. Over 3,000 responded. Then people were asked to give an item from the war with a short story. The museum is filled with these items and stories.
|Outside the newly opened War Childhood Museum.|
|This is an example of one of the 3,000 text messages.|
The American Pilot
I deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a brand new Lieutenant, right out of flight school, from Fort Bragg, NC on April 14, 1997. After spending 2 weeks in Germany and another in-processing into “The Box” in Hungary, we landed our flight of 8 AH-64A Apache Attack Helicopters at Comanche base (a.k.a. Tuzla West) on May 8, 1997. We were there as part of Operation Join Guard or Stabilization Force (SFOR) as it was called by NATO. We were one company in a battalion of 24 total Apaches to conduct “peace enforcement” operations. Peace enforcement is not the same thing as the more commonly known peace keeping. We were armed and had very different rules of engagement that allowed us leeway to go after and capture remaining Serbian warlords. We were a very proud unit and the only American military unit that the original American Volunteer Group (a.k.a. the Flying Tigers) gave permission to use that name. My company in particular (Bravo Company Raiders) was probably the most like the original Tigers in that we were a bit rogue but were the ones they called when it hit the fan. We just had a way we liked to do things that we called “The Raider Way” that didn’t always jive with the norm.
|The guys from the Bravo Company Raiders.|
|Flying up the Dboj Valley.|
|A small village somewhere in Bosnia.|
The one thing I can say about flying at night is that you can clearly see the tracer rounds and know where the enemy was. During the day, you sometimes wouldn’t know you were hit until you noticed bullet holes in your aircraft….not sure if knowing you’re being shot at is better than not knowing. In any case, I believed in the mission mainly due to talking to the workers on our base. When I received my deployment orders, I really didn’t care one way or the other about Bosnia to be honest, but being there and seeing what impact you have on people’s safety and lives really matters and can never be truly explained to the folks back home.
|Olympic stadium, one of the few Sarajevo landmarks that was not bombed.|
|One of the guard shacks at Comanche base.|
|Sniper Alley from the air.|
|Todd on his "ride" with the Virginian flag. We are here for 6 more months if you are ready to visit!|
The Muslim Girl
(I recorded this story immediately after it was told to me so there might be some slight errors). I was 9-years old when the war started. I am a Muslim and my father is an imam. With my parents and a baby niece, I lived in Sarajevo in a little house along one of the hillsides here. The area that we lived in was Serb dominated. So when the war broke out, we were on the wrong side of the bridge. But we were well-known by our neighbors and so we did not worry that much about being Muslims in Serb territory.
|Little girl shoes worn during the siege.|
But then one of our Serbian soldier friends pulled my mother aside and told her that we should leave. My family was hesitant but the soldier said that new troops were soon to arrive from Serbia and that they would start killing Muslims. The soldier suggested we leave as soon as possible. Even with this warning, my family did not pack up and move. Partially because there was nowhere to go. This house had always been our home. We had a friend who could hide one of us. He could not hide all of us. So my father went into hiding. But we were still not convinced that we had to leave.
|Most people in Sarajevo did not understand what was happening. They knew their neighbors. They trusted them. How could their hometown become "hell" so rapidly?|
Our house had suffered some damage from bombs so we spent time in the basement of a nearby house as well. One day my mother and I were in that nearby basement and heard some soldiers approach our house (my father was in hiding at this time). The soldiers were chatting. We overheard them say "there is a Muslim woman and her daughter living in this house so would you like to get something to eat first or have sex first." The other soldier replied "let's fill our bellies first." So they went off to get something to eat.
|A burning house on the hillside of Sarajevo.|
Immediately after the soldiers left, I, my mother, and our baby cousin grabbed what we could and left our house. There was no time to pack. We worked our way down the hillside to a bridge that crosses the Miljacka river which runs through Sarajevo. On the other side of this bridge lay the besieged city of Sarajevo and the Bosniaks. But strewn along this bridge were dead bodies who had been shot attempting to cross it. It was broad daylight and we needed to cross.
When they got to the bridge, my mother told me to "keep moving forward no matter what happens." I had been carrying my baby cousin on my back. She was too heavy to carry in my arms. But when we came to the bridge, fearing that I would be shot in the back, I switched and held the baby in my arms so that I would be hit instead of my cousin. It was broad daylight and we needed to cross the bridge. So we did. We walked across the bridge. And nothing happened. There were no shots. We simply crossed. After we got across we were enveloped by Bosniaks on the other side who were hiding in the surrounding buildings. They exclaimed "are you crazy?" and "how did you get across?" It was a miracle that we were able to get across.
|This is the sweater of a young boy, Nermin, who was shot walking with his mother. The bullet went through his mother and hit him in the head, killing him instantly. Over 1,600 children were killed in the Sarajevo siege.|
My father was able to get across as well. We moved into a refugee area near old town. There were few provisions. I was always hungry. About 6 months after we had gotten to the camp, we had to go to the hospital. One of the doctors took one look at me and told my mother that I was dangerously ill from malnutrition. And we had not even come to the hospital for me. So we chose to move away from Sarajevo. We relocated to Croatia and spent the rest of the war there.
|A young girl in the Sarajevo hospital.|
To this day I love the sound of gun fire. When guns are firing I know that I am safe. Silence is what scares me. That is when I felt I was at the most risk during the war. For 20 years now I have struggled with silence. And this will never go away.
|Even during the chaos of the siege, children were able to find ways to play.|
The Croatian Soldier
It was a harsh winter 1993/94. A Bosnian village. High snow and terrible cold lasted for months and for us soldiers it was all too much. Bosnia. It used to be an advanced country in which they lived together, two people, two nationalities, and two religions. They lived together. Now, during the war, the village was eerily empty. Especially at night. Only a good eye can spot the top of inflamed cigarettes which means a soldier going on guard duty. This winter, the village is only army. My unit was here for three months. The food is bad; tasteless. Every day, when I get back from the battlefield, I use the dry food and what we find in the houses and try to make a cooked hot meal. Canned food is disgusting to us.
|We have only experienced one Bosnian winter...but trust us...it is cold. Especially in the mountains.|
In the last attack we won a portion of forest that were previously held by enemy forces. On the line of separation, we have established a quite safe and solid defensive line. We have built a dozen bunkers and now we have kept fighting positions in anticipation of the end of winter and the beginning of a new set of combat operations.
|Most of the fighting described in this story was done beyond the view of the camera. So this stock photo was the only thing I could come up with that gives an idea of what it was like digging bunkers in a Bosnian winter.|
How do I feel? I'm tired, sleepy. This is my fourth year of war and I wear a uniform like an old man.
I've seen a lot and done even more. Too much. The strange enthusiasm of our freedom struggle in 1991 is long gone. Now it is routine work. We're all tired; soldiers and officers. Fighting and death have emptied our hearts of the illusion of freedom fighting and filled them with bitterness. For many of us there is just hatred. In my heart there is nothing.
|A soldier in Bosnia.|
I and my war companion are preparing our turn at guard. A position shift lasts for twelve hours. We change exclusively at night because it is too dangerous during the day. Enemy snipers are very precise. Even today, so many years after the war, I'm shaking with fear when I remember that once a shot went centimeters from my head! If I had not kept my head low, I would be numbered in the list of dead!
The walk to the house near where we guard takes ten minutes, maybe fifteen. We make it to the bunker. It is hard to breathe. The soldiers on the last shift are impatiently waiting for us. We're not talking a lot. A soldier knows his job. Silent salute and the two of us are sitting on a pile of earth in the bunker; rammed earth covered with branches of pine and an old blanket serves as benches and chairs! This is our watch.
|Standing guard in Bosnia.|
We're not talking. There's nothing. And it's not a good idea to talk. Because the enemy on some parts of the line are separated by less than 150-200 meters! Every 25-30 minutes someone fires a few shots. Around 3 o'clock in the morning my partner says he needs to use the bathroom! This means he carefully walks away from the bunkers. When he comes back 15 minutes later, he says: "I found something." I asked for no reason, "Dobro.Što?" He replied. "Our friends on the other side. Frozen." I need a few minutes to figure out. And I realized. "Frozen friend"! Alright. No comment! It's war. A dead enemy soldier, frozen.
|A soldier near Cazin.|
We had been fighting for months and the enemy lines had been ever-changing. The high winter winds had uncovered a frozen dead soldiers body. That's it! Weird? So we brought the body of this killed enemy soldier into our military base. Man is man, perhaps the most in war, and in need of a decent and civilized funeral. Although the enemy dead soldier deserves reverence. I emphasize: my commander was different from many commanders in the war; he did not become a beast. Many are. Unfortunately.
His clothing still remained relatively well preserved. And so was the body. The man was obviously very strong and he had a mustache. He was dressed in the unusual combination of civilian clothes and military uniforms and looked more like a rural worker than an army man.
|The winter gear list U.S. soldiers were given when deployed to Bosnia.|
In the inner pocket of a short winter coat was his wallet wrapped in a plastic bag. I do not remember what was in his wallet except for one thing: a sheet of paper torn from a notebook. Bad handwriting, written in pen, he had just started writing ... in a shaky hand, in a hurry, no doubt in fear and through his tears he wrote ... "My son, it's all right ..." This is all he was able to write...only this. Nothing more . "Son, it's all right ...".
|The soldiers likely fate was a mass grave. And his son never knew that his father's last thoughts were of him.|
Forced into a bloody war against his will, this dead soldier in an instant ceased to be my enemy! He was no longer the man I hated! The man was like me, like all of us. His life was like my life, very likely the hard life of the poor in the still troubled Balkans. I assume he was poor. And he had a son.
Bosnia . War is in the final stage but it does not give up. War rages as never before. We go from action to action. Everything we do we do automatically now. I do not think of tomorrow, today is already too much.The last years of this senseless and long bloody war. We all feel the same: it will soon be over. When we started we were immature young men in new uniforms ready for the parade. However, the war turned us in many ways into the elderly. Ironic elderly. Caustic. Indifferent to others' pain. The military made us ugly dolls. Not quite normal. I am in no way civilized.
|A friend's ID photo from when he was soldier. He is not one of the individual's whose stories I have included. But I love the photo!|
I was in a small transport truck with my commander. We unloaded the cargo at Unit No. 3 and headed back to our temporary base at the edge of a village. It was ten o'clock in the morning. The day was cold, early October. This is Bosnia cold but not too terrible.
Suddenly, around a bend in the road, appeared an older man. He is dressed in worn, tattered, dirty clothes. My Captain suddenly stopped the car and says to me: "Come on! Take the gun! Fetch the rifle (AK-47, of course) and jump out of the car." The unfortunate man fell to his knees in front of us. He kneeled, whined, and mourned: "Do not kill me, I'm ... I'm ...!" We went closer to him, he looked down the rifle barrels. Grizzled old man, it is difficult to know how old. Maybe sixty-five, maybe eighty, maybe fifty...Gaunt, skinny, unshaven, dirty, heavy smell of sweat, manure and mold. Around him the pungent smell of stables: faded working pants, right sock all cut into strips, a cracked old officer's belt. Wearing a shirt of indeterminate color, and the shirt is terribly dirty, the left sleeve no longer there. Bony dry hands with many old and new scratches and wounds. On his feet are crumbling old work shoes, covered with mud, worn soles. No socks.
Who is this man? He's not a threat ... That's for sure! We Approached him even closer. now with less caution. From his wrinkled face comes tears and he is shaking like a switch in the wind, sobbing and crying, begging for mercy! A terrible picture! "Do not kill me ... I did not ... My brothers, do not kill me, I have a daughter ... Do not shoot ..."
The scene is too heavy for us! He is no longer on his knees, he has dropped to his stomach and continued to cry. He was shaking. It was painful to watch.
My commander asked: "Who are you?" The old man replies: "Do not shoot ... Please do not kill me ...!" Captain switched his rifle over his shoulder and says to me: "Let's get him a ride!" It took us twenty minutes to pick him up, and I sat down with him.
|A reporter talks to a former war prisoner at the end of the war.|
Compassion in war is a luxury that a soldier can hardly allow.Two hours later we in a former inn. In a small room behind the bar. The old man calmed down a bit. no more crying. Still shaking. His lips were trembling, begging not to kill him. In vain we assure that we are not murderers. Although we are soldiers.
The old man's story deeply touched us even though we were all “old” soldiers! We gave him food. He could not eat. Such is war. You become immune to hunger. Famished, he swallowed some food, barely one bite. He immediately coughed. He only had one or two teeth. I do not want to think about how he lost the other, certainly not in a natural way. He begged us for a cigarette. We brought a bottle of sharp drinks. He did not drink alcohol. He got coffee, the biggest cup we had. He eagerly drank, said that for two years he had not tasted coffee! Again crying and thanking us. We sit and say nothing. The old man says that before the war he was a wealthy tradesman. He had a locksmith business. He lived a good life. He was satisfied.Wonderful marriage, woman and child. Daughter. Beautiful, like her mother. He did not think that her nationality would be a problem. It was a different religion. And other nationalities. He did not mind. He did not care.
We listened to him carefully: he spoke about himself and talked about all of the Balkans! What was the fault of this man? Nothing, except that he married the wrong woman from a different nation and religion. When it all started he did not believe that the war would destroy all he has. Still, he sent his daughter to Croatia to study.
All the time during the war he thought only of his daughter. Or his wife. to the family. Nobody sane assumed what this war would do the Balkans. He certainly did not. In the hell of war, the thought of the daughter kept him alive. His wife was killed two months after the occupation of their village. A drunken soldier shot her in the yard for fun! They left her lying in her blood in the courtyard. They came back and took her body the next day along with him. Took him away in handcuffs. He was taken to a prison camp and became a worker; basically a slave. He had been beaten, tortured and suffered all forms of ill-treatment...extinguished cigarettes on him, relieved themselves on him, he slept in the trash, fed from the scraps of their table.
We sent him to a collection center for refugees in Croatia. Before leaving, we gave him clean clothes and new boots. And two military transport bags with undergarments, towels, food, and we put some coffee and twenty cartons of cigarettes. The commander gave him some cash. We hugged. We cried. Hardened soldiers cry sometimes. If you have the remnants of humanity in you.
|Bosnian war refugees.|
A few years later we received a letter from Canada. letter is long traveled. From our "prisoner" who had succeeded! His daughter was in Rijeka! There are no words to describe the feelings that we felt as we read the letter. At first it was difficult for him. He did not receive documents ... No job, no nothing ... But he had a daughter and was grateful. She graduated and managed to get an offer from a Canadian company so the two of them have traveled. She is now married so he is the proud grandfather of beautiful boy.
The French Corporal
The UNPROFOR mandate called for over 30,000 UN troops to be stationed in Bosnia and Hercegovina to protect humanitarian aid conveys and, later, to establish U.N. safe havens. I was a French corporal serving my mandatory military service when I was assigned to Bihać. I was there for 9 months in 1993. I was a "blue hat."
|A U.N. soldier working on barbed wire fencing.|
As U.N soldiers we were supposed to be neutral. We did not see our roles as one of protection. We knew that the Muslims in Bihać were under attack. I can remember laying in bed at night and being shaken by mortar shells that were falling on a small Muslim village just two kilometers from us. But we never really got to know the Muslims there. They spoke a different language than we did. We kind of just kept to ourselves.
|Corporal Francois in Bihać.|
Our job was to bring humanitarian supplies into Bihać. We would protect convoys of goods that would come from Croatia (generally Zagreb).
|A U.N. soldier protects a humanitarian convoy.|
In our 9-month deployment, we did not have a single casualty. Our commanding officer was quite excited about this. In fact, he had a large celebration planned as our company's deployment was about to come to an end. Unfortunately, the day before we were to ship out, one of our soldiers was cleaning his gun and accidentally shot another soldier. He died a few hours later. Our commanding officer was livid. A casualty on the final day of deployment from friendly fire. Our celebration day became the worst "dressing down" that we had ever received.
|A plaque outside the French embassy in Sarajevo. It lists all of the French casualties in Bosnia. My friend is not sure what the name of the dead soldier is...but he knows the friendly fire incident occurred in 1993.|
I worked in the office so I witnessed firsthand the commander's anger. He had to tell this young soldier's parents what had happened. He had to determine what to do with the soldier who had caused the accident. And his perfect record was now blemished.
|A statue in front of the French embassy commemorating the French who died during the conflict.|
I had to help find the "body bag." We could not figure out what a "body bag" was. In French we have different words for "body" and "corpse." For us a body bag is more like an item of clothing. It took a while to figure out that we had to get a "corpse bag" for the body.
(My plan is to update this post with the stories from a Bosnian Serb. Until that time, here are my final thoughts.)
I still remember the first time we crossed the border into Bosnia at Slovenski Brod. It seemed that every other house was in ruins. Visible wounds upon the landscape from a conflict 20-years ago. Although not as apparent as the ruins, the people of Bosnia also bear these wounds and scars. Some are afraid of loud noises. Others are afraid of silence. Some remember the hunger. Some miss loved ones whom they never said good-bye to. Some were raped. Some were injured and still bear those wounds. Some saw things that they will never forget. Some did things that they cannot forget.
Through God's love, I know that everyone can heal. I also know that people can heal without turning to God. And this does not mean everyone has to heal. Everyone sets their own pace.
I have a friend who was a soldier in the war. Injured multiple times. He struggles to walk. He suffered from PTSD and tried to self-medicated using alcohol and other substances. Soon he had lost everything he had left, his wife left him due to abusive behaviors, he became estranged from his sons, and he no longer desired to work and be productive.
But, after 20-years, he has found God again. He has found hope. And he is beginning to reconnect with his sons. Maybe, just maybe, his time for healing has come; and there may come a day when his life will no longer be silently dictated by the haunting memories of the war. Someday he may become more than just another casualty of war.
And this is my simple prayer for all of Bosnia.