25 yrs ago I walked through a War Zone. Part 2: Snipers and land mines.
Updated: Apr 19
Leaving the UN hotel, I hiked through devastated streets of collapsed buildings strewn with fallen rubble to the bridge that connects East and West Mostar. There were many soldiers and lots of people hanging around in the shadows. Carrying a walking stick and a back pack I was obviously out of place, and felt like a target.
When I got onto the bridge, it seemed a less likely place to get shot. The Neretva River that separates Christian Herzegovina from Islamic Mostar is a deep emerald green colour and had somehow retained its natural charm even when flowing through the devastated city. War had not yet destroyed all of the beauty. When I stepped off the bridge int East Mostar I was into a totally different world. East Mostar was once a picturesque city of ancient mosques and five hundred year old houses. Now the city lay in ruins, yet even as artillery shells fell, I watched people rebuild their homes. I felt great warmth for these brave, resilient people, grew comfortable with my surroundings and began to explore.
I walked around the ruins of the famous 500 year old bridge that used to link the Christian and Muslim Worlds. The bridge was a testament to the fact that Islam and Christianity could live side by side, until it was intentionally blown up three years ago, by those who wishing to create a separate ethnically cleanse society. What remained of the bridge was still pictorial, but it was sad to see it destroyed. Before I left city I met a very well-dressed elderly gentleman who invited me to stay as a paying guest at his home. He said that his home was 500 years old and like a museum. I would have liked to have accepted his offer, but explained that I was sorry, because I had to leave today.
My heart went out to this humble man as I realised how difficult it must be to find any source of income in a war torn land,
I was extremely nervous leaving Mostar, for though it was dangerous in the city, it appeared far more dangerous where I was going. I was to journey up the Neretva valley for several days along the very thin strip of Bosnia that was the life line to Sarajevo. If this valley which everyone was fighting over were to fall then Sarajevo and Bosnia itself would collapse.
I carry a UN war situation map, which was changed every month to show the new front lines of the war. There are so many battle zones and frontlines that I never know from one minute to the next who would be pointing their guns at me.
When I walked out of the city and into the wide open valley I remembered the biblical statement, “Yeah though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil.” I tried not to be afraid, but could not stop thinking about snipers. If they were there they could have seen me for miles. I had packed away my bright yellow waterproof jacket even before entering the thick of battle, and yesterday threw away my camping gaz cylinder. It would be rotten luck if my back pack stopped a bullet, but hit the gaz cylinder and blew me up!
I was relieved when after twelve kilometers I approached a small village. But my relief did not last long. When I entered the village I found no comfort or reason to feel safe. It was totally deserted and as silent as a graveyard, which in a way I guess it was. Though houses still stood many had been destroyed in what must have been a ferocious battle fought from house to house. It was eerie to walk through this silent village. There were flowers growing in the gardens and spring blossoms on the trees, all very natural, all very pretty, but no birds sang, no dogs barked and no washing hung on the line.
I wondered if there were any commandos hiding in the shadows. I had been told that mines and booby traps would often be laid at night ot blow up any Bosnian or UN convoy that came along. Thinking of this hastened my departure and kept my eyes wide open for booby traps and land mines.
I was extra careful when I had to step off the road to avoid UN Convoys. Off the road I observed every rock, every pebble before I put my foot down. If they looked like they may move when stepped on I stepped elsewhere. I wondered quite amusingly what the Peacekeepers thought when they drove past me in their armoured cars, bullet proof jackets and blue tin hats. Did they think I was an Englishman on a holiday perhaps? Did I look like a scene from a Monty Pythons movie?