Walking through a War Zone Part 7: Planting a Tree, snipers, explosions, banks with no money
Updated: May 28
Holiday Inn Sarajevo: In the Eye of the Siege | War Hotels Documentary
The armoured car pulled onto the forecourt directly in front of the door to the Holiday Inn, blocking the vision of any potential sniper. I stepped inside. It was a multi-storey hotel with an atrium reaching from the lobby all the way to the roof. It was pitch black except for a tiny candle burning at the reception desk where I was astonished to find that a night in a Holiday Inn on the front lines of war was a whopping $130 per night! “Do you have many guests?” I asked. “Only two." the man said. "They’re from the BBC.” The rest of the journalists had left; that was not a good sign. On the way to my room a few floors up I passed a door that was boarded up. “That rooms not for rent.” Said the porter. “Someone fired a rocket through it a couple of weeks ago.” I was assured that my room was facing away from the front lines, so I could safely watch TV. I tuned into CNN. In the middle of all the bombing around me, I discovered that someone had blown up the FBI building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds of people. Despite the gun fire I had a good night sleppand in the morning mademy way to the reception to ask if the hotel could cash my traveller’s cheques. “No.” He said. “But the BBC people might.”
I went to their room and knocked on the door. A woman opened it. “Oh, hello.” She said. “Would you like a cup of tea?” She introduced herself as Kate Adie, whom I knew to be a famous war correspondent. How very British, we ate biscuits, sipped tea out of delicate cups and chatted away as if the exploding bombs and the machine gun fire, were as natural as birds tweeting in a garden. Very kindly she changed some of my US dollars and offered to find me a cheaper place to stay.
I returned to the lobby and the Tourist Information booth where I was amazed to find an immaculately dressed tourist information lady in a tourist information lady uniform! I walked over and asked if there was a map that would allow me to get into the centre of the city without being shot by snipers. She took a map of the city and drew for me the safest route into town, highlighting the places where I might get shot. Our conversation was surreal, pleasant and dignified, as if I were a tourist aboutto enjoy the sights of the city, a world away from the war outside. Suddenly! Boom! The whole building was shook by the most enormous explosion. “Good God.” She said, lifting her eyes momentarily from the map, and then calmly carried on the conversation as if nothing had happened! I walked into the city centre, where I knew the tall buildings offered protection from snipers and rocket fire. I needed to find a place to plant the tree. The UN who were meant to arrange the tree planting were busy with the war, there was a battle going on and their focus was elsewhere. I found a small park proteted by tall buildings from shelling that seemed to be reasonably well maintained and decided to returmplater to plant the tree there. I also needed to exchange the travellers cheques. I found a bank devoid of customers but fully staffed, walked to the counter and asked the man behind to change some money. The bank tellers looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Why are you laughing?” I asked. “Because we have no money.” “If you have no money, then why are you open?” “In case we get some money.” In Sarajevo people came to work, even if there was no work to do. This is how morale was kept up. Banks teller, tourist information ladies, janitors in devstated buildngs all turned up in the event that maybe their was something they could do, generating the sense of optimism that would seethem through the worst ofthe war.
On the way back to the hotel I came to a wide avenue that reached to the mountains. If you could see the mountains then snipers could see you. I was about to cross the road when someone with a machine gun began firing at people crossing the road. A young couple broke into a run whilst a little old lady carrying her shopping continued walked across the avenue seemingly without a care in the world. Whenever I crossed this avenue my skin crawled and I wondered what it would feel like to be shot. Would it be better to get shot in the leg, in the arm, in the hand? Which would be less painful! I came to the conclusion that wherever you were shot it was going to hurt like hell. But I never ran across a street. Partly because I have never been one for doing what people try to make me do and partly because I think killers, like animals, are drawn to fear and snipers are drawn to motion. When the gun fire stopped I crossed the avenue safely and walked on, now deep in thought, wondering where in the park I was going to plant the tree.In my reveries I was not really noticing where I was going and all too late I realised that I was walking alongside the front line, exactly where I was not supposed to be. Carelessly I was walking along sniper alley. My blood chilled. I turned to go back, struggling against the urge to walk fast I forced myself to keep a slow and measured pace and repeated over and over again “Think invisible Paul. Think invisible.” It’s a strange feeling expecting to be assassinated at any moment. Just before the curfew, I went out and planted the tree by myself in the small park beside the President’s office. It was the only place that I could find that was still being watered and all the other green spaces had been turned into vegetable patches. Even the forecourts of apartment buildings had been turned into vegetable gardens and I wished that every apartment building in the world had such a useful space.
Back at the hotel I thought about what I had just done and for a while I was extremely depressed. I had walked for a year across two continents and thousands of kilometers to plant a tree and at the end nobody had witnessed it. But then I remembered that this trip was never for the media, the fame, or for the glory.But then I remembered that this trip was never for the media, the fame, or the glory. I had done it simply to plant a tree, because I believed in miracles and that tree would contribute to a positive change. Against all odds I had succeeded, planted the tree on the very day that I said I would... April 22nd, 1995 the twenty fifth anniversary of Earth Day. Comforted with the realization I fell to sleep. But my action did not go unnoticed, for word got around the city that a man had come through the tunnel carrying a tree and a few days later I was invited to meet the Mayor of Sarajevo. Over tea he expressed his gratitude for my action and invited me to address the Sarajevo General Assembly the next day, before they were about to discuss the Peace Treaty. When I entered the Assembly it was full of perhaps 500 people; Muslims, Christians, Jews and every segment of what once was a very cosmopolitan city. I was honoured and greatly humbled. I’m just a simple man from Manchester and these sort of things are not supposed to happen to people like me, yet here I was with a sense of history flowing through my being and in the middle of a war I was about to address a nations people on the verge of them discussing a peace treaty. I explained why I was there, of the massive devastation caused by war, not only on humanity but also on the very earth that we need to exist. They knew what I was talking about as I spoke of the need to restore the earth as soon as possible after the war, to restore the natural resource base in order for people to survive. If this is not done, then people will find it hard to survive and will eventually go back to war. They understood these things so well that when I left the Mayor presented me with a list of all the trees they would like to see planted once the war was over. It was almost as if they were waiting for me to come. I passed that ist on to American Forests Magazine who had covered my walk as I made my way across the United States and ultimately began the Global ReLeaf Sarajevo campaign to reforest Sarajevo.
In 1999 I was invited by the Bosnian Ambassador to the United Kingdom to the first celebration of the Bosnian Independence Day which took place at the Buckingham Gate Hotel in London and later to afternoon tea at the Embassy where I met the new Mayor of Sarajevo and the Minister of Finance who enabled me to recognise the appreciation for what I done with just a few simple words. "I don't think you realise what you did Paul.' said the Minister, 'We had to be in Sarajevo during the war. You did not. You are a friend of Bosnia'
A 'Friend of Bosnia'. I like that.