• Paul Coleman

25 yrs ago I Walked through a War Zone. Part 3: Arrested.


I rested beneath a tree next to an over crowded cemetery and watched as a teenager appeared out of nowhere and tried to catch a ride from an army convoy. He had no luck. I caught up with him as he walked down the road. His name was Emir and we walked for a few kilometers conversing through expressions and hand signals. He pointed to a trench beside the road and explained that the trench was the line of defense, when the Bosnians faced the first Serbian attack from the mountains. During the attack the Herzogovinian’s decided that this was a good time to get rid of the Muslims. They attacked from across the river. Now the Bosnians faced two enemies attacking from opposite sides and at one stage they found themselves shooting in both directions at once. Somehow they managed to hold on. Not surprisingly this area is heavily mined.

Emir and his family live in a tiny cottage beside the river, where the valley narrows into a canyon. His father filled my bottle with spring water and wished me well. I am always amazed how people can live in an area that could be a battle ground any minute.

As the valley narrowed I felt safer and the scenery grew spectacular. The road hugged the emerald river as it journeyed through an increasingly narrow pass up and over some of the steepest mountains in Europe. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, but the tunnels concern me. There are many and they are long, often curving through the mountains. There are no lights and the entrances are black holes through which I can see no exit and I stand outside the entrance, staring into the unknown, afraid to enter for fear that in the dark, danger lurks. I have been warned that commandos raid the valley at night and hide during the day. What if they were hiding inside the tunnel? If they are somewhere in the dark they can see me clearly, as I stand in the light of day, but I can not see them.

Gradually I gather enough courage to walk into the tunnel. I do not feel safe until it is so dark that I can not see my hand in front of my face, If I can't see, then anyone inside can not see me either. Once in the darkness I stand still, listening for sounds other than dripping water. Eventually I stretch my stick in front of me, and quietely tap the ground and the wall, so I know that I am not walking in circles. If I hear a strange noise I stop tapping the stick and stand silent, with my heart thumping so loud that my ears vibrate. My mind runs wild. I imagine an unseen enemy about to attack. It's downright terrifying. Before I move on I visualize a protective invisible circle of light reaching at least three meters from me. Once this invisible circle of protection is in place I advance, all the while swinging my stick in the best Kung Fu manner, hoping that if an attacker rushes towards me in the dark then he may accidentally run into the stick. In the midst of war the stick does not provide much physical protection, but it does give a psychological boost.

I walked rapidly through tunnels and bombed out villages, trying to beat the loss of light. Everywhere was still and quiet. Just when I thought that I would make it to the town of Jablianica before night fall, I was halted by Bosnian soldier who led me through an old school building to what was now an interrogation room. Soon every soldier in the area was there. My bag was searched. My camera was opened and the film was exposed. My travelers’ checks were found hidden in my sleeping bag, but thankfully they were ignored. When the Commander came in he wanted to know where I’d stayed in Mostar. “I stayed at the UN hotel.” I replied , thinking everyone in the area would know where the UN was. But I was wrong and the questioning took on a serious and chilling nature. “Where exactly is this hotel?” He asked. “Which bridge did you take in Mostar?” I suddenly had visions of the hotel being blown up and I most certainly did not want to be responsible for that. I can easily remember which way I had come. but decided not to remember. Fortunately my 'faulty' memory was not challenged too much and the questions became of a more benign nature. Two hours later I was told that I could leave. The soldiers lightened up and we chatted and I realised that I was among friendly people in the unfortunate position of having to fight for their life and their homeland.

Now it was dark. After one more brief arrest, I arrived at the heavily sandbagged entrance to the Malbat (UN Malaysian Battalion) UNPROFOR base, where teenagers, prostitutes and black marketeers were mingling. I displayed my UNHCR Blue Card and was led me up the chain of command to Capt. Lucho Manin, a cosmopolitan individual in his early thirties. We chatted while I ate a delicious Malaysian meal and later I watched the news with off duty Peace Keepers. CNN were reporting on the heavy fighting for Mount Igman, which I have to cross over within the next three days, emphasizing that no UN convoys had entered Sarajevo for three weeks. The Captain wondered how I will make it to Sarajevo by the end of the week. “I don’t think we will be able to let you go through Konjic.” He said. “Konjic’s been heavily bombed for the last seven days and we are on red alert status. In the morning I will telephone the Malbat Battalion in Konjic and see what the situation is.”


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©2018 Paul Coleman