Bosnia’s invisible war

A relief convoy carrying church aid finds determination amid destruction in a forgotten corner of former Yugoslavia — September, 1996

By Mike Milne

A refugee sits in a UNICEF camp August 5, 1995 near Kladanj, Bosnia & Herzogovina. A number of camps were set up for displaced persons escaping from ethnic cleansing in Serbia, where UNICEF provided health workers and child care services including a makeshift kindergarten with some toys and play materials. Photo by Roger Lemoyne/Getty Images

Editor's note: Twenty years ago this month, some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica, Bosnia — at a so-called “safe area” protected by UN peacekeepers. The Observer commemorates the anniversary of Europe's worst massacre since the Holocaust by republishing this story from September, 1996. 

The rattle of a machine-gun echoes along the wooded hillside where the trucks, jeeps and a bus wait. 

People mill around their vehicles in the darkness, but show little reaction to the nearby gunfire. A truck has slipped off the makeshift one-lane dirt track leading through the mountains towards Tuzla, in northeastern Bosnia, and everyone waits while a UN tow-truck cleans up the mess. Someone with a gun is impatient. 

The gun rattles again, its sound as natural as a car horn to the Bosnians from the bus; a group of them are singing to make the time pass. But the middle-aged Scottish engineer standing next to me has heard enough of it, and curses quietly. “Do they do that to bother me? Some idiot who’s survived the war so far but can’t give it up. Why do they do that?” A French driver standing nearby smiles and shrugs. “Ah, there is an evil gene in the human,” he says as trucks engines start, lights come on and the column begins to move slowly up the road. 

Evil forces have made the tortured nation of Bosnia and Hercegovina what it is today and I can see their handiwork as the relief convoy I’m accompanying heads north from Split in Croatia, about 400 km north and east into Muslim-controlled Bosnia past Tuzla to Teocak. The trip will take almost four days. We travel through Croatian-held Hercegovina (the self-styled “state” of Herceg-Bosnia) at night and pass busloads of soldiers headed south. Croatian Army soldiers who Croatia’s president always claimed weren’t in Bosnia and Hercegovina in the first place, were being pulled out in the wake of a peace agreement

When we enter the amoeba-shaped territory of the Muslim-dominated government of Bosnia and Hercegovina, children by the dozens, women and old men, line the road through Gornji Vakuf and north, hands outstretched for a bit of fruit, candy or cigarettes. Their homes, in Gornji Vakuf at least, are in ruins, pounded by the Croatian militia’s artillery, quiet now except for the odd shell. 

And further along, in the Croatian pocket around Vitez, west of Zenica, the homes are mostly untouched except for Muslim homes and businesses, selectively bombed or burned. Croat neighbors are helping themselves to Muslims’ furniture and belongings, hauling them away in horse-drawn carts. 

I’ve joined this convoy to see the final delivery of a shipment of flour, cooking oil, sugar and beans sent through a joint Canadian Muslim-Christian effort, to help feed hungry Bosnians. The United Church, working along with the Presbyterians and Lutherans, routed the oil, sugar and beans through the Canadian Foodgrains Banks while the Islamic International Development and Refugee Foundation, purchased flour in Italy. The food was all delivered to Split, where much was distributed by the partner agency there, the Third World Relief Association, to needy refugees during the winter. 

But now, 70 tonnes of the Canadian food is headed, as part of a convoy of 27 Bosnian trucks and drivers, about as far north and east as you can get inside Bosnian-held land, past Tuzla to the region of Teocak. It’s mid-March, and Bosnian trucks and drivers haven’t been able to run this route for almost a year, since the alliance between the Muslim-dominate Bosnian government and the Croatian militias in Hercegovina broke down and you practically needed a program to figure out who was fighting whom. And even a program wouldn’t much help you figure out why.

While the war raged between Croatians and Muslims (and the Serbs continued to press in on the perimeters), food only got through on international relief convoys, such as those organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other big non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Their new, well-maintained trucks, helmets and flak-jackets, their drivers with foreign passports, offered some protection from the lunacy. 

In a month or so leading up to the negotiation of a peace accord between the Bosnian Muslims and Croatians, several joint convoys organized by the local Islamic relief agency Merhamet and the Croatian Catholic agency Caritas, succeeded in delivering several thousand tonnes of food into central Bosnia, by dividing loads evenly between Croatian enclaves got all they wanted, while some Bosnians got enough to survive. 

But the actual signing of the peace accord a few days before our departure has given this Bosnian convoy — organized by local charities and municipalities in the Tuzla area and called Put Soli Zita or the “Salt and Wheat Road” — some added assurances of safety. Had they tried taking the same route only two month earlier, Bosnian trucks and cargoes would have been seized, Bosnian drivers imprisoned or killed.

I’m travelling with Cevko Avducevic, a Bosnian from Teocak who has lived in Split for several years. Like many of the other drivers, Cevko has also worked in Germany. We communicate in a mix of English, German and Bosnian. 

The road is often beautiful, threading through wooded mountain passes, past jewel-like lakes, but it still holds hazards and uncertainties: endless checkpoints, freelance bandits and organized “mafias,” still-armed Croatian militias, cranky civilians well-skilled in organizing “impromptu” protests and convy-looting parties, shaky transmissions, balding tires and rutted, goat-path mountain roads. Stalled at borders and checkpoints while international convoys whiz past, we will take three days to reach Tuzla.

Past Zenica, clear of Croation threats, the road occasionally winds within range of Serbian gunners. North of Kladanj, travelling at night with the headlight out, Cevko points out my window towards the open fires flickering on hillsides just to the east. “Chetnik (Serbian) bonfires,” he says. “They look for us.” They don’t see us, though a bright moon helps Cevko keep the truck on the winding road. 

Past Tuzla, after a night of hassles at the local customs depot and a day waiting for darkness, it’s another four hours by truck to Teocak. A young man comes with us to help watch for shelling or mortars; he rides cross-legged on the truck’s centre console, scanning the horizon. We drive with no lights most of the way, passing through the Kalesija corridor, where there had been shelling earlier in the day, about 38 “impacts” according to UN reports. 

The Chetnik bonfires flicker even closer, but our spotter only sees a couple of tracers in the distance; the Serbs must be finished firing for the day. The truck wends its way on to Teocak, within 300 metres of the Bosnian-Serbian front lines. It’s been a long hard road, but for the drivers from Teocak and Kalesija, the dangers of the road have been no worse than they’d face by simply walking around the streets of their hometowns. Just different. 
'Those trying to make sense out of the political insanity of Bosnia should pay close attention to the language, the name-calling . . .'
Those trying to make sense out of the political insanity of Bosnia should pay close attention to the language, the name-calling. In any war, soldiers adopt names for their enemies, to depersonalize and dehumanize them. In Bosnia, the names hearken back to the Second World War, to the Nazi-collaborator “Ustashe” (as Croatians are now labeled) and Serbian nationalist “Chetniks” (an all-purpose description of Serbian forces). But there may be more than a little truth behind the convenient labels. 

A retired general, who fought with Tito’s partisans against the Nazis and left the Yugoslav Army long before the country exploded, reminds me that Tito and the partisans not only had to defeat the Nazis, but also had to overpower Chetnik and Ustashe forces to forge the modern Yugoslavia. 

“The Ustasche and the Chetniks lost,” the general tells me, “but they did not give up. They went home and carefully taught their children. And when the old regime fell, they saw their chance.” The politics of today’s ex-Yugoslavia are once again spinning on the Ustashe-Chetnik axis. 

If Sarajevo hosts Bosnia’s most widely viewed war, Tuzla, home to about 450,000 people, and tiny Teocak, with its population of 11,208 residents and refugees, represent Bosnia’s invisible war, its private suffering. In Tuzla, hillsides have been stripped of trees for firewood, and parks and open spaces are cultivated into gardens. Serbs still lob the occasional artillery shell in to the city, just to let the mainly Muslim populations know they’re within range. 

People are tired of hearing about Sarajevo’s suffering, Sarajevo’s heroism. Last winter, while Sarajevo received up to 80 percent of the food it needed thanks to an open airport and a busy humanitarian airlift, Tuzla got less than 20 percent of the food it needed. 

But just a week of open roads can make a huge difference.  When we arrive in Tuzla, black-market prices — the only real indication of supply and demand — have plummeted in the past two days. Gasoline has dropped from 50 to 10 German marks ($8) a litre, flour is down from 20 to 6 marks a kilogram, cooking oil from 45 to 7 marks a litre and cigarettes, another staple, have fallen from 18 to 7 marks a pack. 

Although Tuzla lacks Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan touch, it is just as committed to a multi-ethnic future. People from all ethnic groups are still living together in relative harmony in Tuzla. Local people point out proudly that although 8,000 Serbs have left the city — often exchanging their homes with Muslims from Serb-held areas of Bosnia — another 18,000 Serbs remain in the city. Bosnian government troops haven’t been without fault, but wholesale “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and Hercegovina has largely been the work of Serbs and Croats. 

Serbian artillery, anti-air-craft guns, mortars and cluster bombs have wreaked havoc on Teocak. Even children can distinguish between different kinds of weapons and know when to seek shelter. Small-arms fire and anti-aircraft guns crackle nearby constantly, but it’s the whistle of artillery shells that means trouble. The dead are buried by the dozens in makeshift cemeteries in plum orchards, because Serbian shells have already pounded all the mosques and adjoining graveyards. As one man tells me, only half-joking. “A third of our people are dead, a third are injured and the other third are crazy.”

A soldier stands prepared during a Croatian offensive 1995 in Kraijna, Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic came to power instituting Serbian nationalism and encouraging the policy of ethnic cleansing and enforced the expulsion of Bosnian Muslims from the country. Photo by Malcolm Linton/Getty Images

In Teocak, there are no Croats or Serbs, except the few who are married to local men. The village refused a Serbian ultimatum in July, 1992, asking the townsfolk to lay down their weapons (then only hunting rifles) and surrender, and soon shelling began. The first shell killed a mother and child, setting the pattern for the next year and a half. At the beginning, an average of 2,000 to 3,000 shells a day rained down on the area. Bombs, including a cluster-bomb that destroyed the school and killed five children, were also dropped from planes. During the most recent offensive last November, Teocak was shelled for 47 days, non-stop. 

But the local brigades, with their hunting rifles, held off the attackers; now they have captured Serbian machine-guns and the Serbs are unable to advance. But they can shell. 

Every family has a son, daughter or parent killed. As for the soldiers, many are dead and there’s little hope for those who are missing. Last year, 80 soldiers from Teocak were captured by the Serbs. The Bosnians exchanged some live prisoners for 40 of the soldiers but only received their corpses. Most showed signs of torture and mutilations, some beyond recognition. The other 40 were returned in a later exchange — also dead, their bodies mutilated. 

Despite the pounding, people stay. They know that if they leave, they will likely never return. Naturally, many are afraid, especially when shells begin raining down. But they have become accustomed to the barrages. One man, about 50, told me about an odd Muslim folk-remedy that drives out fear, involving iron filings and water. He had to try the remedy 11 times before it took hold; now, he told me, he feels no fear. 

Teocak is actually five different villages — Centre Teocak, Stari Teocak, Bilalice, Husejnovic, Jasicovac and Snjeznica — each with its own mayor and identity, making up one regional municipality, huddled on a series of hills and valleys near a tributary of the Jadar River. 

We arrive at Cevko’s house in Snjeznica after midnight, after meeting his brother on the road. It’s close to the front line, and a couple of the upstairs rooms have been damaged by shelling and the outside walls are pocked by shrapnel, but the downstairs and two of the upstairs bedrooms are fine. The mosque across the street is completely destroyed and so is a neighboring house. 

We eat by candlelight — electricity operates only a few hours a day — and Cevko catches up on news with a roomful of friends. Tomorrow, Cevko and his sister Hana will distribute mail from the outside world, and the municipality will begin food distributions. For now, the Serbs are quiet. But by tomorrow morning, the gunfire will begin. And later, so will mortars and the louder multiple thuds of anti-aircraft guns, their exploding bullets aimed not at aircraft but at people. 

In the daylight, the destruction of Teocak is more visible. Virtually every house has been damaged in some way and about 40 percent of them are completely destroyed. Some roads are too exposed to sniper-fire to travel during the day; in other places, you run or walk quickly. 

At a town council session in the back room of one of the food distribution stations, I meet the mayor, Halid Nakicavic.  With windows blown out, covered with plastic and overlaid by logs, the room is dark. Coffee boils on a woodstove. 

“We are very thankful on behalf of the Bosnian people, because we were very hungry and our nerves were getting on edge,” the mayor says, adding that he had earlier pleaded with UNHCR for food and got 30 tonnes, when 30 tonnes were needed. “We have shown that we do have the will to live and the right to live. Because of that strength we have existed here. We have defended ourselves from a very strong enemy.”
'We are very thankful on behalf of the Bosnian people, because we were very hungry and our nerves were getting on edge . . .'
Back in the daylight, the mayor and some cohorts take me on a tour of Teocak. They stroll casually along the streets, as if an enemy within easy firing range simply didn’t exist. We have coffee with the mayor of Stari Teocak (the oldest village in the area), who takes me out onto the bombed-out second floor balcony of his house, for a better view of Serbian positions only a few hundred metres away. Then it’s a ramble through the ruins of the town’s oldest mosque. And a visit to Jasikovac, where we find three people doing laundry beside their half-destroyed home, within clear view of Serbian snipers only 300 metres away. 

I’m a bit uneasy as Hajrudin Hodzic invites me through the ruins of the house to take a closer look at the Serbian trenches, and even more uneasy as he ducks for cover when a mortar shell lands about 150 metres away. 

But the mayor is almost disappointed that there’s not more shelling. “They seem to know when someone’s here,” he says, “and hold off.”  (Sure enough, the day I leave, Teocak is bombarded with close to 50 shells. No one is injured.)

There’s a stop at the local clinic, where one young doctor labors tirelessly, helped by his brother who is still a year short of graduating from medical school. They do what they can, in the midst of a war zone, with no refrigeration for storing blood or blood products. Trauma patients are patched up as well as possible and sent into Tuzla. Dr. Haracic is a local hero, simply for staying and doing the best he can with what he as, even if means stitching wounds with common sewing thread or delivering babies in the midst of heavy shelling. 

There’s food distribution too, with crowds of people lined up at the various municipal offices, waiting as patiently as possible for their rations. It will go on for two or three days in the larger villages. The Canadian food — flour, cooking oil, sugar and beans — arrived safely and is handed out, along with canned goods, soap and basic supplies provided by other agencies. It’s obviously badly needed and greatly appreciated. The supplies that came with this convoy won’t even last a month, so local trucks are already heading back to Split, where local organizers are looking for more donations. 

I spend the night with my translator and his parents, who spent their working lives in Australia, returning to Teocak four years ago, retirement money in the bank, a big new house built and furnished. Now Australian dollars are difficult to exchange and the big house is badly damaged. “But,” says my translator Sulejman Brkic, who lives in Tuzla with his wife, two-year-old son and grandmother, “we’re all alive so far, and that’s the important thing.” For almost a year, Sulejman and his family lived with 25 refugees, in the garage of the big house — 30 people in all, jammed into a small but safe space. 

People take on a different attitude under constant fire. “Today you live,” says Sulejman, “tomorrow, maybe.”

The next day, Cevko takes me through the town, into two cemeteries where the heavy brown clay from the fresh graves sticks to your boots like glue. Cevko breaks down in grief. Two of his brothers, Adil and Amir, 23 and 29, have been killed by Serbs. They were both tortured before being executed. 

The most recent graves is only two days old, a young woman. That afternoon, another young man from Teocak will be killed by a sniper while planting one of his fields. Many work the more exposed fields at night, others no longer care. 

Cevko himself has been imprisoned by the Serbs. He knows of the atrocities committed against the soldiers, the blatant targeting of civilians, the systematic rape of Muslim women, even abuse of livestock. “To them, (the Serbs) we’re at fault because we’re alive,” he says. Serbia’s war, in Teocak and elsewhere, has been a war of genocide; not a war to gain territory, but a war to eliminate a certain kind of people, Bosnian Muslims. 

But still, says Cevko. “We will never take revenge on those people. Even though we’ve had this many killings we’re still willing to give their hand a shake and stop this war.”

Behind the name-calling, there’s an odd awareness that many Serbs may be ordinary peace-loving people too. Shelling and sniper-fire slows or stops, depending on who is behind the gun. 

Regardless of the threats and hazards, though, Teocak’s people will prevail and survive. “Love of life wins everything,” Cevko tells me as we leave the cemetery. “Everyone can live if he loves life and has the will to live.”

Mike Milne is The Observer's senior writer.

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