Confrontation at Sarajevo: A Trip to the Airport Turns Nasty

The Washington Post
March 22, 1993

SARAJEVO – Sometimes, the only thing riskier than staying in Sarajevo is leaving Sarajevo, even when you’re traveling in the company of armed guards from the United Nations.

That truth was illustrated last week when three American journalists climbed aboard a U.N. armored personnel carrier that was heading from the wrecked city to the mangled airport. The distance is less than two miles and should take five minutes to travel. But if, say, a gang of dim-witted Serb militiamen throws up an illegal barricade, waving Uzi machine guns and threatening to kill a French officer, then the journey might take a bit longer.

It did. Just long enough, in fact, to offer an unblinking glimpse at the anarchy of the Balkans and the impotence of the U.N.

There are two principal ways to leave Sarajevo. One road passes from Bosnian-held territory into a wild no-man’s land, then into the Serb-held suburb of Ilidza, and finally into Croat-held Kiseljak. There’s a lot of harassment in the Serb zone, some of it deadly. Evading the bullets can be a bit like dashing through a driving range and ducking the incoming golf balls, only less sporting. A French aid worker was killed by a sniper a week ago.

There are routine holdups on the road. The process is simple. Serbs on the side of the rutted route wave at one of the handful of foreign vehicles venturing along in the daytime, and motion for it to stop, which, if the driver is smart, is immediately done. The armed Serbs, often drunk on a lethal combination of plum brandy and chauvinism, tend to ignore their safety catches.

They might ask how much money the passengers are carrying and take it. Or, just take the whole car. It’s what New York City might be like without cops. There’s no use complaining to local Serb police, because it often is the police who are doing the shakedowns.

Three weeks ago, an Italian television crew drove into Sarajevo in an armored Alfa Romeo. The Serbs, claiming the Italians didn’t have the proper registration papers, “confiscated” the Alfa and locked up the passengers for a night.

A German television crew was stopped at a roadblock and asked to declare — for customs purposes — the amount of money they were carrying. About 60,000 German marks, the Germans said. The Serbs responded by taking it all because the Germans obviously had been given the funds by the Bosnian government to purchase weapons.

All this makes much more attractive the second way out of town: a trip to the airport. The method is simply to drive there, preferably in an armor-coated vehicle, and then hop on one of the Hercules cargo planes that ferry food and medicine to the besieged city. This is the safest departure, even though traffic conditions are unpredictable, the airport control tower is surrounded by sandbags and you are required to wear a flak jacket in the plane.

Every hour during the day, the United Nations runs an airport “taxi,” a French Foreign Legion armored personnel carrier that has been painted white with black letters spelling “UN” on its sides and has a heavy machine gun on its roof and a French soldier with an M-16 inside. There’s room for about eight passengers.

The people who are allowed to travel on the APCs include U.N. soldiers, foreign journalists, authorized Bosnians and visiting officials. The last category ranges from the French defense minister, who recently visited Sarajevo, to Bianca Jagger, who got much more attention for the same purpose.

The airport road, as it is called, is under U.N. control, or at least it is supposed to be. On a theoretical level, this means U.N. vehicles can travel unmolested. Serb political leaders have agreed in writing that their militiamen will not stop U.N. vehicles, will not shoot at them and, of course, will not threaten any passengers, particularly if one of them is a uniformed officer of a Western army that has nuclear weapons.

That’s the theory.

The U.N. troops who run the taxi were deeply humiliated in January when a Bosnian vice president was shot to death right in front of them. The APC was stopped at an illegal roadblock, and, after the U.N. soldiers opened the doors in violation of their own rules, one of the Serbs fired eight shots at the Bosnian politician, who died instantly.

The Bosnian government sharply criticized the U.N. escorts. The U.N. commander admitted security lapses and said it would not happen again. The bullying of the U.N. would stop, he insisted, at least on the airport road.

On a recent Saturday, the armored taxi left U.N. headquarters at about midday. The passengers included correspondents from The Washington Post, Newsweek and Time; a French air force officer, Lt. Col. Georges Demolis; an Egyptian cameraman and a Bosnian woman who works as an interpreter for a French news organization. At the rear sat the usual armed French soldier.

Five minutes into the trip, and just a few hundred yards away from the airport, the APC came to a smooth halt at a roadblock. About a dozen Serb soldiers gathered behind the vehicle, knocking on the tiny bulletproof windows and demanding that the locked doors be opened. They did not say “please.”

No matter. The escort soldier, a young kid from Martinique, promptly complied and opened one of the two doors. A Serb who seemed to be in charge of the milling militiamen stuck his head inside and motioned for the soldier to open the other one. Lt. Col. Demolis, who was sitting near the front of the APC, groaned in exasperation.

The Serbs demanded identification cards from the passengers. Everyone showed their U.N. cards. The Serbs, who wore a variety of soiled combat fatigues, briefly took several of the cards, which they are not allowed to do, according to security rules. The French officer protested, and the frightened Bosnian woman duly translated his indignation. The Serbs ignored it.

In the past, Serb soldiers have taken identify cards from Bosnians and then, a few minutes later, asked the passengers to produce their cards. When the Bosnians said they had already done so, the Serbs said they had not, and then accused them of being on the vehicles illegally and dragged them off.

This time the cards were returned. Then the leading Serb, who looked to be in his twenties, had no identification patch or even a badge on his uniform and could have used a shave, demanded to inspect the bags. Demolis became emphatic.

“Non!” he said. “Non, non, non!”

After 10 months in Bosnia, the U.N. contingent rarely says “non” to the Serbs, even though the Serbs are a ragtag army. The U.N. troops, on the other hand, are from some of the best armies in the world, including the British and French, who have enough weapons back home to make the Balkans look like the Sahara. The reason for their timidity is simple: Their humanitarian troops here are lightly armed and outgunned.

And so when the Serbs do something that they are not supposed to do, like stop an APC on the airport road or starve cities or snipe at children, the U.N. asks them to please not do it again. The Serbs continue acting as they like because the governments behind the U.N. troops have stated many times that they will not intervene militarily to stop the worst atrocities in Europe since Nazi Germany.

The Serb who controlled the roadblock seemed bemused by Demolis’s stance. His response was to shrug his shoulders and tell the attractive Bosnian aboard — who was growing increasingly nervous about the encounter, fearing that she could be dragged off at any moment — that he had not made a request. It was a demand. Demolis was, for a moment, equally adamant. He said the vehicle would turn back to Sarajevo rather than submit to an illegal search.

Shrug. “I will kill the French colonel if he doesn’t let me search the bags,” the Serb said. Militiamen behind him raised Uzi machine guns and pointed them at the passengers. The U.N. escort soldier sat still and said nothing.

The Bosnian translator decided not to translate the threat. Instead, she turned to the French colonel and said, “I think the situation is becoming serious.” There was a look of desperation in her eyes.

Demolis got on the APC’s radio and called U.N. headquarters, less than a mile away, where hundreds of French troops, including a rapid reaction force, are based. He got the radio equivalent of a shrug: Let them search the bags; they have no right, but they have guns.

The Serbs pawed through three bags. They opened letters, scrutinized address books, squeezed toiletry kits, stared uncomprehendingly at laptop computers. Whatever they were looking for they didn’t find. They decided to let their prey leave. The bags were handed back, the doors of the APC were shut and the vehicle moved out.

The Bosnian woman wept in relief. Later, as she waited for a flight that would take her away from her homeland, probably for good, she explained why she had been so nervous. “You’ve got to understand that these people don’t care that you are American journalists or that you are in a United Nations car,” she said. “They just don’t care.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.