Going to Sleep in a Quiet Bosnian Hotel … and Waking Up in a Battle Zone

The Washington Post
April 17, 1993

VITEZ, Bosnia – The wake-up call at the Kesim hotel and gas station came at 5:45 a.m., as loud and clear as a salvo of mortars.

In fact, it was a salvo of mortars.

The boom-whiz-bang was followed by rifle shots as the hotel guests — five foreign journalists and an interpreter — threw on their clothes, flak jackets and helmets, packed their bags and huddled in the corridor. The interpreter went downstairs to find out what was going on from the five Muslim men who tend the gas station and protect it with assault rifles.

The Muslims had vanished. Apparently, they had gone outside to defend the station, their prize asset, which was suddenly the object of a dawn attack by Croat soldiers. Vitez is a Croat-controlled town, but the Kesim hotel and gas station is owned and run by Muslims. At least until this morning.

The events showed the uncertain state of things in Bosnia, where you can go to sleep in a quiet hotel and wake up in a battle zone. While the Serbs draw world condemnation for attacking Muslims in eastern Bosnia, Croats are quietly profiting from the chaos by taking control of central Bosnia from the Muslims, their nominal allies. The storming of the gas station was one of many battles in central Bosnia today as Croat forces moved in earnest against the weakened Muslims.

Radio reports said the strategic Muslim towns of Jablanica and Konjic were being shelled by Croat forces.

Croats were also preventing food convoys from passing their roadblocks. U.N. soldiers who patrolled around Vitez reported seeing several dead and wounded people in the streets of a nearby village.

Kesim’s is at the outskirts of Vitez. It is a well-known resting place — the gas station downstairs and several tidy rooms and warm showers upstairs — and is popular among foreigners who visit the 700 British U.N. troops based in the town.

A few minutes after the mortar wake-up, the phone rang downstairs. The interpreter agreed to go answer it. Perhaps the caller could explain what was happening and alert the nearby U.N. troops.

The caller was nice but not of much help. It was the girlfriend of one of the Muslims who had vanished, anxious to find out how her boyfriend was doing. She also wanted to know what was happening.

The guests squatted in the corridor, a fortunate thing, because rifle shots started smashing through the windows. It was time to crawl to a safer place. The windowless stairwell beckoned.

There was shouting outside. A linebacker-sized Croat soldier burst into the stairwell. He had a ski mask over his face, grenades hitched onto his belt, an assault rifle in his hands.

The soldier paused, asked if the journalists had any weapons, and then looked at their U.N. passes. He refused to identify himself. “You don’t want to know who I am,” he growled. “Anyone else here?”

The answer was no, but he kicked in the doors of each room, attack style, looking for Muslims. He went downstairs, smashed his way through a glass door, and repeated the door-busting exercise with an efficiency that could only have come from experience.

The rest of the squad arrived — a dozen or so soldiers who also had ski masks over their faces. One of them motioned for the journalists to move out. On the ground floor, the Muslims who had been protecting the gas station were backed up against a wall, their hands in the air.

One of the Croat soldiers gave a Nazi-style salute and shouted the battle cry of Croat nationalists, Za dom spremye, which means, “Ready for the homeland.” He waved goodbye.

It was 6:30. The sounds of dawn consisted of gunfire. A few hundred yards away, a plume of smoke was billowing from the center of Vitez. Croat mortar crews were shelling the town, apparently aiming at the headquarters of the Muslim-led Bosnian army, which has a token detachment in Vitez.

The hotel guests jumped into their rental jeep and sped to the U.N. base. It was a war-quickened checkout. The Croats were glad to see the journalists go. And the Muslims had already been paid for the rooms.

Photo of Ahmici Mosque: ICTY

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.