U.N. Airlift in Bosnia Resumes

The Washington Post
July 22, 1992

SARAJEVO – The French sentry sipped his cafe au lait from a tin cup, glanced through the shattered glass of his airport guard booth and listened calmly to the whiz, boom and thud of bullets and mortar shells around him. He liked what he heard.

He motioned to his right, where mortar rounds were landing among Serb militiamen camped in a clump of shell-shattered houses about 200 yards from the runway. He motioned to his left, where Serb howitzer volleys were exploding in a virtually identical patch of blight held by Muslim-led Bosnian government forces.

“Things are getting back to normal,” the sentry said with a smile. Normal means that Bosnia’s warring Serbs and Slavic Muslims were firing at each other and not at the U.N.-controlled airport, which one side or the other bombarded with mortar fire on Monday, forcing its closure. The airport reopened today, and U.N. troops resumed the international airlift bringing food and medicine to the 300,000 Sarajevo civilians who have been trapped in the Bosnian capital for three months by besieging Serb militia forces.

The French sentry served with U.N. peace-keeping forces in Beirut a decade ago, so gunfire is as familiar to him as the cigarette dangling Gallic-style from the side of his mouth, but many other soldiers and relief workers are having a harder time adjusting to the madness of life here at the epicenter of the Bosnian battlefield.

“This is a crazy place; they never stop shooting,” said Nils Nielsen, a Danish army officer who vowed to spread the word back home. “I don’t think there will be any more Danish volunteers for this place.”

Out on the tarmac, which is exposed to Serb artillery positions in nearby hills and snipers from both sides in houses a few hundred yards away, a half-dozen Canadian soldiers sat in an armored personnel carrier and picked at their packaged rations. Their morale was low following the wounding of two of their compatriots by flying shrapnel on Monday.

“This will be Canada’s Vietnam if we don’t get out of here,” said a soldier named Eric, who had served previously with U.N. forces in Cyprus. “Cyprus was a champagne tour. Here, they just slapped us down in the middle of a war zone.”

The tarmac bore witness to the reason the relief flights were halted Monday, the first break in the airlift since it began July 3. Six U.N. trucks sat there like debris from a demolition derby, their tires blown out, their windshields shattered, their white side panels holed by machine gun fire.

A few steps from the wrecked trucks is the food storage hangar, in which U.N. officials coordinate shipments of relief supplies to different neighborhoods in Sarajevo. A mortar shell ripped through the roof Monday, leaving a wrecking-ball-sized hole. Relief workers there had fled to a bunker just minutes before the shell hit.

So far, nearly 300 planeloads of food and medicine have been flown here, mostly in lumbering C-130 cargo planes. Once here, the supplies are trucked four miles in armed convoys to five dispersal points in the city, where local authorities take charge of general distribution.

The food hangar can be a dangerous place to use the toilet. The privy is at the back of the hangar, on the left side of a long corridor, while rooms along the right side of the corridor have been vacated because sharpshooters in nearby buildings have a clear shot at them. Newcomers now get explicit directions: On the left, the toilet; on the right, the snipers.

“We get used to these things,” said Lejla Somun, a relief worker who works and sleeps at the airport because the trip to her home in central Sarajevo is too dangerous. “That’s why we’re here. If we could not take it calmly, we could not work.”

Much of the U.N. troops’ frustration here is that they do not always know who is shooting at them — Serb militiamen, Bosnian defense forces or trigger-happy vigilantes — or why they’re being shot at. The U.N. forces are allowed to shoot back if their lives are in danger, but that generally excludes returning mortar fire, errant or otherwise. French army Col. Michel Forestier, who is in charge of airport security, thinks that firing back would be unwise because it would “just increase the crescendo” of incoming shells.

Forestier closed the field for about an hour this afternoon after a shell landed 20 yards from an airport building. Minutes after relief flights began arriving again, about a dozen more shells slammed into a line of houses less than 200 yards from the food storage hangar.

Relief workers in the building dashed to a makeshift shelter, but many of them ran back out in a few minutes, even though the shelling had not stopped. A Russian Galaxy cargo plane — the largest in the world — had just landed, and the workers wanted to get a look at the massive craft and take souvenir pictures.

Foolhardy though their actions might seem, there’s not much that makes sense at Sarajevo airport, said Michael Wagner, a Swedish army officer who was heading home after a three-week stint here. Wagner popped open a celebratory can of beer and explained that many of the troops and relief workers here had become so completely caught up in their work that they forget about the danger. “The scary thing,” he said, “is that you don’t feel frightened.”

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.