A CHRISTMAS IN BOSNIA
Eastleigh, Hampshire - 12 December 1994 ...
THE doorbell rang as I prepared to go out. I hadn’t been expecting anyone.
"Hi. I’m looking for Keith Harris," said the young guy standing at the door. He consulted a clipboard. "That you?"
"Yep, that’s me."
There was a big box waggon parked in the narrow street beyond the small front garden of the home I shared with Linda.
"I’ve got a delivery from Cadbury’s," he said.
I’d been expecting the delivery, just not at that time. Cadbury’s had telephoned me at the office after I’d written them a letter explaining about Mike Gillman and asking if they’d be interested in making a donation. In response they came back and said they would send two thousand mixed bars of chocolate and mixed bags of sweets.
"Where do you want ‘em? There’s a lot…" the driver grinned.
We ended up stacking them in the small porch at the front of the house. They practically filled it, leaving very little room for coats and boots. Two days later we had to restack the lot when a van arrived from Norwich Healthcare, bringing two hundred well-equipped first aid kits.
Croatia - 24 December 1994
We reversed the trucks through the narrow entrance to the small car park outside the front entrance to the comfortable hotel, feeling glum at being back so soon. Our return surprised our hosts as we ordered drinks and coffee from the bar and explained the problems we’d had at the border.
"Ah," said the Croatian hotel owner with a wave of the hand as if that said it all.
We telephoned Colonel Smith. He’d been made aware of our return by radio from the convoy as it left us at the border.
"I’ll get you on another," he promised. "I don’t know when, but it will be as soon as I can. I’ll make some calls," he said and asked us if we’d make our way to the base in the morning, as early as possible.
"We’ll be there, " I said.
We now had another problem to deal with - a shortage of cash. We’d known we wouldn’t need cash in Bosnia. Now we were back in Croatia we would - and the banks were all closed due to Christmas. We’d paid our hotel bill prior to leaving but now needed cash to cover ourselves. I held an American Express card and placed a call to their international help desk.
"You’re where?" the young guy on the other end of the line said from his office in Brighton, England. "Croatia?"
Ten minutes later, after hearing details of our story, telling us how hard it would be to locate help -"We don't have too many customers in that part of Croatia" - and racking his brains he told us not to panic, he’d sort something out if it meant American Express settling the bill on loan themselves. We settled down to wait.
Then the French pilots returned and were surprised to see us too. They oh’d and ah’d in the way the French do when conversing in another language. Ten minutes later their commanding officer reappeared with a huge box of chocolates and half a dozen bottles of wine.
"Appy Christmas," he said with a big grin. Where the goodies came from we never knew. We spent two hours drinking, chatting and laughing together before the tired pilots took off to their rooms. They were working next morning, Christmas Day.
After they left, American Express called back. They’d located a local businessman with an Amex account and he was driving to the hotel with the equivalent of UK £200 in Croatian currency.
"You don’t have to do anything, we’ll deduct the amount from your own account and credit it to him after you confirm your receipt of the cash," said the Amex employee, wishing us luck and a Happy Christmas.
I felt I couldn’t thank him enough and told him so. "I’m sitting here warm and comfortable in Brighton, Sussex. I’m glad I could help, " he said.
We were at the UN base at 9am and having problems with the gatehouse Gurkha guards all over again. This time they let me use their telephone to call inside the base and a few minutes later a young British Lieutenant appeared to escort us inside the base. Still the Gurkhas refused to co-operate and again asked the Lieutenant first for his passport and then for his sidearm, standing before him with their machine guns draped from their shoulders.
"Listen," he told them. "I don’t give my passport to anyone, and your chances of me giving you my pistol are something like a thousand million to zero. If you know what’s good for you both you’ll call the camp commandant right now because I’m not going anywhere until these people here come with me. "
The two guards spoke rapidly with each other then one of them went back inside the gatehouse. The Mexican stand-off continued. We couldn’t understand what the fuss was over. We’d been seen going in and out of the base, several times with the deputy commander of the UK forces in the region. The Gurkha came back out.
"Okay," he said. "You go," and squeezed off a small unreadable smile at us.
In the months leading up to our departure I spoke at length with the Embassies of the warring former Yugoslavian regions and addressed a letter to each of the political leaders of the three fighting factions. The letter invited them to attend one of the parties. It would be held for children of mixed ethnic origin and I felt it might afford the three to meet in a neutral setting among young and innocent casualties of the war, as a prelude to an opening of dialogue in the awareness of the destruction and harm being done to lives and their country.
None replied to the offer.
Inside the camp Colonel Smith had some unexpected news for us.
"There’s a possibility that you can deliver some of your toys to a place we know in Split," he told us. "We’d also like to make some deliveries ourselves, if you can part with some of what you’ve brought. "
I was a little wary. I was familiar with several situations where aid brought in was left for delivery but just ended up languishing in storage and I didn’t want to see the effort taken by all involved in our project to meet the same result.
"Particularly some of your first aid supplies," Colonel Smith continued. "The bulk of medical supplies bound for civilian use get intercepted by the army and kept for their own purposes. We are able to get some of it to civilian locations where it is needed and where it will get to who it is intended for. "
He was aware of my concerns from earlier conversation.
Outside of the building used as HQ in the camp a seven-a-side soccer match was in progress on a hard pitch. We stood and watched it while waiting for some soldiers to arrive who would help unload some of our stuff. The insides of the windows of the building were adorned with a few decorations here and there and there were one or two small signs elsewhere that it was Christmas.
The aid delivery liaison Captain and soldiers led us to an area deep inside the base where many lines of parked UN vehicles of all types were parked. There were a number of long shipping containers and they unlocked one.
All our presents had been carefully sorted into marked boxes of age and sex categories. Working to the Captain’s suggestions we sorted a number of boxes of presents and transferred them into the container, together with fifty first aid kits. When we’d finished we drove the trucks back to the parking area next to the football game. They still played. Colonel Smith rejoined us.
"I’ve got a couple of guys organised who will take you on into Split this afternoon. It’s an orphanage," he told us. There wasn’t much to do at the base so we arranged to go back to the hotel where we’d get something to eat. Our escort would meet us there at 3pm.
We took three tins of hot dog sausages, some cans of beans and some powdered potato and sat on the beach at the front of the hotel, the low promenade wall shielding the flames of the butane camp stove we used to heat the food.
The bay was calm and the land on the far side rugged. We knew that the approach route to the airport ran over the distant mountain ridge. Far off to the right we could see the channel leading into the Adriatic - looking back along the Croatian coast. It was warm and we sat around in tee-shirts. We shared the food out and laughed at the absurdity of our Christmas dinner. After we'd eaten, it started to rain and we cleared up and went back into the hotel to get ready for the drive to Split.
It too us an hour to reach the sprawling Croatian city but our guides knew the roads well and took us through several large residential areas until we arrived at the orphanage. We were introduced to the head of the orphanage and we all shook hands with the other various members of staff.
The interior of the large building had been decked out for Christmas, mostly with decorations including a nativity scene that had been made by the youngsters. About eighty were housed in the orphanage, of mixed age from the very young to mid to late teens. It was comfortable and clean and tried hard to be homely.
We soon had a small crowd of volunteers eager to carry in the boxes we had allocated, a mixture of foods, sweets and presents. We also had willing volunteers to guard the rear of the trucks from marauding local youths, who would have quickly seized the chance to grab something and run.
We would not be able to stay for the following day's party, but it was some comfort to see the boxes loaded into the main office and know that they would help make the following day a small bit brighter.
It had been dark for several hours by the time we returned to the hotel, wondering when our main trip would begin. We were already supposed to be at Gornji Vakuf, deep in in the heart of Bosnia, which is where the Christmas cake materials had ended up.
When we trudged into the hotel bar we were in for a surprise. Christmas dinner was ready to be served and Colonel Smith was waiting for us. He'd decided to join us for dinner and had let the hotel staff know that we were on our way back from Split.
So there we were, us seven and our friends from the French Air Force sitting to Christmas dinner together. And what a dinner it was. Our hosts did us proud.
After the meal conversation turned to the situation in Croatia. There had been talk over the weeks of the UN pulling out. Mike presented us with some information that was difficult to absorb.
The Croatian government, he told us, wanted the UN presence, but didn't want to appear to be 'taking sides' and so was charging the UN something in the region of nine million dollars a day for the privilege of hosting the peacekeepers and Aid contingency workers. Mathematics showed that the Croatian economy was benefiting from the UN by an amount equivalent at least to its annual income from tourism in the days of peace - Croatia's largest source of external economy. It was an absurd situation to fathom.
Mike Gillman had been unusually quiet since we had been turned away from the border. He had worked very hard at getting the trip off the ground and, on one occasion in the summer, had to sell his washing machine to stump up enough cash to fly to Bosnia and meet with senior army staff who could clear the way for the trip. On this occasion he had returned with an exceptionally detailed map of the interior of Bosnia, a very rare item, and one that was to prove of huge benefit to us in a few days to come.
So ended Christmas Day. Colonel Smith bid us goodnight in the early hours and said he would call us in the morning.
"There's a convoy leaving tomorrow and I'm going to see if I can get you to join it, " he told us.