A CHRISTMAS IN BOSNIA - Part 5 (conclusion)
The entrance to the UN compound at Vitez was a sea of mud, churned by the tracked and other vehicles constantly entering and leaving the base.
Our escort led us deep into the fenced off compound. It felt a little like being in jail, surrounded by the 20ft high security perimeter fence.
We were shown where to park the laden trucks and after being reassured that they would be safe we were invited to the officers' mess to meet the camp commandant. The mess was beside the main entrance and was small and cosy, once wed negotiated the sea of churned mud to get to the entrance. Inside we met with the senior camp officers and were treated to several hot toddies before it was suggested that we crossed over to the mess for some hot food.
We received a number of curious glances as we entered the mess and queued for the meal, three civilian women and one elderly man, myself and six foot six Ken. The looks became more curious when a few minutes later we were joined at our table by some of the senior officers who had followed us over from the mess, although I am sure word of our coming had got around prior to our arrival
After the meal we were introduced to the chef who had prepared the Christmas cakes. The plan had been to make one large cake from the ingredients that had been shipped out from the UK, but this had been changed and instead the chef had prepared hundreds of small slices of cake, each individually wrapped in tinfoil. We were to bring the vans around to the kitchen later to load the trays of cake, he said.
After the introductions and the meal, we returned to the mess and crossing the short distance from the canteen we noticed that in the brief hour it had taken for the meal, the temperature had plummeted and the churned mud was now frozen solid.
Inside the mess again, I handed the commandant the letter from John Major and after reading its message, the commandant assured us that he would have the letter photocopied and placed around the camp where it could be read. Then we were taken to the billets and each given a hut. Linda and myself were assigned one Ted and Mike and Ceren and Kelly shared separate huts.
The huts were insulated arctic prefabs and had hot air blowers which kept temperatures up against the bitter minus 30 degrees. There were several dozen of the huts, ranged on either side of a wooden boardwalk with washrooms along its length. Each housed between six and eight UN soldiers and other, larger main buildings in the camp had been turned into accommodation for other units. Several hundred soldiers were stationed at Vitez.
We were shown a small shower unit close to where we had parked the trucks and it was suggested that we all took some rest and reported again to our co-ordinating officer first thing in the morning after breakfast. The idea of rest was welcome - none of us had taken much over the preceding 24 hours. We took showers in the bitterly cold shower huts. Before turning in, I walked around the camp with Linda. In the middle distance sporadic gunfire was still heard against the occasional burst of machine gun fire and crump of possibly a mortar or shell. It was bitterly cold and it was good to get back to the warmth of the hut.
We woke early to see soldiers from the opposite hut casually strolling out onto the boardwalk in their shorts with towels around the necks, heading to the washrooms and braving the freezing air as if it was a summer morning. We knocked up the others and heading to the canteen for breakfast, then drove the trucks to the canteen supply entrance and loaded the dozens of trays of Christmas cake.
"Weve organised a party at Zenika," our co-ordinating officer said. How it had all been arranged I never knew, but we were told that up to 300 children were expected to attend at a disused but equipped school in the town, some 30 minutes drive away. Two jeeps and six soldiers would accompany us.
The drive was uneventful though heavy snow had fallen. It was hard to imagine that we were driving through a war zone except for the very visible signs of war damage. The soldiers in the lead jeep knew exactly where we were going and we found ourselves pulling into the grounds of a large school. A caretaker was there to greet us and he let us in. We began the hurried process of unloading boxes of food and toys and carrying them into the main dining hall where we would hold the party. No children were to be seen and we wondered where they were coming from.
"Dont worry, they will be here, they are coming from all over the area, " we were told.
Tables and chairs were stacked in the large room and we began arranging them in rows. Then five or six women arrived to help us prepare the food. For the next two hours a confusion of concerted activity ruled. Hundreds of sandwiches were made while the women prepared jellies and trifles and everything necessary for a Christmas party. Mike was busy setting up some tables beside the serving tables from where he would give out the presents after the meal. All the presents had been sorted into age and sex groups and labelled, so it would be simple to dig into the right box and hand over a suitable present to each child.
Trays of food were made ready to be taken to the serving tables. What we didnt know was that while we were busy working, the children had been arriving, in buses, cars, vans, lorries and on foot and were gathering in another part of the school. There was a gated doorway at the end of the hall that was closed and locked and every now and then wed hear an excited shriek as a child found a way to the gate and peered through before being retrieved by an adult.
The final job was blowing up the dozens of balloons wed brought with the gas bottles we'd brought along for the purpose and then hanging them around the room with the many decorations wed brought too. All that was missing from our own supply was the tree, but that had been taken care of and the schools caretaker brought in a huge tree that was placed in the corner of the large room. Soon it too was decked with decorations and then we were ready.
Just where they all came from I do not know, but when the gate was opened, some 200 children aged from walking age to 16 or so filed in, along with some two dozen adults who'd agreed to help supervise. Seeing so many children gathered in the empty school, in the heart of a town torn apart by the ravages of war had a powerful impact. This was what we'd come for and now it was happening.
Row by row they approached the food tables and collected their trays of food and drinks and soon the party was in full swing, with the sounds of Christmas songs playing from a tape recorder and our team taking it in turns to capture the event on our TV camera. Two young twin girls, just three years old, then took centre attraction, climbing on to their table and performing a dance for all. One of the older boys asked if he could try using our TV camera, and although he had never used one before, within just a few minutes he was using it to take footage in an astonishingly professional and imaginitive way. Although we kept the footage for some time, the full video was eventually lost. [See note at end of article ]
Mike disappeared into the kitchen and changed into his Santa outfit and when he was ready, emerged with lots of ho-ho-ho and a big sack of presents draped over a shoulder for full effect as the youngsters cheered and clapped and laughed.
It was a mammoth task for Mike, taking each and every one of the children onto his knee as they queued in a long line to meet Santa Claus and tell him their name and how old they were, before he dipped into one of the boxes and handed over two presents to each child.
Soon the hall was deep in discarded wrapping paper and children were eagerly examining their new gifts and toys. Suddenly an angusihed squeal and the sound of sobs was heard. A mistake had occurred, a young girl had been given a boy's present and it was her heart rending cries of disappointment we heard as we saw one of the adult minders embarrassingly trying to comfort her and usher her away. It was a shame that this person didn't really trust us enought to approach one of us.
We recovered the young girl from her charge and took her back to Mike, who made sure she had a replacement, a huge cuddly toy that stemmed the tears.
There was sadly little time for party games, our co-ordinator explained that the children had to be returned to where they had all come from before it started to get dark and all too soon they were all saying goodbyes and leaving again, clutching their toys and taking away what we hoped were good memories in lives filled with vicious sadness, cruelty and the meaninglessness destruction of war.
All that was left was for us to clear up the mess and return to the base at Vitez, with the knowledge that we'd at least accomplished something we d set out to achieve.
q q q
Our trip was not yet over, though our original timetable meant that we would leave the next day. We still had a quantity of medical supplies, food and boxes of presents left. Sitting in the aid co-ordinator's office, we debated what to do with the remaining items. We'd already left e good number of supplies at the basecamp at Trogir, which were to be delivered by a Swiss humanitarian team to another part of the country. I asked the lieutenant assigned to help us if there were any locations in the region where little external donations had got through.
"I'd like if we could deliver what we have left ourselves to somewhere like that, " I said.
He said he'd find somewhere, and later told us he'd picked the township, more a village, of Stari Vitez. It was remote, cut off by the severe snowy weather, in a fighting zone and seldom visited by external aid agencies, the lieutenant told us.
We said we'd go and just needed directions, though we had our own very detailed map of the region, obtained by Mike on an earlier visit and something that had proven absolutely indispensable.
Our trip was cleared by the relevant UN section but the lieutenant asked that he be allowed to accompany us in a jeep with a translator as the Mayor of Stari Vitez wanted to meet with us and could not speak English. We readily agreed and met a young Bosnian woman who was working for the UN as a translator. We would drive out early the next morning, make the delivery, then head back for Vitez and the journey back across country to Croatia and Trogir, a trip we'd make unaccompanied. We had nothing left in the trucks to be plundered so we'd take our chance.
That evening however Ken, Ceren and Kelly announced that they were leaving for the trip back to Split at first light and the long haul for the UK. Ken and Kelly felt they had to be back for their jobs and could not stay longer. I found it an odd decision on their part, but could not persuade them to stay the additional day or so. We took what remained in their truck and loaded it into ours and sorted through our paperwork to ensure they had the correct documents they'd need with them, including their ferry tickets. They said they planned driving through to Rjenka without stopping off in Trogir, but I doubted they'd make it that far in one step. The next morning we wished them luck as they drove off from the base. They too would be driving back unaccompanied.
Mike, Linda and myself set off in our truck accompanied by the lieutenant and the UN translator in their jeep. The countryside surrounding Vitez and Stari Vitez was under a deep blanket of snow. We saw few people on the trip, mostly elderly women wrapped against the cold, foraging or bound on some unknown mission. Sometimes we'd see small groups of armed men, many of them young, sometimes one or two children walking briskly with women.
The damage to the country's infrastructure was visible everywhere. It looked as if time itself had frozen all normal activity, though we knew that life still went on behind the apparent emptiness. As we pulled into Stari Vitez it was eerie knowing we were headed for a meeting with the region's mayor even though the place seemed abandoned and deserted.
I'm not certain now if it was the town hall or a town centre school or some other building in which we met the mayor. It was a large room with a long boardroom table and a small fire burning in a grate. There was no electricity, the radiators in the building were cold and the rooms quite chilly. The mayor had some bottles of wine and after the introductions and handshakes, he passed glasses around to all.
Speaking through the translator, he told us how grateful he was on behalf of the people of the village and himself that we had arrived. There had been no independent aid deliveries to his town and he was clearly moved by our visit.
The food and toys would be distributed to local families, and the medical aid to the local clinics, which were much in need of such supplies, he told us.
Then the translator said that the mayor was curious as to what we had been doing in the country and how our visit had come about, so we gave a brief sketch of our trip. He then spoke at some length with the translator before she turned to us and said: "The mayor is inviting you to stay on in the village and have dinner and sleep at the homes of some people here. He says he would like the children to stage a show for you tomorrow and that they have already agreed to do so. "
The lieutenant said we could stay if we wished but he would advise us not to and to politely decline by saying that our timetable did not permit it. The area was still subject to raids and there would be concerns for our safety, although he was certain that we would be well looked after in the village. "Of that you can be sure," he said.
We would be particularly at risk, said the lieutenant, because the enemy forces were not very tolerant towards the delivery of aid to regions they were trying to keep isolated and cut off from all supplies. It was a conversation out of the Dark Ages yet it was taking place here in the Balkans in 1995.
More out of deference to the wishes of the lieutenant than out of concern for our own safety we regretfully declined the mayor's kind and obviously very sincere offer and after much handshaking and embracing we returned to Vitez.
We spent the remainder of that evening in the mess, feeling slightly deflated. None of us were in any hurry to leave, yet there was little else we could now accomplish. Big wheels had moved to help us accomplish our project and now we were at something of an anticlimax. To me, it felt like there was something I should be doing to be of help in the appalling situation of Bosnia. We stayed in the mess until it closed, then retired to our huts, Mike alone to his. I was a little concerned about Mike, he was looking drawn and tired from the events of the days. He was, after all, 82 years of age.
In the morning we set off on the drive across Bosnia from Vitez through Mostar and then across to Posusje and into Croatia from Imotski. We planned to stay on for one more night at the hotel in Trogir before leaving for home.
Linda and I talked about taking Mike out for a trip into the medieval town of Trogir but he was tired and wanted to turn in early, so Linda and myself went alone. We spend the later afternoon and early evening walking about and calling into the small bars in the narrow alleys of the walled interior of the town before returning to the hotel.
The trip was to have one final poignancy when the young Bosnian waitress who had been looking after us took me aside on our return to the hotel. She knew we were leaving the next day and beseeched me to take her to England with us. She had previously explained to me how she had to leave her parents behind in Tuzla when she fled from the persecution in Bosnia and had been unable to find out if they were alive. She'd given me a written note to take when we set off into Bosnia in case we ventured near her former home or could give it to anyone who might be able to let her parents know she was alive and in Croatia.
"Even though there is no fighting here, I am frightened for my life when I walk home at night to my lodgings," she said. She lived about a mile down the road from the hotel. "I feel safe here in the hotel, they are kind and good people, but there are a lot of people here who hate me just because of where I come from, " she told me.
I wanted to take her with us, but I was scared for her own safety and what might happen to her should she be found with us on the trip through Bosnia. To this day I feel terrible about leaving her behind, as I know from the easy checks we passed through while returning home that I could have got her as far as England very easily. She was only one of thousands. I am certain too that she would have received refuge in England.
There was no sign of her the next morning when we bid farewell to our hosts at the hotel. We'd already said farewell to Colonel Smith the previous day. From Croatia we followed a route back through Slovenia and then through Austria to Salzburg, Munich and on through Luxembourg back to France, Le Havre and the ferry back to Portsmouth.
We invited Mike to spend the night with us, but he wanted to go home so we dropped him off at his home in Eastleigh. I said I would call by the next day.
The following day, I returned the truck to its supplier and called in on the others as well as on Mike, together with Linda. After a long day, that evening I announced that I was going to my desk to print off letters to everyone who had helped and who were on my database, informing them of the outcome of the trip. Linda bridled at this, perhaps because I'd spent the best part of the past four months working until the early hours of the morning on organising aspects of the project. I was not due back to work for two days, but knew I'd have a heavy workload on my return, and also had to write up an account of the trip for my paper.
Linda grew very angry and upset at my plans and so instead I suggested we pack a bag and take off for a break into the country somewhere. Instead she announced that she was going to drive up to London to visit her mother and wished to go alone.
A few hours after she left, Linda's pregnant daughter telephoned from South Africa, where she was married to a white South African in Pretoria, to say she was in some trouble. She was in a serious predicament, and I had to telephone Linda and relay the situation. I offered to drive up to London to be with Linda, but she said she didn't wish for me to join her.
She returned late the next day, my birthday, and immediately asked me to go for a walk with her and her dog. Before we had crossed the street in front of the home we were buying together, she told me that she wanted me to leave. There was no room for discussion.
For the next week I lived in the house like a stranger, unspoken to and sleeping alone and going to my job. Unable to put up with the situation I left and moved into a flat by the Solent, some 40 miles away. It marked a big upheaval in my life and despite trying to stick it all out, a combination of circumstances arose that resulted in my leaving unannounced from the job that I still loved doing and quitting the UK for Ireland. Such is life.
Today there are thousands of orphaned children in Bosnia and the surrounding countries as a result of the years of war. Indeed there are many thousands more throughout the world, victims of the needless inanities of their own species. There are many, many thousands of grieving children and adults who have lost loved ones, in many cases entire families and who, unable to forget the past and move on, still live in memories of what had once been.
What value is victory' against such background of pain?
Mike Gillman succumbed to cancer less than two years after returning from Bosnia.
If anyone reading this remembers being at the UNPROFOR-assisted Christmas party held in the dining room of a large school in the Vitez vicinity on about 27/28 December 1995, and attended by about 250 or so orphaned youngsters aged from about three to about 17 and who came from around the region, a party at which two very young twin girls danced a traditional dance on a table and a boy in his early teens learned how to use our TV camera and filmed part of the event while Mike Gillman as Santa gave out presents to every child, I would very much like to hear from you. Please use the contact link below
Despite the tireless commitment Mike put into the charity work he did over 20 years, I have been unable to locate one photograph of him on the web. My own photographs were lost in unavoidable circumstances. If anyone has any photo(s) of Mike please get in touch. Thank you.
A 2¾ hour film made during the trip, the making of which is told in the story and which Mike went on to show at the many talks he later gave at schools and associations, has proved difficult for the author to locate, though efforts to locate it continue. Anyone with information is asked to contact the writer.
First published 2002
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