A CHRISTMAS IN BOSNIA
Boxing Day 1994
THIS time we had to make our own way to the convoy rendezvous point - a large collecting area some 15 miles to the south. We’d been given precise instructions on how to locate the convoy among the hundreds of UN trucks stationed at the depot.
There was hustle and bustle a plenty going on in the depot. Boxing Day was just another day here. This time the convoy was to be a big one with over 40 vehicles, tankers, supply wagons and armoured half-tracks, led by British officers. We were introduced to the leaders by the gatehouse guard who’d been expecting us.
We learned we were to be travelling further down the coast road before turning inland to cross the mountains into Bosnia. We were to be in for yet a few more surprises, too.
Two hours later the long convoy pulled out from the depot. We’d been positioned several vehicles from the front end, with Ken some three or four vehicles behind the one I drove. Our trucks were white, blending in with the white UN vehicles, but the convoy leader said it was safer for us to be spaced apart to better mingle with the official vehicles. We began to realise just how much co-operation and assistance was being afforded towards our project.
After about 45 minutes of driving we’d left the residential areas of coast road behind and were moving higher into isolated mountainous pass regions of the now icy coast road. The big trucks were all fitted with snow chains but we had decided to leave ours off for the time being. I was beginning to worry, my fuel was getting low and I did not have chance to fill up before leaving.
"What’s it registering at? " asked Ken over our two-way radio link.
"It’s well under the quarter full mark, hovering just above the empty, " I told him.
"There’s a reserve, but it doesn’t sound good. Let’s hope we can refill soon, " he replied.
The trucks were diesels and Ken had made us aware of the problems of running a diesel engine down to empty. Unlike a petrol engine, if a diesel ran dry the whole system had to be bled to clear it of air. Not a pleasant prospect and we didn’t want more difficulties. We’d already been driving longer than I’d anticipated and we were not in radio contact with the convoy leader. As the narrow road took a long winding climb up the coastal mountains we decided on emergency action. I had to get up ahead of the lead jeep and halt the convoy to speak to the officers in charge.
The road was barely wide enough to pass the huge UN supply lorries and it was almost impossible to get a clear view ahead due to the sharp twists and turns the road took as it meandered around massive rock overhangs and through rock tunnels.
Ken’s voice crackled over the radio.
"Listen, from back here I can see further ahead than you. When you hear me shout go, stick your foot to the floor and start moving up. Get in fast if you hear me yell at you to, " he said.
The convoy was moving at about 45mph on the icy road. This was going to be crazy, daredevil stuff.
"Okay," I heard myself say back over the radio. Ceren and Linda had been taking it in turns to capture some of the views with the TV camera and I asked them to prepare to shoot the coming crazy action we were about to carry out. Stuck behind a huge UN lorry, I could see little of the road ahead except for snatches of a few yards, up to fifty if lucky before the road snaked out of view behind rock.
"Go go go! Go go go NOW!" Ken shouted through the radio. I could see nothing and blindly flattened the accelerator and pulled out. The wheels spun on the ice before getting a grip and for what seemed an age we crept further past the big supply vehicle with just inches to spare between our own truck and the rock face to our left. To our right and beyond the truck we were trying to pass was a low stone wall and a drop several hundred feet down the edge of the mountain.
"Go go go," Ken was yelling. Then I was level with the cab of the UN lorry and for a brief moment glimpsed the startled faces of the crew before Ken was yelling "In get in GET IN!" and I spun the wheel hard trying to squeeze into the too small gap between the truck I’d passed and the one in front.
Suddenly the UN truck braked and I was able to squeeze in the gap but not a moment too soon. Just seconds later a lorry travelling the other way appeared from around a blind bend in the road.
I looked at Ceren and Linda. Ceren was ashen-faced and gripping the edge of her seat as if her life depended on it. Linda was a little more composed, but just a little – we’d been through some rough driving on another occasion and she knew that I could handle vehicles but this was something else. The camera lay across Ceren’s lap.
"Try and get it on film, " I said, not trying to show how nervous I was myself.
"Great. Good. Well done, " said Ken over the radio. "Get ready for the next one."
Three times we repeated the crazy stunt, squashing in between the UN lorries each time to Ceren’s screams of panic but luckily nothing else came the other way. Then I was behind the lead jeep, flashing the headlights for all I was worth and leaning on the horn. Outside our truck the big Union Jack was flapping crazily in the wind. The officers in the jeep took no notice of our presence, if they saw us at all.
"Maybe they’re drinking tea, " Ken quipped.
Getting in front of the short jeep was a little easier and this time I made it without Ken’s help. The convoy pulled to a halt as I slowed it with my truck in the middle of the road, trying to let them know something was wrong.
When I got out of the truck to speak with the officers I found my legs were trembling.
"What’s the problem?" they asked quite calmly as if we were all out on a Sunday drive through Devon. I explained the problem.
"You’d better stay behind us now you’re up here," they said, telling us we’d soon be at a point where we could fill up. The convoy resumed its progress.
It was a further 20 miles before we started to pass through inhabited areas again and how we made it I just don’t know. The officers flagged us to enter a filling station and they presented the attendant with a payment docket as we filled the tank, Ken doing the same.
"When we get into the next town we have to collect some materials from the docks," we were told. "The main convoy will be waiting for us but I'd like you both to stay with me," one of the officers said. We set off again, this time our two trucks at the head of the convoy behind the jeep. A short while later we all pulled in to the side of the road. One of the officers approached us again.
"Okay, listen. I want you to drop behind one truck. There will be another behind you. When they open the gates to let us in I want you to stay as close as possible to the truck in front and don't stop for anything. Just keep going. Okay? "
He didn't explain his instructions but simply added that the guards at this depot were not UN but might mistake our white trucks for UN vehicles. I didn't understand what was going on and didn't get time to ask.
"Remember, stay close and don't stop." Then we were heading down a wide approach to a high fenced compound with big closed gates and a guardhouse. Several guards stood about with machine guns. I saw the officers hold out some papers to the guard then the gate opened and we moved through. As we passed through the gates the guards started pointing at us and waving and then started yelling in a language I didn't know. Like the officer told us we didn't stop and we followed the jeep down amongst some large warehouse buildings. Before we passed out of sight of the gatehouse I saw in the mirror that there was a great deal of commotion going on around the gate.
The complex was extensive but looked disused. Empty wooden palettes were stacked everywhere and there were piles of what looked like nothing more than useless rusting metal objects of all sizes. It was difficult to work out why we were there. One of the officers again approached.
"We'll be some minutes, we have to load something on one of the trucks, " he said.
"What was the fuss at the gate when we came in? " I asked.
"Oh, don't worry about it. They get nervous, " was all he'd say.
We were there for about thirty minutes and had no idea just what was loaded, then we were heading back to the main gate. The guards refused to open it. A lot of discussion went on and we saw some of the armed soldiers - if soldiers they were - pointing at our vehicles and shaking their heads emphatically. One of the two officers with us came over to explain.
"These fellows are as paranoid as all hell. We're trying to tell them you're with us but they say you shouldn't be here. Just stay in your vehicles." He walked back to the jeep.
We didn't plan to do anything different except stay put. Great, I thought. What next. A few minutes later one of the officers pointedly stood by his jeep and pulled out the walkie-talkie microphone. The jeep had an eight-foot aerial. His colleague joined us again.
"We're telling them we're radioing through to Geneva," he said. "Don't worry, they get like this a lot. "
All I could think of was that we were still in Croatia with our destination of Vitez in the heart of the country still awaiting our arrival.