MY CHRISTMAS, NINETEEN NINETY ONE
It began on Christmas Eve.
We had started with a particularly hair-raising mission, to supervise the de-mining of the runways at Zagreb Airport. The attempt to remove the minefields around the airport had been abandoned some days previously following an explosion which had killed or wounded half the Serb de-mining unit. A mine had exploded where none should have been. The conclusion was that over the years the position of the mines in the ground had shifted slightly, probably due to decades of harsh winters, and the maps of the minefields were no longer reliable. The task would await the spring thaw.
The runways were different, and had to be cleared and the JNA planes flown out before Christmas to hand the airport over to the Croatians on schedule. Narrow tunnels beneath the main runways and slip ways had been packed with explosives in black salami-like rolls several metres long. As they were pulled out, they appeared to be sweating and received careful and prudent handling from the Serb detail involved as we looked on. The soldiers were commanded by a very young and very emotional Serb captain. He had been present when the mine had killed his comrades. He described himself as devastated by the war. His marriage to a Croatian girl was breaking up, with her family vowing to have nothing to do with him or other Serbs. He cried as he talked with us.
The airport hangers held a number of JNA MiGs, mostly M21s, and one very surprising addition, a pristine looking MiG 29, bearing the markings of the Iraqi Air Force. It was less than a year since Desert Storm, the war to liberate Kuwait, and Saddam Hussein, in a prescient attempt to preserve what he could of his air force from annihilation, sent the cream of his fighters abroad as the conflict loomed. Some had obviously been sent to Jugoslavia, which had been a major supplier of armour to Iraq during the 1980s. All the planes were gone when we attended the handover on Christmas morning.
Dinner that evening was a merry affair. Most of the Monitors had returned home for the holiday and those of us left were treated to wine a plenty, compliments of the HOM and his brigadier. During the meal the HOM addressed us and asked for volunteers for the next day’s mission, to complete the evacuation of Serb forces from the airport and escort them through the front lines to the Krajina. There would be no tasking; it would be volunteers only, as the risk in crossing No Man’s Land was felt to be higher than usual. This convoy would be the last and would complete the evacuation of Serb forces from unoccupied Croatia. The way would then be clear for introduction of a UN peacekeeping force.
However, even if the Serbs knew the writing was on the wall with the arrival of the UN, which would cement the existing front line for who knew how long, they were still seething at the EC decision only days before to recognize Croatian independence and were believed to be planning something to mark their displeasure. The Croatians were also thought to be holding off more serious fighting until the Serbs were got out. The last convoy would be symbolic; it would pass through all right but the return for the Monitors might be more problematic. Despite the added risk there were plenty of volunteers.
Midnight Mass in Zagreb Cathedral was brought forward to 9.00 p.m. on foot of rumours of an air strike on the Cathedral. The Cardinal officiated, the Cathedral was packed to overflowing and the solemn sung high mass moving. The attendance included the Croatian president Franjo Tudman, who was mobbed by Mass-goers. The memory of ordinary Croatians surging forward trying just to touch (!) him is not easily forgotten. The scenes afterwards on a cold clear night outside the Cathedral were ones of extraordinary emotion with many people openly in tears. We were thanked and congratulated frequently, though hectored on occasion about the arms embargo which in practice bore most heavily on the Croatian side. Evident everywhere, however, was the new sense of confidence and relief that the worst was now over, and freedom assured, which EC recognition had brought.
We started early on Christmas morning. Overnight snow lent a frigid white aspect to everything and a thin but persistent chill mist halved normal visibility. We seemed to be the only vehicles on the road but had only gone a short distance when our normally reliable Japanese land cruiser developed a fault. Attempts to repair it failed and we had to change vehicles . Waiting, shivering, for the replacement to arrive I remember thinking that this was not a good omen. Then on to the airport and to the adjacent barracks. The Serb soldiers were already packed up and ready to leave, most in high good humour and loaded into an assortment of military vehicles, several Ladas, and three buses. We were invited, with raucous shouts and laughter, to inspect the barrack buildings they had left. Most were scarcely fit for human habitation at the best of times but, as we soon saw, were not improved by the soldiers accepting their officers invitation to use them as toilets, which they did in copious quantities.
I was hailed, by a Serb sergeant with good English, to board a bus. The emotions on board were mixed, for included in the passengers was one of the bomb disposal survivors, just released from hospital, young and now blind, sedated and with his face covered by hospital gauze. Also on the bus was a very young and tearful Croatian private, a conscript, standing in his socks. “We’re letting him go Europe, but we’re keeping his boots”, laughed the sergeant. He bummed from me a packet of cigarettes, the staple currency and luxury alike in that war. I helped the boy off the bus. His relief was palpable, but, just as I had seen elsewhere with other Croatian conscripts caught on the wrong side, there was little animosity towards him from the soldiers. The horrors of Bosnia were in the future, unimagined. The fact that this was the regular JNA and not irregular militia probably helped.
Then it was on, to Karlovac and the front line at Turanj. forty miles south of Zagreb. The mist had thickened, with visibility down to less than 100 yards as we left the Croatian defences. There had been intermittent shooting and mortaring throughout the morning and we were advised, in the lead vehicle, to sound the horn continuously as we drove the half mile or so to the Serbian lines along a road lined on both sides by shelled and burnt out houses .
We eventually reached the Croatian mines, marking the designated front line. It had become customary for both sides to seed the roadway here and at other crossing points with pressure mines designed to explode if a vehicle ran over one. They were harmless to an individual stepping on one, requiring several hundred kilos of pressure to detonate, as I had had demonstrated to me by a French captain and a Canadian major (from the Quebec Vingt-Deux) who had literally jumped on them at the same place a month before. It had become routine, as the convoys were being evacuated, for both sides to allow the other to move the mines to one side without hindrance, to allow the convoy to proceed. (This was not altruism; the Serbs wanted their men, weapons and armour back, the Croatians wanted them gone – a meeting of minds without impediment had followed!)
Then a hitch. Some weeks before, someone – I don’t know from which side – had shot one of those removing the mines. Emotions ran high; convoys were suspended. The compromise involved the Monitors stepping forward – literally. It was agreed by both sides that, since the Monitors’ personal security was guaranteed, when faced with mines on the road, the Monitors would step out together, step over the mines, link arms and form a human shield, behind which combatants from both sides would move the mines, safe from enemy snipers, the process to be repeated on the other side and performed in reverse when the convoy had passed through. No one was very happy with it, but it worked.
This time it was different. “Claymores. Nasty”, said Mike, a British para colonel and a fount of good humour and common sense. Claymores were anti-personnel mines, easily triggered and with an estimated 10% faulty among Warsaw Pact ordnance. Four of them rested on a plank with a rope attached amid the pressure mines. “Do exactly as I say – exactly! Proceed as normal. Step over the pressure mines as usual. Whatever you do don’t step too close to that plank.” He was singing our song. We gladly complied, linking arms as usual. “Now for the tricky bit”. This from Mike as a Croatian soldier approached and began to pull on the rope to move the plank. It moved. “It’s o.k. They’re probably screwed down. It would be too dangerous otherwise. But you never know”. Indeed! The three of us with Mike realised we had been holding our breaths for some time.
Then we were through. It was plain sailing on the Serb side where the troops in the convoy were greeted fulsomely by their fellow soldiers. We were offered coffee then slivovica; I was relieved of the rest of my cigarettes. There was good humour towards us generally, though nobody said thanks, and the fact that we were in a war situation was brought home to us when a tank clanked into view, passed us and waved its turret menacingly towards the Croatian lines. We could hear the crackle of small arms fire though not near to where we were. I risked taking some photos – always a bone of contention, with the Serbs in particular complaining that we were photographing their positions (true, if inadvertently) and that this would be of military value to the Croatians (doubtful). They had recently detained briefly an Italian fool who had taken out a video camera and begun filming Serb soldiers openly while the convoy he was with passed through.
Then it was time to head back, with the mist now substantially disappeared. As we drove, the sporadic firing increased and became intense. By the time we reached the Croatian lines a mini battle was in progress, fortunately none directed towards us. Then, before we left the front line, a final task which fell to me. My three colleagues, all British, represented three generations of attendance at a military staff college, and wanted a souvenir photo. There was only one possible location, an old bullet-pocked building on the main road some yards from a sandbagged position. As I lined them up, the firing not only intensified but began to come closer.
“Hurry it up”, called Mike. “Take it and be quick about it” from Terry. I did so, just as bullets began to whistle directly over our heads. We abandoned the photo-shoot and took refuge underneath the jeep for several minutes before proceeding back to base for a belated Christmas dinner. “The hostilities had EC Monitors diving for cover” was how the BBC World Service reported the incident later that evening – to date the only occasion on which I have made the BEEB. Unheroic, yes, but as anyone who has been under fire will tell you, discretion becomes very much the better part of valour. I would like to report that the photo of my fellow Monitors was well received; in fact my copy arrived with a note suggesting I not give up the day job.