14 | A Critical Incident | August 1993 | Part 01 - Into the War Zone
My decision to remain in Zagreb, Croatia in June 1993, following two separate three-week stints with my volunteer team, has proven to be a good one. Though my colleagues have left, I've made enough connections to secure a room to rent in a friend’s apartment. With some consulting work for humanitarian organizations, I can pay my rent and feed myself, and that will be enough.
I have a strong desire to do more work with war victims.
There aren't many professionals with mental health/trauma experience on the ground here, and there's a need for creating programs and services, as well as training local staff. And Zagreb is the right place to be. Since the outbreak of the war in Bosnia just over a year ago, it has not been possible for aid organizations, except a skeleton UN staff overseeing crucial food distribution, to be headquartered inside that country. Zagreb, less than an hour’s flight from Sarajevo, has been the staging ground for the international community, via the United Nations, to truck and airlift aid to those trapped in Bosnia. The UN staff is responsible for the delivery of food, medicine, and other needed supplies to a starving and terrorized nation under siege and in the grip of the war. It’s a huge logistical operation, and the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) mission in Zagreb, where they have an office of over 300 national and international staff, is coordinating all humanitarian aid. Humanitarian agencies are springing up like mushrooms, offering services to the huge influx of refugees fleeing the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and pouring into Croatia. I have been able to connect with a number of these organizations which serve women victims of violence. There are very few professionals in the region who specialize in this, and so far my consulting work is in demand and sustains my presence here.
I’m taken by surprise when I receive a call from the Chief Administrative Head of the UNHCR office in Zagreb, requesting we meet at his office on an urgent matter.
I don’t know him, but I know he's a very busy man. His concerns are the supplies that mean life or death for those trapped inside Bosnia – food, medicine, blankets, gasoline, parts for destroyed generators. What could he possibly want from me?
He is a tall, graceful gentleman, of Scandinavian heritage, formerly in the military. His manner is efficient and brusque, but softened considerably by the warmth in his eyes. He exudes competence and trustworthiness. After the formalities of meeting, he passes a telex message across his desk to me. It’s from Octavio, the Italian Head of the UN office in Zenica, Bosnia, and reads: “Chief, we are all in deep grief here over the loss of Haris. Morale is very low. We need help. Can you arrange for a stress counselor to come to us please?” He fills me in. There has been a killing of a UN driver in a town near Zenica, a city 40 miles north of Sarajevo, set idyllically on the banks of the Bosna River in the lush hills of central Bosnia. Due largely to its strategic location, the UN office in Zenica is the hub for all aid distribution by truck convoy. It has become a dangerous battlefield at the front lines of warring armies - Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian – for control of the valuable supplies. Control of food aid is tactical, as it may used to feed one’s army and starve the enemy. In the nearby town of Vitez, an enclave under siege is home to thousands of Bosnian muslim civilians, where they are protected by UN Peacekeeping troops, but have no access in or out. Without humanitarian aid there is the threat of massive civilian deaths from disease and starvation. The UN oversight of the operation is dangerous work, and their unarmed staff are in treacherous situations every minute of every day. Haris was killed while assisting in the delivery of food aid to Vitez. The Chief has heard about my work in the field of trauma counselling, and asks if I'm willing to go to Zenica and assist the staff there by providing a critical incident de-briefing. We agree that this “psychological first aid,” a form of the “stress counselling” which Octavio has requested, might help support the staff in coping with this overwhelming trauma - the loss of one of their own. I tell him I feel prepared, as much as one can be, to go into the region. He calls Karina, a UNHCR staff member, to his office. A social worker and Social Service Officer with the organization, she will be travelling with me and assisting in providing the de-briefing. We are to be picked up at 6am the next day and driven to the Zagreb airport for travel, via a UN aid plane, into Sarajevo.
Just like that. There’s a critical incident and I’m entering the war zone.
We leave the next morning. It’s a dangerous and daunting trip. Bosnia is a closed country, with a mishmash of front lines and warring armies fighting for control of territory. The airport, in the outskirts of Sarajevo, is closed to all but UN flights carrying relief supplies. It is in Serb held territory and the aircraft have been coming under heavy shelling. Now the UN has brokered an agreement with Serb side to allow planes to land in exchange for a portion of the aid being delivered.
Karina and I are the only nonmilitary personnel on board.
The other passengers are a dozen young men, UN Peacekeeping troops. Huge cargo containers holding humanitarian food aid fill the center of the plane. Approaching the landing strip, a view of the destroyed airport buildings and the control tower flying a UN flag, make this war a reality for me. On disembarking we don our helmets and flak jackets, and are ushered, running, to the shelter of the quonset hut now serving as the main airport terminal building. From there two UN soldiers load us into the back of an Armored Personnel Carrier for the first leg of our 40 mile trip to Zenica, directly through enemy lines. It’s not stretching it to say it’s the worst ride of my life. Sealed inside the APC, a heavily armoured tank also known as a “battle taxi,” it’s sweltering hot and difficult to breathe. The road is rutted with shell holes, causing us to be tossed about continually for nearly an hour, which feels more like ten. I’m car sick for the entire ride. Finally, we stop in the middle of a wooded tract of land, where we emerge from our metal prison into the fresh summer air. We can breathe, and have made it through Serb enemy lines into Bosnian controlled territory. Here we are met by a UN car and driver from the Zenica office, who will take us to our destination. The driver winds his way along back roads to avoid another front line, that of the Croatian army, which controls part of central Bosnia. The road trip, in peacetime less than an hour, will take us 3 hours, and travel through three front lines. This is my first glimpse of what it looks like to navigate inside the war zone.