02 | Sarajevo Training | Fall 1993 | Part 2 – "Maybe" Airlines
This isn't my first trip into Bosnia, to the Sarajevo airport, but it is my first into the city of Sarajevo itself. I feel more daunted in anticipation of this one. My other trip had been dangerous, anxiety ridden, but brief and contained. It was one thing to face three days on a dangerous mission for the UNHCR, under their auspices and in their vehicles, into the front lines in central Bosnia. But this trip is for one week, and it’s just Claudia and I with the assistance of some generous aid organizations. Also, since the last trip I’ve grown even more attached to the physical comforts of Zagreb; water, electricity, plenty of food, coffee and sidewalk cafes, trams and taxi's, telephones, just for starters. Can I really make it for a week make without those things? Well, good that I'm going in then. I don't want to be prisoner to the fear of losing those comforts in a world where they can go up in smoke in a moment's time. In Bosnia suddenly, inexplicably, all conditions dear to human life have been swept away; safety, food, water, fuel, homes, families, friends, country, the future all imagined. I have talked the good talk about letting go. Now I’ll see if I can walk my talk on even the most elemental level. Better to rush headlong into my fears, than spend my life hiding out from them. I remember a young Bosnian man I met on my last trip saying, "Before the war, we in Sarajevo thought electricity was a necessity. Now we know that it is a convenience." I want to stand where he does, to be able to let go with some degree of grace, with dignity, with humor.
Claudia and I board the empty cargo plane. Then come the UN Peacekeeping Forces, the Blue Helmets. Next the containers of cargo are loaded. As we take off, the roar of the engines is deafening. I survey the cavernous airship, a Russian made Ilyushin 76. Fitting name for the carrier on this ghostly voyage into Sarajevo. I have to pinch myself. Is this really happening? What circumstances have conspired to bring me, an ordinary, female, Jewish, North American psychotherapist, nearing my 50th year, here, strapped in along with the troops on a humanitarian mission into the war zone?
Hulking containers, each the size of a small room, fill the center of the plane from nose to tail, leaving little space for anything else. Which is as it should be. All else is incidental, including mental health types like myself. Food, blankets, tents, medicine; relief supplies for those under siege in their own homes, in refugee and displaced person camps. Some will go to the UN designated “safe havens,” those zones supposedly, but tragically not really protected from enemy armies. Bosnian civilians in the war zone are forced to entrust their safety into the hands of these young foreign peacekeepers, some still showing traces of adolescence. How could we know then that the Bosnian populace would be reduced to starvation and eating grass? That for almost four years they would be shot dead by snipers as they line up at the few available sources for water? That they would need to break up parquet floors and antique furniture for fuel to prepare food and stay warm in the harsh upcoming winter?
One partly open container brazenly exhibits its contents. There is beer, Scotch whiskey, laundry detergent, American cigarettes, chocolate bars, obvious stocks for the UN troops. While the Bosnians are starving, we do well at keeping the boys happy. But in their own way the troops are prisoners too, peacekeepers in a land ubiquitously at war, they themselves often in the hands of ineffective commanders beholden to politically motivated governments. As compensation they have American dollars and German marks. Twenty-seven French troops lie sprawled in various degrees of sleep on the scanty wooden seats lining the plane on both sides. Long limbs wind around flak jackets, helmets, and duffels, wedged in the small space left by the containers. They are youngsters, some still downy checked, pimply faced, and at this angle might be taken more for boy scouts than soldiers. I wonder what they think, if they think, about the duty they've signed on for. Are they idealistic, humanitarian, freedom loving? No doubt some are. How about potential black marketeers, sex abusers and traffickers? I shudder to think. And their commanders, will they have the guts to stand strong when faced with evil? And how did I get here, on a United Nations airlift into Bosnia? Why me, one of two civilians on board, enthroned on this huge beast like some sort of precious cargo? What do I have to offer, taking up space on this desperate mission? Always questions and doubts. As we prepare to deplane an officer instructs us to wear our flak jackets (I do), and helmets (I don't have one). A lot of good this flak jacket is going to do me if I get my head blown off. Fortunately, we're moving too quickly for me to indulge this idle speculation. We're being herded, swiftly and quietly, across the tarmac toward a huge pile of dirt bolstered by sandbags and corrugated metal. I keep waiting to see the airport, which I know was modern, European, the entry point for many thousands of visitors for the 1984 Winter Olympics. With a start, I realize that this is it. There is no terminal building; it was destroyed by shelling. No airlines, other than the UN's "Maybe” Airlines. The major lifeline, linking the outside world to this city of 400,000, is right here. The tenuousness of the whole thing sends a shiver up my spine. Waiting for our ride to the PTT building, formerly the Sarajevo Post, Telephone and Telegraph, now the barracks for the UN troops, also housing the United Nations and other relief agencies, I take a moment to look around. From my burrow in this mountain of dirt, I can see what remains of the airport control tower. Walls gutted with shell holes, windows broken and boarded up, roof covered with TV and radio antennae, a satellite dish. And above it all, flying, somewhat dejectedly, the pale blue and white United Nations flag, symbol of an international no-man's land. Only UN soldiers, the press, and humanitarian relief workers can come and go freely here. Where for so many years a mosaic of nationalities proudly flourished, now those of no nationality hold sway.