Convoy to Sarajevo

Copyright I. Leadley 1994

This is dedicated to the memory of Niel (Ibrahim) 'Mad Jock' Golightly, a stubborn Trucker, who found his
destiny on Mount Igman running the blockade of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War

This is an account of a few days during the war in Bosnia, there are no lurid descriptions of the atrocities that were so common, just a personal account of a couple of days experienced by myself and a few other Aid Workers during April 1994. When the United Nations could not find a way to get into Sarajevo, we did. It's probably of not much interest to any one who was not there at the time, or was in some way involved, but it's a small piece of the history of the 20th Century and it's publication along with others (that describe the horrors of war during this period of time), may help to provoke thoughts in others at a future date, and so prevent further large scale violence.

It was a warm spring afternoon in April, and I was sitting on a beach on the Dalmatian Riviera. I was working for a Humanitarian Aid organization called 'Convoy of Mercy', as their fleet manager. We had four ex-Army Bedford MK trucks, which we had been using for the past three months to ferry food and medical supplies into Central Bosnia. Our work had taken us into places that were being highlighted by the world's press as centre's of death and destruction, the likes of which had not been seen in Europe since the 1940's. It also brought us into contact with some of the large organizations that were financed by governments, and various religious groups. One of these was Caritas, the aid arm of the Roman Catholic Church, and they now featured in the conversation that I was engaged in. Neil Golightly, my boss, and the Senior Field Officer, or 'Convoy Leader' of our outfit, had come over and was sitting next to me, as I was soaking up the spring sunshine.

"How are we fixed to take forty tons into Sarajevo?" He asked. Funny how you can go from the sublime to the ridiculous in one easy sentence, isn't it?

It's not every day that you have to expedite such a request. Sarajevo was under siege by the Bosnian Serb Army, and had been for over two years! The only way in or out was by air, on the flights that supplied the UN forces, or on the UNHCR convoy's that the Serbs let through or not, according to their whim. As you may imagine, the situation inside Sarajevo was desperate, and although people were not starving to death, malnutrition was a way of life for civilian and soldier alike.

As we had no affiliation with the UN we were not bound by their regulations, nor were we entitled to any help from them. This left us free to operate where ever we wished, but we had to look after ourselves. Sometimes we were assisted by the various army units, especially the Malaysians, (Malbat) who were stationed in Jablanica and Konjic, and by the British Army, (Britbat) in Vitez. We had gained something of a reputation amongst the other, larger UN affiliated organizations, for whom we often used to carry aid, of being able to go where others could not.

Hence the request by Caritas to attempt to access Sarajevo.

Neil's query about forty tons was a tall order. We only had four trucks at that time, and with a maximum payload of five tons per truck, twenty tons was our limit. Another small outfit, The Bosnian Aid Committee of Oxford, with whom we often worked, had four trucks, so we decided we would approach them with the intention of pressing them into service to provide the rest of the convoy. Understandably they wanted details of what our proposed plan of action was, and so Neil and I hosted a dinner party of pasta and tinned tuna fish. Over instant coffee, we filled them in on what we had in mind.

When Neil had first mentioned to me that he wanted to go into Sarajevo, he had shown me some dotted lines on a map, that were, according to the legend `Horse Tracks'. Several of them joined together to make a network of paths that led over a mountain from Tarcin, to Hrasnica (a suburb of Sarajevo) a distance of some twenty kilometres or so. That mountain is Mount Igman. By road it was impossible to get into Sarajevo, without crossing Serb lines. Even if permission was granted to cross their lines, the Serbs invariably took half of the load of the convoy, to `ensure equal distribution of Humanitarian Aid to both Serb, and Muslim civilians'. In reality, it was a just a way of reducing the amount of food reaching the surrounded civilian population of the enclaves. It had the added bonus, of course, of feeding their troops, and the civilian Bosnian Serb families that lived in their territories. These territories were connected to the outside world via the `Brcko Corridor', to Belgrade, and Serbia proper. Logistics were not a problem for the Bosnian Serbs in those days and their army and their people were well fed and supplied, unlike the poor unfortunates in the besieged towns and cities. The necessity of reaching Sarajevo without losing half of our cargo (at each Serb Check point) did not have to be explained to the drivers and crews that were present at our social evening.

We all knew the realities of this war. We chewed over the problems, and discussed the probabilities, and then concluded that if any one could do it, we could. We had our Bedford trucks, and experienced drivers. We had Neil to lead us, (his abilities in speaking the local language, and bluffing his way through checkpoints, were becoming legendary), and we had the element of surprise.

What we had not reckoned on was the weather, and the bloody mindedness of Mount Igman!

We had studied the maps and the situation reports from the UN briefings we went to in Split, and indeed, there appeared to be no way in. Until we cross referenced those dotted lines Neil had found on a commercial road map with the UN maps it looked impossible. It was at this point we discovered that the Serb lines would be very close to our route in some places. What we did not realize at the time was that in some places we would be only twenty metres from their trenches. We did realize, however, that at several points along the route, we would be within easy reach of Serb weaponry. The general consensus of opinion was that we had all come to The Balkans to work, realizing such situations would arise, and that we were all willing to go on such a trip.

So it was that on the morning of the 4th of April, 1994, the combined resources of Convoy of Mercy, and the Bosnian Aid Committee of Oxford, began loading forty tons of food parcels from Sweden, at the Caritas warehouse in Split. From here we drove to the dock area of Split; where we completed Customs formalities. Our brief from Caritas was to make it to Sarajevo if we could, or if not, we were to divert to whatever Aid distribution centres we thought fit, and deliver the food to them instead. At the time, none of us really thought we would fail to get to Sarajevo, but there was a fair amount of talk about the possibility of not being able to get out again. You can surprise someone with an unexpected move once, but trying to do the same thing again; two days later, won't work! We could well be joining the good citizens of Sarajevo in their incarceration.

The next day, we set off: Along the Dalmatian Highway, past Omis and Ploce to Metkovic where we crossed the old Croatian/Bosnian border, then on to Doljani. Here we sat around for an hour or two, whilst Neil negotiated the border crossing with the (Croat) guards. They were always reluctant to let us cross as they regarded the recipients of the Aid we were carrying as their natural enemies, and they begrudged them every ounce of it. However, the United Nations would have to be answered to if we were denied access, and an explanation would have to be given to Caritas. You must remember that Croatia is a staunchly Roman Catholic country, and the Church is a very powerful force there. We were carrying aid for Caritas, and so we were their agent. Turning us back at the border would have been a career move (downwards) for the brave official who would take responsibility.

We travelled onwards; out of Croatian occupied Bosnia, or 'Hertsog Bosna' as Croatia likes to call it, and into Bosnia. Through ancient Mostar, and on to the little front line town of Jablanica. By now it was late afternoon, and we wanted to make it to the Malaysian Battalion H.Q. in the town of Konjic before dark. No one travelled at night in Bosnia if they could possibly avoid it. To do so attracted the attention of the bandit gangs that haunted the deserted areas adjacent to the confrontation lines. Even a large convoy like ours, unless it was armed, could easily fall prey to these modern day Highwaymen with their AK-47's. After a brief stop for a coffee break, we pushed on to Konjic through the failing daylight and it was with a sense of relief that we turned into the sandbagged and razor wire gateway that was the entrance to the Malbat HQ in Konjic. Once inside we were relatively safe. Only the occasional 105mm shell threatened the security of this oasis of sanity and military order.

The Malaysians welcomed us, and after showing us to the truck park, they allocated us two of the large tents that made up the village they had set up inside a huge warehouse. They then showed us the showers and then where the canteen was. Much to everyone's delight, Chicken Curry and Rice was the star turn on the menu. `The best Chicken Curry in Bosnia' was Guy Hovey's verdict. He was right. It was also probably the only Chicken Curry in Bosnia! We were clean, fed and had a bed for the night. Morale was restored after a long and tiring day. We turned in for the night, and as I lay in my sleeping bag, my thoughts went ahead to the problems that could face us the next day. Little did I, or any of us realise what we were in for.

The next morning, after a six o' clock breakfast, we checked over our trucks, and topped up the engine oil and coolant. By seven, we were winding our way up into the mountainous country side that is the beautiful heart of Bosnia, and on our way to Tarcin, and Mount Igman.

The weather changes for the worse, and the convoy is heading up onto Mount Igman with the Serb guns looming.... join us on the mountain!

Continued here....