Convoy to Sarajevo

Copyright I. Leadley 1994

2. The Mountain

It was a warm and sunny ten a.m. as we passed slowly through the little village of Lokve. The small Mosque, battered by artillery fire, stood beside the road; and many of the little houses clustered around it bore witness to the shot and shell of this unholy war. Small children clung to their mother's ankle long dresses, and the few remaining young men and elders of this tiny hamlet, eyed us suspiciously. Well they might. The only trucks that ever came this way were the engines of war, bent on death and destruction, not a welcome visitor! Then they read the writing on the doors of our cabs. `Humanitarna Pomoc' Humanitarian Aid. The looks on their faces softened a little and their thoughts turned to matters other than war.

We never saw them do it. We never even noticed any activity behind us. Two young men climbed onto the back of the last truck in the convoy (mine!) and undid the sheets to get inside. They must have thrown out about a dozen food parcels before we cleared the village. Having done their bit for the local economy, they settled down in the back of the truck, to enjoy their ride to wherever it was they (mistakenly) thought we were going. I wonder, if they had known our ultimate destination, would have been so keen to join us?

Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and we blissfully wound our way up the ever narrowing road, climbing the lower slopes of a mountain whose name will remain engraved on my heart forever. In our cabs, we watched the dusty landscape turn to greenery, and the clear sky become overcast and leaden. Our ten ton, four wheel drive trucks made easy work of the rough mountain track. They churned happily through the mud holes and bounced playfully over the rocks and ruts of the potholed track. In the back of my truck, the two stowaways munched happily on chocolate bars from Sweden.

It started to snow. Gently at first, but then with a determination that was worrying. In our innocence (inexperience?) we had not come prepared for these conditions. As the convoy `wagon master', I was responsible for making sure that the vehicles and their crews were in a fit condition to make whatever journey they were called on to undertake. Having consulted with the UN and with my immediate superior, neither of whom had considered us at risk from snow and ice, I had not prepared for the conditions we now faced.

Our first encounter with Mount Igman was a gentle warning from the monster on whose rocky slopes we had dared to drive. On a left hand bend that had a thin covering of ice, (the temperature was down to -5c) the truck in front of me slid gracefully off the road and settled down comfortably with one wheel hanging over the edge of a small slope. Not a long drop, just a few feet in fact, but enough to keep us busy for the next three quarters of an hour with shovels and tow ropes. We fitted the five sets of snow chains that we did have, and carried on. We had to. There wasn't enough room on the narrow mountain track to turn the trucks around. On one side, a steep cliff face, and on the other, a drop of hundreds of feet. In the back of my truck, my two hitch hikers remained undetected.

Carefully we inched our way along the icy road; slipping and sliding and not daring to think about the consequences of going off the track completely. In places the drop off the mountain was hundreds of feet, with nothing to stop a tumbling truck. Whilst negotiating my truck through a very narrow section of the track, I had a choice of either going right to the edge, or scraping a rock outcrop with the canvas sides of the Bedford. Having had seven other trucks, at ten tons a piece, run along it, the track edge looked a decidedly unattractive proposition. I weighed up the pro's and con's and decided to try and steer a middle course through the problem. Unfortunately the mountain had other ideas. Just as I was passing the outcrop, the rear wheels of the truck slid off an ice covered rock, bringing my truck, 'Victoria' and the rock face together, ripping her canvas sides and spilling several boxes of Swedish generosity onto the ground.

Cursing both my own lack of observation, and the situation in general, I dismounted to survey the damage at the back of the vehicle. John Cox whom I was following, had witnessed the incident in his mirrors, and came to see if he could assist in any way. Then we noticed that the rear fastenings were undone. Yes, I had checked them that morning, and Yes, they were OK then. I climbed up into the back of the truck. Cans of food lay scattered about me and the wrappers of chocolate bars littered the place. Opened boxes were everywhere. Crouching behind a screen of these empty boxes were my two passengers. Angrily I demanded that they get out. One of them advanced on his hands and knees (there's not much room in a loaded truck) with a knife in his hand. Not a knife for slicing Swedish canned cheese you must understand, more the sort of knife for slicing English driver! I backed off and climbed out of the truck.

Assuring him we meant them no harm (if I'd had a pistol, I'd have quite happily shot him) we let him and his colleague dismount from the truck. Just a frightened youth trying to escape the consequences of his dishonest actions. I don't blame him. If the local military, had discovered the two youths, they would have shot them as looters. Starving communities can be quite touchy about people stealing their food. I forced a smile and told him to put away his knife, and to my relief he did just that. I relieved his friend of a bag of sugar, (35DMs on the black market) and a bottle of cooking oil (30 DMs) and sent them on their way.

I went back to the cab to get a (smaller) knife to cut away the remnants of the rear sheet. On returning to the rear of the truck, I found our local knifeman busy filling his pockets once again. The knife was still tucked into the waistband of his trousers, so the sound of my fist against the side of his head was as satisfying a sound as I could have wished to hear. Spilling his loot on the ground, he scampered up the road, leaving John and I to clear up the mess, and salvage the scattered tins and packets.

Twenty minutes later the snow had stopped falling, leaving the road, such as it was, covered with a treacherous combination of ice and wet snow. It was just at this moment that another of our trucks slithered to the edge of the precipice, and a rear wheel sank into the soft shoulder of the cliff edge. Poised between the hellish highway and the beckoning valley, 'Sarah Jane' had an air of desperation about her as we fitted a tow rope between her and the truck in front. After a prayer, I climbed into the cab to coax her back onto the road, and with a little help from the other truck, she responded to my pleading and my prayers.

Sarah Jane hanging over the edge

Within five minutes and two hundred metres, she was back on the cliff edge. Again we had to battle against the combined forces of gravity and Mount Igman's determination to bring about our downfall. Once again `Sarah Jane' clawed her way heroically back onto the ice covered track. Minutes later it was `Princess' that was threatening to crash hundreds of feet down the mountain to destruction. For the third time I looked over the edge of the mountain from a cab window and surveyed the possibilities. I'd seen better. One wheel in mid air, the other three on ice No snow chains and the off road design of the tyres about as much use on ice as a fire extinguisher is in Hell. The mountain track, from the cliff edge, to the towering rock face, less than fifteen feet wide. The drop, a sheer five hundred. I took my only option. Another prayer, another tow and with much churning of tyres, `Princess' slithered her way back on to the road.

By now the drivers were, understandably, keeping well away from the cliff edge. Between the rock face and the hard surface of the track was a soft muddy area, about eighteen inches wide, where water running down the rock face had turned the ground into a quagmire. The inevitable happened. One of the trucks sank up to its axles in the mud. Again we shovelled and towed and again one of our precious trucks fought it's way back onto the road. How long would it be before we had a disaster? How long before one of the trucks went over the edge and was lost? The answer, as it happens, turned out to be thirty five minutes.

Disaster Strikes! Then on to Sarajevo

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