Seeking peace in Sarajevo

Issue 

MANRICO MORO came to Australia from his native Italy 17 years ago. Before that, he used regularly to visit Yugoslavia. He "remembered Yugoslavia as a nice place for holidays, a bit poorer than Italy, but much cheaper, and much more orderly". When he had the opportunity to visit Italy again, he decided to try to see for himself what was happening in former Yugoslavia. In Italy he read that a Catholic left-

wing peace group was planning to travel into Yugoslavia and hold a demonstration in Sarajevo on December 10, International Human Rights Day. He went to see the main organiser, a priest, who, without hiding the danger involved, said he was welcome along. What follows is a short diary of the trip.

Day 1, December 7

4:30 a.m. We are waiting at Padova train station. The bus is not here yet. The people joining our group from smaller towns in the mountains are coming by train. Train strikes have been announced. There are some well-wishers, no police. It's so cold. We talk about Italian union politics, the general strike of October 2. Our friends arrive on the train. The army is keeping some trains running. The bus arrives. I don't really believe we will get to Sarajevo, but I'm too sleepy to keep the discussion going.

2 p.m. We are in Ancona. Port city in central Italy. The ship will take us from here to Split in Croatia, where buses have been hired for us. Now we see the size of our group: 500 people, from all over Italy, about 20 from Spain, a small English-speaking group. There are two bishops, five Italian members of parliament, 40 priests and four nuns and 20 reporters travelling with us. The whole thing looks very disorganised.

We have a general meeting. I am asked to translate for the English speakers. The demonstration had been invited by a Sarajevo peace group, but now we get the message: the bombing is intensifying, please reconsider your trip. We decide to proceed step by step. At every point we will re-evaluate the project.

9 p.m. We embark on the Liburnija. We should be in Split in eight hours.

11 p.m. A tremendous storm hits us.

Day 2, December 8

2 a.m. There are 20 cm of water in the cabins. The waves are smashing the glass doors and windows, and the large steel

ferry doors are starting to give way. Almost everyone, including the crew, is sick. Our medical team can't cope any more. I learn about terror.

6 p.m. After 12 hours' delay, the Liburnija manages to reach Split. We get a message from the Italian government urging us to abandon the trip. We are told there is no accommodation in Split. We clear customs quickly, get onto our buses and are driven to Makarska. The Croatian government is letting us sleep in a hotel that has been requisitioned as a hospital for soldiers who have lost their legs. We meet some of them. There are cannons in the grounds of the hotel.

Day 3, December 9

We are starting to become a more cohesive and organised group. Surviving the ship voyage helped.

Another general meeting. People are starting to be afraid. There are the first discussions about stopping. Back to the affinity groups for discussion. Our group votes to go on. Representatives of each group (the "speakers") meet again. Surprising result: we are all going.

More news of fighting in Sarajevo. But the Croatian government will give us two police cars as escorts. People from town wave us off. We talk to a young woman. She says we are brave, and she is happy we have come, but next time we should bring people who are trained to fight in the mountains to help break the siege of Sarajevo. We put peace banners on the buses: Italian, English, Serbo-Croatian. Italian TV films us leaving Makarska.

6 p.m. The word on the buses is that the Croatian police are trying to delay our arrival to Sarajevo. Hours and hours. We are now in the war zones. When the buses stop we have to pee on the side of the road, we can't go in the bushes because there are mines. The police cars get us through most checkpoints quickly. We pass maybe twenty checkpoints. The uniforms change (these are the famous irregular armies), but the Croatian flags are the same. We enter Mostar at night. There is electricity, but the place is a mess. Nearly every house has been hit. Welcome to Bosnia-Hercegovina.

We get to Kiseljak late at night. This town has not been hit by the war. The mayor places the high school at our disposal for the night. This is where the UN convoys leave from to go into Sarajevo. We drive past the depot. Dozens of tanks and trucks, all white with the blue flag.

There is a police station on the other side of the road from the school. It flies the Croatian flag. The sign says we are in the Croat Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia. We go to the pub, then

sleep in the classrooms.

We are 28 kilometres from Sarajevo.

Day 4, December 10, International Human Rights Day

The organisers of the peace march are busily negotiating with the various military forces to get permission to get to Sarajevo. The UN forces are not really interested.

The fighting is continuing in Sarajevo. We spend the day being tourists and talking with the locals. Kiseljak was a tiny town before the war. It grew with the influx of refugees and with the war business of the UN convoys.

Many of the affinity groups are starting to openly criticise the whole project. It doesn't look like we will get through, and why do we have this cosy relationship with the Croatian government and military?

A demonstration is organised in the evening. We march to the town square. Many of the local population join in, including some armed soldiers, on leave from the front. We learn a Serbo-Croatian peace song: "Mir mir mir / Do neba / Do moga noreda / Kada se probude / Da rata ne bude".

Unfortunately among the 500 peace activists there are a few idiots: they let off a couple of firecrackers at the end of the song. In a few minutes the soldiers in the hills are answering with grenades. Later the soldiers shoot their machine guns into the air, right outside the school windows. The shooting continues through part of the night.

Day 5, December 11

5 a.m. We are ready. All packed. Another general meeting.

We will try to follow the UN convoy into Sarajevo. We will have to lie down in the buses as we pass the last four kilometres, "snipers road" and "the highway of death". We have to protect our heads with our arms. We have to keep our mouths open, to stop the head exploding if we are hit. If a bus is hit by a grenade, the other nine buses will not stop. If a bus is hit by rifle fire, it will not stop. If someone is hit in Sarajevo, it is best not to try to rescue them, as the snipers will shoot again. If we are under grenade attack, lie down behind a wall.

The UN convoy has left without us. We go on. The Croatian checkpoint is no problem. We wave to the soldiers. The Serbian checkpoint stops us. We have no permission to go on. A machine gun is pointed at the driver of the first bus.

We go back a stop in neutral territory, between two minefields

near two houses. The organisers go back to talk to the Serbian military. The people from the houses come out to give us coffee. There are mortars firing on the hill next to us. The drivers are afraid, but they are offered lunch and decide to stay. I'm afraid, but angry at being stopped so close to Sarajevo.

3 p.m. No news. The second and last UN convoy for the day trundles past. We have missed our chance. People are saying they will march to the Serbian checkpoint and stay there all night if necessary. The battle in the hills continues. The tension is evident, it is getting dark, the news crews are gathering to interview us.

4 p.m. It is dark and very cold. The UN convoy comes back from Sarajevo. News arrives: The Serbian military are afraid we will be killed and that they will be blamed. They want each person to sign a statement saying that if we are wounded it is our responsibility, and that we will leave in one day. We sign.

5 p.m. Our signatures have been verified. An official invite from the Bosnian government has arrived from Sarajevo. In the dark the 10 buses start out towards the Serbian checkpoint. "You are mad", we are told by the English news crew, and they have an armoured car!

The Serbian soldiers are tense, but they let us through. The Serbian military police are more tense. They keep machine guns pointed at us. They question one woman with a Serbian passport and a Muslim name. She is really scared and whispers to us: "Don't leave without me!". The military police let her back on the bus. They are looking for weapons and walkie-

talkies. They confiscate one bag of medicines, and we are through.

There is a Serbian police car in front now. We drive very slowly. The snipers shoot twice above the roof of the last bus. The snipers are living in houses 20 metres from the road. They can't miss 10 buses.

We stop again, just past the famous airport. The Bosnian checkpoint. We move again quickly. Past the UN depot at the airport. There is a Bosnian police car in front now. We are in Sarajevo.

There is no electricity. All the buildings are bombed. We are in the centre of town. There is some shooting around. We keep stopping. The intersections are dangerous. We can't go to the stadium, as it is being bombed.

We stop in front of the presidential palace. Many people come out of the bombed buildings to talk to us. Soldiers get onto

the buses to welcome us. We give them our chocolate and cigarettes. We are the first large group of civilians to come to Sarajevo since the start of the war. We are the first people to come in at night.

The Bosnian president comes to welcome us. They give us a school for the night. Nearly all the windows are smashed. There is a lot of shooting around, machine guns and grenades. We have to get organised for the night in the dark. There is no water. The toilets are a problem.

The organisers and the "speakers" have a meeting on the stairs. Some soldiers take a small group from our bus out to a bar for drinks and songs. I go around making sure everyone keeps the torches switched off: we can't afford to be hit by a grenade, as we are too tightly packed.

I go to bed. The Bosnian police outside the front door are having a machine gun battle with the people on the hill. There are grenades landing further away.

Day 6, December 12

We are woken by cannon shots. Much louder and much more frightening than grenades.

We are now well organised, like a little army. Quick speakers' meeting. We pack. We donate all our extra food and supplies to the Sarajevo peace group for distribution to the population. There are still 300,000 people in Sarajevo, so it's a drop in the ocean, but the thought does count.

We are split into four groups of about 120 each. Each group travels with Bosnian guides and interpreters to a religious service. One to the Catholic church, one to the mosque, one to the synagogue, ours to the Orthodox church.

People come out of the buildings to hug and kiss us. many are crying. Our group sings out "Mir" — peace. The people of Sarajevo reply "Slobodan" — freedom.

The town is a mess. Containers barricade the most dangerous intersections. Most buildings are badly hit, some burned out. Only two or three shops remain operating: bread, newspapers, some vegetables.

The children shake from the cold; the old people look bewildered. A few cars race past. They are riddled with bullet holes. One is a Croatian police car: Bosnia and Croatia are formally allies.

We do a quick run through the centre of town. Luckily it's

foggy, so the snipers can't see well. But they keep shooting.

We get to the cinema, our main event. There is no electricity, so our candles and the TV cameras provide the light. The leaders of the religious communities, the Bosnian president, the president of the Sarajevo peace centre, our organisers all give speeches between songs.

I can't really cope, so I go outside. Lots of people are outside, peace activists and locals mingling, swapping addresses. One of our Italian doctors has found his girlfriend, who lives in Sarajevo. Children are excited about the chocolate bars and ninja turtles they have just received.

I talk to some partisans (that's how they describe themselves). They are wearing small yellow tags with the Bosnian flag. They tell me that Sarajevo is not about to fall or surrender, that to lose they all have to be killed. They say they are happy we have come, but that it will not stop the war. The grenade attacks are getting closer and more numerous. I'm getting more used to it but it's very scary.

One English peace activist says that we could go stand between the town and the mountain. The young partisan replies that we will die if we do it.

They ask for three things: First, political support for an independent Bosnia with a regional government, one currency and one army. Second, weapons. Third, food, medicine and other humanitarian aid.

Inside the cinema, the speakers are saying very similar things. They want Bosnia to have the same rights as Croatia and Serbia. They want Bosnia to have the right to defend itself. They point out that Sarajevo is a multicultural town, and those defending it belong to all religious and ethnic groups. The desire for peace is strong, but peace must come with freedom and independence.

A young woman tells one of the bishops travelling with us that the best present we could give her is a rifle.

We travel back to the buses. The bombing is continuing. A young Sarajevo woman with her two children is on one of the buses. She refuses to leave, and we take her with us.