Recently in War Stories Category

War Stories - Olympic torch

I have quite a few Sarajevo stories bouncing around my head that I have wanted to record on this blog along with their corresponding snapshots; however, since December I have been distracted by…other things.

Regular installments will return soon, with the next one featuring public defecation behind a bombed out car and razor-wire-shredded clothing, but for now here is one of my favorite pics.

Olympic torch framed by tank and razorwire

I think what strikes me about this one is how the Olympic torch is supposed to be a powerful symbol of peace, of nations putting aside their differences to come together in friendly competition. Yet here, just a decade after the Sarajevo Winter Games, the torch was a tragic reminder of innocence lost, standing amidst the machines of war and a devastated Olympic sports complex that was now a base of operations for an occupying army.

On the left, we have a Turkish tank, ironic considering that Sarajevo (Saraj Ovas or “Castle Field” in Turkish) was occupied by the Ottoman Empire until 1878. On the right, a British Royal Engineer works dangerously close to twisted coils of razor wire. In the foreground, overgrown greenery hides a dangerous minefield, and in the background sit the hills from which sniper fire and mortar rounds rained down for years.

Postcards from Sarajevo

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They have been sitting in various boxes in various closets for close to a decade—a collection of twenty-two postcards that I bought in a makeshift post exchange near the Sarajevo airport while I was serving as part of IFOR (the NATO-commanded Dayton Peace Accords implementation forces).

Created and printed under wartime conditions by a group of artists who called themselves TRIO Sarajevo, these postcards re-imagined images from advertisements and Western pop-culture with the goal of raising awareness of the plight of besieged Sarajevans.

Framed mounting of 22 Trio Sarajevo postcards

I regret that I do not have the entire series; there are at least thirty-six of them. The ones I do have, though, are quite visually striking. I have been wanting to mount them for some time, and finally summoned the motivation a few weeks ago. It cost me about $200 worth of supplies and about eight hours to arrange (and rearrange) the irregularly-sized cards. The custom-sized frame, glass, and gray matte are from Michaels Arts and Crafts.

I did not originally intend for this to be a double matte, but my initial dimensional calculations were a bit off. Of course, there are no mistakes in art—the universe just takes art in unexpected directions every so often. I bevel-cut a white matte to size this evening and placed it under the gray one, and I quite like the way it looks now.

FYI, a Google search revealed a few more links about the TRIO Sarajevo postcards.

War Stories - Dining in Sarajevo

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Visitors to the main page of this site should recognize the stone statues that frame the doorway in the photograph below. This doorway is so replete with fascinating detail, I could very well imagine it as the backdrop for some silver screen narrative. The burnt-out, broken neon “METRO” sign with its askew letter “E” adds to the film noir semblance of the edifice. Weighed down by the alcove above, the slightly larger-than-life stone statues, a cross between Greek classicism and socialist industrialism, seem like they would be at home in a Tim Burton film. What stories could these chiseled giants, given life’s breath, bear witness to?

Two soldiers in front of Metro doorway

In the lower left corner of the photo is a German shepherd who became somewhat of an unofficial mascot of our task force. In an environment where food is scarce, like war-torn Sarajevo, a dog is a nuisance; he is an unwelcome scavenger—yelled at, chased away, a target of angrily-thrown projectiles. Among the American soldiers, though, he found friendly greetings, scraps of food, and loving hands stroking his fur. Given the chance, this grateful canine would have followed us to Hell and back.

Turned toward the camera is Julie, a reservist, fellow artist, chess player, masseuse, and native Chicagoan, who also happens to be a convenient segue into the focus of this latest installment of my Sarajevo photos thread.

When we first arrived in Sarajevo, our leaders strongly enforced the “buddy system” for all incursions into the city and its environs. We could not sortie in parties of less than two, and each member had to be in uniform and armed. Anyone packing just a pistol had to have someone with a rifle alongside him or her.

The spring thaw brought a relaxed atmosphere to the city and a corresponding relaxation in regulations. We could now venture out and about in civilian clothing and leave our rifles behind as long as at least one member of the group agreed to be the “designated rifleman,” dressed, of course, in that stylish woodland camouflage battle dress uniform (BDU) that blends so well with the urban landscape.

War Stories - Welcome to Sarajevo

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This entry is a continuation of my Sarajevo photos thread. I have had a bit more time to digitize the decade-old cache of photos from my time in Sarajevo, so expect more of these detours down memory lane in the coming weeks.

Most of my photos are springtime shots, because I did not have the freedom to move about Sarajevo with a camera during the winter.

Upon first glance at the charming beauty of the Sarajevo skyline, it is easy to forget that this proud city was devastated by four years of brutal siege warfare. From the orange-shingled roofs of the old town, to the swiss-cheese-windowed office buildings in the distance, to the white and black minarets that dot the landscape; the capital and largest city of Bosnia and Herzegovina is breathtaking.

Panorama of Sarajevo skyline

In the spring of 1996, we were just beginning to see the signs of the rebuilding effort all around us—construction of new buildings, repair of old ones, new businesses popping up, patching of massive potholes left by mortar shells, civilian vehicles returning to the streets, reestablishment of municipal services like the tramway system. I have such a strong desire to return to Sarajevo as a tourist to see the progress that they have made over the last decade.

Downtown Sarajevo with nice view of Miljacka River

My fondest memories of Sarajevo include waking up at the crack of dawn so that I could run down to Marshal Tito Boulevard to jog alongside the Miljacka River. My route usually started near the site where Gavrilo Princep assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, and where I ended up in this fascinating, historic city was anyone’s guess.

One of the most dramatic symbols of the shift from a wartime Sarajevo to a peacetime Sarajevo was the removal of the sniper barriers from the intersections. I regret not having any photos of these. Usually, they were massive railway cars, placed in a staggered pattern, which required us to follow a weaving, zig-zag pattern as we drove around.

Another view of Sarajevo skyline

Lush green, rural hills surround the urban heart of Sarajevo. Unfortunately, death rained from these hills for four long years. It was far too easy for a sniper to sit, safely obscured in a building on a hill, earning the bounty that he or she would collect after taking out innocent civilians below. During the winter, snipers occasionally fired at our vehicles, but a few holes and dents in our Humvees was the worst damage they were ever able to inflict on us. Fortunately, a universal desire to return to normalcy meant that such hostilities became less and less frequent.

Green hills around Sarajevo

Coming soon: the perils of jogging in Sarajevo, Mad Max Beyond Zetra Stadium, the first time I brought an automatic rifle on a date, and more.

War Stories - Intro

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I have a vast assortment of interesting and unique photos from the months that I spent in Sarajevo as part of the NATO-led peace Implementation Force (IFOR) back in 1995-1996. I have wanted to post them online since I started blogging (hence the “War Stories” category) but have not had the time. Rather than upload them all at once, every so often I will take a break from my day-to-day ramblings, and I will post a few pics at a time, with an accompanying story. The stories will not have any linear narrative flow, but will be random tidbits and observations that I will loosely tie to the photos.

Operation Joint Endeavor has become somewhat of a historical footnote, due, in part, to the comparatively minimal casualties (thank God) and overall success of the mission; however, for the deployed soldiers and for the residents of the former Yugoslavia, it was a significant, life-altering event. We shape history by the stories we tell, and it is my hope that my stories are informative and entertaining.

It was around this time nine years ago that members of my unit first heard rumblings that the latest peace agreement was the real thing after a seemingly endless string of ignored treaties and failed cease fires. The warring parties hammered out these accords and initialed them in Dayton, Ohio, of all places, on November 21. Our superiors told us to get our affairs in order because we would not be spending Christmas in North Carolina; we left for Stuttgart via commercial airliner on December 11 (no drafty, noisy C-141 for us special ops types). I spent the holidays at Panzer Kaserne (“Tank Base”) in Böblingen, Germany, and didn’t get to fly into Bosnia until a month later.

Because we were a psychological operations (propaganda) unit, our primary mission was to get the word out that NATO, unlike the impotent United Nations Protection Force, would respond to any hostility with proportional retaliation. It was also our responsibility to explain the mind-numbing, garrulous legalese of the peace accords to a confused, paranoid, war-weary populace. Our secondary mission was to support the United Nations Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), with campaigns such as mine awareness, war criminal “wanted posters,” etc.

Michael hands out propaganda on the streets of Sarajevo

In the photo above, a handsome young soldier and future blogger, clad in woodland camo body armor and Kevlar helmet, pretends to hand out mine awareness leaflets to a young resident of Sarajevo who agreed to pose for our photo. Unlike our compatriots stationed up north in Tuzla, we never wore our body armor around town because it tended to alienate the populace, and we, of course, were there to win their hearts and minds. We staged this shot as a “dog and pony show” for our stateside commanders.

War and remembrance

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In Flanders Fields
by Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

On this November the 11th, I render an awestruck and thankful salute to our nation’s veterans, past and present. My own deployment to Bosnia was a cakewalk compared to what these brave men and women have been willing to sacrifice repeatedly. I encourage you to give a veteran a hug or a pat on the back today.

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