March 27, 2011

In the fictional The Tuzla Run a passing reference is made to the IRA obtaining weapons in the Balkans. This was not a flight of fancy but a real life event. Admittedly, it was claimed that the Real IRA (RIRA) were involved, that it did not occur until after the period in which the Run is set, but the consignment in question was substantial & included several anti-tank weapons of the RPG-18 category, ASK-47s and explosives. The cache was discovered in Croatia where the RIRA allegedly had decided to buy weapons after Libya and the PLO started to pursue semi international respectability. With the retreat of Communism in the east of Europe other sources also dried up and increased activity by Federal agencies in the States, which did have its limitations in the type of weapon that was obtainable, extended the drought.
The event of civil war in the former Yugoslavia promised a more flourishing market in hardware, with a robust pipeline from the Adriatic coast to Italy. Once into the practically borderless EU there was a clear route back to Eire by road and ferry. It is worth noting that there were claims a former Irish aidworker in the region was under suspicion at the time.


March 18, 2011

During 1993, the convoys did not have an easy ride and were performed with differing levels of success usually depending on local compliance. A humanitarian convoy headed for Muslim areas was invariably halted if it had to pass through Bosnian Serb areas. The harassment did not end there and convoys were often fired upon, despite having armed military escorts who rarely returned fire.  The UNPROFOR rules of engagement were not robust being on the lines of “if I have to retaliate, I will speak to my colonel, who will ask the general, to ask our national defence minister, to ask our prime minister to ask the U.N. to order me to open fire, so be warned.”

Meanwhile, the turbulence continued. In May 92 a shell had killed 16 people queuing for bread in Sarajevo. Almost two years later, in February 1994, a major, indiscriminate atrocity took place, when a single 120mm mortar bomb exploded in the crowded open air Markale, or marketplace, killing 68 people and injuring many others, both Serb and Muslim. Ironically it took place on the day Bosnian Serb, Muslim and Croat leaders were meeting in the city to discuss its future. The Bosnian Serb faction was immediately accused and there were indications that it could have indeed been the culprit.  (However, it was also claimed that the Muslim military could have fired the shell for nefarious publicity purposes. The sniping that took place in Sarajevo and its environs was also credited, in some quarters, to Muslim participants with a vested interest in maintaining the conditions under which the thriving underground economy (black market) could continue to flourish. The arrival of relief supplies would effectively scupper that enterprise.)

The massacre did prompt the UN to demand a withdrawal of heavy weapons around Sarajevo and, although the Serbs did not fully comply, it did reduce the incidence of the  shellings. Openly, the Bosnian Serb army threatened to prevent UN aid distribution if the accusations against them continued, glossing over the fact that they were already doing all that they could to hinder the relief efforts. Later, in 1995 a further shelling of the same market, with a death toll in the fifties, would be the catalyst for the NATO bombings.


February 26, 2011

The hostilities of the Bosnian War were three sided but had a changing scenario of weird logic in the alliances formed, which were not always readily understandable by an outsider. Part of the wider conflict, was a lesser-known conflagration, known as the Croat-Bosniak War, which took place from mid ’92 through to the beginning of ’94.
In this action, the Croat nationalists, within the confines of Bosnia-Hercegovina and supported by Croatia, attempted, as did their Serb counterparts, to expand the reaches of their parent nation.
Most of these hostilities took place in the Neretva valley, in the southern part of the former Yugoslavia, and in and around Bihac, on the northern border of Bosnia with Croatia. Initially, there were divisions, which descended into violence, amongst the Croats themselves, as the HVO and the HOS, supported in part by Muslims, held differing views on how the expansion should be accomplished.
Despite being repulsed in their attack on Gornji Vakuf, where they inflicted heavy damage and many civilian casualties, the Croats were soon in control of most of Central Bosnia and were subsequently accused of ethnic cleansing. The case against them was substantial.
In the south, the city of Mostar was besieged for nine months by the Croats, during which the world famous Stari Most (old bridge), a construction of great beauty, built by the Ottomans of the 16th century, was totally, and wantonly, destroyed. Paradoxically, the same forces that wrecked the bridge had helped to defend it earlier against Serbian forces.
In the north western part of Bosnia-Hercegovina, in Bihać, another anomaly was taking place. A Muslim entrepreneur, Fikret Abdić, with a chequered background had formed an army, aligned it with the Serbs, to fight against the Muslim Bosniak, and worse still established concentration camps for Bosnian civilians where beatings, rape, torture and killings took place. As an added twist, when the whole enterprise collapsed, Abdić fled and was granted asylum, not in Serb held territory, but in Croatia.

The Beginning

February 10, 2011

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was created by Josip Broz, who was more widely known under his nom-de-guerre of Tito. Tito had  a Croatian father and his mother was Slovene, he actively recruited Serbs as administrators in his government and spent much time in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. He died in Slovenia.

As leader of Yugoslavia he suppressed nationalist sentiment and ‘fostered’ unity. Peace, harmony and stability existed for many years, despite sporadic outbreaks, such as the Croatian Spring, when the Balkan penchant for diversity, and self-determination, bubbled through to the surface.

            The nation prospered  and in the years before Tito’s death GDP burgeoned, an NHS was in operation, literacy was wide-spread, almost 90%, and life expectancy was 72 years. All this was to change in a relatively short period.

            With Tito’s demise in 1980 economic viability decreased drastically. The federal system could not cope with the national tensions of eight separate entities. The stresses and strains of historical diversity proved too much. The ensuing vacuum was ripe for the emergence of a successor to Tito.

            Croatia and Slovenia, more successful than the other members of the federation, felt  frustrated by having to support the less advantaged entities and relished the thought of independence. Serbia, conversely, believed that continuing union, with strong leadership provided by Slobodan Milosevic, was the answer.

            Croatia and Slovenia declared independence. and thus provided the fuse for the Ten Day War in which the JNA, the Yugoslavian Army, technically better equipped and more stronger, received a hand bagging from the much smaller Slovene reservist units. The make up of the JNA 5th Military Command, tasked with bringing Slovenia to heel, with mainly Serbian and Montenegrin officers, was about a third Albanian, a fifth Croat, a fifth Serbian, a tenth Bosnian and a tenth Slovene other ranks. One can see that many of the foot soldiers would not be too enthusiastic in enforcing the Central Government’s policy. A ceasefire was  initiated and shortly afterwards Slovenia’s demands for independence were recognised. Unfortunately, this military debacle was to prompt one of the most brutal conflicts seen in Europe for many years, with carnage, rape and bestiality becoming the norm during the coming years.

Adriatic Reflections

January 19, 2011

Adriatic Reflections

1994 was not a good year for me.

In January of that year, due to the drawdown of U.S. Forces in Europe, my employer, who provided banking and financial services under contract to the U.S. Army, made me redundant . One of the claims to fame of this bank was the robbery of its South Bend, Indiana branch by Messrs’ Dillinger, Nelson and Floyd, back in 1934.

Unemployed in Germany, I accepted a job offer, as a convoy manager, from one of the many organisations supporting the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) which was heavily committed in the former Yugoslavia.  My new employers believed that  experience gained in the British Army on active service would be helpful in my new duties.  This proved a valid premise.

With the breakaway in 1991 of Slovenia, followed by Croatia, the erstwhile Yugoslavia was crumbling — a state of affairs not to the liking of the Serbs. Similar to India, but on  an obviously smaller scale, and in earlier times, the two main elements of the populace, Serbs and Croats, formed the main ethnic groups in the region. However, each culture also had areas where members lived side by side throughout the country. This included the area known as Bosnia Herzegovina, which also had its own inhabitants, who were mostly of the Muslim faith. Initially Milosevic, the Serbian leader and Tudjman, the Croatian head of government, with the help of their ethnic minorities, intended to carve up Bosnia between them but the cooperative spirit did not last.

In 1992 armed conflict erupted and continued through to 1995. During those three years many terrible things happened, such as the massacres in Srebrenica, the Markale (Marketplace) bombardments in Sarajevo, prompting NATO to take a more active hand, and the horrors of Omarska Camp.  The war was in full swing as I left Frankfurt, drove through Austria and across the recently formed Slovenia, onto Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

It is an old cliché that fact is stranger than fiction but nowhere was this more relevant than in the cauldron of war that was the Balkans in the early nineties.  This period of history forms the setting for The Tuzla Run and over the coming months I’d like to draw on the events, such as those mentioned earlier, that took place, but which, for various reasons, were not mentioned in the book.

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