“Welcome to the Holiday Inn Sarajevo”
In the previous chapter, May 1993, Sarajevo, A War Diary Part 1 I shared my experience traveling to Sarajevo in May 1993 as the news producer of an Israeli TV crew working for the American television network, NBC News. We braved the dangerous descent into the city, which had been besieged by Serbian snipers and gunners for 13 months already.
Brothers at War: Reflections from Sarajevo and Beyond
The local Bosnian fixer, Danny, drove us through Sniper Alley, where stopping at red lights was not an option.
“Welcome to the Holiday Inn. These are your keys. The dining room is next to the reception area, and so is the bar. Elevators might or might not work, and no matter what – do not get close to the windows!!” the reception clerk read us the “manual” … I thought – huh, great, this would be our home away from home for three weeks.
I have covered breaking news stories in several areas of the world over the years. I have been to places where civil wars were in full swing. I have covered the civil war in Yugoslavia since 1991 when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began its self-destruction with the separation of the northern region – Slovenia – all the way through Croatia, and Serbia, to Bosnia in the South. I have seen burned down homes, barns, schools, churches, infrastructure and public buildings.
I have seen bloodshed around the globe; in the Horn of Africa – Somalia and East Africa; Kenya, Ethiopia. Guatemala and Romania. With my colleagues I covered ethnic cleansing. I documented lines of refugees walking on side roads carrying their belongings on their backs; mainly women and children who were forced to leave.
I have seen children dying in their mother’s hands in refugee camps, kids who reached their haven too late.
Nothing prepared me for the sounds and sights I encountered during my three weeks of duty in Sarajevo, May of 1993
Sarajevo was not just another third world country in Africa or a banana republic in Central America. Unlike other war-torn regions; Sarajevo was the national capital of a newly created and recognized nation by the international community. It was in the middle of Europe, the heart of civilization, home to nearly 400,000 people. Women and children surrounded by a well-equipped and formidable enemy who was backed by the Yugoslav Serbian army.
The Bosnians were trapped and constantly exposed to snipers and heavy artillery shelling. This made even the simplest tasks like getting drinking water, bread, or baby food a life-threatening challenge.
The sense of existential threat and constant danger was overwhelming. The suffering and desperation in Sarajevo left a profound mark on me and my colleagues as we witnessed the daily struggle and horrors faced by its people.
We got up quickly to our rooms, we needed to see the setup before coming back at night when there wouldn’t be any light round. I left my personal bags up on the bed, and came down to meet Danny and the rest of the team, outside the building, in the sheltered parking area.
Martin Fletcher, the correspondent, wanted us to do a quick tour of the city – it was essential that we acquainted ourselves with key places downtown Sarajevo he said. First was the Eurovision [EBU] feed point. This was the central transmission center from where we would broadcast our reports via satellite to our news-desk in London or New York.
The broadcasting center was placed inside a concrete basement at the local TV station and was operated by transmission engineers who flew in from the EBU headquarters – in Geneva Switzerland.
From there, we drove fast through an area exposed to snipers up on the hills. We drove along the Miljacka River. Destruction and desolation on both sides of the river. Burnt vehicles were swept away by the slow river current.
We parked the car behind one of the buildings not too far from the river’s bank and got out wearing our protective gear. It was a very strange feeling, on one hand quiet – green fields between the building until the river and across it for as long as the eye could see. But on the other hand – we were told that this pastoralia could turn into a hell under fire in a few minutes. Danny, our “fixer” started to show signs of nervousness and urged us to return to the armored car. He already felt in his gut that it was time to leave, hurry and seek shelter before becoming just another target for the snipers across the field. “Human hunters” he called them, and the Serb militia certainly justified the nickname.
As we passed quickly on Sarajevo’s main street leading back to the Holiday Inn, only then did I understand what a ghost town was. Only here, on “Sniper Alley,” were even the ghosts were afraid to turn around.
Back at the Holiday Inn hotel just in time for the early dinner served in the hotel’s dining room. The hotel, which was once one of the city’s most luxurious hotels, hosted senior members of the Olympic Committee and athletes when the city hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Of this glorious past, only some cutlery remained on the table. Heavy silver cutlery, with the Olympic symbol embossed on every spoon, fork and knife. The five rings symbolize everything that has not existed here in Sarajevo since the war began.
The city has been under a total black-out at night for over a year now. There was a state order to “black out” any source of light to minimize targets’ visibility and reduce the risk of being targeted by snipers. On the large dining room windows were heavy curtains. Along the wall from the outside there were sandbags.
The bunch of journalists that we were, was something between a bunch of travelling circus artists and a group of mercenaries of the Seventh Kingdom. From a war zone to another hotspot, some said we were provoked by danger, being a group of adventurers refused to grow up. I looked at this trip more than anything as I was on a mission to bring out a human interest story, bring out to world attention in this case, the story of the city under siege.
The conversation at the table was free of tension or apprehension. It did not even hint at the danger outside, beyond the sandbag wall.
Joining our table was David, our video editor who arrived from London a week earlier. David spent the 1991 Gulf War in Israel with us in the Studio near Tel-Aviv.
We met again in Mogadishu, Somalia a year later, in Prague, London, and many more places.
The menu offered a choice of meat or chicken with two toppings. One of them is potatoes. Someone asked if we had no conscience to eat so much considering the Bosnians have such scarce food for themselves. We’re laughing and I’m quoting a UN International Food Fund report that a sufficient serving of meat per person is 60 grams.
Yossi, our cameraman shot a video “the making of…” type of a home-video. We drank beer, local wine and smoked cigarettes. For dessert they served us apple compote, like my grandmother did for years, and Balkan roasted black coffee. We sit and chat, reminiscing about other places we didn’t miss…
We also drank a glass of Slivovitz, Balkan plum brandy, 50% alcohol, with one last cigarette and went to the room.
The light in the room didn’t turn on at all, and there was no shutter to shut. I knew I would wake up at first light anyway. Hell, who wanted to be alone in a room on a high floor without windows and without shutters? This is knowing the enemy was across town on the hills aiming towards the building…
The room had a desk-phone connected to the front desk downstairs, a fire extinguisher, a desk and two chairs. Very different from your favorite Holiday Inn hotel.
It was a dark moonlit night outside, with no people on the streets. I dared not stand by the window as instructed or advised, but I couldn’t avoid peeping from the side – I had to experience the feeling of being exposed to understand how the local Bosnian felt in his home. An ambulance passed quickly at the intersection closest to the hotel, its headlights were painted blue to minimize the light reflection. I was reminded of my childhood, I was four year old, 1956, my first war in Tel Aviv, with my mom and grandfather sitting in the “hall” the corridor – while a civil defense inspector who walked down the street shouted at a tenant on the first floor above the electrician’s shop, to quickly turn off the light.
An echo of a single shot rolled from the mountains, followed by another one. It’s likely that someone who hadn’t fallen asleep tried his rifle out. The bed was as comfortable as a five-star hotel would offer its guests. I lay on my back; the moonlight illuminated the room floor. In the room next door, someone flushed the toilet.
On my pocket radio I tried to hear the latest BBC newscast in English with no luck. A local radio station broadcasted ethnic music, reminiscent of our oriental music, Greek or Turkish. Balkan. On another station, two people speaking an unidentified language conversed calmly. Trying to fall asleep, I turn over onto my stomach and hug my pillow.
I heard footsteps in the hallway. My door was locked. Footsteps walked out of the hall. The sound of automatic weapons reverberated in the distance. The sound of automatic weapons reverberated in the distance and entered the room through the torn window.
Even after midnight, the moon had not yet been extinguished. I heard a sigh and another one and a second and a third. A man and a woman sticking out their tongues and pointing a middle finger at the war in Sarajevo. A rare moment of intimacy that ignores the chaos around.
I awoke at the first light of the morning.
A luxury king-size bed in a room with no electricity, windows, or curtains; the view from the broken window was the bombed Ministry of the Interior’s building. It was once one of the tallest buildings in the city center, now its upper floors were directly hit by Serbian artillery shell and caught fire. Sooty walls.
Good morning, Sarajevo.
In the next chapter of my diary; Have we ever been involved in a Civil War in Israel. Are we facing now after 75 years of independence a “War of Brothers” in the holy land?