May 1993, Sarajevo, War Diary
The recent events in Ukraine brought back memories from 30 years ago, the siege of Sarajevo, my Sarajevo Diary 1993
May 1993, Sarajevo
We, an Israeli TV crew working for the American television network NBC News, boarded a UN four-engine turboprop cargo plane, heading to Sarajevo the besieged city. We had our passports stamped by the “MAYBE AIRLINES” flight coordinator at the UN Desk before taking off from Croatia’s Split Airport.The flight time between the two cities is only about forty minutes. Like a domestic flight back home from Tel Aviv to Eilat. However, the last ten minutes of the journey when the plane descended towards Sarajevo’s runway, were the most perilous. The city lay spread out like the palm of your hand, surrounded by Serbian artillery and snipers stationed on the hills above the airport.
The question that lingered on the plane was whether we would make it safely or not.
And the only answer was – maybe. Well, they don’t call it Maybe Airlines for nothing…
In the pages that follow, I aim to share my experiences during this period, recounting the challenges, dangers, and glimpses of humanity I witnessed in a city under siege, where fear, courage, and resilience intertwined. These events shaped my perspective on the horrors of war and the strength of the human spirit.
Join me on this journey back to the besieged Sarajevo of 1993, where every moment was a testament to the fragility and strength of life in the face of conflict of life in the face of conflict.
Sarajevo, the capital of the Bosnia-Herzegovina region. Sarajevo is sometimes called the “Jerusalem of Europe” or “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. It was, until late in the 20th century, the only major European city to have a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and synagogue within the same neighborhood.
Sarajevo was traditionally regarded as the immediate catalyst for the First World War in 1914. In April 1992, it became another symbol: one of the tragic wars that erupted when Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991 and nationalism and ethnic hatred pointed its guns to this city.
For more than three and a half years, Sarajevo was under siege. The Bosnia Serb army, with its Yugoslav heavy artillery, surrounded the Bosnian capital. Civilians became open targets for the snipers.
When the siege ended in February 1996, more than 11,000 Sarajevans had been killed. Thousands more had been wounded and displaced. Sarajevo, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, became more divided along ethnic lines.
As the leased Hercules French military transport aircraft started its decent into Sarajevo, we were instructed by the commanding office on board to wear the helmets and protective vests we carry. I lowered my head and hugged my Bellingham backpack, closed my eyes and hoped for the best.
Of course the landing was smooth. The Frenchman was a skilled pilot and well acquainted with the field here. He taxied shortly on the runway and stoped behind a protected wall, hidden as far as possible from the snipers’ eyes and guns on the hills opposite the airfield.
The flight crew urged us to deplane the C-130 quickly so as not to delay the plane for an unnecessary moment on the runway to avoid any possible sniper fire. We’re in a hurry to get down the metal stairs that opened out of the Cargo belly and the only thought that went through my mind at that moment was ‘where was the flight attendant I was expecting to meet by the stairs giving us the the “thank you for flying with us “MAYBE AIRLINES”’ and have a pleasant stay in Sarajevo”…
Danny, the local Bosnian fixer who has been working with NBC since the siege began in April a year earlier, met us outside the airport control and whisked us driving an Audi A6 car with steel plates attached to its doors making it a bullet-proof car, into town.
Danny the interpreter, driver, the executioner, a real wheeler dealer in a good sense. Danny was certainly our oxygen pipe here in the besieged city.
Danny, driving fast on the exposed road on the way to the Holiday-Inn Sarajevo, located on Sniper Alley; the nickname of that road; the access road to the city center.
Sniper Alley was without a doubt one of the most dangerous streets in the world during these years.
Here, at this point, Danny slows down the armored vehicle for sixty seconds to point out to us the corner on the right. Here, David Kaplan, a New York city TV producer just like me, only on our rival network, ABC News, was shot and killed by sniper fire one Friday at noon just a few months earlier.
When Kaplan was shot and killed on the spot by a Serbian sniper he was on his way from the airport into the city. I was in Zagreb at the time, another city but the same war; same shit different city, just 300 kilometers north of Sarajevo.
The 1:00pm newscast of the Israeli Radio broke with the news of a Television News producer who was shot and killed by a sniper in Yugoslavia. Naomi my wife, who was busy with Friday housework while entertaining our two little girls, at home in Herzliya, did not hear the news but a friend who worked for another foreign news agency and saw the details hurried to call and tell her that I was fine. I was was in Zagreb at that time, covering the Croatian -Serbian part of this civil war. Kaplan was killed in Sarajevo…
A sigh of relief, at least temporarily, was heard in Herzliya.
Kaplan was the 25th journalist to be killed to that day during the war in the disintegrating Yugoslavia.
I admit to alertness, but no fear! The addictive adrenaline created in all those places we had been through those last four years was once again being driven by fear to seep into our thoughts, whilst driving the crazy, high-speed Sniper Avenue.
At the end of the wide boulevard you can already see the yellow building with the inscription “Holiday Inn Hotel” and next to it the chain’s familiar logo, the orange and yellow flower. On the sign there’s an evidence of a shell hitting and biting the exposed concrete, leaving tooth marks all around. The condition of the windows is not good. There’s hardly a single complete glass, not even in the windows of the rooms.
We quickly entered the hotel and registered at the makeshift reception desk. We were asked to pay cash in advance and received the keys. A brief explanation of the security arrangements, the way to the shelter, the protected dining room, and most importantly – the iron rule – stay away from windows!
“Welcome to the Holiday Inn Sarajevo”
To Be Continued…