Bosnian Journal

By Joe Rubin

Ghurka elite soldiers sitting down to eat The Ghurka, elite Nepalese soldiers

Welcome to Bosnia

For us it is a harsh arrival -- Jennifer’s bags, along with those of a dozen other passengers, have been lost (and will stay lost for four days). Our flight was late in arriving, and Captain Gator, the young and dapper information officer whose charge it is to watch over us, tells us that the brigadier general with whom we were supposed to catch a ride didn’t want to risk the bad weather that is closing in, so he had headed back to the base in Banja Luka. Gator tells us we have a six-hour drive ahead. I tell myself it’s just part of the job; I’ve already been traveling for two days, and now I will be getting in a jeep for six hours on icy mountainous roads. I’m aching. And I’m starving. But Gator suggests it’s best if we wait to eat until we arrive and offers me a thermos of Nescafé.

On the base in Banja Luka, we’re shown to our quarters -- not bad, but definitely no Hyatt. There is only a space heater, which either is too hot or is freezing; plus, I neglected to listen to Douglas Adam’s sage advice in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” Instead, I use a sweatshirt for the next three days. At 3 a.m. I’m awake; the 10-hour time difference is messing with my circadian rhythms, and it’s game-over for sleep.

When morning’s light finally comes, I’m ensconced in another bubble, a British base in the mountains of Bosnia. It’s snowing and freezing, but the blanket of fresh white is beautiful. The British have set up base in an old metal factory. It’s a hulking, cavernous place that was taken over by NATO as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement that put an end to the fighting in 1995. EUFOR pays rent, and it’s unlikely the factory would be working anyway; few in Bosnia are. “We’re not leaving,” says Gator. “Dayton powers give us the right to stay, and this base is critical for our mission, ensuring the safety and security of the people of Bosnia.” Although this is a British base, it has taken on more of a Nepalese air. That’s because the bulk of the forces here are Ghurka soldiers. The Ghurka are elite Nepalese soldiers who unified several kingdoms in Nepal in the eighth century. When the British colonized Nepal, they found the Ghurka impressive and disciplined soldiers and made them a staple of the Royal army. The Ghurka maintain their culture in their own battalions, and it just so happens that the battalion assigned to Bosnia for the next six months is Ghurka. It’s especially interesting to see the bond between the Ghurka soldiers and the British officers who work alongside them. Several of the British officers are fluent in Nepalese, and I have to get used to hearing Londoners switching between the Queen’s English and Nepalese. Nighttime is my favorite time because every night is a different kind of Ghurka curry (they have their own chefs), and when I’m hungry from a day of shooting in the cold, the mélange of spices and lamb curry tastes especially delicious. I make friends with one officer, Hitman Gurung, who tells me that I will need more information than his name if I need to find him again because there are a half-dozen soldiers with the same name.

So Nepalese Buddhists are keeping the peace between Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and Bosnian Muslims at the moment. And it’s an especially volatile and critical mission. There’s the famous Bosnian phrase “ethnic cleansing,” but this is one of the places where it happened. Banja Luka was about 40 percent Muslim and Croat before the war; today it is 99 percent Bosnian Serb. But in villages such as Prijedor, the scene of fierce fighting during the war, Muslims who had been routed are now finally and gingerly returning.

Our first mission with EUFOR was called “operation harvest.” It was a soft raid. By that I mean they don’t go in with guns at the ready, they go in polite, like peacekeepers. Many of the soldiers are not even wearing weapons. “It’s not really a military operation,” Major Christianson, who leads the mission, tells us. “People trust us here, and we work to keep it that way.”

In Preador, we see just how local and complicated the war was. Most of the houses are Serbian, but a few pockets of Muslims have moved back in. We meet a few Muslims as their houses are being searched for weapons (none are found except for a registered hunting rifle), and they tell us harrowing stories. An older gentleman with a goat by his feet witnessed atrocities at a concentration camp for Bosnian Muslims. It turns out that he actually testified at The Hague Tribunal, and he is proud to tell us that some of his testimony helped lead to 20-year convictions. A young man says his whole family escaped from a back window and hid in a cornfield and didn’t return to their house for 10 years. He scoffs at the mention of Mladic and Karadzic still being at large. “This is a joke,” he says. “I don’t even know what to say to this. They killed 200,000 people here.”

Close by, EUFOR soldiers uncover a small mother lode of weapons hidden in the attic of a Bosnian Serb home. They find grenades, high-powered rifles, antitank weapons, hundreds of rounds of ammunitions, even Claymore mines, the type that anti-land mine groups have tried to get banned because it is such a ruthless weapon. There is an amnesty at the moment in Bosnia for turning in weapons as long as you do so voluntarily, but this guy has clearly tried to hide his stash. Accompanying EUFOR troops are observers from the Bosnian Serb police. The one thing we hear over and over from EUFOR officials is how happy they were with their Bosnian Serb counterparts and what good cooperation there was. But watching the weapons raid, I start to have my doubts. I see the Republic of Srbska officer gently nudge the story toward another reality -- that this gentleman had turned in his weapons voluntarily. The weapons are turned over to the local police, where any charges are brought, for all practical purposes. Under Dayton powers, EUFOR soldiers can also bring charges, but they openly admit this would be unlikely in such a relatively small matter.

We hitch a ride back to Sarajevo on a chopper, always great for aerial filming and for getting an overview of the topography.

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“Bosnia: The Men Who Got Away” is Joe Rubin’s third broadcast story for FRONTLINE/World. He has produced and reported for ABC’s Nightline, including his 2000 documentary on an emerging resistance movement against Slobodan Milosevic, which got him hooked on the Balkans. He also produced the Rough Cut “Dark Shadows,” which covers the rise of nationalism in Serbia. An unbridled enthusiast for the possibilities of video journalism, Rubin spent time in Latin America as a Knight Fellow, where he taught digital journalism in Panama, El Salvador and Ecuador. Recently, Rubin’s been working on the Pitch Room, a program in development with HBO. He lives in San Francisco.