Exercise ROYS BALKAN
In late August, a contingent from 14 Geo Sqn flew into Sarajevo, having been given the opportunity to conduct a battlefield study in the Balkans, focussing on elements of the 1992-95 Bosnian War.
Arriving in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the contingent from Wyton were accompanied by three SMEs and Sgt Willis from 135 Geo Sqn. Formerly Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina lies in the western Balkans, sharing borders with Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro. However, proud host to the Winter Olympics in 1984, eight years later the country suffered a four-year conflict, with almost 38,000 civilians and 58,000 combatants killed during what was known as the Bosnian War.
With thousands of civilians having lost their lives to land mines since the conflict, it was straight off the plane for the team from Wyton, and into mine awareness training; the EOD team showing us the wide array of land mines still in place, and how difficult they are to detect. Moving on to Sarajevo, it was clear that the city hasn’t fully recovered from the war; buildings scarred from artillery, mortars and small arms fire. Resembling a sqn bar, we visited a museum that documented the siege of Sarajevo, it’s walls adorned by memorabilia from the conflict. Large boards detail the road to war, highlighting the Serbian personalities that have, or still are being tried for war crimes. Next, we had lunch at the Sarajevo brewery, located near the museum. The brewery was a significant landmark during the conflict, as it was the only place that clean water could be acquired; plaques on the wall showed the names of those who died collecting water!
The following day we visited various Sarajevo siege sites, including the tunnel dug under the airport, which was key to resupplying the Muslim Bosniaks during the conflict. Our tour guide, Muhamed was only 16 when he was fired at trying to cross the airfield prior to the tunnel being built. Once it had been built, he’d carry 50 kg packs through it.
On day three we visited Gorazda, the river flowing through the middle of the city having marked the front line of the conflict. Although designated a safe haven by UNPORFOR, in a bid to halt ethnic cleansing, the Bosniak enclave was surrounded and besieged by the Bosnian-Serb Army. Although the bridge that connected the city was overlooked by high ground, the Bozniaks built a foot-bridge underneath it, which hid them from enemy fire. Allegedly built in one night, 160 people broke their nose or forehead while escaping to safety on the first night the bridge was open. This was ably re-enacted by WO2 Moulding on our crossing, despite repeated warning!
The final city we visited was Mostar, a historic city that, in ancient times, had the only bridge connecting west with east. Built during the Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century, the bridge was denied by the Bosnian-Croats during the conflict, not for strategic advantage but to anger the Bosniaks. Re-constructed post war, the bridge remains a centre-piece for tourism, the Mostar Bridge Dive Club Members regularly diving off it to create a show for tourists. Lt Scott Lacey decided he had what it took to scale the bridge, and dive off. However, having taken his shirt off, and marched up the bridge with an audience watching on, he soon changed his mind!
We were very fortunate to be accompanied by Maj Alex Finnen, who spent seven years working at a political level in the OSCE during the conflict. Understanding the influences and dynamics of the warring factions, he was able to pass on his comprehension of the events that occurred. Despite all factions signing up to the Dayton Agreement in 1995, which is an agreement for peace in Bosnia that allows reconstruction and governance, it has perpetuated, and in some places exacerbated, social and religious division, still to this day.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a fantastic country, both visually and culturally, yet politically a lot of tension still exists. The majority of soldiers serving today won’t have experienced the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, and certainly won’t have witnessed the atrocities that occurred there. As a result of our Battlefield Study, we now understand the conflict a little better, and recognise the limitations our predecessors had 25 years ago, and how much we have developed our trade since then. The group would fully recommend this as a location for similar visits, and would like to thank the Defence Attaché’s office for making this trip happen for us.