TWENTY years ago I was involved in Workers Aid for Bosnia, a left-wing initiative to support the Bosnian people against aggression and "ethnic cleansing" and to take material aid, particularly to the workers of Tuzla, a mining and industrial town in the north of the country, with a tradition of resistance to fascism.
Today, twenty years later, Tuzla has been at the centre of a storm of unrest against the privatisers and asset-strippers wrecking its economy. A new generation of young people are finding their voice as they fight for their future, and their movement has already burst the banks of the divisions brought by war and intervention.
This article, written after I had been to Tuzla on a convoy, was commissioned by my late friend Bernard Misrahi, and appeared in the November-December issue of 'Chartist'. It was also included in the anthology 'Taking Sides' published later by Workers Aid for Bosnia.
Workers Aid, initiated by Trotskyists, and much inspired and informed by a Serb comrade, was a remarkable achievement, largely thanks to the support and involvment of "ordinary" people, from pensioners to youth, and trade unionists. Of course it was only a fraction of what was needed, and what could have been done, had more people, and bigger organisations, put their mind to it.
But nevertheless, I like to think that in helping some of our brave Bosnian friends keep alive, we may also have helped keep alive the flame of resistance and hope that is alight again today.
Solidarity on wheels
"THEY want to divide up Bosnia. So what am I supposed to do?" demanded Adzic, "Divorce my
wife, split up my family? Where will my children go? My wife is a Serb. I am Muslim... ha! me a Muslim! I've not been in a mosque since I was a kid.
"But now, they put a label on you. And for people there it is different. You must go to the church, or go to the mosque, if you want to eat. I could never believe that this would happen in my country..."
We'd been collecting for Bosnia, on a cold winter afternoon, and were in a cafe in Leeds. Adzic had heard from his sister, after months of worrying whether she and her children were still alive. But her letter told of burned homes, friends taken away, 'ethnic cleansing'. I wondered what people on neighbouring tables were making of this.
What was I making of it? Could I continue with routine meetings, gossiping with old friends on demonstrations, going for a meal, contented I'd done my bit? Maybe somewhere at the back of my mind a picture of that Bosnian woman fleeing with her children resonated with something I'd heard as a kid, about a young girl fleeing a pogrom in Russia, carrying her baby brother, my grandfather.
Earlier this year, fed up with hearing why we could not, or should not, do anything, I told friends I was going to Bosnia. Workers Aid for Bosnia were sending a convoy to Tuzla, a mining town with a mixed population. Though I'm not a driver, they agreed I could go.
We assembled in Zagreb. Seventeen lorries with food from the miners' union of Slovenia. Six from Germany, driven by Bosnians who’d been working there, Jacques from Normandy, with a huge
long truck loaded with milling grain and seeds. Sue from New Zealand who had fetched a lorry load of medical supplies from Sweden; Paddy, from Glasgow, ex-soldier reading politics at Cambridge, putting his convov-driving experience to use. Lisa doing the same with her studies in nutrition. Young Andy from the Lake District, long-haired and scruffy, who proved ace at repairing lorries, and handling them on iced-up mountain roads.
MAKING FRIENDS in central Bosnia, Sue from New Zealand
Paul, a young lorry driver from Leyland had heard about the convoy on local radio, and decided to take his annual holiday driving with us. "I'd seen Bosnia on the news, and it just seemed the right thing to do"'. Dot, a Marxist since her teens, had found the hardest bit telling her grandchildren she wouldn't be with them at Christmas, when she led the previous convoy.
The quickest way to Tuzla is straight down an all-weather highway via Zupanje. It's recommended in tour maps. But that was before the war. Now this northern route runs through a narrow neck of Serb- held territory, and UNPROFOR doesn't want to disturb them. So it's down the winding coast road to Split, where we're joined by the Spanish and Basque comrades with a coach stacked with food.
From here a zig-zag route leads over the mountains, via hairpin bends and makeshift tracks.
Fortunately, fighting between Bosnian and Croat forces had ceased. And with fine weather, we'll be facing dust clouds, instead of slithering on mud (the snow and ice came on our way back). But first there's a three-dav wait on a hot, dusty lorry-park outside Split, while papers are sorted out with UN and Croat officials, who poke about in our lorries, looking for anything that s not on the paperwork. The Bosnian drivers are impatient to leave, anxious to reach their homes, not knowing what they'll find.
At Kamenets, a cold wait at dawn, while armed border officials of the Croat: 'Hercog-Bosna' statelet look in the lorries, and half-seriously accuse Fazlovic, one of the Bosnians, of 'black-marketeering', after finding 200 cigarettes in his cab. They're just throwing their weight around. While we're waiting I scramble up the hillside to find a suitab1e bush, toilet roll in my pocket. Evidently I'm not the first, so I step gingerly. Though the border point has no toilets, a dutyfree shop is waiting to open - the enterprise culture has arrived.
We were lucky, moving off after a few hours. A smaller convoy the following month was kept waiting at the border for ten days. Friends who went out this Summer were thrown in a water-logged basement cell in Mostar by the Croat HVO militia, and only freed after Labour MPs and trade unions, here and in Croatia protested about their disappearance.
Our trip had begun almost like a holiday ~ moonlit Adriatic coves, swimming near Split, wooded hills, blue lakes and snow- capped peaks under the sun. Then came the burnt-out houses, in increasing numbers A friend pointed out some marked with a white cross, left unscathed.
Bosnians had returned from working abroad to build these family homes. Now their life-work was in ruins. We pass hungry-eyed children, desperate for a few sweets thrown from the window. An old man gratefully accepts a cigarette. A young girl dashes across the road to slow down vehicles, so the little ones can get something.The Bosnians and Slovenes are better prepared, throwing out big bags of popcorn as they go by. At a turning, a young head-scarved mother holds a toddler to wave, and we find some chocolate and an orange to give her. 'Hwala', thanks, she smiles, brushing back a tear. My eyes need wiping too.
At Prozor, as dusk fell, drunken Croat militiamen stagger out of bars. One of them rammed a riflebutt through Jacques' windscreen. At Gorni Vakuf, a British officer told us we must wait till morning, but not step off the road as there were mines about. I'm told several people have been maimed or killed by small anti-personnel mines left at roadsides. We saw a lot of young people with legs missing. The British government exports such mines, but refused export licenses for mine detectors under the arms embargo on Bosnia.
Entering Bosnian-held territory, we pass through small towns with mixed Muslim and Croat population, and no burned out houses or other signs of ethnic cleansing. Workers cycling home from a power station wheel over to ask where we're going. "Tuzla? Very good. People hungry in Tuzla. Good luck!" Over the hills to Vares, with minaret and church spire intact amid neat suburbs. Past half-derelict rusting works that remind me of England.
On the steep hill out of Vares, a young lad in Bosnian army camouflage-fatigues comes over. "You are from England?" . Dirk, our driver, is from Germany, Genevieve's from Belgium, Edna's from Leeds,... 'So this is international workers' solidarity?'. 'That's right, chuck!' says Edna. 'Great!' he beams, and turns to explain to his mates .
We've a crooked rock-hewn tunnel to pass through, and more climbing. Jacques' lorry has to be diverted to Zenica, and its load decanted into smaller vehicles. We spend a night on windswept Mount Milenkovic, hearing Serb artillery. Next morning a man with a wheelbarrow and shovel is out mending holes in the road. We share tea and cigarettes with him. He s a Serb too, keeping the aid route open, unpaid.. "When this war is over, we must not forget people like him," says Farouk, our guide from Tuzla. Whenever I hear the BBC refer to Dr .Karadzic and his gangsters as "the Bosnian Serbs", I remember this decent man mending the road to Tuzla.
Tuzla reminded me almost of a northern town. Even the mosques are like little Nonconformist chapels with minarets. Our hosts, the Kreka miners' union, are proud of their tradition. Outside their centre stands a heroic statue of a miner with a rifle commemorating not just the partisans, as I thought, but a strike in 1921 when thev resisted the Serb royal regime's attempt to deport 'foreign' (eg Croat) miners. In 1984-5 Tuzla miners held regular collections for British miners.
Many of the buildings in Tuzla bear scars of shellfire. Food and fuel are in short supply and there were power cuts. Tihomir, with whom I was staying, told us by candlelight about running with his wife and child to reach a shelter, and seeing children blown to pieces. A mining engineer, he had spent some time in England, and showed me his souvenirs -NUM badges. Tihomir didn't think much of the government in Sarajevo, but was proud of the voung men in his army unit, who "always look after each other, whatever their background, and whatever the danger".
The big cream-painted Serb Orthodox church was restored after Serb shelling. At Easter, people collected food parcels there. Little notices pinned around the town, some with snapshots, announced latest deaths in action. Some had green crescents, others black crosses, and some
had red stars. Before the war, more than 20 per cent of Tuzla people were of mixed families, identified as 'Yugoslav'.
The town is full of Muslim refugees, country folk. I saw a man grazing goats outside the bank. There are crescents and stars scrawled with 'SDA' - Izetbegovic's Muslim-based party. But the mayor and council are proudly secular, non-nationalist, social democrat. Delivering aid to them and the miners helps them keep the town united.
A noisy Saturday night rock-concert must have been audible up in the hills. Another way of annoying the Serb nationalist chetniks by insisting everything stays 'normal'. Ninella, 19, taking part in a shooting competition next day, was asked whether she practised with pop-up Serbs as targets. "Not Serbs, chetniks!', she admonished. Her army friend said: 'All chetniks are Serbs, but not all Serbs are chetniks."
Back home in England, a Tower Hamlets Liberal tells the radio interviewer "It's not natural for different people to live together, look at Bosnia'; and an anti-racist friend can't understand why I "take sides". But 'ordinary' people whom he would deem 'non-political' understand.
The news is Tuzla has been shelled, and the road through Vares is threatened. Some idiot here accuses us of carrying guns to Bosnia. I think of Ninella and her friends, of Tihomir and his family, and of that lad whose eyes lit up at 'international workers solidarity"; and I wish we could.
TUZLA, Bosnia and Hercogovina
Labels: Balkans, History Memory Lane