The Bosnian Connection

The Caribbean is worlds away from eastern Europe. But many of our people have worked in war-ravaged Bosnia as members of the UN peacekeeping force.

Peter Farrell knee-deep in snow, Kiseljak

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia began in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and the Serbs, backed by the powerful Yugoslav army, attacked Slovenia. Over the next two years the war escalated into a horror that became familiar viewing on television. Bosnia seceded, but the Serb nationalists who occupied much of the country began to expel and murder the minority Muslims and Croats. Reports of rape, torture and mass murder became widespread. Ceasefires were agreed to and were broken. In 1992, UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Forces) was given the mandate to create the conditions for the peace and security required for the negotiation of an overall settlement. Manpower was drawn from all over the world.

In Trinidad and Tobago, all this seemed far away; there was little local interest. But in early 1994, a local employment agency advertised for candidates to join the UN peace initiative. There were over 100 job descriptions, ranging from senior engineering and administration to lower-level skilled and semi-skilled positions. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of applications were processed and reams of paperwork, faxes and forms flew between Port of Spain, Washington and UN Headquarters in Zagreb, Croatia, where the final decisions were made.

The first two Trinidadians to be assigned were mechanics – Lionel Waldron, who worked with the Coast Guard, and Harry Maharaj. Neither had ever left Trinidad before; neither of them had any idea where Bosnia was. Both felt excited and nervous. They were to be paid in US dollars, all transport, housing and food to be supplied by the UN.

On arrival in Zagreb in June 1994, they were sent on an orientation course for a week. Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, was in one of the UN Protected Areas. The international forces were attempting to demilitarise these areas, and to ensure that humanitarian aid reached those in desperate need.

Maharaj was stationed at Pleso, near Zagreb airport, and worked on every type of vehicle from army trucks and Nissan pick-ups to Mercedes Benz. By the time winter arrived, life had become difficult. There was only a wood-burning stove for heating. “At home I never drank, but I started to take two shots of brandy or whisky to heat the body up,” Maharaj admits. After six months he was sent to Split on the Adriatic Coast, where Waldron also spent the last three months of the first year. Both returned home for a month’s vacation and both agreed to return for a second year. Maharaj took with him brown sugar, curry powder and Angostura bitters which he administered to Croatian friends with upset stomachs.

Valentin Augustin, known as “Gus”, an electrical foreman, arrived in Zagreb a few months after Waldron and Maharaj — straight into the heart of winter. “I had to wear two track pants and two blankets just to keep warm,” he remembers. After induction he was posted to Western Slovenia where his accommodation on the camp was a 20 x 8-foot container. All he got was a window, a plug and a bulb, but Gus, an exuberant, confident man in his 30s, managed to make it into a home, complete with stereo, TV and microwave oven. He experienced racism from the start. The Finns, he said, were in charge of the Engineering Administration and the commander’s first remark was “Oh, you’re black,” insinuating that all Gus knew about was life on a beach. On the other hand, “the Africans used to call me European”! But Gus knew his work and found he had a better standard of education than many of the troops. He started to study the local language and, at the same time, helped five local electricians to learn English.

By early 1995 when Dennis McIntosh and Peter Farrell left Port of Spain the situation in the Balkans had, if anything, deteriorated. There were constant missile attacks. By this time, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, had been in a state of siege for more than a year, and there were constant missile and mortar attacks. Bosnia’s majority Muslim population was dwindling as the Serbs continued their “ethnic cleansing” policy. Those who survived as refugees were in dire need of help.

McIntosh, an electrical engineer, volunteered to go to Bihac, close to the Bosnian border with Croatia. It was considered a trouble zone: he was to get “locked in” for a year, unable to leave. On his way there he was ordered to stop, threatened and robbed by the Serb militia. They searched his vehicle for foodstuffs which they took. But “I had hidden some of my belongings up inside of the engine from underneath so I didn’t lose those.” His 16 years of military service stood him in good stead. “I was never scared. I volunteered to be in Bihac three times, even though I knew it was dangerous. I met my wife there so even if the camp didn’t have food, I had.” McIntosh also served a second year and brought his wife to Trinidad in 1996; he says he’s ready to go back and report for duty any time.

When Peter Farrell nervously explored the city of Zagreb he found most people friendly. “After I left Zagreb, I went to Tuzla where there was the biggest airbase for UN troops under the control of NORDBAT, the Scandinavians. I received hazard pay because we were in a danger zone.” Tuzla was on the western side of Bosnia near the Serbian border and under constant Serb attack. “At night when we would hear the warning sirens or the bombs themselves I would run out of my house and on to the base.”

One Friday night a Jamaican friend, Winston Chin, came to take him out to lime. “I don’t know why, but I decided to stay home and watch a video,” he recalls. That night there was the worst attack on civilians during his stay. A deliberate hit in the centre of the city. “Seventy people were killed including little children and teenagers, hundreds of others were wounded. Red candles were placed in a 200-metre circle around the hole in the ground where the bomb dropped, and they were still being lit when I left.” This was the Tuzla Massacre, which happened on May 25, 1995.

In June of that year there was a gathering of UN personnel near a lake outside Tuzla. Farrell was with Winston Chin and ventured into the water. It was freezing, even in mid-summer, a far cry from the Caribbean Sea. Amra Srdanobic, a Bosnian Muslim and an interpreter working for the UN, was also by the lake that day. She saw this huge black man striding in and said to herself, “If he swims, I will swim too”. So said so done. They spent four hours in the water, oblivious to the temperature, discussing everything from religion to Amra’s war experiences.

Amra’s home was four hours away in Kizia across the mountains. There were four checkpoints along the way. As summer turned to winter, Peter would leave the camp at night and make the journey to Amra’s home. “I never had fear in my life. There were no telephone connections . . . I had to go.” He would stay overnight, leaving first thing in the morning. Her mother treated him like a son, but her father was a little more wary of the growing affection between his daughter and the tall, loud man from a small island he had never heard of.

In December 14, 1995, all the warring factions signed the Dayton Peace Accord in Paris, although the countries and their people were in such a devastated condition that most of the peace-keeping troops were kept in place until much later. An estimated quarter of a million people had died during the conflict, an additional 200,000 injured. UNPROFOR forces had suffered 80 fatalities; hundreds of others had been wounded.

At the end of his year’s duty, Peter was to return home and Amra decided to go with him. He promised she could return home if she didn’t like Trinidad. They left Zagreb with what they thought were all the necessary documents. On their way to Mostar, they got lost in Bihac, still very much a danger zone. It was early February and the steep hillsides were covered in many feet of snow. They could not see any landmarks. The vehicle began to slip. Peter told Amra to get out and gave her a hand grenade to use in case of trouble. She started to panic and cry as she saw the truck slipping further. But between them they managed to clear the ground and tried another road. Later, at a junction, a border patrol turned them back because they were missing one official document. They could not believe it. It took a further 24 hours to double back in treacherous conditions to get to Mostar. Peter was “dying of tiredness; his head would drop for five minutes then up again.” At last they reached Mostar, got their papers stamped and headed for Split, where they spent the weekend with Harry Maharaj.

Eventually they left Zagreb and arrived in Trinidad via Caracas. Amra couldn’t believe she had finally arrived, but felt hot and pale. “It was 11 o’clock in the morning and I was dressed in wool jacket, sweater and thick pants.” Trinidad was a drastic contrast to the country she had left. But she got sunburned on Maracas beach and plunged into the Carnival.

An elaborate wedding followed, complete with military ceremonial as Peter was a member of the Defence Force Reserve Unit. The other Bosnia veterans were there: Gus, Lionel, Dennis and Harry Maharaj. In December 1996 Peter and Amra had a beautiful daughter, Yasmina, the first baby of mixed Croatian/Trini descent (as far as we know).

In all, 15 Trinidadians served in Bosnia and Croatia. All had exceptional performance ratings and were offered a second contract. Some stayed on and got contracts on their own and are now full-time employees of the United Nations. The lone woman, Ingrid Bristol-Phillips, heads a large Computer Department and has recently been transferred to Botswana. All proved themselves serious, dedicated and up to the challenge. All agreed they learned tremendously from the unique experience and came back as mature and confident men.

As Lionel said, “You learn to appreciate the little things in life when you see such devastation and destruction.” They played a small part in a big conflict: but they made Trinidad proud.

  • nells

    I would like to get in touch with Peter Farrell. Anyone knows his facebook or twiter nick name?
    I did search under his real name but no luck …
    I am one of his Bosnian friends …

    Best regards

    Nells