Thirty years on: blood and hatred in the Balkans

Adam LeBor recalls terror and surreal moments of calm in Eastern Europe

-This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

One night in the summer of 1991 I was standing at the Udvar border crossing in southern Hungary. The air was warm and still. Stars glittered against a black velvet sky. Behind us was a sleepy village of one-storey houses. In front, the flat, silent fields stretched into the distance. But the bucolic scene was deceptive. A short walk away, on the other side of the flimsy barrier, the former Yugoslav republic of Croatia had declared independence. The war had started.

We had spent the day at the nearby Hungarian town of Mohacs, interviewing Croatian refugees. It seemed incredible democracy was taking root across the region, but in Yugoslavia, the most modern of the Communist states, families were fleeing with stories of death and terror.

The very air seemed to change, loaded with menace as we walked across. This was quite a stupid idea, I thought

We had come to this remote hamlet to see if we could get a sense of what was happening on the other side. The Hungarian border guards were nervous. They had no contact with their Yugoslav counterparts, no idea what was happening there, but they had seen the news reports about the fighting. I looked at my friend, the photographer Justin Leighton. He shrugged. Why not? We would go and take a look. We asked the Hungarians if they would let us back in. They laughed, of course they would.

The barrier slowly lifted and we stepped into the darkness of no-man’s land. The very air seemed to change, loaded with menace as we walked across. This was quite a stupid idea, I thought, but by then it was too late. Hard-faced soldiers milled around, one with two bandoliers of large-calibre bullets across his chest.

But far more sinister was the man in plain clothes with a machine pistol. He looked at us curiously. Who walks into a war zone at night, he was clearly wondering. Were we spies or just idiots? I stayed calm, asked inane questions for a couple of minutes. He answered, soon looked bored. Idiots, he had decided. We thanked him and turned around. Hungary, and safety, beckoned, the light of the border guards’ hut gleaming welcomingly.

It was a short walk back but seemed to take a very long time. We could feel the soldiers’ eyes on our backs. Justin started to veer away from me. I asked why. “Two targets,” he quipped. “Should I zigzag?” “No,” I replied. The barrier lifted, to the great relief of our interpreter, Kriszta Fenyo. The Hungarians quizzed us in detail about what we had seen. Suddenly the crack of gunfire tore through the night. Everyone jumped. A cowboy film was playing on the television. Our laughter was tinged with hysteria.

Thirty years ago this summer I began my new life as the Budapest correspondent for The Independent. It was a fine adventure, with long stints in Paris, Berlin and the former Yugoslavia along the way. I saw nations born and countries die, was shot at, arrested, tear-gassed, hitched a lift home in a prime-minister’s aeroplane. I was hungry for everythingstories and bylines of course, but also for new experiences.

Back then I knew little about Hungary. I had visited Budapest in November 1990 to write a travel article for Elle, and had been entranced: by the vivacious, welcoming Hungarian friends I made, by Budapest’s beauty, spread along the Danube, a city defined and shaped by the river. I still remember that first morning as I walked across the Chain Bridge: tendrils of white mist floating above the grey-green river, the neo-Gothic extravaganza of the parliament building, the stately apartment houses, their facades crumbling, often scored with decades old bullet holes.

History had unfolded here and was still being made. The grand avenues and tree-lined squares were slowly emerging from 40 years of stasis under Communism. Budapest, I realised, was haunted: SS officers and Soviet commissars had walked these streets well within living memory, barking orders, rounding up prisoners. The embankment near parliament had been a place of execution, where in the winter of 1944 Hungarian Arrow Cross gunmen had lined up Jews before shooting them into the river. The spot is now marked with an evocative memorial of metal shoesbefore they murdered their victims, the gunmen made them take off their footwear, so they could sell them later.

I lived for many years on Pozsonyi Way, in riverside District XIII, Budapest’s middle-class Jewish area. It has a fine park, excellent cafes and restaurants, all the amenities of modern urban life. But look down and you will see, dotted on the pavements, Stolpersteine, small brass plaques commemorating husbands, wives, sometimes whole families, who once lived here before being taken to the camps or shot into the river.

Hungary was full of ghosts but at least transitioned peacefully to democracy. Neighbouring Ukraine quickly slid into anarchy. It declared independence in August 1991 and, a few months later, the Soviet Union collapsed. So did any central authoritywhich raised an interesting question. When the state no longer existed, who owned its property? Whoever grabbed it first, it seemed.

The following spring I was in Odessa, travelling again with Justin. The port city was everything I had hoped for: lively and cosmopolitan, its pleasant squares and broad alleys freshened by the Black Sea breeze, its sharp-eyed locals cracking wry jokes about the Soviet system. But it was hard to find anywhere to eat. We eventually stumbled across a restaurant: a cavernous hall lined with long tables, behind which sat rows of would-be diners. Nobody seemed to be eating, but everyone was drinking, copiously. Russian rock music blared out and security guards with walkie talkies and batons patrolled between the tables.

It would be a while, we realised, before we got a meal here, so we retired to a nearby hotel, a grand building downtown that had seen better days. In the bar I got chatting to an amiable local businessman, let’s call him Sergey. Sergey had a lot of goods for sale. How about a boat, a beautiful wood-panelled yacht, moored in the harbour? A bargain at $30,000, he explained. It was indeed a good price. But I declined, regretfully. “No problem,” exclaimed Sergey. “A Mig-29?” This was more like it.

Countries were sprouting everywhere, declaring independence, quarrelling with their neighbours. Perhaps I could set up my own mini-state or at least an autonomous area. I would need some armed forces. “A Mig-29,” I said thoughtfully, sipping my beer. “Maybe. But how will I get it home?”

Sergey laughed. “Paperwork, customs, no problem my friend. Everything will be arranged.” He may have been right.

“How much?”

“For you, a very special price. Eight million dollars.”

I shook my head regretfully. Eight million dollars was beyond my budgetI was on assignment for The Independent. Sergey was not put off. He could, he explained, throw some extras. I asked what they were. “Any missiles you like. Air-to-air or air-to- ground.”

Napoleon supposedly said that “geography is destiny”. That’s certainly true for Ukraine, which is unlikely to ever break free of neighbouring Mother Russia. But geography was also shaping the destiny of Bosnia, squeezed between Serbia and Croatia. I spent much time in the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. For a while my main beat was the on-off war between the Bosnian Croats and the Bosniaks, Bosnian government forces.

Croatia and Serbia were themselves at war but their presidents, Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic, agreed that Bosnia should be carved up between them. The Bosniaks thought otherwise. It was a squalid conflict, marked by ethnic cleansing, war crimes and massacres, but with the added bitterness that for a while, the Bosnian Croats had fought alongside their Bosniak allies against the Bosnian Serbs until they turned against them.

We woke to the crack of gunfire and the crump of mortars, so close we could hear the baseplates rattle

One morning in April 1993 I woke up right in the middle of a battle. The previous day I had travelled overland from Split, the Croatian port that became a staging post for trips into Bosnia, with Peter Maass of the Washington Post, his interpreter Sasha Radas and Cathy Jenkins of the BBC. It was a long journey through a sometimes perilous back route through the mountains, along muddy paths and pot-holed tarmac roads.

At first the scenery was spectacular: vertiginous peaks loomed over blue lakes in pristine valleys and the road was edged with thick forests. For a while, the war seemed far away. Then, as we cut into the valley, a more familiar landscape unfolded: burnt out houses, abandoned settlements and the reassuring sight of UN vehicles and peacekeepers.

We had checked into Kasem’s, a small motel above a garage, not far from the British UN base at Vitez. Kasem’s was also crowded with Bosnian government soldiers and we had not noticed, in the dark, that a network of slit trenches had been dug around it.

The soldiers were expecting an attack. It came around 6.00 the next morning: we woke to the sharp crack of gunfire and the crump of mortars, so close we could hear the baseplates rattle.

We scrambled to gather our belongings, gathered in the corridor while we discussed what to do next. If we stayed we might be killed in crossfire or just shot anyway. But how could we leave in the middle of a firefight?

A nearby window shattered and I felt a bullet whiz by. I instantly dropped to the ground, flattened myself into the carpet. It was thin, brown, nylon. The shooting intensified. The motel’s windows shattered, then the bathroom mirrors as the bullets flew all around us.

We put on our flak jackets and helmets and gathered on the staircase. The shooting and screaming downstairs became louder and louder.

By then I knew something of the landscape of war. There were different levels of danger. The most manageable were quick in-and-outs reporting from cities under shell and mortar fire.

In Sarajevo there was no escape. Surrounded by mountains, the city was a giant shooting gallery. Serb snipers picked off children playing in their gardens, people at home, anyone brave enough to venture outside. Shells and mortars rained down continuously.

The day I arrived, in July 1992, the CNN vehicle behind us on Sniper Alley was hit by gunfire. Margaret Moth, a brave camerawoman, was shot in the jaw and medevac’d out. I still remember her colleague stumbling into the foyer of the Holiday Inn, the unofficial headquarters of the international press, spattered with blood and shaking with fear and shock.

The Holiday Inn often shook as it took hits from Serb machine gunners, but still offered some sense of refuge. But the battle at Vitez was a whole new level of danger. We could do nothing except wait. I looked at my watch — just after 6.15am.

I thought of my parents in London, an hour behind, still fast asleep. In a while they would be waking up, putting the kettle on, Radio 2 sounding in the kitchen. I wondered if I would ever see them again. Not only were we stuck in a  gun-battle, it was unfolding above a petrol station. What if someone lobbed in a mortar?

A couple of minutes later a Bosnian Croat soldier stormed up the stairs, AK-47 in hand, his face covered with a ski mask, an  assault rifle in his hand. “Novinari, novinari, journalists, journalists,” we yelled, waving our UN press cards.

He stopped and looked us up and own. We were obviously not combatants — and I heard later that the Bosnian government soldiers had been shouting that there were foreign journalists upstairs.

The Bosnian Croat fighter stood over us, checked our press cards.

“Who are you?” we asked carefully.

“Don’t ask, you don’t want to know. Who else is up here,” he snapped.

“Nobody,” we said.

We sat and waited while he stormed through the rooms, jumped through a glass door, although it would have been easier just to open itthen ran back downstairs. There he emptied a magazine into the basement, where we had discussed hiding.

After a whileit seemed like an age, but was probably just a  few minutesthe soldiers told us to go downstairs. The entrance area stank of cordite. The Bosnian fighters stood with  their hands in the air, their faces fearful, but there were no bodies in sight. A hand-grenade lay in a corner.

The Bosnian Croats gave us an armed escort to our car. We piled into the Lada Niva, Peter zig-zagging down the road as he drove into the British UN base. There a full English breakfast was on offer, but I could not eat. I kept thinking about the bullet that flew by me, the backdraft of the air it displaced and the way the windows exploded. It was a couple of hours before I could speak properly again.

We spent the rest of the day in a nearby house where British troops under the command of the redoubtable Col. Bob Stewart had set up a press base. For a while we could watch the battle unfold 1from the windows as soldiers dodged between houses, some of them already on fire. Shells screamed overhead.

In war you learn your limits

The day turned steadily more surreal. In the midst of the fighting, housewives were hanging out their washing. Old men stood on their doorsteps. At the bottom of the garden, the local postman, a Bosnian Croat, had set up a high calibre mortar. The  doors shook and the windows rattled each time he fired and after a while we moved into the basement. In the evening a British  army doctor showed us how to apply an intravenous drip. I paid close attention, but could not remember much.

The next day I hitched a ride with some British soldiers back to Split. Compared to Vitez, Split was a paradise, a stunning seaside  town that was once the site of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace, a place of seafood restaurants and gilded youth zipping around on  Italian scooters.

It was hard to imagine that a few hours drive away a war was raging. But the holiday cabins near the beach now housed Bosnian women refugees; smoke from their cigarettes drifting across the lines of washing strung between the huts. I stayed for a few days, then went back home to Budapest. In war you learn your limits. In Vitez I had learned mine.

I continued travelling to the former Yugoslavia to report, but no longer from the battlefield. I later wrote two books rooted in my time there: a biography of Slobodan Milosevic, and Complicity with Evil, an investigation into the United Nation’s failures, focusing on the Srebrenica massacre. I live in London now with my family, but I still think about that evening at the Udvar border crossing. My short walk was the start of a much longer journey.

We learned later that ten miles down the road, in the town of Beli Manastir, Serbian troops tortured and massacred local Croatians that summer and autumn. The gunshots that echoed through the darkness were no longer the soundtrack to a cowboy film.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover